Rhodri Marsden: Am I the only person in the world who hates the ukulele?

The ukulele has become irritatingly ubiquitous - and the instrument of choice for people who list tea and cupcakes as their interests. Rhodri Marsden struggles to pinpoint its appeal

My sister got a ukulele for Christmas. This was annoying. I outlined my weary contempt for her gift over the turkey, trying to dent her delight with a Scrooge-like explanation of a few incontrovertible truths. That the damn things have become irritatingly ubiquitous and have undoubtedly 'jumped the shark'.

That playing a pop song on the ukulele, filming yourself and uploading it to YouTube may guarantee you an audience, but it's no signifier of musical quality – in fact, it's often the signifier of precisely the opposite. That the plink-plonk of the ukulele is being harnessed by corporations and repeatedly used to sell us everything from dating services to mortgages. 'It's a blight on British culture,' I said, or something like that – I was quite drunk – but she ignored me, as usual, and after lunch she learnt how to play 'You Are My Sunshine'.

The ukulele's rise has been slow but sure. In 2006 my friend Dave arrived at the pub carrying a green one, and we cooed over it like proud uncles and aunts; it cost him £11 and he played "Help Me Rhonda" to us. Fast-forward a few years, however, and it started to become an essential hipster accessory. According to my pal known as Keith Top of the Pops (who has written a song of his own with the chorus: "Just f*** off with your ukulele orchestra") it has become "the instrument of choice for people who list tea and cupcakes as their interests." The charge is harsh, but it's true.

Whether it's the fault of Amanda Palmer for releasing a record featuring ukulele versions of Radiohead songs, or the spread of ukulele videos on YouTube, or just the fact that it's portable and looks like a tiny guitar, the bloody things are everywhere. "Twenty years ago I used to manage a music store in London," says Shea Rider of Tanglewood Guitars, "and in a decade I never sold a single ukulele. Today, however, they're a massive part of our sales. We have a huge range and we're selling more and more, year on year."

The Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain formed in 1985 and has played concerts in Carnegie Hall and Sydney Opera House (Rex Features) The Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain formed in 1985 and has played concerts in Carnegie Hall and Sydney Opera House (Rex Features)
Astride the surge to prominence of the ukulele sits the Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain, a formidable troupe who formed in 1985 and have found themselves playing concerts in illustrious venues such as Carnegie Hall and Sydney Opera House. "It started as a kind of art-school project," says Will Grove-White, a member since 1989. "It could have been any instrument; the ukulele just happened to be the instrument that was chosen – the outside instrument, the stupid instrument that no one liked." Well, that's certainly no longer the case, is it? "No, and we do have our jaded moments when we've signed yet another ukulele presented by yet another cheerful man in a Hawaiian shirt, and wonder whether to form a nose-flute orchestra instead." Is it another case of the outsider inadvertently going mainstream? "Yep. It happens to a lot of things. Like punk. It starts as an alternative movement, and ends up being used to sell butter."

Hmmm. Maybe the ukulele is more punk than I'm giving it credit for. Tricity Vogue, a cabaret artiste whose ukulele forms an integral part of her act, is fiercely defensive of her instrument and celebrates the "can-do" attitude it can engender, just like punk did in the mid 1970s. "There's become this gap between 'proper' music and the common man, the common woman," she says. "That's partly to do with how manufactured music has become – the sense that music has to be of a certain standard. I think there's a real yen for joining in, and that's being quashed, culturally, by things like The X Factor."

Tricity Vogue, a cabaret artiste whose ukulele forms an integral part of her act celebrates the 'can-do' attitude it can engender (Rex Features) Tricity Vogue, a cabaret artiste whose ukulele forms an integral part of her act celebrates the 'can-do' attitude it can engender (Rex Features)
I take Vogue's point, but as someone who's hardwired to hate the uke, I still struggle to pinpoint its appeal. "It's a small sound, an intimate sound," says Vogue. "People are charmed, delighted, amused by it." Little wonder that it's endemic in advertising, then. "Well, I don't watch TV," she replies, "so I'm slightly oblivious as to why my instrument is irritating people more than I expect it to." Grove-White understands my issues ("I agree, it's all-pervasive right now") but states that there's a musical reason for that appeal. "It's to do with the tuning," he says. "Unlike the guitar, there's a high string at the top of the instrument. I has an inbuilt cuteness, even on the saddest chords. It just does something to people."

But this is about more than just tone. As Vogue says, the ukulele facilitates joining in; it could almost represent the mass democratisation of music. I realise, in a moment of horror, that my classical training and tendency towards grumpiness may have prompted me to rail against people merely having fun playing simple tunes. It doesn't feel good. "I fell for it because you can find yourself musically satisfied very quickly," says Vogue. "Normally, when you take up an instrument, there's that initial period where it sounds terrible. Especially if you're musical – you know what it should sound like, but you're making ungainly noises that make you want to throw it against the wall. But the uke has a very gradual slope at the beginning of the journey." Little wonder, then, that it's starting to replace the dreaded descant recorder as a teaching instrument.

Lorraine Bow runs an organisation called Learn to Uke; she teaches children and adults, and also founded Ukulele Wednesdays that take place every week in three pub venues across London. "When I took up the ukulele," she says, "I hadn't played anything since I was eight years old because at school I was deemed unmusical. But there's music in me! It's such an inclusive instrument; it would be a shame if overuse leads to people hating it."

Rhodri says: 'As someone who's hardwired to hate the uke, I still struggle to pinpoint its appeal' (Rex Features) Rhodri says: 'As someone who's hardwired to hate the uke, I still struggle to pinpoint its appeal' (Rex Features)
I'm reluctantly finding myself warming to the ukulele, but feel more chastened as Bow continues to explain. "People who say 'bloody ukulele players making shit music' are ignoring the fact that connecting with one another through music is part of our make-up as human beings," she says. Grove-White feels similarly. "No one really goes to church any more," he says. "People don't have singalongs in pubs. There are so few places in our society to sing, but the ukulele facilitates singing. If you think about it like that, it's a beautiful thing. Even at its worst, at its most plonky, just listen to the person singing."

And with that, I'm somehow sold. If I set aside the insufferable cuteness and cynical marketing, the ukulele facilitates communal music making and can ultimately help us celebrate the joy of playing and participating. I feel bad about haranguing my sister, now. Next time I see her I'll apologise. I might even play along.

Arts and Entertainment
music

Arts and Entertainment
Creep show: Tim Cockerill in ‘Spider House’

TVEnough to make ardent arachnophobes think twice

Arts and Entertainment
Steven, Ella Jade and Sarah in the boardroom
tvThe Apprentice contestants take a battering from the business mogul
Arts and Entertainment
TV Presenters Ant McPartlin and Dec Donnelly. Winners of the 'Entertainment Programme' award for 'Ant and Dec's Saturday Night Takeaway'
musicAnt and Dec confirmed as hosts of next year's Brit Awards
Arts and Entertainment
Jewel in the crown: drawings from ‘The Letter for the King’, an adventure about a boy and his mission to save a medieval realm
books
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Juergen Wolf won the Young Masters Art Prize 2014 with his mixed media painting on wood, 'Untitled'
art
Arts and Entertainment
Iron Man and Captain America in a scene from
filmThe upcoming 'Black Panther' film will feature a solo black male lead, while a female superhero will take centre stage in 'Captain Marvel'
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
The Imperial War Museum, pictured, has campaigned to display copyrighted works during the First World War centenary
art
Arts and Entertainment
American Horror Story veteran Sarah Paulson plays conjoined twins Dot and Bette Tattler
tvReview: Yes, it’s depraved for the most part but strangely enough it has heart to it
Arts and Entertainment
The mind behind Game of Thrones George R. R. Martin
books

Will explain back story to fictional kingdom Westeros

Arts and Entertainment
Dorothy in Return to Oz

film Unintentionally terrifying children's movies to get you howling (in fear, tears or laughter)
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Robert James-Collier as under-butler Thomas

TVLady Edith and Thomas show sad signs of the time
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
The Dad's Army cast hit the big screen

film
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
JK Rowling is releasing a new Harry Potter story about Dolores Umbridge

books
Arts and Entertainment
On The Apprentice, “serious” left the room many moons ago and yet still we watch

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor finds himself in a forest version of London in Doctor Who episode 'In the Forest of the Night'
TVReview: Is the Doctor ever going stop frowning?
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from David Ayer's 'Fury'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift performs at the 2014 iHeart Radio Music Festival
music review
Arts and Entertainment
Paul Anderson plays Arthur Shelby in Peaky Blinders series two
tvReview: Arthur Shelby Jr seems to be losing his mind as his younger brother lets him run riot in London
Arts and Entertainment
Miranda Hart has called time on her award-winning BBC sitcom, Miranda
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Sir Nicholas Serota has been a feature in the Power 100 top ten since its 2002 launch
art
Arts and Entertainment
Awesome foursome: Sam Smith shows off his awards
music22-year-old confirms he is 2014’s breakout British music success
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    The drugs revolution starts now as MPs agree its high time for change

    The drugs revolution starts now as MPs agree its high time for change

    Commons debate highlights growing cross-party consensus on softening UK drugs legislation, unchanged for 43 years
    The camera is turned on tabloid editors in Richard Peppiatt's 'One Rogue Reporter'

    Gotcha! The camera is turned on tabloid editors

    Hugh Grant says Richard Peppiatt's 'One Rogue Reporter' documentary will highlight issues raised by Leveson
    Fall of the Berlin Wall: It was thanks to Mikhail Gorbachev that this symbol of division fell

    Fall of the Berlin Wall

    It was thanks to Gorbachev that this symbol of division fell
    Halloween 2014: What makes Ouija boards, demon dolls, and evil clowns so frightening?

    What makes ouija boards and demon dolls scary?

    Ouija boards, demon dolls, evil children and clowns are all classic tropes of horror, and this year’s Halloween releases feature them all. What makes them so frightening, decade after decade?
    A safari in modern Britain: Rose Rouse reveals how her four-year tour of Harlesden taught her as much about the UK as it did about NW10

    Rose Rouse's safari in modern Britain

    Rouse decided to walk and talk with as many different people as possible in her neighbourhood of Harlesden and her experiences have been published in a new book
    Welcome to my world of no smell and odd tastes: How a bike accident left one woman living with unwanted food mash-ups

    'My world of no smell and odd tastes'

    A head injury from a bicycle accident had the surprising effect of robbing Nell Frizzell of two of her senses

    Matt Parker is proud of his square roots

    The "stand-up mathematician" is using comedy nights to preach maths to big audiences
    Paul Scholes column: Beating Manchester City is vital part of life at Manchester United. This is first major test for Luke Shaw, Angel Di Maria and Radamel Falcao – it’s not a game to lose

    Paul Scholes column

    Beating City is vital part of life at United. This is first major test for Shaw, Di Maria and Falcao – it’s not a game to lose
    Frank Warren: Call me an old git, but I just can't see that there's a place for women’s boxing

    Frank Warren column

    Call me an old git, but I just can't see that there's a place for women’s boxing
    Adrian Heath interview: Former Everton striker prepares his Orlando City side for the MLS - and having Kaka in the dressing room

    Adrian Heath's American dream...

    Former Everton striker prepares his Orlando City side for the MLS - and having Kaka in the dressing room
    Simon Hart: Manchester City will rise again but they need to change their attitude

    Manchester City will rise again but they need to change their attitude

    Manuel Pellegrini’s side are too good to fail and derby allows them to start again, says Simon Hart
    Isis in Syria: A general reveals the lack of communication with the US - and his country's awkward relationship with their allies-by-default

    A Syrian general speaks

    A senior officer of Bashar al-Assad’s regime talks to Robert Fisk about his army’s brutal struggle with Isis, in a dirty war whose challenges include widespread atrocities
    ‘A bit of a shock...’ Cambridge economist with Glasgow roots becomes Zambia’s acting President

    ‘A bit of a shock...’ Economist with Glasgow roots becomes Zambia’s acting President

    Guy Scott's predecessor, Michael Sata, died in a London hospital this week after a lengthy illness
    Fall of the Berlin Wall: History catches up with Erich Honecker - the East German leader who praised the Iron Curtain and claimed it prevented a Third World War

    Fall of the Berlin Wall

    History catches up with Erich Honecker - the East German leader who praised the Iron Curtain and claimed it prevented a Third World War
    How to turn your mobile phone into easy money

    Turn your mobile phone into easy money

    There are 90 million unused mobiles in the UK, which would be worth £7bn if we cashed them in, says David Crookes