Ukulele masterclass: Four strings and a jolly good time

George Hinchliffe, head of the Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain, tells Tom Hodgkinson why the uke's fanbase is soaring again

When you tell people that you play the ukulele, they invariably say: "Oh, have you heard of the Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain? They're marvellous!" Along with remarks about George Formby, it gets a little wearing. While smiling and saying "Yes, aren't they great?", inwardly I'll be smarting: Bloody Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain. What about me! But of course I have nothing personal against the Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain. I am a fan of their humour and musicianship. In fact, I venerate them.

How could I not? They are the masters of the instrument. They have been playing together for nearly 30 years and have built up a huge, global following. Their nationwide tour includes, this week, a gig at the Royal Albert Hall.

So when the opportunity arose to meet musical director George Hinchliffe, and get a ukulele lesson from this outstanding figure, I grabbed it. And I secretly nursed a fantasy that at the end of the interview, having heard my uke skills, George would ask me to join his group, and I would be able to give up journalism and tour the world.

Sadly, this didn't happen, but I did meet an inspiring man, one of those rare characters who creates his own life and follows his own desires. And I got some great uke tips, too.

The orchestra was formed in 1985, soon after George bought co-founder and friend Kitty Lux a ukulele for her birthday. They played as a duo until other musician friends joined in, and soon they had a group. It was a success from the outset; their first gig at a London pub was packed. "We'd put an advert in City Limits. People came, people liked it, we did another gig. We got a Radio 1 session and then a BBC live TV thing, and [the poet musician] John Hegley invited us to play at his club night. We made an album, then we got a call from CBS."

The idea, says George, was not to form a comedy act, but to create a liberating musical forum where any music could be played, from funk to rock'*'roll to classical. And the ukulele was the right instrument to do that, chosen for its musical versatility more than its novelty value.

"The humour only came in during the first gig, when we played in two keys by accident and were messing around, with the sheet music falling everywhere. I thought we should go with it." They put on dinner jackets and played their gigs seated, in an affectionate parody of a classical orchestra. Highlights have included playing to 170,000 people in Hyde Park on the 50th anniversary of VE Day. The eight-strong band, whose line-up has barely changed over the years, have also played to huge crowds at Glastonbury, Womad and The Big Chill.

The Ukes, as they are known, play a huge variety of cover versions, from Isaac Hayes' "Shaft" and the Sex Pistols' "Anarchy in the UK" to the Bowie classic "Life on Mars" and Kate Bush's "Wuthering Heights". What is lovely is that their versions somehow shine a new light on the original: you hear the lyrics more clearly and get a better understanding of the mechanics of the song. George is fascinated by what is called ethno-musicology – which incorporates the history of instruments, and their tuning. The ukulele is particularly interesting as it uses what is called "re-entrant tuning", with a high G top-string Ωa tuning that was used on early Renaissance versions of the guitar. This is why "Greensleeves" sounds surprisingly good on the uke.

It's a particularly joyful instrument; it puts a smile on the face, and this has been the case since it was invented in 1879. That was the year a small, four-stringed Portuguese guitar called the machete arrived in Honolulu harbour, courtesy of a boatload of immigrants from Madeira. The cheerful Hawaiians immediately took to the ukulele, as they named it, and within 10 years it had become Hawaii's national instrument, thanks in part to its enthusiastic promotion by Hawaii's King Kalakaua.

Since then, its fortunes have risen and fallen. It was hugely popular worldwide in the first 30 years or so of the 20th century, thanks to radio, then again in the Fifties thanks to TV, and now we are riding the third wave of its success, which has been in part aided by the internet. At all times, people have been attracted by its portability and by its ease of playing: anyone can pick it up and be strumming a couple of chords in minutes.

The Ukes have been at the forefront of this third wave, and have had a wonderful time touring the world, making albums and pursuing side projects. "Some Ibiza DJs have done a remix of our stuff in various mixes," says George, with some amusement. "It's quite nice, actually."

His group has spawned dozens of imitators. Among them is the Ukulele Orchestra of Brno, based in the Czech Republic's second city. On a book tour out there recently, I joined them on stage and played "Anarchy in the UK". George has a Google alert for the phrase "ukulele orchestra" and says that, somewhere in the world, a new one is formed almost every day.

It is time to get some tips. I play George a stumbling version of George Harrison's "Something", which he listens to politely. "On that one, I'd suggest playing it in strict rhythm, really slow, maybe with a metronome. Rather than playing the bits that are easy for you fast, and then slowing down for others, play the whole thing at that slow speed, then gradually speed up," is his advice.

What about strumming? In the uke world, I feel constantly oppressed by players who can pull off complicated strumming patterns which make it sound as if there are five ukuleles playing. George Formby is a particular master at complex strumming.

"I try to keep my strumming really simple," says George. "When you're singing, you want to play something very simple because the attention should be on the melody. In the orchestra, everybody does something very simple, but stays on it."

I point out that it's different for an orchestra, but I am going it alone. "Yes," he says, "but a lot of people play ukes in groups now. Somebody could play the chords in an offbeat, someone else could play them on the beat, and someone else could play the tune."

And of course this is one of the great attractions of the ukulele: its communal nature. More than any other instrument I can think of, it suits playing in a group, and this makes it enormous fun.

George says that instead of poring over YouTube clips for hours, as I do, and trying and failing to achieve strumming mastery, he would instead concentrate on "accents", in other words, making the occasional note a bit louder. I play him my version of "Watching the Wheels" by John Lennon, and again his advice is: simplify. He demonstrates that you can achieve great effects by cutting out notes, and even by playing fewer strings, just one or two at a time.

"When people say, how can I improve as a solo player? I say, learn three songs. Learn them all the way through. And then make them interesting. Make them different. I'd also say: try different keys and different tempos.

"Then try and find a way of making them as groovy as you can ...."

The Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain: Royal Albert Hall, London, Friday, and touring until 8 Oct (

Arts and Entertainment
Jamie Dornan as Christian Grey in Fifty Shades of Grey

film Sex scene trailer sees a shirtless Jamie Dornan turn up the heat

Arts and Entertainment
A sketch of Van Gogh has been discovered in the archives of Kunsthalle Bremen in Germany
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Eleanor Catton has hit back after being accused of 'treachery' for criticising the government.
Arts and Entertainment
Fake Banksy stencil given to artist Alex Jakob-Whitworth


Arts and Entertainment
'The Archers' has an audience of about five million
radioA growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift is heading to Norwich for Radio 1's Big Weekend

Arts and Entertainment
Beer as folk: Vincent Franklin and Cyril Nri (centre) in ‘Cucumber’
tvReview: This slice of gay life in Manchester has universal appeal
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
‘A Day at the Races’ still stands up well today
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tvAnd its producers have already announced a second season...
Arts and Entertainment
Kraftwerk performing at the Neue Nationalgalerie (New National Gallery) museum in Berlin earlier this month
musicWhy a bunch of academics consider German electropoppers Kraftwerk worthy of their own symposium
Arts and Entertainment
Icelandic singer Bjork has been forced to release her album early after an online leak

Arts and Entertainment
Colin Firth as Harry Hart in Kingsman: The Secret Service

Arts and Entertainment
Brian Blessed as King Lear in the Guildford Shakespeare Company's performance of the play

Arts and Entertainment
In the picture: Anthony LaPaglia and Martin Freeman in 'The Eichmann Show'

Arts and Entertainment
Anne Kirkbride and Bill Roache as Deirdre and Ken Barlow in Coronation Street

tvThe actress has died aged 60
Arts and Entertainment
Marianne Jean-Baptiste defends Joe Miller in Broadchurch series two

Arts and Entertainment
The frill of it all: Hattie Morahan in 'The Changeling'

Arts and Entertainment
Gillian Anderson and David Duchovny may reunite for The X Files

Arts and Entertainment
Jeremy Clarkson, left, and Richard Hammond upset the locals in South America
A young woman punched a police officer after attending a gig by US rapper Snoop Dogg
Arts and Entertainment
Reese Witherspoon starring in 'Wild'

It's hard not to warm to Reese Witherspoon's heroismfilm
Arts and Entertainment
Word up: Robbie Coltrane as dictionary guru Doctor Johnson in the classic sitcom Blackadder the Third

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscar nominations are due to be announced today

Oscars 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Hacked off: Maisie Williams in ‘Cyberbully’

Maisie Williams single-handedly rises to the challenge

Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne in The Theory of Everything and Benedict Cumberbatch in The Imitation Game are both nominated at the Bafta Film Awards
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

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

    Isis hostage crisis: The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power

    Isis hostage crisis

    The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power, says Robert Fisk
    Missing salvage expert who found $50m of sunken treasure before disappearing, tracked down at last

    The runaway buccaneers and the ship full of gold

    Salvage expert Tommy Thompson found sunken treasure worth millions. Then he vanished... until now
    Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

    Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

    Maverick artist Grayson Perry backs our campaign
    Assisted Dying Bill: I want to be able to decide about my own death - I want to have control of my life

    Assisted Dying Bill: 'I want control of my life'

    This week the Assisted Dying Bill is debated in the Lords. Virginia Ironside, who has already made plans for her own self-deliverance, argues that it's time we allowed people a humane, compassionate death
    Move over, kale - cabbage is the new rising star

    Cabbage is king again

    Sophie Morris banishes thoughts of soggy school dinners and turns over a new leaf
    11 best winter skin treats

    Give your moisturiser a helping hand: 11 best winter skin treats

    Get an extra boost of nourishment from one of these hard-working products
    Paul Scholes column: The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him

    Paul Scholes column

    The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him
    Frank Warren column: No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans

    Frank Warren's Ringside

    No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans
    Isis hostage crisis: Militant group stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

    Isis stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

    The jihadis are being squeezed militarily and economically, but there is no sign of an implosion, says Patrick Cockburn
    Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action

    Virtual reality: Seeing is believing

    Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action
    Homeless Veterans appeal: MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’ to help
    Larry David, Steve Coogan and other comedians share stories of depression in new documentary

    Comedians share stories of depression

    The director of the new documentary, Kevin Pollak, tells Jessica Barrett how he got them to talk
    Has The Archers lost the plot with it's spicy storylines?

    Has The Archers lost the plot?

    A growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent over the rural soap's spicy storylines; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried, says Simon Kelner
    English Heritage adds 14 post-war office buildings to its protected lists

    14 office buildings added to protected lists

    Christopher Beanland explores the underrated appeal of these palaces of pen-pushing
    Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

    Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

    Scientists unearthed the cranial fragments from Manot Cave in West Galilee