Eddie Vedder, Taylor Swift’s ukulele music helps make instrument a hot seller in Michigan

 Larry Pellet | The Grand Rapids PressMLive.com/ 07/04/11
eddievedder.jpgEddie Vedder

The mighty ukulele is making an underdog’s comeback.

Led by pop culture stars such as Taylor Swift, Eddie Vedder and Jack Johnson, the resurgence of the “uke,” particularly among the younger generation, correlates with its sound — carefree, blissful and fun.

“I’ve sold more in the past two years than in all the previous 30 years combined,” said John Gelderloos, co-owner of Rainbow Music, 1148 Leonard St. NW.

Other music store owners have seen the same.

“I see a uke go out of here every day,” said Dave Belknap, assistant manager of the Guitar Center, 2891 Radcliff Ave. SE in Kentwood.

“They’re selling like hotcakes,” said Christian VanAntwerpen, of Firehouse Guitars in Muskegon.

“Last year, we couldn’t even keep up with it.”

Belknap said he thinks its portability and the simplicity of playing it helped spur the rise in its popularity, which first registered an upswing about 10 years ago with sales to college students.

“Any human can play the instrument,” said John Hall, owner of Bushman Music Works in Nashville, Ind., and a leader in the ukulele business in the Midwest. “Strum the C chord, and you’re already a musician. Listen to TV commercials, a lot of the background music has changed to ukuleles.”

The latest big ukulele news is the CD released in May by Pearl Jam frontman Eddie Vedder, who noticed a ukulele in a shop while surfing in Hawaii a few years ago.

“How important that little instrument became to me,” Vedder said in an interview with the Seattle Times.

“This four-string songwriting tool started changing the way I brought music to the group. The new mantra is ‘less strings, more melody.’”

A guest on David Letterman’s show recently, the talk show host showered praise on Vedder, saying he “singlehandedly made playing the uke cool again … beautiful!”

Particulars are important when looking to buy a ukulele.

“You should learn to separate the ‘toys’ from the actual instrument, by noting the quality of wood, frets and tuning pegs on the chordophone,” advised Carter Moore, owner of Moore Music in Muskegon.

VanAntwerpen said the inexpensive cost means it “almost falls within an impulse buy.”

Prices range from $25 to $250 on the Internet, and Moore offers lessons.

He recommends buying one at a music store to ensure quality, but you can find ukuleles at chain stores such as Target or Meijer.


Taking form in Hawaii in 1879, the ukulele’s first fans were found in the Hawaiian royal court. Vaudeville, radio broadcasts and Broadway musicals then helped it capture the imagination in the mainland during the jazz-filled 1920s and ’30s. Hollywood immortalized it with singing cowboys and Elvis.

When G.I.’s brought the instruments back from the Pacific after World War II, its popularity peaked before rock ’n’ roll — and the guitar — started taking over the popular music scene.

With Tiny Tim, who became a TV icon of sorts with his rendition of “Tiptoe Through the Tulips” in the late ’60s, the songwriting tool began to slowly resurface in the 1990s as a different generation of manufacturers began producing the instrument.

In West Michigan, artists and venues are in on the trend.

Dan Rickabus, 23, a member of Grand Rapids band The Crane Wives, represents this new wave and has two solo albums featuring ukulele music.

“Technology has made our day and age easy to study the Hawaiian guitar and share it,” he said. “I was a drummer but wanted to learn the strings. It’s honest and evokes emotion … a pretty sound that’s an easy outlet and awesome to carry around.”

On Friday, ukulele player Sam Roberts and his self-titled indie band play at The Intersection.

“They’ve sold out St. Andrews … they’re huge,” said nightclub booking director Richie Lampani.

Ronnie Hock, former music virtuoso of the popular West Michigan band The Beach Bashers, has seen the instrument reinvent his life. Seven years ago, while his wife was losing a battle with cancer, a friend presented him with a ukulele.

“You go through these dark portals in life,” he reflected. “Then you come out the other side with new meaning and interests.”

He found the uke could heal spirits and started playing gigs. Now, he plays regularly at the Arboreal Inn in Spring Lake.

Playing French uke music and owning three instruments — including a $4,000 uke made of exotic underwater African wood — the musician paused to reflect on his most recent journey.

“I’ve stretched the boundaries of it,” he said. “I can do this into the sunset.”

Gelderloos wonders, though, if the trend will continue, noting nostalgia has a wispiness about it.

Nevertheless, it’s made an amazing comeback at the age of 132.



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