Pop Life

Ukuleles: Suddenly The Hippest Instrument Going

Trends in music can be as prevalent - and subsequently fleeting - as they are in fashion. Though the eagerness to join trendy-indie bandwagons can be puzzling, music's most recent instrumental trend, the ukulele, grabbed our attention, especially after SXSW.

Among the dozens of SXSW-related showcase announcements that flooded our inbox was the announcement of the fest's second annual Beatles Ukulele marathon, in which guest musicians play Beatles songs alongside Austin's Beatles tribute band, The Eggmen. Clearly, there's a growing market for the 'ol uke.

Just days later, Eddie Vedder announced plans for his solo album, entitled Ukulele Songs (due out May 31), an album consisting entirely of the Pearl Jam front man performing originals and covers on the eponymous instrument.

But Vedder isn't necessarily breaking new ground; many musicians have played the plucked lute since its development in the 1880s. Its use became a fad during World Wars I and II, as Tin Pan Alley songwriters introduced the Hawaiian/Portugese-rooted instrument into mainland U.S. pop. Artists like the Beatles steadily used the instrument throughout their catalogue as well.

While some artists surely continued use of the uke, it generally grew noticeably absent from pop music over the years - until last year. Dresden Dolls front woman Amanda Palmer released a seven-song solo album of Radiohead covers, Amanda Palmer Performs the Popular Hits of Radiohead on Her Magical Ukulele.

Bands including Beirut, Magnetic Fields, Arcade Fire, Fanfarlo, She & Him, and William Fitzsimmons, not to mention the Animal Collective-discovered Dent May & His Magnificent Ukulele, also included the instrument in live shows and/or recent recordings.

As Rocks Off trudged through the musical madness of SXSW, we made myriad notes of the high number of bands incorporating ukuleles onstage. With such a sudden onslaught of ukulele-based songs, it became clear this had become a genuine trend; we wondered how music stores were supplying the demand.

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Neph Basedow
Contact: Neph Basedow