The ukelele has never gotten the respect it deserves. When you think of one, you may think of something like Tiny Tim's famous falsetto version of "Tiptoe Through the Tulips." But the ukelele has come a long way.
That's thanks to players like Jake Shimabukuro, perhaps the most popular ukelele player of today. Virtuousos like Shimabukuro - he's the Jimi Hendrix of uke players - and well-known rock stars like Eddie Vedder of Pearl Jam, who released a whole record of ukelele music, are not only bringing in new listeners, they're helping to create new ukelele players.
Dennis Fuchs knows firsthand about the growing reputation of the ukelele. He co-founded the Upper Valley Uke Club nearly three years ago, because, as he says, the ukelele is a social instrument as well as a musical one.
"What I think it does," Fuchs explains, "is that it shows people that music doesn't have to be be polished. You don't have to be a rock star to have fun and to enjoy it. And I think for most people, music is just going to be fun, kind of informal. You know, like this."
And this group is very informal - members come and go as they please, people can't help but strum while they talk in between songs... and while there is technically a guidebook, the players just as often suggest a tune to each other on the fly - everything from traditional Hawaiian numbers to pop songs like "Build Me Up Buttercup."
The casual atmosphere means even very beginning players can join in. Barbara Paulson came because some of her friends play ukelele and she thought it sounded fun. She doesn't think of herself as very musical, but she's able to pick up a few chords quickly and that's enough for her to participate.
"Everybody is so happy when they do it," Paulson says, "so if you can spread a little happiness easily, and bring it into yourself, hey, that's all you need."
Pick it up and start playing
This meeting is Paulson's first time with the group. Others are regulars. David Morin travels from Windsor, Vermont to play with the group. He wanted to learn how to play the uke, and so his wife surprised him with one for his fortieth birthday. That was two years ago, and Morin is still rocking out, thanks to meetings like this, occasional open mic night performances and ukelele-friendly versions of pop songs he finds on the web.
"I've been listening to Mumford and Sons and the Avett Brothers," Morin says. "I think it's really relevant to the music I'm listening to right now. Which is great since I can find simplified chords and play whatever I hear on the radio, which is awesome."
And that may be why this instrument has been catching on. The ukelele has four strings in a beginner-friendly key. You really can simply pick it up and start playing.
You can see the growing popularity of the ukelele in other ways, too. A few years ago music retailers might have one ukelele up on the wall next to the guitars and banjos. Drop by shops today and you'll find whole ukelele sections, with beginner instruments priced at $20-$30 all the way up to handmade instruments that can be worth thousands of dollars.
And, Dennis Fuchs says, all those ukeleles have a place in clubs like the Upper Valley Uke Club.
"I see it pulling people together," Fuchs says. "And I see festivals. I think the ukelele is here to stay - I think it's becoming enough mainstream that it's not a fad anymore. Strum out some tunes and have fun and let's enjoy it."
The surest sign of ukelele ascendance? Its own festival. Redhook Ale Brewery in Portsmouth is hosting the Groundhog Day Luau on February 2nd. One of the star performers is a member of the band The Cars. Greg Hawkes plays keyboards for that group - but in Portsmouth, he'll be strumming along like the rest of them.