The ukulele has had a sad history in mainstream culture. With it comes some misconceptions.
In Hawaiʻi, the uke is as ordinary as can be. Everybody plays a few chords. It’s on the radio all the time. There’s nothing exceptional about it at all – except for our world class players.
But in the mainland USA and elsewhere in the world it’s become recognized as a novelty. This is mainly due to the population’s limited exposure to the instrument coming from Tiny Tim, Elvis, and Hawaiʻi tourism.
It’s been portrayed in a cheap manner that most people have never taken seriously.
So when folks from outside Hawaiʻi come to the instrument they sometimes start out with odd expectations and stereotypes. Hopefully this page can debunk some of these myths about the ukulele.
Myth #1: “The ukulele isn’t a real instrument.”
There’s no physical or practical reason the uke is not as capable as a more traditional instrument. The only limitation are the preconceptions of the player.
Western music has 12 notes. The ukulele can easily play any of them.
People around the world are using the uke to play sophisticated music spanning jazz, rock, folk, R&B, reggae, blues, and, of course, Hawaiian genres (and beyond)!
While not yet widely accepted as a “traditional” instrument in institutions, Tobias Elof graduated university with a music degree using ukulele as his main instrument.
It has been featured in an orchestral setting by Jake Shimabukuro playing Byron Yasui’s Ukulele Concerto.
Myth #2: “The ukulele only plays happy songs.”
Due to the illusion of palm trees and hula dancers the uke invokes, our little four-string friend has an overly gushy positive stigma about it. The prevailing pop-culture consensus seems to state that “fun” and “happy” and “good vibes, bro” are the only feelings people have about the instrument.
It’s true that the tone of the instrument is inherently pleasing. There’s something fetching about the sound it creates.
But sad music that can be played on any other instrument can also be played on the ukulele. It’s up to the artist to portray these emotions in his or her music.
Myth #3: “The ukulele is easy to play.”
Compared to pedal steel guitar or saxophone, the ukulele is pretty straightforward, but “easy” doesn’t do it much justice. Like all instruments it has pros and cons.
Strumming the chords to a simple song on the uke is comparatively easy.
Playing a power chord rock progression is HARD! This is something that would be fairly simple on acoustic guitar, but arranging those low notes for an instrument that doesn’t even have those low notes? Hard.
Yes, I can usually teach a student to play a song on their uke in 15 minutes. But it’s their inherent feel for music that makes it sound good.
Just because the mechanics of the instrument are simple, music is still just as hard. And working within the limited framework of the uke’s small two to two and a half octave range creates many challenges of its own.
It’s a simple and straightforward instrument that appeals because of its low entry price (in money and also time spent learning). But despite that, I believe we’ve only scratched the surface of the possibilities the instrument has to offer.