The ukulele has seen a boom in recent years. This is due in no small part to some of the incredible ukulele players that have captured hearts. And the ukulele’s newfound popularity and ease of learning songs on the ukulele has encouraged more musicians to pick up the instrument, spawning a new generation of budding ukulele virtuosos.
Still, the ukulele is hardly a new thing. Many of the world’s most talented musicians have made their names playing the ukulele, and our list of famous ukulele players discusses some of them, as well as the impact of their contributions to the instrument.
Above: Jake Shimabukuro Performing the Beatles’ While My Guitar Gently Weeps
No list of ukulele players would be complete without Jake Shimabukuro. Shimabukuro is one of the most famous ukulele players out there, he’s regarded by many as the best ukulele player of all time, and his repertoire spans an incredible range of genres. He has been playing the instrument for over 20 years and performs a combination of classic covers and original material. Shimabukuro has won legions of fans around the world with his incredibly technical yet emotive playing.
Few can match the sheer finesse and prowess that Shimabukuro brings to the ukulele. Covering genres like bluegrass, classical, folk, rock, jazz, and latin with only four strings is no mean feat, but Jake Shimabukuro truly makes it look easy. The musician has developed a unique style of his own by applying non-traditional techniques like flamenco strumming to the ukulele to breathe new life into it.
Above: Israel Kamakwiwo’ole performing at the Na Hoku Hanohanon Awards.
Easily another of the most famous ukulele players of all time, Israel Kamakawiwo’ole was perhaps the most important ambassador of Hawaiian ukulele music on the world stage. Kamakawiwo’ole won international acclaim with his beautiful, classic medley cover of Somewhere Over the Rainbow and What a Wonderful World. He may be best known as a singer, but Kamakawiwo’ole was also a very skilled ukulele player.
It was not only his musicianship that characterized his performances, though; Kamakawiwo’ole was a truly positive, wise character and this showed in his music. Kamakawiwo’ole tragically passed away at the age of 38, but his heart and spirit live on in his incredible performances and recordings.
Above: Taimane Gardner Performing at TEDxMaui
The Hawaii local Taimane Gardner is another younger virtuoso who has been pushing the boundaries of the ukulele to their limits. Gardner has studied under Jake Shimabukuro and takes a similar approach to the instrument, using it to give new life to classic songs as well as performing original compositions spanning a range of genres.
Gardner has commanded considerable public recognition, too. Her set on NPR’s Tiny Desk Concert series has racked up over a million views on YouTube, and she has recorded several solo albums to great acclaim.
Like Shimabukuro, Gardner applies a range of both traditional and unconventional to the ukulele in order to truly showcase the range and depth that the instrument has to offer. Her theatrical live performances are something that really set her apart, though, and Gardner is truly carving out a name for herself as one of the great ukulele virtuosos.
Above: Tyler Joseph performing “Can’t Help Falling in Love”
Tyler Joseph of Twenty One Pilots fame is an avid ukulele player. The multi-instrumentalist often plays the ukulele during live acoustic performances to great effect. Since the band’s formation in 2009, Twenty One Pilots have gone on to release several albums’ worth of unique, genre-defying music that has earned them an avid following around the world.
Joseph started out recording music in his basement, but it wasn’t long before he came to prominence as the vocalist and front man of Twenty One Pilots. The band is especially known for songs like Blurryface and Ride, among many others.
Now, Joseph is endorsed by the powerhouse ukulele manufacturer Kala, and owns several Kala ukuleles of his own. His go-to for live performances appears to be a tenor uke made of Hawaiian koa, but he also owns a custom-made Kala built to his specifications.
Above: Grace VanderWaal performing on America’s Got Talent
Born in Kansas City and raised in New York, Grace VanderWaal is an accomplished singer-songwriter and ukulele player. Her breakthrough came as a result of her winning the eleventh season of America’s Got Talent, performing entirely original material at the young age of 12. VanderWaal’s charming vocals paired perfectly with the ukulele and she managed to truly capture the hearts of viewers all across the country during her stint on the show.
Since then, VanderWaal has gone from strength to strength. She is a prolific performer, and often plays solo, playing the ukulele to accompany her singing. VanderWaal released an EP and debut LP in 2016 and 2017, respectively, and has played with huge names like global superstars Imagine Dragons.
As if that wasn’t enough, VanderWaal has also signed deals with Fender to produce multiple Grace VanderWaal signature ukulele models. For VanderWaal, the ukulele is a crucial part of her songwriting process, and she has expressed that she especially likes to write on the instrument, eschewing more conventional choices like the guitar.
Above: Harrison Performing Ain’t She Sweet on the ukulele with Ringo Starr and George McCartney
He might be best known for his work in the Beatles, but George Harrison became a dedicated ukulele player and enthusiast later in life. Songs like Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea featured the instrument prominently, and Harrison spoke openly about his fondness for the instrument, which he played until his death in 2001.
In fact, Harrison often made trips to Hawaii, where he would visit music stores to look for new ukuleles. Legend has it that he would often buy every single ukulele on the shelves! Harrison made a habit of giving his friends ukuleles as gifts, and he was a member of several societies for ukulele enthusiasts later in life.
Above: George Formby Performing Leaning on a Lamppost on the Banjolele
George Formby was arguably one of the most important figures in introducing the ukulele to audiences in the UK for the first time. Formby’s ukulele playing was generally clean and simple, but he was capable of performing very advanced techniques like the split stroke, too. Formby wasn’t just a ukulele player, though; he was also an actor and comedian, and the ukulele was the centerpiece of many of his routines and songs.
Formby’s legacy has been one of considerable cultural impact. With his regular use of the ukulele on British television and radio in particular, Formby inspired future stars like Brian May and George Harrison to pick up the instrument, introducing them to this small slice of Hawaiian culture.
While Formby didn’t tend to play complex ukulele melodies and is perhaps not such a renowned name as he once was, he is absolutely one of the top ukulele players you should know when you consider the impact he indirectly had on popular music.
Above: James Hill Covering Voodoo Child by Jimi Hendrix on the Ukulele
James Hill is a classically-educated and talented musician from British Columbia, whose revolutionary approach to ukulele music has really helped him make a name for himself. Hill is very active on social media, which he uses as a platform to showcase performances, new recordings, and adaptations of classic songs.
Another aspect of Hill’s playing that makes him stand out is his use of effects with the ukulele. This has allowed Hill to push the boundaries of the instrument and get some new and unique sounds out of it. Hill’s pioneering attitude to the ukulele is perhaps what has led him to become an educator; Hill runs an online ukulele program called Uketropolis and also makes weekly podcasts discussing the uke. It’s hard to find someone with more genuine passion for the instrument than Hill.
Above: Daniel Ho Performing Na Pana Elua
It would be difficult to find an even more prolific ukulele player than Daniel Ho. In addition to being an incredibly accomplished musician on several instruments, Ho has recorded 18 solo albums and won a handful of Grammy Awards for his achievements. Technical prowess is a cornerstone of Ho’s playing; he rarely makes a mistake, and yet manages to imbue his performances with passion and emotion, too.
While the ukulele isn’t the only musical instrument that Ho plays, it’s what he’s best known for. Ho utilizes musical concepts and techniques from all around the world, making his music incredibly varied and versatile. His expertise has gained him considerable acclaim and recognition, and Ho has showcased his ukulele playing at festivals and venues all around the world. He has even lectured multiple times at Stanford University.
Aunty Genoa Keawe
Above: Genoa Keawe Performs Hot Hawaiian Nights
An inductee into the Hawaiian Music Hall of Fame, Genoa Keawe is truly one of the icons of Hawaiian music and culture, as well as ukulele playing. Much of Keawe’s repertoire centred around Hawaiian traiditional music, and she performed an enormous array of Hawaiian meles and hapa haole songs, as well as English language Hawaiian standards.
Keawe’s confident strumming provided the background for her characteristic, awe-inspiring vocal performances. Her passion for Hawaiian culture and traditions did not just stop with music, either. Keawe actually learnt the Hawaiian language from her mother in law, who spoke it as a first language. She maintained this devotion to the traditions and culture of Hawaii until her death in 2008 at the age of 89.
Above: Eddie Kamae Performing Ke Ala A Ka Jeep with the Sons of Hawaii
Eddie Kamae was perhaps one of the first true virtuousos of the ukulele, who used the instrument for more than just strumming chords and backing instrumentation. Kamae’s commercial breakthrough came via his role in the group the Sons of Hawaii in the early 1960s. While playing with the Sons of Hawaii, Kamae attracted acclaim for his implementation of ukulele chord melodies into his performances, something that has become very popular in the new ukulele revival among virtuosos like Jake Shimabukuro.
Kamae was also a talented vocalist and incorporated the ukulele in a number of different music styles. However, it’s clear that Hawaiian music was his true passion and this is where his talents truly shone through. Kamae was also an active part of the Hawaiian Cultural Reinassance, and he continued his involvement in music and the arts until his death in 2017.
Above: Eddie Vedder Performing Without You
While Eddie Vedder is best-known for fronting the grunge band Pearl Jam, he has also had a successful solo career as a singer-songwriter. Vedder’s 2011 solo album Ukulele Songs was released to widespread commercial and critical success and featured him, well, playing ukulele.
Given that Pearl Jam is known for recording dark, heavy music, playing the ukulele essentially allowed Vedder to reinvent himself and revitalize his music career. Eschewing more traditional string instruments like the guitar, Vedder limited himself to the four strings of the ukulele. In doing so, he managed to shape a new sound which provided the perfect backdrop for his dark, rich vocals.
Vedder has employed a variety of techniques on the ukulele in order to explore the full range and potential of the instrument. Rather than restraining himself to simple strumming, Vedder employed fingerpicking in particular on Ukulele Songs to give his performances a greater level of depth and complexity.
Above: Taylor Swift Performing Fearless
The American Singer Songwriter has long incorporated the ukulele into her live performances as a way creating a greater sense of intimacy. Swift has been active as a solo artist for over a decade and has written and recorded music that covers both the country and pop genres.
While Swift is better known as a vocalist than as an instrumentalist, her ukulele playing is very clean and tasteful. She tends to use a pick and incorporates techniques like cross picking and chord melodies into her performances, giving them an extra sense of depth and complexity. It’s also hard to overstate the impact that a star like Swift playing the ukulele has on the popularity of the instrument; she undoubtedly brings many new eyes to the uke every time she performs with one.
Above: Tiny Tim Performing Tiptoe Through the Tulips
The eccentric Tiny Tim rose to fame with recordings like Tiptoe Through the Tulips with Me and Living in the Sunlight, where the ukulele provided the backing to his distinctive and unusual falsetto singing. While some mistook Tiny Tim as a gimmick, he was a dedicated ukulele player and musician, having picked up the instrument as a teenager.
Though Tiny Tim’s popularity did not last after he rose to prominence in the 1960s, he continued to perform at numerous ukulele festivals around the world and various other events. Tim’s career experienced a brief resurgence in the 1990s, which saw him releasing a series of solo albums. Tragically, Tim would go on to have a heart attack while performing at a ukulele festival, and later had another heart attack while performing at a gala, which he did not survive.
Cliff Edwards/Ukulele Ike
Above: Cliff Edwards Performing With a Little Magic
The Ukulele Hall of Fame inductee Ukulele Ike appeared in over 100 films and was a dedicated musician and performer with the ukulele as his primary instrument. Edwards rose to prominence in the early 1900s, where the honky tonk music played in saloons was dominant. Wanting to bring something new to the table, Edwards began appearing in Vaudeville-style performances in towns across America.
Edwards did a lot to bring attention and recognition to the ukulele. While his playing was not especially technical or complex, the sheer exposure that Edwards received while playing the uke played a major role in winning the instrument considerable interest and respect in the mainstream.
Jesse Kalima is an incredibly important figure in the history of the ukulele. In addition to being one of the most famous ukulele players, the Hawaiian musician had a groundbreaking approach to the instrument. In addition to performing traditional Hawaiian music, Kalime was one of the first to apply effects made for other instruments to the ukulele.
Additionally, Kalima had a key role in popularizing the tenor ukulele, as well as using an amplifier when playing the uke. Kalima also eschewed conventional re-entrant tuning on the uke in favour of stringing his instruments with a low G. This gave Kalima a very distinct, rich sound which, combined with his use of effects and amplification, created a very powerful effect.
Kalima’s primary project was the Kalima Brothers, who recorded several albums showcasing traditional Hawaiian music and lounge songs. He also worked as a ukulele teacher and ran a uke shop. Eventually, Kalima was recognized for his contributions to the ukulele and to Hawaiian music and culture more broadly and was posthumously inducted into the Hawaiian Music Hall of Fame in 2007.
So, Who’s the Best Ukulele player of All Time?
That’s a tough one and there’s definitely a lot of debate and personal opinion here. However, in our opinion, we can narrow this down to three players.
Jake Shimabukuro is bar none the best ukulele player alive, and his virtuosic performances put him in contention for the greatest of all time. But we can’t discuss the best ukulele players of all time without mentioning Israel Kamakawiwo’ole, as well as Eddie Kamae, the first great ukulele player in the traditional style.