Famous Ukulele Players: Past and Present

­­­­­Throughout history, since it’s creation in 1879, the ukulele has presented us with many famous ukulele players. These musicians have used their talents to introduce the world to the diversity of the instrument, spreading their music throughout.

Jake Shimabukuro

A younger Jake Shimabukuro, the most famous ukulele player

Jake Shimabukuro (1976), a Hawaiian born musician, is one of many of these artists. He began learning ukulele from his mother at the young age of four. He went on to be in two groups, but started his solo career the early 2000s, most famous in Hawaii and Japan at the time.

He became known for his quick fingers and complex finger patterns, as well as his melding of multiple genres. He describes his own music as “acoustic world music”, including jazz, bluegrass, funk, classical, rock, and more. Shimabukuro signed with Epic Records International, going forward to create his own label, Hitchhike Records.

His rise to virality came with his 2006 ukulele rendition of While My Guitar Gently Weeps. To date, the most viewed video of him performing his rendition of this song, sits at nearly 1.9 million views. Since the spread of his performance, he has continued to tour worldwide, and has put out multiple albums, with another on the way in February of 2020.


James Hill

James Hill (1980), residing from British Colombia, Canada, began his journey with the ukulele in fourth grade. A mandatory program, letting students experience making music, introduced Hill to his calling. He continued playing ukulele, participating in his community ensemble, the “Langley Ukulele Ensemble”, as well as attending the town’s music school.

Hill moved forward with his musical career by obtaining a Bachelor of Music from the University of British Colombia. Focused on bringing music to school aged children, he began teaching, and later worked with the very person responsible for his introduction to ukulele, J. Chalmers Doane.

They developed and co-authored a method book series, “Ukulele in the Classroom”. Hill also, along with his father, Barry Hill, created the JHUI Teacher Certification program, allowing its students to become recognized as proficient musicians, able to teach musical literacy in the form of ukulele playing.

One of his most well-known albums, True Love Don’t Weep came to fruition in 2009. A collaborative effort with cellist Anne Janelle, changed the way those who listened viewed the capabilities of the instrument, topping folk charts all over North America. (https://jameshillmusic.com/true-love-don-t-weep)


Israel Kamakawiwoʻole (IZ)

Another Hawaiian born artist, this time to native parents, IZ (1959-1997), began performing at Steamboats, a lounge in Waikiki, at 10 years old. After a move to Makaha in his teens, he formed a band, “The Makaha Sons”. They recorded many albums and won multiple awards, shaping Hawaiian music history.

After his time in the band, he went on a solo journey. His first solo album, “Facing Future”, sold over a million units, making it the top selling Hawaiian music album, and garnering it the platinum sale title.

His music has also been used in movies, one being 50 First Dates. IZ’s version of “Over the Rainbow/What a Wonderful World” is the most recognizable of his tunes, this being the one used in 50 First Dates. His music continues to top charts and touch lives long after his passing.


Grace Vanderwaal

Vanderwaal (2004), a young American artist, began her musical story singing at the age of three, writing her first song by the time she was 11 years old. Vanderwaal began learning ukulele after going to a friend’s house and enjoying the sound of the instrument.

She is self-taught, using the internet to her advantage. Starting off, she was interested in learning songs to cover, progressing from there to learning each individual chord. She became exposed to the public eye in 2016 when she won season 11 of America’s Got Talent.

Vanderwaal has since released a signature line of ukuleles with Fender, as well as releasing EPs and full-length albums. One of her earlier acoustic songs Light the Sky, showcases how well she incorporates minimalistic ukulele techniques with strong vocals to captivate an audience.


Dodie Clark

Dorothy “Dodie” Clark (1995), an English youtuber and musician, got her ukulele start in a more unconventional way. She was inspired by another youtuber, Charlieissocoolike, and began teaching herself.

She posted her first original song on the platform in 2011, a school project titled Rain, but started to gain traction when she won a shout out competition from a larger set of influencers, Rhett and Link. She later wrote a song about Charlie (mentioned above), which he commented on and sent his subscribers to.

She has released three EPs and collaborated with many other influencers, as well as touring the UK and the US. Clark’s music combines light melodies with complex lyrics, like her 2018 song Party Tattoos.


Eddie Kamae

Eddie Kamae (1927-2017), a Hawaiian musician, started learning ukulele by chance when his brother found an instrument on the bus, bringing it home. He refined his skills before the 1940s when he began touring with the “Ray Kinney Band” on the mainland, becoming a soloist when he returned home.

He had a love for Hawaiian music, but found it lacking the challenge he needed as a musician, moving forward to mastering classical, jazz, pop, and Latin charts on the instrument, something unheard of at the time. He developed a technique for plucking all four stings at once, changing the perceived capabilities of the ukulele, and deeming him a ukulele virtuoso.

In 1959, along with Gabby Pahinui, he formed the “Sons of Hawai’i”, producing a multitude of traditional Hawaiian albums. E Ku’u Morning Dew, one of the most popular songs from the “Sons of Hawai’i”, showcases his more traditional Hawaiian music.


Daniel Ho

Daniel Ho (1968), another Hawaiian born musician, began studying ukulele in the third grade, second only to organ the year before. He also picked up classical guitar, piano, electric guitar and bass, and drums in the years following.

He studied composition, arranging, and film scoring at the Grove School of Music, and completed the University of Hawaii’s music program. He went on to start Daniel Ho Creations, a record company, where he recorded one of his first Hawaiian music albums. His complex, guitar like finger patterns on ukulele, as well as jazz fusion with Hawaiian music.

He is a six-time GRAMMY Award winner, along with multiple other nominations, and many Hawaiian Music awards. Ho has also designed multiple ukuleles, including a custom six-string version of the instrument. His purely instrumental music showcases his unique finger patterns and stylings, as well as the influence of world music.

He has developed music all around the globe, one example being studying with Mongolian nomads. The song Na Pana Elua”, based off an Indian polyrhythm, explained by Ho himself in the video for the unique song.


Famous Ukulele Players

The Musical World is verchanging, though only a handful of famous ukulele players are highlighted in this article, the talents of many more do not go unnoticed to the world. As musicians like Dodie Clark and Grace Vanderwall show us, the world of music is ever growing and changing. There are many more talented musicians who have not quite been recognized on a larger scale yet but will soon be regarded as famous musicians as well.

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