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The 10 best and most famous ukulele players of all time

Since its inception in the 1880s, the ukulele has been a tool for entertainers and musicians to fully express themselves and connect with others.

The ukulele has been so popular among well-known artists because it’s easy to play and has a small sound that encourages singalongs and inspires audience members to learn the ukulele as well!

About me

Marye Lobb, writer at Higher Hz

I’m a singer-songwriter who plays the ukulele, guitar, and piano. I’ve released three original albums independently, and currently producing my fourth. My third album, Top of the Trees, was written and performed exclusively on the ukulele.

I started to learn to play the ukulele because I knew there were songs inside of the instrument that were so ready to get out into the world.

These songs were not only dying to be created and heard but also imploring other voices to sing along and inspire them to write anthems of their own.

The ukulele provided me with a sacred space to write and created a delicate yet inviting stage to share.

Why I chose the musicians on this list

While the ukulele has touched the hands of millions of music lovers around the globe, from Japan to Hawaii to the UK to the USA, there are ten musicians/entertainers who I think have moved the ukulele needle forward in the span of their careers.

The artists that I chose for this list have made significant contributions to promoting and preserving the ukulele. They have used the ukulele as a tool for creative expression and have inspired others to do the same!

I hope you enjoy learning about these artists and take the time to listen to their beautiful music.

Queen Liliʻuokalani (1838 – 1917)

Queen Liliʻuokalani
Queen Liliʻuokalani | Photo: James J. Williams

Not only did the late Queen consider the ukulele the national instrument of the Kingdom of Hawaii, but she also was an accomplished writer and musician, composing over 165 songs and chants in her lifetime.

Her most remarkable musical composition is the song “Aloha ‘Oe.” She wrote songs on piano, ukulele, and guitar, mixing Western harmony with Hawaiian poetry.

The political life of Liliʻuokalani was relentless; music composition and creative expression were a way to keep her soul and mind free and stay connected to her people.

A book of all her songs, titled The Queen’s Songbook, was published in 1999.

While imprisoned in 1895, she wrote the book Hawaii’s Story by Hawaii’s Queen, where she shared: “To compose was as natural to me as to breathe.”

Arthur Godfrey (1903 – 1983)

Arthur Godfrey with his ukulele
Arthur Godfrey with his ukulele

Arthur Godfrey was a radio and television broadcaster and entertainer who has been credited for popularizing the ukulele in the 1950s in the USA.

The Ukulele Hall of Fame states: “It is likely that no other single person has been directly responsible for the sale of as many ukuleles as Arthur Godfrey.”

Godfrey learned how to play the ukulele while he was in the Navy from one of his Hawaiian shipmates. He played the baritone ukulele on his shows and even had one show called Arthur Godfrey and His Ukulele, where he gave ukulele lessons to his audience.

Some of his most recognized song performances are “For You” and “Makin’ Love Ukulele Style.”

Eddie Kamae (1928 – 2017)

Eddie Kamae singer and ukulele virtuoso
Singer and uke virtuoso Eddie Kamae | Photo: Christopher Phaneuf

For Eddie Kamae, music was the language of his life. Like a true artist, Kamae searched for traditional forgotten songs and put his modern interpretation on them all while preserving and respecting the traditional style.

Eddie began playing the ukulele at a young age after his brother – a bus driver – found one left behind. Kamae would sit next to the radio and figure out songs by ear as a child, and, when he was a teenager, his father would take him to jam sessions.

Eddie Kamae was a founding member of the band Sons of Hawaii. Together, they released over six albums, including the famous The Folk Music of Hawaii.

“Aunty” Genoa Keawe (1918 – 2008)

Genoa Keawe Hawaiian ukulele player
“Aunty” Genoa Keawe | Photo: Tom Pich

Genoa Keawe was born in Oahu, Hawaii, and recorded over 140 singles in her lifetime. Many of her recordings and performances became a significant staple of the Hawaiian music repertoire, specifically her songs recorded in the 1940s to the 1960s.

Genoa taught herself ukulele at a young age and was a steady and sound rhythm player; she accompanied her vocals well with the ukulele.

One of her first ukuleles was a redwood soprano Martin, and she was known to have a distinctive style of playing using the fan strum. You can learn more about her here.

Peter Moon (1944 – 2018)

Peter Moon American ukulele player
Peter Moon | Photo: Frank Isahara

Peter Moon was born in Honolulu on the island of Oahu and was one of the founding members of the band The Sunday Manoa. They are often credited with having helped spark the Hawaiian Renaissance in the 1970s.

After releasing multiple studio albums with The Sunday Manoa, including Guava Jam, Peter continued as The Peter Moon Band with over 22 releases during the span of his career. He played the guitar and ukulele.

George Harrison (1943 – 2001)

George Harrison with his ukulele
George Harrison with his ukulele | Photo: Mark Seliger

We all know of George Harrison of the beloved band The Beatles. George was a huge fan of George Formby – one of the highest-paid entertainers in the 1920s and 1930s in the UK.

In John Croft’s definitive 2018 book All About the Banjo Uke, Croft writes: “He told me that he couldn’t wait to watch Formby play his banjo uke and vowed that one day he wanted to teach himself to play like that.”

Harrison played the ukulele constantly at home and in between sessions at the studio to improvise and compose but not as much to perform and record.

His ukulele makes a cameo appearance in the song Free as a Bird – you can hear George tinkering away at the very end.

Israel Kamakawiwoʻole (1959 – 1997)

Hawaiian musician Israel Kamakawiwoʻole
IZ with his ukulele

Israel Kaʻanoʻi Kamakawiwoʻole was born in Honolulu, Hawaii, and began playing the ukulele at age six with his family.

He listened to Hawaiian musicians Peter Moon, Palani Vaughan, Keola Beamer, and Don Ho, who were frequent guests at a nightclub where his parents worked.

IZ was one of the founding members of the band Makaha Sons of Niʻihau, that were an essential part of the Hawaiian Renaissance. Their music was a mix of contemporary and traditional styles, and they released 21 studio albums.

In 1993, IZ decided to focus on his solo career and released six records, one of which took the world by storm – the medley “Somewhere Over the Rainbow/What a Wonderful World.”

Israel Kamakawiwoʻole played a Martin T1 tenor ukulele on that recording.

Jake Shimabukuro (born 1976)

Jake Shimabukuro
Jake Shimabukuro with his uke | Photo: Joe Bielawa

Jake Shimabukuro is an ukulele virtuoso and is often referred to as the “Jimi Hendrix of the ukulele.”

His stylistic range is infinite, extending out as far as his fervent imagination will take him from classical to jazz and funk, bluegrass and folk to blues, rock, and flamenco.

He began playing at age four, just doing what came naturally and felt like fun, making him one of the most versatile ukulele players of our time.

His 2021 release Jake & Friends features Willie Nelson, Bette Midler, Jimmy Buffett, Ziggy Marley, and Jack Johnson, among others.

He has covered and created beautiful arrangements and performances of songs such as “Bohemian Rhapsody” by Queen, “Hallelujah” by Leonard Cohen, “Eleanor Rigby” by The Beatles, “Colors of the Wind” by Alan Menken and Stephen Schwartz from Pocahontas as well as many original compositions.

You can listen to his music and learn more about him by visiting his website.

Eddie Vedder (born in 1964)

Eddie Vedder
Eddie Vedder | Photo: Raphael Pour-Hashemi

Eddie Vedder calls the ukulele an “activist instrument,” according to an interview with NPR in 2011 during the release of his second solo album, Ukulele Songs.

The Pearl Jam frontman was on a trip to Hawaii in the 1990s and found an ukulele in a convenience store.

Eddie played multiple ukes on Ukulele Songs and credits the ukulele for being a modest, great sing-a-long instrument, one where you can fully express feelings that band songs just can’t.

You can listen to his album Ukulele Songs here.

Zooey Deschanel (born 1980)

Zooey Deschanel with her ukulele
Zooey Deschanel | Photo: Joe Cereghino

Zooey Deschanel stole all of our hearts when she starred in the sitcom New Girl. Did you know she is also a musician who sings and plays the piano, ukulele, and guitar?

Her duo with M. Ward – She & Him has released seven studio albums – two Christmas albums, a Beach Boys tribute to Brian Wilson, original songs of hers, and pop vintage standards.

Zooey Deschanel plays a banjo ukulele from the 1920s. You can listen to/watch her singing and playing ukulele on YouTube.

Final thoughts

I hope you enjoy learning about the artists who have made significant contributions to promoting and preserving the ukulele. These artists used the ukulele as a creative tool to inspire others. I hope you enjoy listening!

Are there any artists you would like to add to this list and why? Let me know in the comments below!