Since its inception in 1897, the ukulele has been a tool for entertainers and musicians to fully express themselves and connect with others.
What makes the ukulele so popular for entertainers?
The ukulele has been popular for well-known artists because it is easy to play and is a useful tool in connecting to one’s audience.
It is small and helps one stay focused on singing and engaged with their listeners. It has a small sound encouraging singalongs and cheering on audience members to learn the ukulele as well!
Why we 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 nine musicians/entertainers who we think have moved the ukulele needle forward in the span of their careers.
The artists that we chose for this list have made significant contributions to promoting and preserving the ukulele. We hope you enjoy learning about them and take the time to listen to their beautiful music.
These are the greatest and most famous ukulele players you should know:
Arthur Godfrey (1903 – 1983)
Arthur Godfrey was a radio and television broadcaster and entertainer who has been credited for popularizing the ukulele in the 1950s in the USA. In fact, 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 was a founding member of the band Sons of Hawaii. He 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. The Sons of Hawaii released over six albums.
Genoa Keawe (1918 – 2008)
“Aunty” 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 – 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 Genoa Keawe here.
Peter Moon (1944 – 2018)
Peter Moon was born in Honolulu on the island of Oahu and was one of the founding members of the band The Sunday Manoa. He played the guitar and ukulele.
After releasing multiple studio albums with The Sunday Manoa, including Guava Jam, Peter continued on as the Peter Moon Band with over 22 releases during the span of his career.
His group The Sunday Manoa is often credited to have helped spark Hawaiian Renaissance in the 1970s.
George Harrison (1943 – 2001)
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 that “[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.”
George 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)
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 night club 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 “Over the Rainbow/What a Wonderful World.” IZ played a Martin T1 tenor ukulele on that recording.
Jake Shimabukuro (born 1976)
Jake Shimabukuro is a 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 natural and felt like fun” making him one of the most versatile ukulele players of our time.
His 2021 release Jake and 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 Lennon and McCartney, “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 1964)
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 a 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 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.
She plays a banjo ukulele from the 1920s. You can listen/watch her singing and playing ukulele on YouTube.
We hope you enjoy learning about the artists who have made significant contributions to promoting and preserving the ukulele. Enjoy listening!
Are there any artists you would like to add to this list? Let us know in the comments below!