Ukuleles in Country Music

Although the use of ukuleles was popularized by, and is best known in island music (Calypso, Soca, Reggae, etc.), the use of ukuleles in today’s music has far surpassed those genres. It’s hard to believe that most people believe the musical range of a ukulele is so limited! In the next few posts, I’d like to highlight a few examples where the ukuleles using a very nontraditional sense – either in a nontraditional style of music, an interesting recording technique, or something in between. In my experience and throughout my life, I’ve seen these instruments bring joy to so many people from so many different walks of life, that I’d like to help break the stereotypes and expand the range and popularity of this beautiful instrument. In the first installment of this series of blog posts, I’d like to address the polar opposite of island music: country!

Although I live in Hawaii, it often doesn’t feel like it’s a part of United States. Compare that in stark contrast with much of the popular country music today – imagery of dirt roads, big trucks, girls in jean shorts, and acoustic guitars. Come to think of it, the Island lifestyle doesn’t sound all that different from life in Texas! In both places, were easy-going, like to relax, drive trucks, and work outside… Maybe this’ll be easier than I thought.

First up: Wagon Wheel

The first example of ukuleles being used in a nontraditional way should be an easy transition – Wagon Wheel by Darius Rucker. What a beautiful song to start with. The mellow strumming lends itself well to being played on the ukulele, and the player looks like he’s totally at ease. He plays the song in the key of A, which makes it pretty easy to follow along. He gives an awesome breakdown of all the chords involved, making this a great video to start with, regardless of your skill level. Enjoy!

Country Road by Paula Fuga and Jack Johnson
Although this is more of a “contemporary island jam” than a strict country song, it still comes across as a good example of ukuleles in country music. The tabs on this site make it easy to learn & follow along.

Take Me Home, Country Roads – John Denver

I love this song! Obviously it’s a classic, but this YouTuber’s rendition came across as so genuine – it made me appreciate the song in a completely new way. Simply by playing this song on a different instrument, keeping almost everything else the same, the vibe and the meaning of the lyrics are completely changed. Rather than picturing yourself in West Virginia, I picture myself in Waikiki, drink in hand, breeze blowing off the surf.

Live country music jam with ukulele

Although this isn’t a mainstream country artist, it’s an incredible video that further shows the versatility of this beautiful instrument. It seems like this video was taken at a country bar, who knows where (let’s assume Tennessee, since that’s what I’m picturing 🙂 ), and the audience loves it! I would assume that the audience is expecting to hear strictly country music at a place like this, and this guy delivers! The use of the ukulele doesn’t change the genre of the music, rather, it simply adds to it.

 

Hawaiian Ukuleles

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Paul F. Summers
From a 1930’s Paul F. Summers brochure, “six easy lessons…guaranteed to teach you how to play Ukulele for $10.00”. The Summers studios where located at both the Moana and Royal Hawaiian hotels. These Soprano’s have the brass plaque stamped with “Paul F. Summers, Famous Waikiki Ukulele, Honolulu” and the “Tabu” wood stamp on the back of the headstock. His upper end models had some of the most figured Koa available at the time. Trust me, as hard as I’ve tried to do it right, I’m still not happy with the photo. This Ukulele was the first instrument that many players picked up, and it’s significantly less expensive than some of the other categories, like Martin Ukuleles, for example.

 

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Ernest K. Kaai Koa Soprano
Undoubtedly one of the most influencial and successfull musicians in early Hawaiian history. Jim Beloff’s “The Ukulele, A Visual History” says it all in the chapter “The Great Hawaiian Players”. This very plain Style O has wood tuning pegs, bar frets, “Tabu” stamp in the sound hole and a very ornate gold leafed Ernest K. Kaai, Ukulele, Honolulu, Hawaii decal on the headstock. Circa 1903-1917. Newer than the Taropatch models.

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Kamuela K. Kamaka

This circa 1918 Koa Soprano has a two tone wood inlay on the binding, up the sides and middle of the fret board and through the headstock. A “cigar band” decal to the butt joint simply says K. Kamaka Honolulu, Hawaii. The Tabu stamp was placed at the back of the headstock. This is probably not going to earn me any points in some circles, but I never did get caught up in the Kamaka, Ka-Lai pineapple frenzy, so this is the only Kamaka in the collection. This one from “the Man” himself and one from the Nuuanu Ukulele Company of the early 1900’s are certainly two of my favorites.

 

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Paradise
This rare Koa Soprano was built by the Paradise Ukulele and Guitar Works, Ltd. a company listed in The Honolulu City Directory of 1918. Their address was 946 Punahou St. and was owned by A.W. Mather, H.A. Bishaw and A.A. Feiereisel. It was formed “to take over and conduct the business… heretofore carried on by Ernest K. Kaai” A diamond shaped paper label reading “F and B, Paradise Ukulele and Guitar Works, Honolulu, Hawaii” is in the sound hole. The letters AR made of Pearl are inset on the unusual headstock along with bar type frets, wood friction pegs and alternating light and dark wood binding on the top and rosette.