Often a child’s first instrument, the ukulele is rarely accorded the respect that it deserves. Here are 7 tracks that owe their success to the uke.
The ukulele. Yes, if you grew up on an exclusive diet of upbeat television commercials, you’d be forgiven for thinking that everyone gets assigned a uke at birth. They can, however, play a much more nuanced role in a rock or pop song and be key in adding a sparkling, yet soft-edged brightness to an arrangement.
Here are 7 tracks that celebrate the humble ukulele, with its ability to imbue a track with energy, create a subversive layer of sadness and maintain its essential character through a variety of eccentric treatments.
1. Absolutely Cuckoo – The Magnetic Fields
Stephin Merritt, aka The Magnetic Fields, is famous for his smooth baritone croon. He often juxtaposes that rich and resonant vocal against a backing of the ukulele to glorious effect. Exhibit A: the opening track from 69 Love Songs, Absolutely Cuckoo.
Listening to the track in headphones reveals the rhythmic interplay between the left and right-hand sides of the stereo spectrum. Layering the uke in this way lends power to the otherwise tiny sound of the diminutive instrument, enveloping the listener in silky strums.
2. Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea – George Harrison
From the final George Harrison solo album Brainwashed, the song Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea marks a departure from the usual tonal territory of one of the 20th century’s most famous guitarists.
The song itself is from the classic American songbook, a jazz-era standard with music and lyrics from Harold Arlen and Ted Koehler respectively. Part Dixieland jazz, part honky-tonk romp, the band in the video provides a perfect acoustic bed for the strummings of the legendary Beatle.
3. Bizness – tUnE-yArDs
America’s tUnE-yArDs is the project of singer-songwriter Merill Garbus and bassist Nate Brenner. Together with their band, they perform rhythmically complex indie-pop, with a hint of Ethiopian jazz, heavily infused with close vocal harmonies made possible through extensive looping.
One of the essential elements of the tUnE-yArDs sonic signature is the ukulele, as is exemplified in their track Bizness. As you can probably tell by now, the uke excels in creating forward rhythmic momentum in any style and fits perfectly within the complex polyrhythmic matrix of the arrangement.
4. House of Gold – Twenty One Pilots
If you’re like your pop a little more saccharine, House of Gold by Twenty One Pilots might be for you. The ukulele has been at the heart of a new wave of indie-folk and this track utilises the instrument in all its different guises, culminating in massive, multilayered production.
Note the urgency of the treatments. The ukulele begins as a single layer, but with the playing style and hyped EQ, it adds a sense of immediacy and excitement to the track. Then, as the instrumental layers increase, the width and depth of the ukulele expand its kind. And even though the track ends with all the fulsome flourishes of a pop hit, the little four-stringer is always present.
5. Riptide – Vance Joy
Launching more than its fair share of budding careers in ukulele playing is, of course, Riptide, by local singer-songwriter, Vance Joy. Carried on the back of this tiny strum-along instrument, the track went on to dominate charts the world over.
The remarkable contribution of the uke is due to its imaginative treatment. Sure, we all know how small this instrument is in real life, but in the intro to Riptide, it sounds huge. Doubled-tracked and panned, with a healthy dose of Vance Joy, it sets the scene for a truly massive track. Meet “Stadium Uke.”
6. Party Favor – Billie Eilish
Billie Eilish is a global sensation known for her sombre production sensibility and whispered lyrics, bringing a unique slant to the arena of pop music. In spite of her overall aesthetic, the delicate tone of the ukulele is central to her songwriting and performance.
The way that she subverts her dark and sardonic lyrics with sugary melodies and ukulele rhythms is all part of her genius. The way the ukulele anchors Party Favor – through the extreme phone-filtering treatment of the introduction, then holding its own in the full-force production in the second half of the track is particularly remarkable.
7. Good Company – Queen
Now for something totally different. Brian May, the bona fide guitar god from Queen wrote his own little ditty that appeared on Queen’s immortal album, A Night at the Opera. The reason why this uke-based song works so well is as much a result of the historical provenance of the instrument, as it is about the music.
The original George Formby ukulele/banjo belonged to May’s father and was key to his entry into the world of music. A touching ode to his father’s good advice, composed on the very instrument that would inspire his rock-star ambitions.
8. Somewhere Over The Rainbow – Israel Kamakawiwo’ole
Is there a more famous ukulele track? Probably not. Hawaiian Israel Kamakawiwo’ole (better known as IZ) dished up a spine-tingling rendition of Somewhere Over the Rainbow – like George Harrison’s aforementioned cover, written by Harold Arlen. Just a uke and the voice of an angel.
Fittingly, the seminal uke track was performed by a Hawaiian, which is the home of the instrument. You can hear the sophisticated rhythmic connection between IZ and his instrument with every strum. It proves that it can also perform just as well solo as it does as part of an ensemble.
Editor’s Note: Any Uke fans out there should get well and truly across the work of Rebecca Sugar. Dive into the back catalogue and thank us later! It’s not hard to imagine that she takes a uke with her everywhere she goes and it would be remiss not to include Time Adventure in this list.
After years of watching the post-apocalyptic dystopian masterpiece, it’s impossible to imagine it without the works of Sugar and her final offering is by far the most poignant and the most moving. If you’re wondering who the big guy next to her blubbering away is, that’s John DiMaggio.