By Stephanie Powell
You’ve got your chords down and can even strum your favorite tune on your ukulele, but can you name some of the most famous ukulele players of all time? We’ve done the heavy lifting for you and rounded up some of the most well-known ukulele players throughout history and playing today that you should know about.
This list, presented in no particular order, is sure to inspire you along your journey with your favorite instrument:
- Israel ‘Iz’ Kamakawiwo’ole
- Jake Shimabukuro
- Taimane Gardner
- George Formby
- James Hill
- Eddie Kamae
- May Singhi Breen
- Arthur Godfrey
- Daniel Ho
- Cliff ‘Ukulele Ike’ Edwards
- ‘Aunty’ Genoa Keawe
Israel ‘Iz’ Kamakawiwo’ole
Honolulu-born Israel ‘Iz’ Kamakawiwo’ole’s famous strummed and sung medley of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow/What a Wonderful World” is now instantly recognizable around the world. Named “the voice of Hawaii” by NPR, he is noted as one of the best Hawaiian musicians of all time. Bruddah Iz incorporated many styles into his repertoire from jazz and reggae to country. Though he may be known the world over for his beautiful cover of those two famous tunes, he wrote beautiful original songs as well in his short time (he died in 1997 at age 38), including “White Sandy Beach of Hawaii.”
Is there anything Jake Shimabukuro can’t do on ukulele? His style melds genres far and wide, including blues, rock, funk, jazz, classical, flamenco, folk and more. After posting an instrumental ukulele cover of The Beatles’ “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” on YouTube, he became one of the first artists to go viral on the website. Shimabkukuro is well-known around the world, headlining sold-out concerts wherever he goes. He even had a documentary made about his life, Jake Shimabukuro: Life on Four Strings, which was released in 2012.
Starting off young, Taimane Gardner first picked up the ukulele at age 5 in Honolulu. She was discovered by Don Ho (of “Tiny Bubbles” fame) at age 13 and eventually went on to study with Jake Shimabukuro. She’s deftly talented in many styles, including flamenco and traditional Hawaiian music. While she dazzles her audiences with her technique and passion in live performance, she is also a prolific songwriter. She released her first album, Loco Princess, in 2005 and has gone on to release several more since then, as well as undertaking several international concert tours. Gardner’s March 2020 performance on NPR’s Tiny Desk Concert series has tallied more than 1 million views so far.
Actor, singer-songwriter, ukulele player, and comedian—that’s the short list of the talents of influential English ukulele superstar George Formby, who was one of the most popular entertainers in the UK from the 1930s through the 1950s. Though he was incredibly proficient in ukulele technique, including the difficult and ever-impressive split stroke, his favorite genre to write for on the uke was comedy. He was credited with writing over 200 songs and starred in 21 feature films, and inspired a legion of fans dubbed Formbyites, of which The Beatles’ George Harrison was one. The George Formby Society, which was founded the year he died in 1961, still has over 1,000 members today.
Classically trained at the University of British Columbia, James Hill is a music educator and performer making waves in the ukulele world. Before striking out on his own, Hill performed with the Langley Ukulele Ensemble for more than ten years. He is known for incorporating percussion and analog effects into his playing during live performances. He’s performed and taught all over the world and even took the stage at the Kennedy Center in New York. One of his recent accomplishments is creating the popular uke education website Uketropolis.
Born in Honolulu, Hawaii, Eddie Kamae’s roots run deep with Hawaiian history: His grandmother was a dancer for King David Kalakaua’s court. It was by chance that he picked up the ukulele—his brother, who was a bus driver, found an instrument on one of his buses and passed it along to the younger Kamae. He taught himself to play by ear from listening to the radio and he began playing onstage at age 14. He went on to become a founding member of the seminal group the Sons of Hawaii in 1960, where he became known for his ability to pluck all four strings at once while playing the chord and melody at the same time playing Hawaiian, Latin and jazz music. He died in 2017 at age 89.
May Singhi Breen
Born in 1891, May Singhi Breen made a name for herself with her ukulele and earned the title “The Original Ukulele Lady.” What started out with a simple Christmas present blossomed into a decades-long career and love of the ukulele. Breen formed a band called The Syncopators and eventually went on to host a radio show, the “Sweethearts of Air,” with Peter DeRose for 16 years. She is also responsible for writing ukulele arrangements for many, many Tin Pan Alley songs, published by leading sheet music companies. In 2000, she was the first woman ever inducted into the Ukulele Hall of Fame, and is also credited as spearheading the acceptance of the ukulele as a serious musical instrument by the American Federation of Musicians.
From radio and television broadcaster to ukulele star and entertainer, Arthur Godfrey was also known for his impromptu jam sessions with his baritone uke in hand. He set the stage for shows like America’s Got Talent and American Idol with Godfrey’s Talent Scouts in the 1950s, a prime time show that focused on finding rising stars and performers. He would regularly burst into spontaneous performance with his ukulele during the shows. His induction into the Ukulele Hall of Fame cited him as initiating “the second great wave of ukulele popularity in the United States.”
Daniel Ho doesn’t slow down. He’s produced over 50 albums, recorded 18 solo albums and even won some Grammy awards along the way. Known for specializing in slack-key guitar, ukulele, and piano, he is also a prolific songwriter and an expert in traditional Hawaiian standards. Ho has performed with the Honolulu Symphony and offered many guest lectures at Stanford University. If you’re a Russell Brand fan, you may recognize him (or perhaps were even serenaded by him) in the film Forgetting Sarah Marshall.
Cliff ‘Ukulele Ike’ Edwards
Nicknamed “Ukulele Ike,” Cliff Edwards’ popularity hit its apex in the 1920s and 1930s. He specialized in jazz-influenced covers of pop standards. He appeared on recordings as well as in movies, and hit the ground running at the start of his career performing alongside Fred and Adele Astaire in Lady Be Good in 1924. You can thank Edwards’ for the 1929 hit “Singin’ in the Rain,” and he also graced the silver screen with his voice as Jiminy Cricket in Disney’s Pinocchio in 1940, famously singing “When You Wish Upon a Star.”
‘Aunty’ Genoa Keawe
A true icon in Hawaiian music, “Aunty” Genoa Keawe was a fixture on the scene for more than 60 years with her uke in hand. Keawe is known for her performances of Hawaiian standards and hapa haole tunes (with lyrics in English or English and Hawaiian), and recording many popular albums. She was awarded a National Heritage Fellowship by the National Endowment for the Arts in 2000 and was a tireless advocate for preserving and perpetuating Hawaiian music and culture until her death in 2008 at age 89.
Bonus Picks: Did you know that some of your favorite mainstream artists also strum on the ukulele? We’re talking the greats like George Harrison of The Beatles, Taylor Swift, Eddie Vedder, and even Joni Mitchell!
From the Ukulele store: The Ukulele – A Visual History traces the ukes evolution with colorful whimsy. Meet some of the world’s greatest ukulele players through profiles, photos, and more, with color photos showing more than 100 exquisite and unique ukes, vintage catalog illustrations, and witty ads that capture the craze of the 1920s and ’30s.