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Ukulele: The little guitar that could

The tiny ukulele is back, with a new generation of pickers, crooners ­– even brooding rockers – plinking away and singing its praises.

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This current revival is different because it doesn't rely on any ethnic clichés, and novelty plays less of a role in the instrument's presentation. Instead, musicians are using the instrument to add their own flavor to pop hits, hone a style of playing that may have more nuance than guitar, or add profundity to lyrics.

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"People see the ukulele and think it's simple but there's far more going on there," says musicologist Daniel Goldmark, who teaches at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland.

Mr. Goldmark refers to songwriters like Stephin Merritt of the Magnetic Fields and Nellie McKay as examples of musicians who use the ukulele for songs that seem to go deeper than, say, Tiny Tim's "Tiptoe Through the Tulips." Their wry lyrics become disarming when accompanied by gentle strums and high-octave tunings.

"The thing about the instrument for them is it has no genre association with the guitar. It's complex enough [that] you can do anything you want with it, but at the same time, it's very simple. For songwriters, I imagine it's a great [instrument] to work through things," he says.

Paul McCartney is known to play one in concert in tribute to late band mate George Harrison, an aficionado of the instrument. Mr. Harrison can be seen playing a ukulele with Mr. McCartney and Ringo Starr in "The Beatles Anthology," the group's 1994 television miniseries. In concert, McCartney plays the Harrison song "Something." This summer, the ukulele revival was stoked from unexpected quarters: Pearl Jam lead singer Eddie Vedder, who launched a national tour based on "Ukulele Songs," a 16-song solo album that contrasts the instrument's cheery sound with songs infused with brooding and romantic longing. In May, Mr. Vedder told The Boston Globe that a primary challenge of making the album was "not necessarily [to] make this sappy little instrument sound evil, but to give it something that wasn't chipper."


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