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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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What is also making this current revival different from the first two is YouTube. The online video-streaming site is allowing bedroom players to upload videos of them trying their hand at the instrument and it has already resulted in a bona fide ukulele star: Hawaiian musician Jake Shimabukuro, whose virtuoso renditions of familiar songs (most notably, Harrison's "While My Guitar Gently Weeps") is credited for boosting the trend. A stirring rendition of "Over the Rainbow" by late Hawaiian star Israel "Iz" Kamakawiwo'ole has piled up tens of millions of YouTube views. [Editor's note: The original version incorrectly stated that Jake Shimabukuro was Japanese.]

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Legions of amateurs have been inspired by the relative ease of mastering the basics of the ukulele – and then sharing the results.

"I became obsessed with it," says Jessica Day, a marketing professional in Milford, N.J., who picked up the ukulele two years ago after graduating from college simply "to pass the time." She now regularly uploads videos of her playing her favorite songs, from artists like Coldplay to Taylor Swift, in front of her computer.

For her, the instrument "has such a beautiful sound. It is very peaceful and calming.... Every time I'm hanging out with friends, I pull it out and play for them," she says.

The ukulele seems to encourage community, either online or in person. Festivals and clubs have been launching across the United States to bring players together in a spirit of musicianship, but also to share their passion in workshops and performances.

The Milwaukee Ukulele Club started three years ago out of a private home and now boasts 200 members on Facebook and an annual festival, held this year on Sept. 24, that attracts over 300 people.

Milwaukee musician and club founder Lil' Rev, who writes books on the ukulele for the Hal Leonard music publishing company, says organizing around the instrument is common throughout the US.

"The time was right for people to empower themselves with the act of being a participant, rather than a consumer, in the culture we live in," he says.

Club members range from college students to retirees, Rev says, and their interests are just as varied. Some simply want to learn a favorite song, others want to hit new heights in performing. Both approaches are validated when the club gets together. The ukulele "almost has a punk rock vibe to it," he says. "It's an Everyman instrument. Everyone can [play] it."


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