Ukulele: A plucky instrument with a big following

Posted June 14, 2013, at 6:28 a.m.
South Portland luthier Joel Eckhaus gets ready to carve a brace for a canoe paddle-shaped ukulele he calls a &quotpaddlelele." He makes them out of ash, the traditional wood used for a canoe paddle.
South Portland luthier Joel Eckhaus gets ready to carve a brace for a canoe paddle-shaped ukulele he calls a "paddlelele." He makes them out of ash, the traditional wood used for a canoe paddle. Buy Photo
Joel Eckhaus, a South Portland luthier, planes a back brace for a canoe paddle-shaped ukulele he calls a &quotpaddlelele."
Joel Eckhaus, a South Portland luthier, planes a back brace for a canoe paddle-shaped ukulele he calls a "paddlelele." Buy Photo
Joel Eckhaus, a South Portland luthier, planes a back brace for a canoe paddle-shaped ukulele he calls a &quotpaddlelele."
Joel Eckhaus, a South Portland luthier, planes a back brace for a canoe paddle-shaped ukulele he calls a "paddlelele." Buy Photo
Luthier Joel Eckhaus performs a traditional tap tone test on a ukulele back after carving its braces in his South Portland workshop. Eckhaus has made ukuleles for the likes of Neko Case and Eddie Vedder.
Luthier Joel Eckhaus performs a traditional tap tone test on a ukulele back after carving its braces in his South Portland workshop. Eckhaus has made ukuleles for the likes of Neko Case and Eddie Vedder. Buy Photo
Ukulele parts sit on a workbench at Earnest Instruments in South Portland. Luthier Joel Eckhaus is a nationally known ukulele teacher and maker. He studied with famed vaudeville star Roy Smeck, who is known as the &quotwizard of the strings."
Ukulele parts sit on a workbench at Earnest Instruments in South Portland. Luthier Joel Eckhaus is a nationally known ukulele teacher and maker. He studied with famed vaudeville star Roy Smeck, who is known as the "wizard of the strings." Buy Photo
A finished ukulele sits on a workbench at Earnest Instruments in South Portland. Luthier Joel Eckhaus is a nationally known ukulele teacher and maker.
A finished ukulele sits on a workbench at Earnest Instruments in South Portland. Luthier Joel Eckhaus is a nationally known ukulele teacher and maker. Buy Photo
 A finished cigar box  ukulele sits on a workbench at Earnest Instruments in South Portland.
A finished cigar box ukulele sits on a workbench at Earnest Instruments in South Portland. Buy Photo
Terry Smith and Elizabeth Watson share a laugh while playing with the Falmouth Library Ukulele Ensemble, better known as the FLUKES, on a recent Wednesday night. The group meets once a week and is getting ready for a performance on June 22 at the Falmouth Historical Society.
Terry Smith and Elizabeth Watson share a laugh while playing with the Falmouth Library Ukulele Ensemble, better known as the FLUKES, on a recent Wednesday night. The group meets once a week and is getting ready for a performance on June 22 at the Falmouth Historical Society. Buy Photo
Carrie Peterson strums and sings with the Falmouth Library Ukulele Ensemble, better known as the FLUKES, on a recent Wednesday night.
Carrie Peterson strums and sings with the Falmouth Library Ukulele Ensemble, better known as the FLUKES, on a recent Wednesday night. Buy Photo
Leisa Barker (from left), Pays Payson and Carol Altman rehearse with the Falmouth Library Ukulele Ensemble, better known as the FLUKES, on a recent Wednesday night.
Leisa Barker (from left), Pays Payson and Carol Altman rehearse with the Falmouth Library Ukulele Ensemble, better known as the FLUKES, on a recent Wednesday night. Buy Photo
Terry Swift tunes up before playing with the Falmouth Library Ukulele Ensemble, better known as the FLUKES, on a recent Wednesday night.
Terry Swift tunes up before playing with the Falmouth Library Ukulele Ensemble, better known as the FLUKES, on a recent Wednesday night. Buy Photo
Rick and Lynne Gammon play along with the Falmouth Library Ukulele Ensemble, better known as the FLUKES, on a recent Wednesday night.
Rick and Lynne Gammon play along with the Falmouth Library Ukulele Ensemble, better known as the FLUKES, on a recent Wednesday night. Buy Photo
 Ellis Ducharme strums along with the Peaks Island Ukulele Group at a gig on the island.
Ellis Ducharme strums along with the Peaks Island Ukulele Group at a gig on the island. Buy Photo
Faith York, founder and leader of the Peaks Island Ukulele Group, or PIUKE, performs at a senior luncheon on the island with a small version of the 30-plus member ensemble.
Faith York, founder and leader of the Peaks Island Ukulele Group, or PIUKE, performs at a senior luncheon on the island with a small version of the 30-plus member ensemble. Buy Photo
Peaks Island Ukulele Group members Jean Ashmore (left) and Cheryl Higgins look up a G sharp chord wile rehearsing for a gig at a senior luncheon on the island.
Peaks Island Ukulele Group members Jean Ashmore (left) and Cheryl Higgins look up a G sharp chord wile rehearsing for a gig at a senior luncheon on the island. Buy Photo
Tim Emery of Buckdancer's Choice Music Company in Portland said he sells about a ukulele a day and even more at Christmas time. He keeps about 300 in stock, with prices ranging from less than $50 to several hundred dollars.
Tim Emery of Buckdancer's Choice Music Company in Portland said he sells about a ukulele a day and even more at Christmas time. He keeps about 300 in stock, with prices ranging from less than $50 to several hundred dollars. Buy Photo

The ukulele is a small instrument with a big following. Popular in the 1920s and again in the 1950s, the diminutive relation of the guitar and charango is back and more in demand than ever.

“Whatever goes around, comes around again,” said Joel Eckhaus, a South Portland luthier who specializes in making ukes.“Ukuleles have been one of my mainstays for the past 10 or 15 years.”

Eckhaus made his first uke in the 1970s. Since then, he’s made hundreds of plucky instruments for the likes of of Neko Case and Eddie Vedder. He also studied ukulele with old master Roy Smeck in the early 1980s. Eckhaus now travels across the country, spreading the gospel of the uke and teaching lessons.

“I have over 300 ukuleles in stock at any given time,” said Tim Emery at Buckdancer’s Choice Music Company on St. John Street in Portland.

It wasn’t always the case. A decade ago, he only carried a handful around the holidays.

“Nowadays, we sell a ukulele every day, at least,” said Emery in front of a window festooned with ukes with price tags ranging from $40 to several hundred dollars.

Emery chalks up the ukulele’s resurgence to contemporary players like Jake Shimabukuro and Israel Kamakawiwoʻole. But, he adds, there’s more to it than that.

“You don’t buy a uke and play it by yourself,” he said.

Ukulele ensembles have sprung up in Newport, Falmouth and on Peaks Island in Portland. Several libraries, including those in Portland and Falmouth, are now lending the plucky instruments.

Faith York of Peaks Island got a ukulele for Christmas and, on a whim, asked if anyone on the island’s listserve wanted to play with her.

“I expected to get five or six people. We’d meet in my living room,” she said. “Well, within 24 hours I had 35 responses.”

Thus, the Peaks Island Ukulele Group, better known as PIUKE, was born.

York isn’t quite sure why the humble uke has gotten so hot.

“I don’t know. It’s easy to play, it’s accessible — low stress, low expectations,” she said. “Let’s just have fun. And it’s amazing what you can do.”

Nina Allen Miller plays French horn with the Portland Symphony Orchestra.

“That’s hard work,” Miller said. “I was looking for something that would be fun hard work.”

So, she picked up the ukulele and joined the Falmouth Library Ukulele Ensemble, or FLUKES. The group meets once a week and has grown from eight to 30 members in a year.

“It’s addictive. You just want to play; you want to keep practicing,” she said. “You want to play with other people. You want to sing. You want to share music, which is what it’s all about.

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