Down Under String Wonder: Australia’s A.J. Leonard Rides the Crest of the Third Uke Wave


In 1959, the luxury liner SS Mariposa steamed from the harbor in Sydney, Australia, bound for San Francisco. Onboard with his family was six-year-old Anthony J. Leonard. After visiting ports in New Zealand, Fiji, Samoa, and Hawaii, the ship arrived in California. Next came a transcontinental plane trip to the East Coast. A.J.’s father was about to begin his new job at the Australian Embassy in Washington, D.C. After four years of working at the embassy, the Leonard family returned to their home in Melbourne. A.J. did not wholly lose his Aussie accent during his years in the States but did acquire the nickname “Yank” upon returning to school Down Under. A more significant acquisition while living in the U.S. was his love of music. This love would eventually lead to the life of a full-time working musician.

“My father bought a Grundig stereo [hi-fi console], which was pretty fancy for the time,” he recalls. “I had an upstairs bedroom at our house in Bethesda, Maryland, and I remember hearing my parents downstairs listening to records. They would listen to things like Percy Faith, guitarist Al Caiola, and Dean Martin. The first singles I got were from Ray Stevens, Little Eva, and one of my favorites, Henry Mancini’s ‘Baby Elephant Walk,’ which I ended up recording decades later for one of my uke albums.”

A.J.’s early fascination with records has led to his being one of the more prolific Australian recording artists, having released 16 CDs in his decades-long career. That early love of records, no doubt, also influenced A.J.’s diverse tastes in music. Genres he has recorded in include tropical, show tunes, rock, 1920s/’30s popular music, and even an album entirely of songs about animals. So what instrument initiated this cascade of musical output? A tennis racquet.

“When I was around 11, my older brother and I would sneak our parents’ tennis racquets out of the hall closet. We’d tie a string around them so we could hang them around our necks like guitars. Then we’d get a broomstick for a ‘microphone,’ and mime The Beatles, Herman’s Hermits, Eric Burdon & the Animals, the Searchers, and all that stuff. It wasn’t long after that that I got my first steel-string guitar, so my parents must have gotten the idea I was keen on playing music.” 

“I’ll have people come up to me after a gig and say, ‘I could never play like that,’ and I tell them what I do has taken me a lot of time to learn.”

The acoustic guitar led to an electric guitar, and at 19, A.J. became fascinated with the mandolin, so he bought one. A year later, in 1974, he walked into a music store in Melbourne, and on the wall was a $20 used Maton ukulele, an Australian brand. So, he bought that, and once again, it was tennis that would help guide his musical direction.

“My father had a group of friends that used to play tennis every Saturday,” he says. “They would then rotate around to each other’s homes for the after-tennis drinks. One Saturday, the drinks were at our house. My dad came in and asked me to show my ukulele to Bernie Mulcahy, a tennis and ukulele player. So I took my little Maton out and he started playing it, and it was like a light bulb went on. This guy knew how to play! Sometime later, I went ’round to his house. I spent an afternoon with him, and he showed me all his right-hand techniques—which I still use today.”

A.J Leonard plays an original song, “Dragonfly,” at the 2012 Melbourne Ukulele Festival.

A.J. spent the next 30 years in a casual relationship with the ukulele. In the late ’70s, he bought a baritone uke and a 6-string Kamaka tenor. In the ’80s, Leonard drifted away from the ukulele and into the electronic music scene of keyboards and sequencers. While working in a band that played for children, he would occasionally bring out the uke; it was kid-friendly. But it wasn’t until 2005, when he spied a copy of Frets magazine in a local store, that he once again shifted his musical direction. On the front cover, holding a four-string Kamaka tenor ukulele, was Jake Shimabukuro. 

A.J. bought the magazine and after reading the article, ordered his own 4-string Kamaka tenor. “It all changed right there,” he says. “For the first time, I actually started practicing and doing things I’d never tried before. I also realized that I knew less than I thought I did.”

One aid to his new practice regimen was Hawaiian ukulele great Roy Sakuma’s book Treasury of Ukulele Chords. “It had all your major chords and four different inversions. It was beautifully set out and really simple. And for each type of chord, it had a description—like a major 7th had a ‘pleasant lazy sound.’ And apparently, the descriptions were written by a man named Lyle Ritz [a ukulele legend in his own right]. The book gave me a blueprint for the fingerboard.” 


The next few years saw A.J. transposing a lot of different musical genres onto the ukulele. In 2006 he saw Shimabukuro perform in Melbourne, and in 2010, he met and shared the bill with ukulele master Herb Ohta in Honolulu. “Ohta-San is like a musical encyclopedia,” he notes. “I did borrow from his musical sensibilities. I was inspired by the fact that he wasn’t afraid to play anything on a soprano ukulele.”

A.J.’s reentry into the ukulele world could not have been better timed. “They say there have been three ukulele booms,” he says. “Each has coincided with new technology. In the 1920s, it was radio. Before the radio, there was no amplification, which made the uke hard to hear in a band setting. But playing in a radio studio, it could be heard clearly. In the 1950s it was Arthur Godfrey and television. And in the ’90s it was the internet.” 

In the early part of the 2000s, the uke scene in Melbourne was starting to take off under the dynamic force of nature that is Dean Denham, the fearless leader of the Melbourne Ukulele Kollective. In 2006, A.J. attended a Club MUK open mic and, in 2010, was invited to perform at Australia’s first uke festival, the Melbourne Ukulele Festival. Says Denham, “A.J. is a hugely accomplished musician and has performed as a headlining act for most of the Melbourne Ukulele Festivals since they began. His compositions are always delightfully imaginative and beautifully executed.” By 2010 the third wave had hit Australia.

Another significant influence on A.J.’s return to the ukulele world was—as it was for many people—hearing Israel Kamakawiwo’ole perform “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” during the closing credits of the film Meet Joe Black. “Hearing that floored me. It was amazing and so simple. It was the voice and the uke together that just captured it for me.”

Over the last decade, A.J. has primarily played as a duo with his classically trained cellist wife, Jenny Rowlands. Rowlands says she loves the ukulele and cello in a duet setting: “I think it’s a great combination. You’ve got the toppy sound of the ukulele and a lot of space underneath that for the cello. We don’t get in the way of each other.”

A.J. says it’s his appreciation of music and what other musicians do that inspires and sustains his creativity. He adds, “It’s okay to copy and emulate other musicians you admire. That’s how you learn. If you want to take it further, though, you have to enjoy the process.

“I’ll have people come up to me after a gig and say, ‘I could never play like that,’ and I tell them what I do has taken me a lot of time to learn.”

A.J. plays a uke duet version of Scott Joplin’s “The Entertainer” with David Billings.

After releasing 13 ukulele-themed recordings in the last decade, on A.J.’s latest musical adventure, he plays everything but the kitchen sink. “I’m playing the ukulele, guitar, mandolin, quatro, tenor banjo, Irish bouzouki, great bouzouki, and piano.” 


With all the creativity and musical prowess A.J. Leonard possesses, one might believe he could even play a tennis racquet and make it sound good.

[Here are a couple of A.J. Leonard albums you might want check out: Blue Heaven and Tales from the Tropics. And you can listen to a few tracks from the Leonard and David Billings American Songbook album here.]

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.