James Hill Dives Head First into Creating Community with ‘Uke Heads’


“All I knew from the beginning is that I wanted an opportunity for friends and fans to play on the album,” says the innovative ukulele artist and teacher James Hill, who has been honing his craft for more than a quarter century now. “And I wanted to give them an experience they would never forget.” So it was that the Uke Heads community was born. 

Uke Heads started out as an album with an original take on crowdfunding: supporters could pay a set amount and receive a unique digital art piece, along with an opportunity to be part of an upcoming James Hill album. It would soon blossom into a community of 400 strong and a digitally connected band of 165 performers who made an album full of connection and feeling.

It all started with a conversation with Tony Coleman, who directed the Mighty Uke documentary. “After he finished that movie, he knew the uke world better than anyone at that time,” says Hill. “I asked him, ‘What do you think I should do next?’ He said, ‘Oh, that’s easy. You should make an album that everybody can play on.’” It was perfect; something like this would combine the aspects of performing, songwriting, community building, and teaching, all hallmarks of Hill’s musical career. Perfect, yes—simple, no. “But like so many great ideas, that would take years to not only pull it off, but to warm up to the concept and gather materials for it,” says Hill.

The logistics of bringing people together for a project like this was daunting. Zoom wasn’t part of our day-to-day lives at the time, and home recording was not as accessible as it is today. But the pandemic brought the technological strides, as well as the drive for connection and community, that helped make this possible. Both were necessary for this to be as successful as it’s been.

“The only name I can come up with is ‘creative community,’” says Hill. “It has become a creative community in that it’s neither a teaching course nor a concert performance. It is somewhere very happily in the middle between those two and it’s thriving.”

uke heads digital art
Uke Heads each got to choose one unique digital art piece to call their own as part of the project.


To become a Uke Head, supporters purchased a piece of digital art known as an NFT (non-fungible token). While the NFT aspect never really took off, the idea of having a unique Uke Head artwork to identify with was a hit. Participants display them proudly online on social media and have started an international sticker trading ring offline. “My case is covered head to toe with Uke Heads,” says Hill. “Because they sent (stickers) to me and we traded.”

From there, supporters had the option to actually be part of the final album by recording their part of a song and sending it to Hill. Nearly half the Uke Heads ended up participating in the album recording.

“The rule that we had going into recording was ‘If you submit a recording, you’re in the mix,’” says Hill. “We held regular rehearsals every month; it became a routine. (Uke Heads) had two weeks to practice their parts, they would submit their parts by the deadline, and I had two weeks to mix it. And at our next rehearsal I would go through the previous mix and introduce the new song. And they would get a recording with a practice score that they could interact with, slow down, loop, and all that stuff.”

Adam Sauter, a Uke Head in his mid-thirties from the Chicago area, says the process made him a better player. “It was much easier than I would have thought,” he says. “This was the first time I’d ever done recording before, but I imagine it would be hard to make it any easier.” When Sauter started the project, he was “just out of beginner stage,” he says. “(But) once we finished, it kind of lit a fire underneath me and I was kind of sad we were done, because I was improving.” The experience inspired him to take in-person lessons in his hometown, and now he feels more at the “advanced intermediate” level. “I think anyone, regardless of playing skill, would have been able to get a handle on it.”


Marianne Brogan is a longtime fan and friend of Hill. She’s attended many ukulele workshops, concerts, and events, and has even organized uke fests in her hometown of Portland, Oregon. Still, she was slightly dubious of this project at first. “It was really hard to imagine at the time how this was all going to work out,” she says. “It seemed like a pretty massive and insane idea. But if anyone could do it, he could.”

In her rehearsals, all the parts were written out. Some players had ideas, she says, and Hill was open to trying them out. Some things got ironed out in the subsequent practices. 

Brogan was attracted to the project in part because of its community aspect. “One point when I was in high school, I told my mother I wanted to quit the orchestra—I played timpani—because I was so focused on what I had to do that I couldn’t hear the music of the orchestra. Here I am almost 70 years old and I’ve spent my lifetime trying to get back into the orchestra,” she says. “The payoff has been the opportunities to get together with these folks.”

Says Hill, “We gave people the opportunity to interact with each other, which is so important in any band situation. People have to learn from each other and help each other along.” 

Uke Heads gathering in New Mexico with Daniel Ward, far left.
Uke Heads gathering in New Mexico with Daniel Ward, far left. Photo: Chantal LeBlanc.

The Album

Though there are well over 100 players on the album, Uke Heads does not sound like your casual ukulele club hum-and-strum. These are well-crafted songs written by Hill and arranged specifically for this group. It has a rock ’n’ roll flavor to it, with lots of the tracks featuring distortion-heavy uke riffs. But there’s also a jazzy number, a few anthemic sing-alongs, and some psychedelic synth solos. The album has a big sound to it, due in part to the chorus of voices and ukes heard on several songs, but also due in part to the timeless feel and open nature of the songs themselves.

“The songs came from my archive of songs. I call them my ‘orphan songs’—ones that were between albums that never found a home,” says Hill. “That was the right decision, because not only were these songs able to see the light of day, but it also meant that I was not trying to write the songs while I was trying to build this community. I’m not sure if you could do that; I think it would be too much to juggle.”

In addition to ukes of all shapes and sizes, the band arrangement includes, at various times, bass, drums, percussion, piano, synthesizer, and fiddle, all played by Hill. “I played a lot of baritone on it, because I’ve been digging the baritone,” he says. “I always play the baritone with that high fourth string, so it has that uke-y sound, even though it’s down in that guitar range.” What you won’t hear on the album is guitar; all the heavy, distorted rock sounds heard on many of the tunes are produced by ukulele.

The Uke Heads played mostly in standard, high-G tuning, save for one song that specified low-G and one where “we had everyone re-tune to a really weird tuning,” says Hill. Each of the album’s 10 songs and three other musical moments (an intro, intermission, and outro) feature Uke Heads, though not every Uke Head plays on every song. There are some professionals included in the Uke Heads community, too. For example, listen closely and you can hear Victoria Vox’s voice and ukulele. There may also be other ukulele players and singers you may recognize.

Though there are dozens of ukes and voices in any given section, it’s mixed in such a way that the lead vocal and ukulele are always present but without minimizing the contributions of the rest of the band. The result combines the feeling of togetherness that playing ukulele with friends provides with the professional sound of a well-produced record. (It helps that the album was mastered by ukulele guru Daniel Ward.)


Uke Heads take a ride at their New Mexico gathering last year.
Uke Heads take a ride at their New Mexico gathering last year. Photo: Shari-Ballard-Krishnan.

Looking Ahead

Building community has always been part of Hill’s musical career, so much so that he doesn’t see it as separate from making music in general. “The resonator is the community around it,” he says. “Otherwise it’s just very hollow, there’s just nothing there. It’s just very lonely.”

This project was particularly successful in combining the two aspects. “I would like to explore more of that moving forward, where you don’t have the same sort of clear-cut separation between performance and pedagogy. This starts to blend the two in ways that I can only imagine. I can’t predict where this is going to go, but this is clearly a new path, and I’m into it.”

As for the future of Uke Heads, nothing is certain except that Hill is pushing to keep it going. “It’s too much of a vibe to let it die,” he says. “It’s too much of a community, it’s become too much of a network of friends to let it die, and I’ve had too much fun with it to let it die.”

One moment in the journey thus far that stands out for him was at the Strathmore Uke Fest in Washington, D.C., last year. “There just happened to be 13 or 14 Uke Heads at that show, and spontaneously they all jumped up onstage for two songs from the Uke Heads album,” he says. “That was wicked! It was just such a moment. They all just piled on and they all knew the parts, and we sang.”

Could Uke Heads grow beyond just a community of album supporters into a lifestyle, à la Dead Heads or Parrot Heads? For some, perhaps it already has. “When an album becomes a community, you start to get things that you didn’t expect,” says Hill. “I have gotten so much out of it, to the point where Uke Heads has just become a lifestyle.”