By Jim D’Ville
Give a kid a ukulele and who knows; that kid may turn out to be the next Jimi Hendrix. I guess you could call the ukulele a gateway instrument as many legendary musicians began their musical journey on the humble uke—including Jimi Hendrix.
The story goes that in 1957, a young James Marshall Hendrix was helping his father remove some debris from an older woman’s home. Among the items was a ukulele. The woman gifted the ukulele to Jimi, and although it had only one string, it was good enough for the young Hendrix to learn to pick out single-note melodies. Although his later solo career lasted a scant four years, he ended up becoming what The Rock & Roll Hall of Fame calls “The greatest instrumentalist in the history of rock music.”
Tommy James started his musical journey when he was just four years old with a plastic Maccaferri ukulele complete with built-in Arthur Godfrey tuner. After seeing Elvis Presley on television in 1956, James said the ukulele “went out the window” in favor of the guitar. By age 12 James was fronting his first band—The Tornados. James would go on to form Tommy James and the Shondells. The group would chart two number one singles, “Hanky Panky”and “Crimson and Clover”in the 1960s, in addition to five other Top Ten singles.
Known as “Mr. Guitar,” Chet Atkins also started on ukulele. A young Chet moved on to fiddle and then guitar after swapping with his brother, Lowell, trading an old pistol and some chores for a guitar. Atkins went on to become one of the world’s best-known guitarists with a style that blended simultaneous rhythm and melody playing. As a producer for RCA, Atkins helped to define the “Nashville Sound” of the 1960s, producing records for the likes of Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, Connie Smith, Dolly Parton, Jerry Reed, and many others. He was voted Country Music Association Instrumentalist of the Year nine times, won 14 Grammy awards, a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award, and was voted into the Country Music Hall of Fame, The Rock & Roll Hall of Fame and the Musician’s Hall of Fame.
With 14 Grammy awards throughout his long career, child prodigy George Benson could no doubt have made it big playing a 2×4 strung with a few strands of baling wire. He started at age seven on the ukulele, playing for tips in a corner drug store. At eight, he moved on to guitar, and by nine was making his first recordings. The move to guitar was a good one, and by 1976 Benson shot to the top of the Billboard album chart with his triple-platinum Number One release entitled Breezin’. George Benson went on to win the Grammy for Record of the Year in 1977 for his recording “This Masquerade.”
As a young girl, Joni Mitchell wanted to play the guitar. But, according to her Wikipedia page, “her mother disapproved of its hillbilly associations, so Joni settled initially for the ukulele.” Her performing career began on a Harmony baritone ukulele and later she taught herself the tiple (Editor’s note: The tiple is a 10-string cousin of the ukulele) and then guitar from a Pete Seeger songbook. Mitchell went on to write several iconic 1960s songs including “Big Yellow Taxi,” “Woodstock,” and “Chelsea Morning.” She has won nine Grammy awards including the Lifetime Achievement Award. She is also a Juno Award winner and was awarded the Order of Canada, her native country’s highest civilian honor.
Dick Dale is known as the “King of Surf Guitar,” but you guessed it—his first stringed instrument was a ukulele. Dale went on to push the boundaries of electric guitar playing and innovations in guitar amplification. Being of Lebanese descent, Dale was also instrumental in the use of non-Western scales in his music. This approach resulted in his groundbreaking 1962 recording of “Miserlou.”
Guitarist Peter Rowan is a legend in the world of American string music. You’ll find a full profile of Rowan in the Fall issue of Ukulele. Of all the artists mentioned in this article, Peter’s story of how he came to own his first ukulele is probably the most unique. Peter became enamored with the ukulele at the age of 4 when his uncle Jimmy returned home from World War II via Hawaii where he had won a ukulele in a crap game. In the early 1950s, Peter’s father bought him a plastic Maccaferri Islander ukulele. During the first wave of the Elvis craze, Peter switched to guitar. He would later play with Bill Monroe & The Blue Grass Boys, Old & In The Way with Jerry Garcia, as well as fronting many of his own bands. Peter returned to his ukulele roots with the 2017 record entitled My Aloha, in which he examines the relationship between bluegrass and Hawaiian music.