Liverpool‘s Ukebox is a Very Different Sort of ‘Boy Band’


Ukebox is a fun-loving quartet that has been known to play medleys by that other band that exploded out of Liverpool 60 years ago, can expertly reproduce that group’s trademark harmonies, call themselves a “boy band” (albeit with tongue firmly in cheek), and are taking their act all over the world. But they are not trying to be The Beatles, of course, or even copying them particularly. Rather, Ukebox is an all-ukulele group that positively revels in its eclecticism.

Go to one of their shows and you might hear one of their fab Beatles medleys: “I Saw Her Standing There” joined with “Can’t Buy Me Love,” “Eight Days a Week,” “Help,” and “Twist and Shout.” But you’re as likely to hear a mash-up of Beyoncé’s “Crazy in Love” and “Single Ladies” or Bonnie Tyler’s “Holding Out for a Hero” tied to Jay-Z’s “99 Problems” or their melding of ABBA hits or bashing out snippets from ten early rock ’n’ roll hits in under four minutes. Ah-Ha’s “Take On Me” might be followed by a kazoo-led, high-note-heavy version of Earth, Wind & Fire’s “September” or a cheesy ’90s pop mash-up or even a pitch-perfect journey through the ’80s featuring the Human League’s “Don’t You Want Me Baby” and Paul Simon’s “You Can Call Me Al.” These boys just wanna have fun.

And it’s been that way since their beginning around a decade ago. “It started as a complete joke in our third year of university [Liverpool Hope University],” says de facto leader Mikey Fell, “or at least, not with anything in mind for the future—let alone a full-time job! From there we had a couple of practice sessions a week and when it came to graduation time we had enough gigs to keep going over that summer and eventually set up the band officially [originally as a quintet] in February 2014.”

Why ukuleles? “We probably got inspiration in the first place from the likes of the Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain, and took it from there with more of a ‘band’ setup,” Fell says. “We all played guitar in some way, shape, or form so we figured that shortening them and learning some new chords and techniques shouldn’t be too tricky—we were wrong! We’ve never formally taken ukulele lessons, however we love it when we play a festival and we get a chance to sneak into some master classes, as well as delivering some of our own, where we prefer to focus on our strengths with vocal harmonies, mash-ups and rhythm.”

Three of the four current members have been part of Ukebox since the early days: Fell (Kala and Tonewood banjolele), Danny Gelsthorpe (Kala tenor), and James Rookyard (Kala U-Bass). New to the group, replacing original electric uke shredder Scott Griffin, is Richard Taylor (Risa electric). Kazoos and tambourine will occasionally appear, but mostly it’s all ukes—along with their spectacularly rich, tight vocal harmonies.

“Danny is our main vocalist; he’s got the top range covered,” Fell says. “James is also a really accomplished singer. Myself and Rich can pitch notes but we tend not to venture too far into the lead vocal spotlight. The process of vocal arranging usually happens quite smoothly. We’ll pick a genre—we’re currently trying to sort out a Shania Twain/Weather Girls/Britney Spears mash-up—so we’ll pick our key, jam it through a little, then refine everything. If there’s a tricky vocal element, we’ll break it down, but otherwise you’ll notice we don’t stay particularly true to the original tracks’ harmonies and sometimes add some when we feel it sounds nice. We do love our Beatles medleys—there’s loads of lovely opportunities for ukulele voicing and vocal harmonies there.”


He continues, “We’ve been struggling of late to find some modern songs that can withstand the test of time, and we’re always looking for new songs to add. By making a small mash-up or medley it keeps it interesting for us and for the listeners, too: They’ve heard some of these songs hundreds of times, so we offer a unique sound and then move on.”

Mikey, Danny, James, and new member Richard Taylor of Ukebox.

The band has built its following primarily by word of mouth, first playing in and around Liverpool, then landing gigs out of town at the London Palladium and in other English cities and towns, and eventually also playing festivals. “When couples started asking us to play their weddings, that was a nice moment,” Fell says. Private parties and corporate events soon followed.

What really separates Ukebox from other ukulele groups, though—aside from their vocals and creative repertoire—is that for many years now, a large part of their performing schedule has been determined by their involvement with the vacation cruise industry; mostly (but not exclusively) working for the behemoth Celebrity Cruises, one of the most successful lines on the planet, with embarkation points and ports-of-call all over Europe, the Caribbean, the Pacific. 

“Our cruise life is amazing,” Fell comments. “We’ve now traveled to around 70 countries doing what we love, which sounds insane. Our contracts are usually a week long and we will perform one or two theater shows during that week, so we get a chance to perform a side of our show that often doesn’t get seen when we’re on land unless it’s in a theater setting. It’s very fun but the travel can be tiring. But we say to ourselves, ‘That’s the job, and performing is what we do.’” And lest you think that they’re playing exclusively to audiences of old men and blue-haired ladies on the high seas, Fell insists that “There are younger and younger audiences now on cruises and we love the enthusiasm of American audiences!”

Glancing at the Ukebox Facebook page offers a window into their joyous, peripatetic life. Just scrolling from November 2022 forward will take you to Fort Lauderdale (Florida), Hollywood, Christmas in Honolulu, and beach adventures in such exotic Caribbean destinations as St. Kitts, St. Maarten, Antigua, Barbuda, and the Bahamas. And checking just the group’s spring and early summer 2023 schedule reveals another cruise adventure in the Caribbean, and three Mediterranean voyages—two starting in Italy, one in Spain. Not bad at all!

“We’ve got a lot of fun stories, for sure,” Fell says, and, naturally, also some less glamorous ones, like being sold fake tickets for a soccer match in Costa Rica and “falling asleep in hotel hallways after some strong rum punches. But actually, we’re fairly un-rock ’n’ roll and we have plenty of laughs together, as far as colleagues go. Moneywise, we’ve been doing it for eight years, give or take, as a full-time job, so it’s certainly something we could do for a long time should we choose to.” 

Any hopes or aspirations? “We have always had original music at the back of our minds. We have all our tracks up on Spotify, along with music videos on YouTube. We still love doing our cover shows, though. We’ve spent a lot of time and effort creating them; we’re not just reading dots on a page. It feels like we’ve made the cover songs our own, so performing them makes us happy musically. 

“We’ve got big plans ahead,” he adds. “We want to have a brand new set of Ukebox members who can work on cruises and travel the world doing what we do, which means we’ll be a bit freer to branch out into more land work; especially a U.S. tour, which would be amazing!”

Wait a second… other bands on cruise ships, also called Ukebox? Like a franchise? “Yes, they’ll be Ukebox, too. It means we can get more reach on ships. It’s not something we’ll post about too much—unless they start getting better than us!”