Video Made the Ukulele Star: 5 People Behind YouTube’s Most Popular Uke Channels

From the Fall 2016 issue of Ukulele magazine | BY AUDREY COLEMAN

It’s been over ten years since uke luminary Jake Shimabukuro sat before a video camera in New York’s Central Park and shyly introduced the song he was about to play—George Harrison’s “While My Guitar Gently Weeps.” The 29-year-old musician had no idea that someone would upload to YouTube the performance he had taped for a New York television show. His interpretation of “Gently Weeps” astonished YouTube audiences worldwide. The video went viral. To this day, people watch it and marvel.

The video not only propelled Shimabukuro’s career to international heights, it also boosted global awareness of the ukulele and its expressive possibilities. Today, millions of people aspire to play the uke in just about every musical genre and to make the instrument an integral part of their lives.

The uke presence on YouTube has grown as well. Performances, tutorials, product demos, and product reviews are just a few of the popular resources that can satiate your uke appetite, and all are just a few clicks away.

But who are the people behind these services?

Let’s look at a few of the faces that may be familiar to anyone who has sat in front of a screen with a ukulele.


PERSON BEHIND THE CURTAIN Cynthia Lin, a San Francisco–based singer-songwriter and ukulele instructor

WHY SHE UKES When she belonged to a hula halau (school) in Chicago before her move to San Francisco, her hula teacher gave her a soprano ukulele and urged her to learn to play it. Already an accomplished guitar-playing singer-songwriter, Lin was writing songs for the ukulele two years later. In San Francisco, she began holding ukulele classes at the print shop where she had a day job. Her teaching approach draws on methods she has used as a professional voice coach. “There are two main skills I’m honing,” she says, “and these are the skills I pass on to my students: Awareness, or how to pay attention, and patience, or how to slow down. These skills are not specific to music, and are really more about the fundamentals of learning.” Lin sums this advice into one lesson for her ukulele students.

“I encourage new players to practice slowly and practice five minutes a day,” she says. “Just the act of practicing is an achievement, no matter how it sounds, because you’ve taken time to slow down and pay attention.”

She runs six-week beginner, advanced beginner, and intermediate classes, plus periodic ukulele jams open to all.

“I’m not Hawaiian,” she says, “but I have a strong belief in sharing aloha. The ukulele, for me, is a way to share aloha with the world.”

WHY SHE YOUTUBES Lin’s earliest postings were videos of herself singing original compositions. But when her live uke classes took off, she realized the potential of promoting both her performances and her classes on video. It was a short step to offering YouTube-based classes. “I was able to convey in a succinct way on video what I wanted them to know,” she says. Her first and second videos yielded roughly 30,000 views.

TECHNICAL ISSUES Lin shoots her videos on her MacBook Air. Audio quality is her priority. “I use a professional microphone and a professional microphone preamp. It doesn’t need to be a high-production visual, at least for right now. [The video] just needs to be well-lit, clear, and sound really good.”

REWARDS OF YOUTUBE UKING In addition to “give what you want” donations she solicits on her website, Lin currently has “patrons” funding her through the Patreon funding platform; it yields her $851 per month. “Patrons become part of the community of people who want to support your art,” says Lin. However, she does not seek to partner with Google profit-sharing programs. Still, she affirms that YouTube has opened doors. “San Francisco is a pretty small town and it’s easy for people to recognize me [from my presence on YouTube],” she says, “which is fun because there’s such a happy association with ukulele. It’s uplifting.”


PERSON BEHIND THE CURTAIN John Atkins, a ukulele teacher based in West London, UK

WHY HE UKES “A friend of mine at my old office job bought a ukulele and he posted some videos of him playing on YouTube,” recalls Atkins. “I thought it was cool but quite funny as well, so I bought a ukulele myself and put some videos on YouTube. The first video was how to learn to play the ukulele in 10 minutes.” He’s been playing the ukulele ever since.

WHY HE YOUTUBES About a month after making that first video, he discovered that thousands of people had watched it and made comments. “It grew from there,” he says, “and I made it a little hobby and did a video once a month if I had time.”

A steady following motivated him to learn how to use video-editing software on his PC. “It seemed to capture people’s imaginations,” recalls Atkins, “and they shared it with their friends. That’s the Holy Grail of online communication—the sharing. I had a bit of on-camera experience presenting wrestling television shows for a few years and I did stand-up comedy some time ago. So I’m used to getting a point across clearly and in a slightly humorous way.”


Atkins mainly teaches pop songs to appeal to his large youth audience. “I’ve asked for requests,” he says, “and time and again I get requests for newer songs. Sometimes I’ll do an oldies week with Elvis or ukulele standards but, by and large, it’s fairly modern stuff.”

TECHNICAL ISSUES Switching to a MacBook with Final Cut editing software reduced his post-production time from about 20 hours to between six and 10 hours. He streamlines his delivery with zeal. “I cut out every breath, every pause, ‘well,’ ‘um,’ and ‘ah’ to make it the most concise lesson it could possibly be.” While many YouTubers produce videos to supplement a website, Atkins only acquired domain a few months ago.

REWARDS Once he was producing ten to 20 videos a year, Google informed him that his subscriber numbers qualified him to “monetize,” that is, receive a small fraction of the revenue generated by ads Google would run before his videos. “So I decided to do it for little bit to see if it was worth doing,” says Atkins. “And I made a very small amount of money. But I thought if I’m making a small amount of money with 20 videos, perhaps if I could make hundreds of videos . . .” After two years, he was able to cut his office-job hours to part-time and began making two videos a week. Then he learned about Patreon fundraising. “I tried it for a while—nothing ventured, nothing gained—and with money from that, I was able to quit my office job. So YouTube is my full-time career now.”

Atkins’ new life as a teacher could best be described as life changing. “I’ve met people in real life that watch [my videos] and that’s always very gratifying, but also very humbling and strange, because I’ve done these videos in my bedroom. Last September I went over to the States and I put a little photo on my Facebook page saying, ‘I’m in America for a few weeks. Here’s where I’m going to be,’ and, basically, I met one or two people [responding to that post] for lunch or dinner every day. It’s been really cool. People have been really nice.”


PERSON BEHIND THE CURTAIN Barry Maz, a ukulele product reviewer based in Cheshire, UK.

WHY HE UKES After playing guitar for nearly 20 years, Maz was inspired to start playing ukulele after seeing a ukulele performance at the George Harrison Memorial Concert at Royal Albert Hall. “I bought a horribly cheap instrument that could easily have put me off,” he recalls. “You know the sort—a bent neck, bridge in the wrong place, and next to impossible to play in-tune. I scolded myself for falling into the trap that ukuleles must automatically be ‘cheap,’ and bought another, better model. I never looked back.”

WHY HE YOUTUBES As I continued to play, I decided to use something else I massively enjoy—writing,” says Maz. “The Got A Ukulele website was born with the aim of providing no-nonsense, impartial advice to absolute beginners.”

Positive feedback from the website reviews prompted him to try YouTube as an adjunct. “I figured it would make sense to make the reviews as accessible to as many people as I could by using different media delivery.”

He takes pride in being totally impartial. “If an instrument is good quality,” says Maz, “that will come through in the review, but equally, if there are issues, I will talk about them.” He may post several days in a row, once a week, or less often, depending on how many instruments stores, companies, and luthiers have loaned him for review purposes.

TECHNICAL ISSUES The look is distinctly low-tech. “In the last 12 months,” Maz shares, “I have had people tell me ‘Hey, I can improve your site and make you a lot of money’ and ‘I can professionally shoot your videos,’ but you know what? That’s not why I do them, and I think they might lose something if I did. I want them to be opinions of a regular guy who films in his often impossibly untidy office, but speaks with some passion about the instrument he loves.”

REWARDS “I never review for money or freebies, and I tell it like it is,” says Maz. “It doesn’t pay my bills—nor did I want it to—so it’s still a hobby. But l enjoy writing and helping people, so I suppose it’s also part vocation. There are some adverts on the site, but they just keep the site going, pay for strings, and that sort of thing. All the loaned instruments go back to where they came from. If a brand doesn’t want it back, they are given away in competitions or to charity.


PERSON BEHIND THE CURTAIN Andrew Kitakis, owner of The Ukulele Site, a store in Haleiwa, Hawaii, on the North Shore of Oahu, that specializes in ukulele sales. Before opening the store as Hawaii Music Supply, Kitakis had worked ten years at Ko’olau, the Kitakis family business, helping his father make custom guitars and ukuleles and do vintage restorations. He launched a website and began posting instrument demos on YouTube, but within a few years, he realized that the bulk of his sales related to ukuleles. He set out to serve that niche market. Because officially changing a business name is cumbersome, Kitakis kept the original on his YouTube channel, though he’s used the new store and website’s name, the Ukulele Site, in tandem with Hawaii Music Supply.

WHY HE UKES “I love to play ukulele and have over 20 personal ukes at my house that I hopefully will never sell,” says Kitakis. “My nine-year-old daughter also plays ukulele and loves it. Playing with her is about as good as it gets.”

WHY HE YOUTUBES The Ukulele Site uses online videos in several ways, with ukulele tutorials from Aaron Crowell and product-feature demos by Kalei Gamiao. The more hard-core sales demonstrations go on his Vimeo channel, which now has about 2,400 videos. “YouTube is different,” says Kitakis. “It’s a good medium for sharing, but I tried to keep [our channel] for education or entertainment, not really for marketing and sales. Sometimes I upload a performance I really like and it’s not using any of our products. If an artist comes by and I like what he’s doing, I may record him.”

TECHNICAL ISSUES  “I’m not a techie,” admits Kitakis. “Learning iMovie gave me the confidence to tackle the website. Over the years, I learned with my design staff how to cater to those people who were watching the videos. Since we started, my camera and recording equipment have become much better.”

REWARDS OF YOUTUBE UKING “I decided early on not to monetize,” he says. “There are still pop-ups sometimes, but I don’t have much commercial interest in it beyond people enjoying our channel. I think of it as a way of giving back to the people who put food on our table. It’s a fun thing to do and I think it helps to grow our community [and expand] the inspiration and possibilities in this instrument.”



PERSON BEHIND THE CURTAIN Kapa’a, Kauai, resident Aldrine Guerrero, Ukulele Underground presenter and co-owner, with Ryan Esaki and Aaron Nakamura. “Our main goal,” explains Guerrero, “is to grow the next generation of ukulele players. We do that with tutorial videos and by having a large forum on our website. [We have] monthly play-along lessons on YouTube, but we also have full tutorial videos to those songs on our website. With the play-alongs on video, you can also kind of test yourself.”

WHY HE UKES “Anything in my life that ever happened that was important always was based in music,” says Guerrero. His first instrument was the guitar but as soon as he discovered the ukulele, he fell in love with it.

WHY UU YOUTUBES When Nakamura, Asaki, and Guerrero launched the Ukulele Underground website in 2007, they did not initially use YouTube. In fact, they found more production options and flexibility with other video sites, but Guerrero concedes, “YouTube seems the most popular medium for video.” Seeking audience numbers, they got a channel up in 2008. Guerrero says that YouTube also provides more ways of dealing with sticky copyright issues than other web services.

TECHNICAL ISSUES  Aaron Nakamura notes that when they first started on YouTube, there was a limit on the length of videos accepted but that, happily, that is no longer the case.

REWARDS All three partners are able to sustain themselves from running the Ukulele Underground. “We don’t really monetize with YouTube or Google,” says Nakamura. “We have a few ads in our forum, but our main source of income is from our premium UU+ service.”

Guerrero loves teaching music and inspiring people to create music on the ukulele. His personal YouTube channel, called ukuleleoversoul, supports his performance career. Being the face of Ukulele Underground on YouTube and on the website has made him renowned. “I’ve been all over the United States, Canada, Asia, Australia, Italy, and London. It’s been a crazy ride, being known as a performer and as the Ukulele Underground instructor—it’s a wonderful calling.”

This article originally appeared in the Fall 2016 issue of Ukulele magazine. 

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