This piece comes from Ivy Scurr, a PhD candidate in the Faculty of Education and Arts.
First of all, I’d like to point out that I’m a massive dabbler. I have a hard time choosing just one activity to put my energy and interest into. When I’m not buried in work, I enjoy quite a wide variety of activities, as I’m sure is the case for most of you.
These include the usual TV, reading, occasional gaming, staring blankly at the wall letting existential dread wash over me, listening to music, embroidery, adding random things to my procrastination art project denim jacket, confusing cis heterosexuals, swearing in professional settings, and yelling about the evils of capitalism. I even spent more than a decade heavily involved in medieval re-enactment. But this month, I want to talk to you about something dear to my heart: the much-maligned ukulele.
One of the reasons I consider ukulele punk, despite what others might think, is its fundamental accessibility. Entry level ukuleles are amazingly cheap – crappy but serviceable ones can be acquired for less than $30. They are also small, light and easily portable. Having only four strings, coupled with standard tuning, also makes most chords used in simple pop and rock songs really easy to learn.
These days, there are also a multitude of YouTube tutorials and online chords for an impressive breadth of songs. All of this means that ukulele is affordable, portable, and simple to learn the basics of. What is more punk than democratising access to the means of music production?
I first got hooked on ukulele because one of my friends had one and offered to teach me the basics. Learning enough to be able to play a couple of simple songs took less than an hour and a half, and that’s after not having played an instrument since I put down the guitar at the end of Year Twelve. After that, my friend gifted me a cheap and dodgy uke that she had purchased to take on holiday, and I promptly put into practice the ethos underpinning Amanda Palmer’s Ukulele Anthem:
“So play your favourite cover song, especially if the words are wrong, cos even if your grades are bad, it doesn’t mean you’re failing … Ukulele small and forceful, ukulele brave and peaceful, you can play the ukulele too it is painfully simple, play your ukulele badly, play your ukulele loudly … Holy fuck it’s so fantastic, playing ukulele.”
So that’s what got me started. But what keeps me coming back is how much enjoyment it brings to my life. Playing the uke is a wonderful offline activity that gives my eyes a break from computer and phone screens, and it requires you to be present in the moment, creating a kind of active mindfulness. Depending on what emotions I need to work through at different points, I can choose different songs and ways of playing them – which can really give me a different experience, even with a limited repertoire of songs that I feel competent playing.
It’s also an activity that is enjoyable for both myself and my partner (who doesn’t even mind my off-key singing) that allows us to get off the treadmill of needing to be productive. I don’t play ukulele to achieve any productive goals, I do it because it’s nice.
Ukulele is such an enjoyable part of my downtime that, a while back, I invested in a much nicer and larger, reasonable quality tenor ukulele. This set me back a whopping $200, much cheaper than a guitar of similar quality. I have even fairly recently re-strung the tenor uke with low-g strings, allowing linear, more guitar-like tuning, in contrast to the standard high-g re-entrant tuning. While some things arranged for ukulele definitely sound better on high-g, I quite enjoy the way most things sound with low-g on the bigger ukulele.
I particularly enjoy playing songs folks never expect to work on the uke, especially if it means playing slowed-down cheerful versions of fast angry songs, and fast angry versions of happy pop songs. Luckily, the uke lets me mess around with this kind of stuff as well as practicing serviceable and recognisable versions of songs I know well, all without any formal training or music theory. It’s just that fun and easy.
I also keep trying to sell people on one of my aspirational dreams: to bring together a group of people to go around doing flash mob-style performances of ukulele covers (after the COVID-19 lockdown is over, of course). I guess it’s just the chaotic bard in me.
So there you have it. The ukulele is friendly and easy to get started with, cheap and portable, and helps break down the rules about who can play music. It does this while still being versatile enough for truly amazing performances by a virtuoso.
I hope I’ve managed to convince you that it has some punk credentials that outshine the poor rep it has with the average person. And maybe, just maybe, some of you might want to get together and play some uke sometime? Either way, I’m still going to enjoy playing the ukulele, and the haters can go jump in the harbor.