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Austin-based ukulele player Pops Bayless - perhaps the only professional ukulele player working full time in Texas - returns to the hill country musicians Feb 11-13 to instruct on the finer points of playing ukulele. Photo by Phil Houseal

Pops Bayless returns to teach ukulele for the Hill Country Acoustic Music Camp Feb 11-13 at Mt. Wesley Conference Center in Kerrville. Information at www.hcamp.org.

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Who likes a ukulele?

by Phil Houseal
Feb 9, 2011


George Harrison composed his hit songs on it, Steve Allen made Lipton soup in it, and at one time it was the most popular instrument in the United States.

It is the ukulele, and apparently this diminutive cousin of the guitar is enjoying a resurgence in the Hill Country.

Last week about a dozen players of all ages brought their ukes to an all-day course taught by Pops Bayless, one of the top ukulele teachers in the state. Bayless - actor, songwriter, pitchman, and all around entertainer - recognizes and revels in the disrespect a large man gets from playing a small instrument.

“Three minutes, leave ‘em in the shell, no salt,” he said when I asked about the ukulele.

An observer piped up, “All these musicians are comedians.”

“Of course I am,” Bayless shot back. “I play the damn ukulele!”


Where did this new popularity for the uke spring from? “I honestly don’t know,” Bayless said. “We spray for them.”

Finally, when his audience left, Bayless got serious. He explained that the ukulele is like the yo-yo - it keeps coming back in popularity. He guesses this is the fourth big wave for the instrument. The first was in the 1920s, when it was linked with the exotic Hawaiian lifestyle. TV personality Arthur Godfrey brought it back in the 1950s. Godfrey literally sold a million of them made of plastic. That is the model comedian Steve Allen used to mix up a batch of Lipton instant soup on TV.

Of course there was the brief period in the late 60s when Tiny Tim brought the ukulele with him as he tiptoed through the tulips.

In the early 1990s, rock, progressive, and punk musicians discovered its sound. In 1993 Israel Kamakawiwo'ole released a popular radio version of Over The Rainbow using the uke.

Now, for some reason, it seems to be popular again.

“I think it’s something that comes on like malaria,” Bayless said. “Now, any song that can be covered, is covered on the uke. They are even doing AC/DC covers.”

Besides having only four strings, the uke is different than a guitar in another fundamental way.

“What really sets it apart from other instruments is the high string on the back end.” This is called reentrant tuning, with a high G, then C, E, and A - the classic “my dog has fleas” mnenomic. That quirk allows good players to stretch the range, which Bayless demonstrated by playing a bit from Rhapsody in Blue.

Bayless - a founding member of the Asylum Street Spankers - started on mandolin and banjo, but switched to playing the uke “because someone had one.” When he formed his next band, it was all ukes, all the time.

“I got hooked on it,” the self-professed attention-seeker admitted. “I’m a musical performer. In drama you have to go eight weeks through this whole process before you get your ‘cookie.’ With the uke, you can go to an open mic and get your cookie just like that!”

Apparently there are others who share this affinity for the ukulele. The Stringalongs gather every Thursday afternoon at the Dietert Center for their ukulele fix.

Ron Sutton of Hill Country Music Store  reports that the ukes are popular with all ages. “The older folks like them because of their memories of uke music when they were young, and they are drawing the interest of the younger crowd because of all the use of ukes in today's music,” Sutton said.

If nothing else, Bayless points out that the resonator model, with its aluminum cone, makes a handy weapon. “Yes,” he deadpanned, “the National will stop anything smaller than a Fender bass.”