15 Of The Most Famous Ukulele Players You Should Know

Last updated

Did you know that in Hawaiian, the word ukulele translates as “jumping flea”? Since its introduction to Hawaii by a Portuguese immigrant in 1879, it’s become iconic with all things Hawaiian.

In this post, we’ll explore 15 of the most famous ukulele players not just from Hawaii but from all over the world.

1. Jake Shimabukuro

Jake Shimabukuro

Jake Shimabukuro was born in Honolulu, Hawaii, and was handed his first ukulele by his mother, herself an accomplished musician, at age four.

He took an immediate interest in the instrument, eventually rising to recognition in Hawaii as a member of the musical group Pure Heart in his early twenties.

Several years later, Shimabukuro decided to pursue a solo career in Japan and the United States.

His signature sound at the time included using an effect pedal to alter the sound of the ukulele in new and exciting ways.

Today, however, Shimabukuro says he prefers to rely on the ukulele’s natural sounds rather than technical sound manipulation. 

2. Eddie Vedder

Most famous for his role as lead vocalist, guitarist, and lyricist for the band Pearl Jam, Edde Vedder didn’t pick up a ukulele until he was already a famous rock musician.

First picking up the instrument in a Hawaiian convenience store, Vedder would eventually release an entire solo album entitled Ukulele Songs in 2011.

Vedder says of the ukulele that it’s excellent for sing-alongs and bringing people together because it’s so small that people just want to “help it out.”

It may be for that reason that he also calls the ukulele “an activist instrument.”

3. James Hill

James Hill picked up the ukulele in fourth grade in British Columbia, where ukulele instruction is a compulsory part of many schools’ curricula.

He continued to study the instrument through middle and high school before earning his Bachelor of Music in 2003.

Hill co-authored the Ukulele in the Classroom book series with J. Chalmers Doane and launched a certification program for ukulele instructors with his father, Barry, in 2010.

So far, he’s released several albums, including his latest release, The Old Silo, which was nominated for a Juno Award in 2015.

4. Israel Kamakawiwo’ole

American musician Israel Kamakawiwo’ole, also known as Bruddah IZ, was born and raised in Honolulu, where he was inspired by his uncle, Hawaiian musician Moe Keale.

He began playing music with his family at a young age, and in his early teens, formed the Makaha Sons of Ni’ihau.

This group blended contemporary and traditional Hawaiian and American music.

After achieving massive success with that group in Hawaii, Kamakawiwo’ole released his first solo album in 1990.

His follow-up album, Facing Future, featured his most famous song, the medley “Over the Rainbow/What a Wonderful World.”

Kamakawiwo’ole used the platform he earned through his music to advocate for Hawaiian rights and Hawaiian independence through activism and his music.

After he died in 1997, he was honored by the government of Hawaii for his contributions to the cause.

5. Eddie Kamae

Born in Honolulu, Hawaii, Eddie Kamae learned to play the ukulele on an instrument given to him by a bus driver, who found it abandoned on the bus.

He played on it for years before his father took him to jam sessions when he was 14 years old.

In 1959, Kamae and his friend Gabby Pahinui formed the musical group Sons of Hawaii.

Through this group, he became known for his unique way of playing all four ukulele strings at once.

Kamae went on to teach ukulele, fueled by his motivation to teach Hawaiian culture through music.

He was one of the most influential Hawaiian musicians in the world.

6. Taylor Swift

Taylor Swift rose to fame as an American singer-songwriter as a teenager, releasing her first album when she was just 17 years old.

She is a talented musician of many instruments, including guitar, banjo, piano, and of course, ukulele. 

Some people credit the latest resurgence in popularity of the ukulele to Swift, who plays the instrument on tour.

Some of her songs that showcase the instrument include “You Belong With Me” and “Love Story.”

7. George Harrison

George Harrison

English musician George Harrison rose to fame as the lead guitarist of the Beatles.

Born in Liverpool, he was gifted his first guitar at the age of 13.

Though the guitar was the instrument that would catapult him to fame, Harrison was utterly smitten with the ukulele.

Friends recall his vast collection of them and how he would always bring one out to play at parties.

Harrison loved ukuleles so much that he would buy them in batches just to give them away as gifts.

Two of his closest friends, Joe Brown and Paul McCartney, performed ukulele tributes to Harrison after his passing.

8. Daniel Ho

American musician and composer Daniel Ho was born on Oahu in Hawaii, where he began playing organ and ukulele at a very young age, taking on several other instruments later.

After significant success with his first musical group, Kilauea, he launched his independent record label in 1998.

Ho has released several solo and group albums for himself and other artists, many of which have been nominated for or received Grammy awards.

Today, he teaches a comprehensive online ukulele curriculum.

9. Greg Hawkes

Gregory Hawkes grew up in Fulton, Maryland, playing the keyboard in a band called Teeth.

After attending college for composition and flute, he played various instruments in several bands before joining the band he’s best known for, the Cars.

In 2001, Hawkes began experimenting with the ukulele and has released reprisals of several songs from his former band.

In 2008, he released The Beatles Uke, an album of 15 Beatles classics reimagined on the ukulele.

On it, he uses multi-tracked recordings or a single ukulele in a style he calls “UKEsymphonic.” 

10. Patrick Wolf

English singer-songwriter Patrick Wolf is a multitalented instrumentalist whose tools of the craft include piano, viola, and ukulele.

His unique style blends synthetic and electronic sounds with classical Baroque and chamber music.

Wolf has released six recorded albums, most recently Sundark and Riverlight in 2012.

In 2008, he founded Bloody Chamber Music, his independent record label, and he continues to perform live in Australia.

11. Amanda Palmer

Amanda Palmer, best known as the lead vocalist, pianist, and lyricist of The Dresden Dolls, grew up in Massachusetts.

Through high school and college, she was involved in theater and performance groups and earned money as a busker until meeting her drummer, Brain Viglione, and forming The Dresden Dolls.

Later, as a solo artist, Palmer picked up a ukulele during a concert and began to play it as a joke but found herself playing the instrument regularly soon after.

She eventually released a full album entitled Amanda Palmer Performs the Popular Hits of Radiohead on Her Magical Ukulele.

12. Julia Nunes

Julia Nunes by Gage Skidmore (CC BY-SA 3.0)

American singer-songwriter Julia Nunes first began playing piano as a child, then later guitar, before she began playing ukulele in 2005.

She rose to recognition by posting videos of her original songs as well as musical covers on YouTube.

Nunes has opened four times for Ben Folds, one of her idols, and performed at numerous ukulele competitions and festivals.

She released her first album in 2007 and five more since, promoting herself through Kickstarter for her last three.

13. Zee Avi

Zee Avi was born in Malaysia on the island of Borneo.

After moving to Kuala Lumpur as a teenager, she taught herself to play guitar when she was 17 and later picked up the ukulele. 

Avi went to London to study fashion design and began writing music when she returned home.

After several months of sharing her songs on YouTube, her song “No Christmas For Me” became an overnight success.

Avi released her self-titled debut album in 2009 under the label Brushfire Records.

She released two follow-up albums in 2011 (“Ghostbird”) and 2014 (“Nightlight”) and says she’s currently working on her fourth, entitled “Ellipses.” 

14. Jim Beloff

Jim Beloff is often credited with igniting the modern resurgence of the ukulele.

While working at Billboard Magazine, he happened to pick up a used ukulele at a flea market in Los Angeles and quickly fell in love with it.

Somewhere along the way, he’d discovered an old collection of unused ukulele music, which he and his wife used as inspiration for their first book, Jumpin’ Jim’s Ukulele Favorites.

That book, and the ones that followed, rapidly grew in popularity, as did the ukulele.

George Harrison personally endorsed Beloff’s book, The Ukulele: A Visual History, and gifted it to all of his friends for Christmas one year.

In addition to his publications, Beloff now runs The Magic Fluke Company, a manufacturer of quality, affordable instruments.

15. Cliff Edwards

Cliff Edwards

American Musician Cliffton “Cliff” Edwards, nicknamed “Ukulele Ike,” grew up in Hannibal, Missouri.

Leaving school at age 14, he moved to St. Louis to work as a musician.

Because so many of the venues had bad pianos, if they had any pianos at all, Edwards taught himself the ukulele because it was the cheapest instrument in the music shop.

He performed on the vaudeville circuit for several years, releasing pop hits like “I’ll See You in My Dreams.

At the peak of his career, Edwards featured in the Broadway musical Lady Be Good alongside Fred and Adele Astaire.

He’s best known for his song, “Singin’ in the Rain.”

Summing up our List of the Greatest Ukulele Players

These are just a few of the many talented ukulele players who have used their music to help share their music through the Ukulele.

In recent years it’s been experiencing a resurgence in popularity and is now one of the fastest-growing instruments that people are learning.

If we’ve missed any ukulele players you think need to be on our list let us know and we’ll add them in.

Photo of author
Written by Dan Farrant
Dan Farrant, the founder of Hello Music Theory, has been teaching music for over 15 years, helping hundreds of thousands of students unlock the joy of music. He graduated from The Royal Academy of Music in 2012 and then launched Hello Music Theory in 2014. Since then, he's been working to make music theory easy for over 1 million students in over 80 countries around the world.