Did you know that in Hawaiian, the word ukulele translates as “jumping flea”? This is not to describe any flea jumping around, but rather how the fingers move on the strings as one plays.
Since its introduction to Hawaii by Portuguese immigrants in 1879, it’s become iconic with all things Hawaiian. From then on, a number of great ukulele players have emerged, not just in Hawaii, but all over the world.
In this post, we’ll explore 18 of the greatest and most famous ukulele players and their careers. Let’s get started!
1. Jake Shimabukuro
Born in Honululu, Hawaii, composer and musician Jake Shimabukuro 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
When he was in fourth grade in British Columbia, James Hill picked up the ukulele, 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, Hill has released several albums, including the latest 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
“Anti-Hero” singer Taylor Swift rose to fame as an American singer-songwriter as a teenager, releasing her eponymous first album when she was just 17 years old. She followed this up with nine more studio albums to critical success. Each one topped the charts of several countries and became multi-Platinum hits.
Swift is a talented musician of many instruments, including guitar, banjo, piano, and of course, ukulele. 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
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. He played “Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea” on ukulele while performing on TV in 1992.
Friends recall Harrison vast collection of the instrument and how he would always bring one out to play at parties. He loved to buy them in batches just to give them away as gifts. His two 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, Daniel Ho Creations, 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 or Na Hoku Hanohano Awards.
Today, he teaches a comprehensive online ukulele curriculum on top of touring and creating more music to showcase his repertoire.
9. Greg Hawkes
Pop rock musician 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.
Hawkes began experimenting with the ukulele in 2001 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, beginning with Lycanthropy in 2003. He has also collaborated with other artists like Edward Larrikin and Marianne Faithfull.
In 2008, Wolf founded Bloody Chamber Music, his independent record label, and he continues to perform live in Australia. His most recent album is Sundark and Riverlight in 2012.
11. Amanda Palmer
Our next music artist, Amanda Palmer—best known as the lead vocalist, pianist, and lyricist of the Dresden Dolls—grew up in Massachusetts.
Through high school and college, Palmer 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
Born into a musical family—grandfather was a composer and father was a pianist—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 herself playing cover songs of her favorite music groups, like the Beatles and Beach Boys, on YouTube. She also uploaded several original songs, like “Make Believe” and “Life Is Long.”
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
Born in Malaysia on the island of Borneo, Zee Avi moved to Kuala Lumpur as a teenager. When she was in her teens, she taught herself to play guitar and later picked up the ukulele.
Avi went to London to study fashion design and, when she returned home, began writing music. After several months of sharing her songs on YouTube, her song “No Christmas for Me” became an overnight success.
In 2009, Avi released her self-titled debut album under the label Brushfire Records. She released two follow-up albums in 2011 (Ghostbird) and 2014 (Nightlight) and is currently working on her fourth, entitled Ellipses.
14. Jim Beloff
While working at Billboard magazine, Jim Beloff 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 that Beloff is often credited with igniting the modern resurgence of 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
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” and “Singin’ in the Rain.” At the peak of his career, Edwards featured in the Broadway musical Lady Be Good alongside Fred and Adele Astaire.
16. Taimane Gardner
Born in Honolulu, Hawaii, Taimane Gardner is a ukulele virtuoso who started playing the instrument when she was only 5. She was soon discovered by the legendary Hawaiian singer Don Ho, who invited her to perform in his show Waikiki Beachcomber.
She dropped her first album, Loco Princess, in 2005. Gardner followed this up with five more over her career, some of which were nominated for Na Hoku Hanohano awards.
Gardner is known to play a mix of genres on the ukulele. She has ripped through a cover of Led Zeppelin’s song and soothed the strings with Bach classics. Her latest work is the album Hawaiki, which she released in 2022.
17. Grace VanderWaal
Singer-songwriter and musician Grace VanderWaal taught herself how to play the ukulele when she was 11 after watching a pair of Brazilians play the instrument on YouTube. She was soon singing and uploading covers to her YouTube channel.
VanderWaal’s musical breakthrough came after winning the 11th season of America’s Got Talent, where she played original songs. She was soon signed to a label and releasing albums and singles, like “I Don’t Know My Name,” which charted on #24 on Billboard’s Bubbling Under 100 Singles.
In 2020, VanderWaal debuted her acting career in Disney+’s musical Stargirl, a role she reprised in the 2022 sequel. In between her busy schedule, she continues to release music.
18. Genoa Keawe
When recording music and radio was on the rise in the early 20th century, this gave many Hawaiian folk singers to share their talent and become heard. One of the signers who shined at this time was Genoa Keawe.
Aunty Genoa, as she was fondly called, was born in Oahu in 1918. She learned to play the ukulele by ear and sing traditional songs when she was young.
She began her singing career in military clubs just before World War II. Then in 1946, she recorded the first of over 140 songs she would record in her career, most of which were Hawaiian music standards accompanied by the ukulele.
Aunty Genoa received numerous awards for her works, including Hawaii’s equivalent to Grammys, the Na Hoku Hanohano. In 2000, Aunty Genoa was awarded the National Heritage Fellowship by the National Endowment for the Arts.
Summing Up Our List Of Great 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 instrument.
In recent years, the ukulele has 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.