The ukulele is a beautiful sounding instrument. But without the talented men and women that play the uke, these sounds would never be achieved.
So let’s take a moment to explore some of the best, and most famous ukulele players in the world.
Let’s find you your new favorite. 🙂
People often credit Eddie Kamae for being integral to the Hawaiian Cultural Renaissance. He was not only a member of the Sons of Hawaii but also came up with several methods of plucking all four ukulele strings simultaneously.
As a result, from 1978 to 2007, he received several accolades, such as a Lifetime Achievement Award in 2000 and 2006. He was inspired to play the ukulele through listening to classical, Latin, and jazz pieces on the radio, but his discography includes mostly traditional Hawaiian pieces, which he produced alongside his wife, Myrna.
Cliff Edwards might be most familiar to general audiences as the voice of Jiminy Cricket in Disney’s Pinocchio, but he was also known as “Ukulele Ike.” He enjoyed immense popularity in the 1920s and 1930s, doing covers of jazz and novelty songs. He started playing the ukulele to be his own accompanist and because it was the cheapest instrument available.
Thanks to Edwards’ rousing ukulele covers, ukuleles became immensely popular among musical artists. The instrument became such a token of 1930s music that Tin Pan Alley music publishers added ukulele cords to their sheet music.
If you have watched the 2010 horror film Insidious, you probably remember the scene where a demon plays “Tiptoe Through the Tulips.” That song brought ukulele artist Tiny Tim into the popular consciousness.
Tiny Tim sang his songs in an immediately recognizable falsetto voice but could also play instruments with either of his hands. For example, he played the ukulele with his left hand and the guitar with his right. Incidentally, he learned to play the ukulele through an Arthur Godfrey plastic ukulele that came with a method book.
Tiny Tim’s most famous award is a star outside Minneapolis’s iconic First Avenue nightclub.
Peter Sellers is best known for playing Chief Inspector Clouseau in the Pink Panther film series, but he dabbled in some ukulele now and then too.
He is best known for the 1960 cover of the song “Ukulele Lady,” which he sang with the band Temperance Seven on their album George Martin (1926 – 2016) Engineer, Volume 2. In 1944, he also recorded the children’s song “I Haven’t Told Her, She Hasn’t Told Me.” Both songs have a comedic edge thanks to Sellers’ unusual and nasal voice.
James Hill is probably one of contemporary audiences’ most famous ukulele players. He regularly holds ukulele workshops at his concerts and teaches music at schools in his Canadian homeland and Hawaii.
He started his ukulele career playing in the Langley Ukulele Ensemble for over ten years. Since then, he has played at several major Hawaiian concerts and published many ukulele method books.
Hill also regularly collaborates with his wife Anne, who plays the cello. Their first album, True Love Don’t Weep, won the Traditional Album of the Year Award at the Canadian Folk Music Awards and released a Juno Award-nominated solo album in 2015.
George Harrison was the lead guitarist for the Beatles, but he was also a talented and enthusiastic ukulele player. He said it was such a fun instrument to play that you could not help but laugh while playing it.
Paul McCartney remembers how whenever he visited George, he would inevitably break out the ukulele after dinner and play until the night was over. Some people even walked away from a chance encounter with George with their own ukulele.
He played a few ukulele solos in some Beatles songs, like at the end of “Free as a Bird.” His ukulele enthusiasm earned him a place as honorary president of the George Formby Appreciation Society.
While Arthur Godfrey was more of an announcer and TV personality than a musician, we should still note his musical skills. He became known as “Ole Redhead” on TV, wearing a Hawaiian shirt and playing the ukulele for 1950s audiences. Thanks to his fun and all-American persona, audiences bought their own ukuleles to emulate the fun-loving, musical Godfrey.
At one point, he asked CBS, a TV network for which he earned $5 million in revenue, to sponsor a 15-minute TV program that taught people to play the ukulele. Unfortunately, it did not last long, but it helped cement Arthur Godfrey’s association with the instrument.
Like Cliff Edwards, Godfrey’s endorsement of the ukulele helped sell millions of models in America.
George Formby was once the highest-paid entertainer in the United Kingdom, playing fun and comical songs on the banjo or the ukulele. He introduced the ukulele into his act in 1923. No one remembers how he came to learn the instrument, but it is hard to separate his name from the ukulele.
He performed his ukulele act for civilians and troops during the Second World War and continued to play into 1961. Entertainers like Norman Wisdom, Charlie Drake, and the Beatles cited him as an influence on their work, and his act strengthened the instrument’s popularity in the United Kingdom.
Some ukulele players learn the instrument by interpreting classic songs, but John King became one of the famous ukulele players to interpret classical pieces on the instrument.
He started off playing the guitar but learned to play the ukulele once he learned that he could tune the instrument similar to the more familiar Baroque guitar. He even used some Baroque playing styles, like playing succeeding notes on another string to let the previous note keep playing. This more classical learning style became his signature sound on the ukulele.
King is most famous for his ukulele rendition of Johann Sebastian Bach’s works and is considered the only classical ukulele virtuoso. He has several ukulele method books published under his name too.
Eddie Vedder is better known on the rock n’ roll music circuit but has some great ukulele pieces to his name. In fact, his 2011 album, Ukulele Songs, is nothing but classic songs covered on the ukulele. He said the album was supposed to inspire people to make their own music, away from the distractions of TV and computers.
He supposedly picked up the ukulele in the 1990s in a convenience store as a songwriting tool but came to love it like the guitar.
As a member of the rock band Pearl Jam, Vedder’s ukulele has found its way into a few songs. He now uses it to provide a counterpoint to some songs during encores and also on his 2008 solo tour.
Known as “The Wizard of Strings,” Roy Smeck could easily switch between the banjo, ukulele, and guitar. He reportedly could not sing very well, so he added special dances and tricks to his acts.
Smeck played all across radio and film and even played at the inaugural ball for President Franklin D. Roosevelt. He eventually played on TV for celebrities like Jack Paar, Ed Sullivan, and Steve Allen and headlined a USO during World War II, playing for hospitalized veterans.
Like many other famous ukulele players, he wrote ukulele method books and recorded several albums featuring the instrument. The Ukulele Hall of Fame inducted him in 1998.
Born in Honolulu, Jesse Kalima discovered the ukulele just as it became popular in the 1920s. In fact, his musician mother taught him to play the instrument when he was six, and he started playing music with her during political rallies.
He was able to translate songs he played on other instruments into ukulele music, eventually winning the 1935 Territorial Amateur Contest with a ukulele rendition of “Stars and Stripes Forever.” This performance helped pave the way for the ukulele as a popular solo instrument.
Jesse Kalima became one of the famous ukulele players for playing a tenor ukulele in a low G stringing, using an amplifier to improve the sound. The Hawaiian Music Hall of Fame inducted him in 2007.
Known as “The Voice of Hawaii,” Israel Kamakawiwo’ole’s medley of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow/What a Wonderful World” spent 185 weeks at the top of the World Digital Songs chart—a record for the longest-running number-one hit on a Billboard song chart. Kamakawiwo’ole used his ukulele skills to incorporate jazz and reggae into his music.
He lent these skills to the Makaha Sons of Ni’ihau, a band he formed with Louis Kauakahi, Jerome Koko, and Sam Gray. They released 15 albums and toured Hawaii and the mainland United States, blending traditional and contemporary Hawaiian music, eventually becoming part of the Hawaiian Renaissance.
In 1990, his first solo album Ka’Ano’i won several accolades, including Male Vocalist of the Year and Contemporary Album of the Year.
As of 2022, Daniel Ho has produced over 50 albums, 18 of which were solo albums. As a music producer, he’s won four Grammy Awards for Best Hawaiian Music Album.
If you’ve seen the 2008 romantic comedy Forgetting Sarah Marshall, you might have heard his Hawaiian renditions of the classic songs “These Boots Are Made For Walkin’,” “Everybody Hurts,” and “Nothing Compares 2 U.” Similar to George Harrison, he thinks the ukulele is a happy, inclusive instrument that can bring people together easily.
As a producer, he recorded a duet of “Romance” with classical guitarist Pepe Romero and a diet with Chinese pipa player Wu Man.
Grace VanderWaal wanted to play the ukulele after watching a Brazilian au pair and a Twenty One Pilots YouTube video, and eventually made her way onto America’s Got Talent in 2016, where she won first place.
After America’s Got Talent, she won many more accolades, including Best New Artist at the 2017 Radio Disney Music Awards, Choice Next Best Thing at the 2017 Teen Choice Awards, and the Rising Star Award at the 2017 Billboard Women in Music.
Her ukulele music has received critical acclaim, and Billboard magazine named VanderWaal in their 21 Under 21 list of “music’s hottest young stars” from 2016 to 2019. She was even the youngest ever finalist in the Best Female Artist category in the International Acoustic Music Awards in 2017. Many people credit her music with boosting recent ukulele popularity.
Genoa Keawe, also known as “Aunty Genoa,” became one of the famous ukulele players with her blend of traditional Hawaiian and Hapa Haole songs.
She began her musical career playing at World War II officer stands and bandstand shows before eventually making her way onto TV and radio. She even started her own record company to record her ukulele music alongside family and friends.
In 2000, she received a National Heritage Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts and was inducted into the Hawaiian Music Hall of Fame the same year.
Among Hawaiian music artists, she is known for her falsetto singing and the ability to hold a two-minute-long note.
Jake Shimabukuro’s ukulele repertoire combines various genres, like jazz, funk, rock, bluegrass, classical, and even flamenco. He came to fame when someone posted a video of him playing “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” on YouTube, and the video went viral.
From 1998 to 2010, he won several accolades from the Hawaii Music Awards, such as 1999 New Artist of the Year, 2002 Studio Musician of the Year, 2004 Entertainer of the Year, and 2006 Best Rock Album for Dragon.
Although he is well-known in Hawaii, he has a successful solo career in Japan, writing the soundtracks to the Japanese films Hula Girls, the Japanese remake of Sideways, and Saidoweizu.
Twenty-One Pilots is known for numerous singles and reportedly inspired artist Grace VanderWaal to pursue the ukulele. Their 2013 debut album Vessel became the second album ever where every song received a gold certification or better. That also makes the band the first band ever for every song on two albums to win either gold or platinum.
Their 2015 album Blurryface was the second album where every track received at least a gold certification. While they have won several other accolades, they’re also the third rock band to have two singles in the top five on the Billboard Hot 100. Such an honor includes the artists Elvis Presley and the Beatles.
Taylor Swift is known for her impressive pivot from country to pop, but some people don’t know about her musical versatility. She employs many stringed instruments in her live performances, including guitar, banjo, piano, and even the ukulele.
You can even hear traces of the ukulele in songs like “You Belong With Me,” “Exile,” “Cardigan,” “Betty,” and “The 1.” The instrument’s most notable performance came in a 2011 concert in LA when she played “Fearless” wearing a purple chiffon dress.
Taimane Gardner has played the ukulele since she was 5 years old, studying under Jake Shimabukuro as a teenager. Musician Don Ho discovered her at age 13, and she started playing in his show until his passing. She released her first album, Loco Princess, in 2005 and has performed in Japan and Hong Kong since then.
Her 2015 album We Are Made of Stars was nominated for ukulele Album of the Year at the 2016 Na Hoku Hanohano Awards. One of her cover medley performances even earned a spot on the Top 10 ukulele Moments list in Guitar World Magazine, cementing her as one of the famous ukulele players.
More recently, in 2019, she won the Na Hoku Hanohano Favorite Entertainer of the Year.
Jim Beloff is another prominent contemporary advocate for the ukulele, having several method books and DVDs released through his company Flea Market Music. He and his wife Liz have produced several albums together and a few solo albums. They still travel through the United States and Canada, giving ukulele concerts and workshops.
Beloff also worked to make the ukulele more accessible to a wider audience. In 1999, he worked with his brother-in-law Dale Webb to create the Fluke and Flea ukulele, which has sold 55,000 models.
He even wrote an illustrated book in 1997 about the ukulele’s history, which Beatles member George Harrison loved so much that he wrote an endorsement for it and sent copies to friends that Christmas. When George Harrison endorses you, you know you’ve become one of the most famous ukulele players.
Top Ukulele Players, Final Thoughts
However little presence you thought the ukulele might have in the music industry, it has clearly made its mark. As George Harrison put it, it is an instrument whose music can bring people together and sound amazing no matter how you experiment with it.
Hopefully, you found some new famous ukulele players on this list who can showcase the fun and beauty of the ukulele.