A String Thing

The humble, portable ukulele makes a comeback, thanks to the recession and YouTube

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Alexander Ho for TIME

Forget everything you know about the ukulele — there, that was easy — and go do a quick Google search. The first video that pops up won't be some grainy clip of Tiny Tim or George Formby but a performance by a hair-gelled 34-year-old Hawaiian named Jake Shimabukuro. In 2006, the ukulele virtuoso's jaw-dropping rendition of the Beatles' "While My Guitar Gently Weeps" hit YouTube and went viral, pulling in more than 7 million viewers. Since then, Shimabukuro has played with Jimmy Buffett, performed for Queen Elizabeth II and scored a cameo in the new Adam Sandler film. His new album, Peace Love Ukulele, debuted at No. 1 on Billboard's World Music chart. "The words professional and ukulele player are kind of an oxymoron," Shimabukuro admits. "I pinch myself every morning, like, Wow, this is pretty amazing."

More amazing still: the ukulele is catching on. It's there, plinking away on Train's inescapable 2010 hit "Hey, Soul Sister." It's in the hands of Ryan Gosling, who uses it to woo Michelle Williams in the film Blue Valentine. And it's especially widespread on the Internet, where clips by the likes of Shimabukuro and the late Hawaiian singer Israel "Bruddah Iz" Kamakawiwo'ole have been viewed tens of millions of times. (Bruddah Iz's rendition of "Over the Rainbow," released in 1993, topped the German pop charts for eight weeks last fall after it was used in a TV ad.) On New Year's Eve, film critic Roger Ebert tweeted his resolution: "learn to play the ukulele."

Cheap and Cheerful

Not bad for the four-stringed, two-octave bantamweight of the guitar family, whose name is said to mean "jumping flea" in Hawaiian. The instrument, introduced to the islands by Portuguese immigrants in the 19th century, is undergoing a renaissance. Hohner Inc., which manufactures the Lanikai brand of ukuleles, saw sales shoot up 300% in 2010. "It's just growing everywhere," says Scott Emmerman, Hohner's director of marketing and sales. "Small towns, large towns, urban, rural — it's across the board right now."

So why the ukulele's sudden popularity? For one thing, it's cheap. "For 40 bucks, you can get an instrument that's not a piece of crap," says Andy Suh, a salesman at Sam Ash Music Stores in Manhattan, who over the holidays sold up to 10 ukuleles a day. According to Hohner's research, during the Great Depression, only two instruments showed year-on-year increases in sales: the harmonica and the ukulele, both cheap, compact and easy to learn. "History is repeating itself," says Emmerman.

But there's something ineffably attractive too about the tiny, portable, sweet-tempered instrument. "It's about the size of a baby in your arms," says record producer Roger Greenawalt, who on Jan. 15-16 organized a marathon performance of the entire Beatles songbook on ukulele at a Brooklyn concert hall. (The instrument's connection to the Fab Four goes way back; George Harrison's son Dhani recalls the guitarist serenading airline passengers on the ukulele when he traveled.) After witnessing the 9/11 attacks and feeling "just bummed out," Greenawalt left New York for San Francisco to stay with his cousin, an amateur musician who had ukuleles around the house. "I started playing one and just started feeling un—bummed out," he says. "Even playing depressing songs, the ukulele cheers you up. It's like a happiness machine."

Shimabukuro, who now tours 10 months a year, says he's often approached in airports by people curious about his instrument. "There's a friendliness to the ukulele that's very rare," he says. "If everyone played the ukulele, the world would be a better place."