Ukulele Players: Soloists

The ukulele is best known as an accompanying instrument but many players have stretched what it is possible to do with a uke and used it as a solo instrument. Here are some of the most important.

Ernest Ka’ai

Who? Hawaiian ukulelist who set the groundwork for all ukulele soloists to come.

What’s so special? Earnest Kaai was the first person to establish the ukulele as a solo instrument. He was massively influential in the Hawaiian music scene in the first decade of the 20th Century. As well as being the greatest ukulele player of his generation, he wrote the first instruction books for the ukulele and established a ukulele manufacturing company.

Learn to play like him You can find a number of his ground-breaking arrangements in John King’s book Famous Solos and Duets for Ukulele

James Hill

Who? Canadian virtuoso ukulele player who has released 4 albums since his debut in 2002.

What’s so special? He’s the best ukulele soloist in the world today. As well as being a virtuoso performer, he is continually pushing the boudaries to get new sounds out of the ukulele and has set up a guide to teaching ukuleles in schools with Ukulele in the Classroom.

Want to hear more? James Hill – True Love Don’t Weep

Read James Hill Interview

Learn to play like him James Hill has recently produced the Ukulele in the Classroom set of books intended for teaching ukulele in schools. You can find tab for his tunes on Dominator.

Roy Smeck

Who? Multi-instrumental vaudeville star of stage and screen in the 1940s proclaimed ‘Wizard of the Strings”

What’s so special? He’s the most entertaining ukulele player ever and a true innovator. His trick bag was full of unusual techniques, new sounds and ukulele-juggling. He also pioneered audio and video techniques, creating multi-tracked video years before Les Paul got around to doing multi-track audio.

Want to hear more? Roy Smeck Plays Hawaiian Guiar, Banjo, Ukulele and Guitar

Read Vincent Cortese’s Roy Smeck Biography

Learn to play like him Roy Smeck produced a number of instruction books in his day, many of which are still available. You can find tab for a number of his tunes here.

Jake Shimabukuro

Who? Hawaiian ukulele superstar whose slick playing, flawless technique and stylish arranging has proved an inspiration to a generation of aspiring soloists.

What’s so special? Easily the most influential and well known ukulele soloist today. His talents have taken him to perform at TED in front of the world’s intelligensia where he impressed Bill Gates.

Want to hear more? Jake Shimabukuro – Gently Weeps

Learn to play like him Jake has been promising a tab book for a while but has been less slow in having tabs of his tunes taken off the net.

John King

Who? American classical guitarist who fell in love with the ukulele and Hawaiian culture and became the leading writer on the ukulele.

What’s so special? John King’s arrangements are some of the most beautiful ever made. He resurrected the campanella style of playing (playing one note per string) and adapted it for the ukulele. His tab books are the best available.

Want to hear more? John King – Johann Sebastian Bach For Unaccompanied Ukulele

Read 10 thing I learnt from John King

Learn to play like him John King’s The Classical Ukulele is a must buy for any serious ukulele soloist.

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28 Comments

  1. Ian Emmerson March 2nd, 2010 1:31 pm

    A pretty spot on assessment there, Al. Hill the best? Yep. Jake the most influential? Yep. Smeck the most entertaining? Yep. King the most beautiful arrangements? Yep. Ka’ai the first? Yep.

    Excellent entry there.

    I X

  2. Alec March 2nd, 2010 1:54 pm

    Great post. I love that John King book.

    When are people going to learn that demanding their tabs be taken down is not going to help sell more books, but will probably hurt sales. It certainly doesn’t help ones reputation.

    I never saw Smeck before. Holy.

  3. Alec March 2nd, 2010 2:23 pm

    One’s. Question mark after sales.

  4. Howlin' Hobbit March 2nd, 2010 3:40 pm

    pssst! You forgot somebody.

    Brian Hefferan, half of the Fabulous Heftones. Here’s his YouTube channel:

    http://www.youtube.com/heftone

    He has *tons* of videos featuring awesome solo work. Try Persian Lamb Rag for a start:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ITB6lsBT9IM

  5. Woodshed March 2nd, 2010 10:07 pm

    Ian: Thanks. Glad you approve.

    Alec: I’m sure Jake’s tab book will do just fine when (if) it comes out.

    Hobbit: I love Brian’s stuff but I don’t think he belongs in this post.

  6. Duppy March 2nd, 2010 11:13 pm

    I don’t know if he should be added here of in the Indie section (or anywhere in this guide at all for that matter), but Tom Milsom is a pretty popular ukeist on youtube. He’s the one who introduced me for that matter.

  7. Howlin' Hobbit March 3rd, 2010 4:08 am

    I must be missing the point of the post then. I thought it was all about fab solo ukers (of instrumentals mostly).

    I mean, he doesn’t flip his uke about nor blow into the soundhole but he sure can play a LOT of really excellent instrumentals, both covers and his originals.

  8. Ron and Jeanne March 3rd, 2010 2:33 pm

    Our interest in ukulele began one year ago last week, during a trip to Hawaii. Thank you for this new arrangement of your blog, Al. It has enabled us to find some older posts that we have especially enjoyed seeing, such as the posts by and about John King.

  9. Woodshed March 3rd, 2010 9:56 pm

    Duppy: Thanks for the suggestion. I might add a ‘YouTube Stars’ page where he’d belong.

    Hobbit: No, it’s not quite that. It’s more ukulele players that you need to know in order to not be a noob. A sort of baseline knowledge.

    I agree with you on Brian. I’m a huge fan and I must have featured him more than any other blog. But if I came across a ukulele player who’d never heard of him, I wouldn’t be shocked.

    Ron and Jeanne: Glad you did. That’s exactly what this sort of post is for.

  10. Howlin' Hobbit March 4th, 2010 4:43 am

    “I agree with you on Brian. I’m a huge fan and I must have featured him more than any other blog. But if I came across a ukulele player who’d never heard of him, I wouldn’t be shocked.”

    That is *precisely* why I mentioned him. I think he’s one of the (if not THE) most under-appreciated uke hero in the so-called “ukulele community.”

  11. luke March 6th, 2010 12:10 pm

    I would definitely like to see Brian there. He is an incredible player who is helping old songs live on!

  12. Beeejums March 8th, 2010 12:12 am

    There were lots of superlatives used… I tend to avoid superlatives, as there are exceptions to every rule.

    Just saying.

  13. Woodshed March 8th, 2010 10:05 am

    Beeejums: The whole point of this post is that these people are at the top of their field. Hence the superlatives.

  14. Alec March 10th, 2010 4:14 pm

    Right on the the superlatives, woodshed.

    Here’s to the day they retire “just saying.”

  15. Woodshed March 10th, 2010 5:02 pm

    Alec: Damn right on, “just saying.” I’d also outlaw, “just my two cents/pence.”

  16. Claudio August 26th, 2011 12:58 am

    Wish there were more Roy Smecks around.

    James was great at Cheltenham and a really nice guy. He watched other acts, talked to people, came to the pub and had a beer and a jam – Ian was very entertaining too :) I think I bought him a black sambuka for his birthday??

    I’m going off Jake – Maybe it’s just a phase.
    I noticed he pulled his songs off Dominator’s TAB page, didn’t have time to contribute to the Ukuleles For Peace thingy recently and appears at too many commercial appearances saying how “great it is to be here” and “if everyone played ukulele Gaddafi’s body guards would be super hot babes and he’d chill the fuck out a little” etc. I never see him play with any of the other players that are around these days. All these little examples are adding up. I bet the Ukulele Underground boys hardly see him these days. He’s sort of lost his aloha.

  17. Woodshed August 26th, 2011 6:52 am

    Claudio: I don’t think he was asked to do the Ukuleles for Peace thing – so can’t realise criticize him for that.

    I wouldn’t mind the tab thing if he actually brought out the tab book he’s been promising for years.

    I don’t have anything personal against Jake. I’m just not a big fan of his music.

  18. john hubbard June 10th, 2012 5:50 pm

    I like your choices and in the main I prefer the players who use re entrant tuning on a Soprano or concert. When you move away from these to the tenor you miss the charm of the instrument and move over to what is for me a 4 string guitar. Not that the player like Jake are not fantastic.Its as always personal taste (and the fact that his technique is so advanced I cant see myself getting close) Thats probably the real reason ! PS Ive got Jakes book and I have not dared to start on it yet
    John

  19. Woodshed June 11th, 2012 8:06 am

    John: It’s the tuning that separates it for me. A reentrant tenor (or baritone for that matter) is a lot more like a ukulele than a guitar.

  20. Joe Scott October 3rd, 2012 10:30 pm

    Hey man, sorry but I’d have to disagree with you saying James is the best uke player. I think that although his tunes are catchier than Jake’s, from a technical and compositional point of view Jake is better- his playing is faster, more extreme and his compositions are more melodic and make better use of the instrument. Not saying James isn’t great- he is, but aside from Ode To A Frozen Boot I haven’t seen anything of his near to any of Jake’s work…
    But great list all the same, keep rockin’!

  21. Woodshed October 4th, 2012 12:41 pm

    Joe: We’ll have to agree to disagree.

  22. brian January 16th, 2013 2:31 pm

    Never heard James Hill in person so for now I think Jake is the very best on the planet. James does not seem to come to the states to perform. He’s definitely a great talent and stylistically he’s different from Jake. Kind of like comparing Kobe Bryant and Lebron James Seems like many posts are bashing Jake. I’ve met him several times, most recently in Dec. 2012.He’s a very polite and humble young man. The venue was not allowing him to pose for pictures while he was signing autographs. I overheard him tell some fans if they wanted to wait until the autograph session was over he would meet them outside and they could take a picture then. He didn’thave to offer to do that. That says a lot about Jake the person. Jake commands a lot of money to perform but he deserves it. I’m sure James commands a similar fee and he deserves it also.

  23. Aaron Mills April 3rd, 2013 4:16 pm

    The way I described Jake and James to a friend at work who was ignorant of the potential of ukulele was this; James embraces the “gimmick” quality unfortunately associated with ukulele and takes it to whole new levels in an amazing way, while Jake wants to show the world just how beautiful ukulele music can be (and is). Of course I could be way off but that’s how I read it: two ends of the scale.

  24. John Hubbard April 3rd, 2013 5:36 pm

    Ive just bought my first Jake album i.e Gently Weeps and I was very inpressed. His touch and technique is incredible. I think James has a lot more to give yet and Im sorry to say I wish he would give up the singing. Its all a matter of personal taste and Im waiting for the next album by James .

  25. Woodshed April 4th, 2013 11:23 am

    Aaron: I think you are way off.

    John: I prefer his singing to his playing too. But if he’s more excited about the songwriting I’d certainly prefer he sticks with it.

  26. John Hubbard April 4th, 2013 6:54 pm

    Al: You have a point and of course song wrting has the rewards of beautiful lyrics and likewise the additional reward of melody.Im afraid that there are only about 13 notes to play with and hence the formats for original melodies get harder as the years go by. Hence instrumental music may not be as popular as it was many years ago. I love instumentals but they can become self indulgent and this could be said of Jakes music.In the 80s in the field of guitar we had the “widdlers” come on to the scene and now this is dated. For me I wisk I could play half as well as Jake or James as Im sadly a copyist with little creative ability.
    PS I think you did mean to say you prefer his playing to his singing.

  27. Brett johns May 3rd, 2013 9:17 am

    I used to play rythem guitar ,I fell dislocated my shoulder found it difficult to play because of its size bought a uke &havent looked back now known as B’juke .play a baritone uke.

  28. Mal August 10th, 2013 7:12 pm

    No ‘Uncle’ Bill Tapia selections on your list? You may disagree, but most of these players were influenced by his banjo picking and drumming style, IMHO.

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