University City

‘Uke an’ be the hit of the party

It started as a means to annoy, the first time Zoe Digh plucked a ukulele from the wall at Guitar Center and began to play.

“We had an associate who couldn’t stand the sound of it, so I found a ‘“Uke An” Play Led Zeppelin’ music book and began to practice,” said Digh, 39, the University City music store’s studio manager.

Before long, the arm-inked, body-pierced, head-shaved hard-rocker found she was playing “Black Dog,” “Kashmir” and “Stairway to Heaven” even when her colleague wasn’t around.

“It’s just a fun strumming instrument,” said Digh, who has since moved on to “The Best of Metallica for Ukulele.”

Add one more fan to the little instrument that sounds like a helium-breathing guitar.

On Nov. 13, Guitar Center intends to set more ukuleles strumming when it hosts a free group ukulele session for the community.

It’s not the first time they’ve done it. The 45-minute class, which meets at least once a month, promises to teach beginners the fundamentals, from how to hold one to how to play its basic chords.

By the end of the class, students should be able to rattle off a repertoire that includes “King of the Road,” “A Hard Day’s Night,” and “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.”

“People pick up how to play fast,” said Brandon O’Hara, 21, the class’s instructor. “It’s really easy because there’s only four strings on a ukulele. A guitar has six.”

For some people, the light and breezy melodies associated with the ukulele take them to their happy place, sitting on a beach of the Hawaiian shore with a Mai Tai in hand.

For others, it’s the long-haired falsetto – Tiny Tim, the performer who brought the ukulele back in the public eye during the 1960s – who comes to mind.

Although its popularity has always waxed and waned, the resilient instrument never truly goes away. It has ridden out eras dominated by the electronic pulse of disco, the electric feedback of heavy metal guitars, and the record-scratching DJs of rap music.

O’Hara thinks he knows the simple reason:

“It’s easy to carry around. It travels well,” he said. “It’s a great party favor to pick up and play a song.”

Digh has a reason, too. “You can play anything you want on it and it sounds funny,” she said.

And fans of the instrument do play anything.

On the popular website, where ukulelists share tablatures to a large archive of songs, the top 50 are surprisingly diverse. Miley Cyrus’ “Wrecking Ball” has the third most hits, at 2,695. Tiny Tim’s “Tiptoe Through the Tulips” ranks at No. 35, with 577 hits. “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” tops the chart with 6,697 hits.

“What sounds really good is brighter, happier stuff,” said O’Hara. “But anything you can play on any other instrument you can play on the ukulele, too.”