The ukulele is suddenly cool.

Sales of the “bonsai guitar” are up 500% this year as a new generation of middle-class, middle-aged players try their hand at the easiest of musical instruments.

Biggars, Glasgow’s oldest music store, sold 10 of them last Saturday alone. The store’s instrument department manager, Pete Hutchison, says he usually sells about four per day, at prices ranging from £20 to £200, making the ukulele the fastest-selling instrument in the shop.

The most popular is the £34.99 white, pink and black Flying V Gibson because, says Hutchison, “it looks cool”.

A man in his late 70s purchased a baritone version at another Glasgow store, McCormack’s, on Tuesday.

“They’re being bought mostly by middle-aged people, but are also popular with children,” said Hutchison. “The big attraction is that to create the simplest chord you only need one finger.”

At guitar specialists CC Music, in Glasgow’s west end, sales are up 500% in a year. Guitar manager Robert Robinson said: “This time last year we only stocked about four ukuleles, but we soon found we couldn’t get enough of them. Now we’re averaging about 20 sales a week.”

He has even started playing it himself. Serious musicians will spend up to £900 on a uke styled on a Gibson Les Paul.

Rae Mackintosh music store in Edinburgh also reports sales of about three to four a day, which surely makes the ukulele -- a kind of plucked lute created in 19th century Hawaii -- the unsung phenomenon of modern times.

So what’s the big attraction? It’s not just for George Formby wannabes (although for the record, he played the banjolele). The Paisley-born pop star Paolo Nutini’s embracing of the “uke” has proved to be a huge influence on the younger demographic. Although no schools teach it officially as yet, Glasgow City Council says that guitar teachers would be happy to provide ukulele instruction if requested.

According to George Hinchcliffe, a player with the London-based Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain, which this week led a mass rendition of Beethoven’s Ode to Joy at the BBC Proms that featured the strumming of 1000 members of the public, the instrument’s adaptability makes it popular with all ages.

“I noticed many groovy, fit young people in the queue for tickets for our Proms concert, the kind of person I used to be,” he said yesterday. “They seem to enjoy going from Tchaikovsky to Nirvana via Otis Redding, swing and creole.”

But the older demographic is also a growing fan base. Eric Clapton, the Beatles, Michael Jackson, Red Hot Chili Peppers and Coldplay reinterpretations are popular with Scottish customers, who apparently find the ukulele easier to learn than other folk music instruments such as the fiddle, banjo or mandolin.

Ukulele classes at Stow College, run by the Glasgow Fiddle Worskhop, began this year following a sell-out series of workshops at Celtic Connection. Enrolment for year two takes place tonight after a performance by Allison, which will also feature songs by Adam McNaughton.

Hinchcliffe believes taking up ukulele later in life is easier than going back to an instrument learned at school or university but later dropped. “After a while people start thinking, what’s life about? Am I having any fun? and decide to return to the music they enjoyed, but then they find they are anxious about reaching the standard they used to be at with piano, violin or cello,” he said. “With the uke it’s easy to sound good and it helps you connect with other people.”

Ian Watson, a fifty-something project manager based in Glasgow, and an accomplished folk musician, took up the ukulele six months ago. He said: “It’s great fun because it tends to sound better when played with other people and I have started playing it with my pals once a week in the West End.

“You can get some impressive-sounding chords with just two fingers, whereas the guitar takes four fingers contorted into strange shapes.

“Our current favourite is By The Light of the Silvery Moon, although Moonlight Bay and Hallelujah are also good to play. We have a lot of fun.”

Beginners are encouraged to learn the old-fashioned songs such as My Darling Clementine, Greensleeves, Scarborough Fair, Cockles and Mussels.

I was recently given a beautiful bright red uke for my birthday, and am stuck at the basics of learning how to tune it. Its four strings are G, C, E, A, with the two outer strings higher than the middle two, and it’s very different from the violin’s G, D, A, E. Also, it feels very small.

Now I know why ukulele translates are Jumping Flea, because of the speed at which it forces the fingers to negotiate the frets -- and because its miniscule frame makes my digits feel like big bananas.

Mastering the art of strumming may take a while, but it is also likely to be a lot of fun.


Ian Watson, who has recently taken up the ukelele