By Mike Ritchie

IT was immortalised by a music hall entertainer as he leaned against a lamppost at the corner of his street.

Now the ukulele is enjoying a resurgence in popularity as stars such as Taylor Swift bring it to a modern audience far removed from the days of George Formby.

Multi-Grammy award-winner Swift will pack her ukulele for a tour of European festivals this summer, including a headline slot at Glastonbury.

The 30-year-old star’s fondness for the humble, four-string instrument – dismissed harshly in some quarters as nothing more than an irritating toy – is reckoned to be one of the reasons more and more people are learning to play it.

“Taylor Swift is a star so she has definitely influenced a lot of young people who are now playing the ukulele, and that is so pleasing,” said Glasgow-based Finlay Allison, one of the pre-eminent ukulele tutors in the country.

“She has shown that it is cool to play the ukulele which, undoubtedly, boosts the instrument’s appeal to younger people. But it’s obvious that middle-age and older folk are showing greater interest than ever before as well.”

Alison, a key member of the Glasgow Folk-Music Workshop, led a highly successful, two-day ukulele school during Celtic Connections in January that attracted more than 70 players.

One of the great charms of the ukulele, he says, is someone can be playing a tune on it after one lesson, even if that person has never played any instrument before.

There are fewer strings on a ukulele – four – so this simplifies the learning process.

“With instruments such as the French horn, oboe, violin or piano, learners have a long spell in the foothills before they can play a tune, but with the ukulele it’s different,” Alison said.

“You can get on to the big ridge to play much more quickly with the ukulele, and this is one of the things that inspires people of all ages to pick one up ... and a player gets instant feedback with the sweet sounds that emerge. Another good thing about the ukulele is it’s easy to carry around and that appeals to people. There’s no hassle.”

In the 19th century, the ukulele appeared in Hawaii having been adapted from a small, guitar-like instrument known as a machete that Portuguese immigrants took to the island.

Four main types of ukulele are currently played – soprano (the smallest), concert, tenor and baritone.

Today in the UK there have never been so many ukulele clubs – more than 500, according to the Ukulele Society Of Great Britain, which was formed in 1970.Its secretary, James Spencer, pointed out the huge social benefits they can bring.

“There are a number of reasons for the rising popularity of ukulele clubs, but one is it gets people out of the house,” said Spencer, who started playing the ukulele just over five years ago.

“The clubs help create a social network and I think the more people who hear the ukulele played, the more they want to join in and play it themselves.

“Our club members play in clubs and nursing homes and so on, and everyone enjoys their visits.”

The society holds two conventions in Hertfordshire each year – in April and October – but festivals are planned in other parts of the country.

In the United States, too, the ukulele is riding a new wave of popularity and already this year there has been a festival in Indiana, and a two-day gathering is taking place in Maryland this month.

Blair Jackson, editor of Ukulele Magazine in the States, said: “There are ever-growing legions of folks – young and old – who have taken up the instrument more recently.

“The ukulele has never been a more international instrument than it is today, with new clubs springing up all the time.

“The ranks of established ones are still growing and more uke-focused events are popping up around the globe.”

The late George Harrison, the quiet Beatle, was a huge ukulele fan.

“Everybody should have and play a uke,” said Harrison. “It’s so simple to carry with you and it is one instrument you can’t play and not laugh ... I love them – the more the merrier.”

Harrison also gifted a uke to his fellow Traveling Wilbury, American singer/songwriter, the late Tom Petty, but he said he already had one. “You can never have enough ukuleles,” Harrison responded.

Screen icon Marilyn Monroe famously played the ukulele in the classic film Some Like It Hot alongside Tony Curtis and Jack Lemon

American guitarist, the late Jerry Garcia of the Grateful Dead, also enjoyed playing it while Eddie Vedder, frontman of stadium rockers Pearl Jam, stunned many in 2012 when he won a Grammy nomination in the Best Folk Album category for his Ukulele Songs release.

Another George – Englishman George Formby, who died in 1961 – was a vaudeville entertainer who is credited with greatly increasing the ukulele’s popularity in the 1930s and 40s.

The Ukulele Orchestra Of Great Britain – hailed by the late David Bowie as “wonderfully clever” – heads off for a 12-date tour of the USA and Canada this month, promising audiences “a funny, virtuosic, twanging, awesome, foot-stomping show”.

At the end of May it is due to play at The Queen’s Hall in Edinburgh.

Its members say they are all-singing, all-strumming ukulele players with instruments bought with “loose change”. Their belief is that all genres of music are “available for reinterpretation”, as long as they are played on the ukulele.

From Tchaikovsky to Nirvana via Queen, Otis Redding and Spaghetti Western soundtracks, the orchestra likes to offer listeners “one plucking thing after another”.

As it says on its Facebook page: “You may never think about music in the same way once you’ve been exposed to the ukes’ depraved musicology.”

One Scottish musician who has been distinctly unimpressed with the instrument is school music tutor Davy Lees, who works for Fife Youth Music Initiative and also broadcasts for Glasgow-based charity station, Celtic Music Radio.

He prefers the guitar for teaching and performing but last month he picked up the ukulele for the first time and learned to play the folk song Freight Train after a friend threw down a challenge.

“I’m glad I did it and the ukulele I learned to play was a nice wee instrument, but I’m going to stick with the guitar,” said Lees.

However, his brief dalliance with the uke paid off as it helped him raise more than £600 for Strathcarron Hospice.

Prices for ukuleles start at around £25, though the world’s most expensive, made by John D’Angelico in 1930, sold on eBay in 2007 for $26,000.

“It is safe to say that the ukulele is no longer considered uncool,” said Finlay Allison. “These days it is clearly on the up and up and that’s great.”