In the Lincoln home of Jon Yates, you'll find more than a dozen ukuleles at any given time. Some he plays, some he has built, some he repairs for others and some he has salvaged to add to his own collection.
“They're cheap and fun instruments,” Yates said. “They're really portable. They're not really loud. And you can sing along really well with it.”
Yates is among many that love the ukulele, a popular instrument because of its affordability, easy learning curve and tendency to pop up in popular songs by famous artists.
There's a long list of artists (and other famous people) who play the instrument, including Jason Mraz and Pearl Jam's Eddie Vedder, who released a 2011 solo album called “Ukulele Songs” on which he exclusively plays the ukulele.
Hawaiian artist Jake Shimabukuro, considered the Jimi Hendrix of the ukulele, is well-known for his innovation with the instrument and his intricate renditions of popular songs. A version of The Beatles' “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” by Shimabukuro, who performs in Omaha on Sunday, garnered more than 12 million views on YouTube and launched his career as a touring artist.
“I always knew I was passionate about it from early on, but I never thought I would have a touring career playing the ukulele,” Shimabukuro told The World-Herald. “I thought it would be a hobby or something. Someday, I would have to grow up and get a real job.”
Israel Kamakawiwo'ole's medley of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” and “What a Wonderful World,” which became an Internet hit in 2003, fueled many people's passion for the ukulele, including Yates, 32, who bought his first ukulele after enjoying the song.
“I always thought it was a goofy instrument,” Yates said. “It was kind of funny to find that I liked that instrument so much more after being into guitars for so long.”
A few years ago, Yates found an old ukulele in a thrift shop on sale for $6, and he decided to restore it. Since then, he has restored several of the instruments, including one made by Martin guitars in the 1920s, and he has built several more.
Last year, he featured some ukuleles at an art show at Lincoln's Lux Center. He built them out of aged cherry wood and designed them to be small, travel-friendly versions of the instrument.
Yates takes his ukuleles camping and on his long commute for his job with the University of Nebraska, and he likes that the ukulele is so portable. Shimabukuro, who travels around the world for performances, likes that he can put his ukulele under his seat on an airplane. The ukulele, which he called “the iPad Mini of instruments,” is about one-third the size of a guitar.
It's also an easier instrument to play for many people both because of its size and its nylon strings, which are easier to push down than a guitar.
“People aren't intimidated by the instrument. I encourage a lot of people to pick it up or go out and buy one. They're very affordable,” Shimabukuro said. “If you see someone play the ukulele, you think, 'I think I can do that.' ”
Dietze Music, which has locations in Omaha and Lincoln, sells one model for $41.99, and the store's higher-end instruments can run more than $300, an inexpensive amount compared with guitars, drums and other instruments.
Ukuleles are so popular at Dietze that the store has had a hard time keeping them in stock for the past two years. Some models of ukulele are on back order with the manufacturer.
“They're crazy popular,” said Dan Sullivan, the store's guitar shop manager. “It's something you can doodle around on watching a movie.”
Some instructional ukulele videos have become viral and garnered hundreds of thousands of views. Many videos are for popular and recent songs, such as Macklemore & Ryan Lewis' “Thrift Shop” or “Ho Hey” by the Lumineers.
“I also think you have more popular icons, people like Eddie Vedder, picking up the ukulele,” he said, adding that Taylor Swift, Jack Johnson and Warren Buffett also play. “You got all these guys playing the ukulele and making it cool.”
Buffett — the Oracle of Omaha, one of the world's richest people — has played the ukulele for years.
Buffett's love of the instrument is well-known. In 2012, he performed a duet of “The Glory of Love” with Jon Bon Jovi for Forbes. Buffett also appeared in a video on Chinese television where he sang “I've Been Working on the Railroad” and wished the Chinese a happy new year.
“He's a serious player, man,” Shimabukuro said. “He knows his chords and he knows his tunes. It's pretty cool that someone like that would take up the ukulele.”
Buffett was also involved in spreading the instrument around Omaha. With proceeds from a fundraiser, Buffett purchased and donated more than a dozen ukuleles to Girls Inc. Buffett also taught the girls after delivering the instruments.
Since the instruments were donated, the girls have performed publicly at UNO, talent shows and other events.
Girls Inc. does not have enough volunteers to give regular lessons, but girls are still able to check out and use the instruments.
“They do like to play them,” said Emily Mwaja, director of programs at Girls Inc. “They're really small, so they're the right fit for the girls. And they're really fun to play.”