If you can subtract the spate of emo boys picking up the uke by way of softening their hardcore band in an attempt to pick up girls, then the humble ukulele may well be the cheeriest instrument of all time. George Harrison certainly thought so.
Though Harrison acted as the fulcrum of The Beatles with his idiosyncratic guitar playing, the ‘All Things Must Pass’ singer was anything but a purist. In fact, Harrison was known to love all kinds of music to some degree, but perhaps his most cherished instrument was his ukulele.
It may sound a bit silly but the facts are that Harrison, one of the foremost rock and roll guitars loved that wacky instrument. The guitarist confirmed his adoration for the small guitar when he bought a complex in Hawaii and began buying them in batches. In fact, most people who have had a crossing of paths with the late great George Harrison probably came away from the exchange with a shiny new ukulele to boot.
In a note from 1999, which you can see below, Harrison affectionately describes the playing and music of the humble ukulele, “Everyone I know who is into the ukulele is ‘crackers,’” writes George, “you can’t play it and not laugh!”
It was a way of Harrison staying determinedly upbeat even when faced with multiple life-threatening situations, including the throat cancer which would eventually take his life too soon.
As he was approaching the end of his life in 2001, Harrison used the ukele to keep his spirits up as can be seen in the clip below which sees Harrison, despite the hoarse throat, whistling away in utter glee.
They soon became a mainstay of any Harrison residence and when the party would end up at his place, he was always quick to break out the uke.
His bandmate and friend, Paul McCartney fondly remembers Harrison’s obsession, “Whenever you went round George’s house, after dinner the ukuleles would come out and you’d inevitably find yourself singing all these old numbers.”
Below you can see Harrison in his element in this clip from 1988 which sees George pick up the ukelele and sing alongside Jools Holland on piano, as they take on ‘Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea’.
But perhaps the sweetest story of Harrison’s affection for instrument comes from the clip below. As the late Tom Petty, Harrison’s friend and bandmate in the Travelling Wilburys, recalls the Quiet Beatle giving him his own ukulele. Petty was initially hesitant but relented after Harrison promised to teach him how to play.
Hours and hours the pair spent strumming away, so much so Petty woke up the next day with a sore wrist. “When he was going I walked out to the car and he said ‘Wait, I wanna leave some ukuleles here. And he’d already given me one. So ‘I’ve got one’. He said ‘Nah, we may need more.'”
Petty remembers Harrison opened his truck to reveal even more of the instruments. “I think he left four at my house and he said ‘Well, y’know, you never know when you might need them. Cos everybody doesn’t carry one around.'”