Seriously Awesome Ukulele Covers of “Sultans of Swing,” “Sweet Child O’ Mine,” “Thunderstruck,” and “Smells Like Teen Spirit”

The ukulele has got­ten a bad rap, thanks to some well-mean­ing musi­cians who turned the small, gui­tar-like Hawai­ian lute into a nov­el­ty instru­ment. Chief among the offend­ers is Tiny Tim. Explod­ing into fame in the ear­ly six­ties with his ukulele ver­sion of the ‘20s dit­ty “Tip­toe Thru’ the Tulips,” he became so famous, wrote Roger Ebert, “The Bea­t­les asked him to sing ‘Nowhere Man’ on a boot­leg Christ­mas record­ing. He did a night at Roy­al Albert Hall.” His mar­riage to Vic­ki Budinger on John­ny Carson’s Tonight Show is “still one of the top-rat­ed TV shows of all time.”

Tiny Tim played the guile­less man­child, the Pee Wee Her­man of his day. He was not a seri­ous spokesper­son for the instru­ment he pop­u­lar­ized. He died in 1996, doing what he loved, play­ing his hit to a Women’s Club in Min­neapo­lis. “The last thing he heard was the applause,” his wid­ow said.

Tiny Tim had a good run, but it may not be mere coin­ci­dence that since he tip­toed thru’ his last tulip, the ukulele has seen a major pop cul­ture revival, from indie folk singer/songwriters to TV theme songs, an orches­tra, and Jake Shimabukuro, “a genre-demol­ish­ing artist,” writes NPR, “who plays jazz, blues, funk, clas­si­cal, blue­grass, fla­men­co and rock” on his four-string axe.

Join­ing the ranks of seri­ous ukulele artists are Over­driv­er Duo, who inter­pret songs with some very chal­leng­ing gui­tar riffs and solos, like Guns ‘n’ Ros­es’ “Sweet Child O’ Mine,” Dire Straits’ “Sul­tans of Swing,” and AC/DC’s “Thun­der­struck.” One thing these songs all have in com­mon is their melodies in the upper reg­is­ter, where the ukulele, and their vocals, real­ly shine. Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spir­it,” on the oth­er hand, depends on pow­er chords and pound­ing drums for its impact. Leave it to these accom­plished play­ers to turn their tiny-bod­ied instru­ments into a con­vinc­ing alt-rock rhythm sec­tion.

Con­tem­po­rary play­ers have more than earned the ukulele the respect it deserves. That’s not to say ukulele lovers of the past, like devot­ed life-long play­er George Har­ri­son, did not appre­ci­ate the instru­ment. Har­ri­son played a mean jazz uke, and took it seri­ous­ly. But even he declared “you can’t play and not laugh!” Play­ers like Shimabukuro and Over­driv­er Duo tend to inspire more awe than com­e­dy.

Relat­ed Con­tent:  

Jimi Hendrix’s “Voodoo Child” Shred­ded on the Ukulele

George Har­ri­son Explains Why Every­one Should Play the Ukulele

The Ukulele Orches­tra of Great Britain Per­forms Stun­ning Cov­ers of Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spir­it,” Talk­ing Heads’ “Psy­cho Killer” & More

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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