Craig Chee, 34, grew up in Honolulu and came of age during a resurgence of Hawaiian culture that brought to light musicians such as ukulele superstar Jake Shimabukuro. Chee, who had grown up playing piano and cello, took uke lessons from Shimabukuro during his first summer home from the UO. “Jake’s admiration for the ukulele made you that much more proud and inspired to be playing the same instrument,” Chee says. “No one else had that same passion and goal—to blow the doors off the preconceptions of what the ukulele could sound like.”Now Chee is putting his own twist on music ranging from pop songs to jazz standards, as he teaches and performs at ukulele festivals around the world with his fiancée, fellow ukulele player Sarah Maisel. This year, he will spend nearly half his time on the road. When he’s home in San Diego, he gives ukulele lessons in person and online. “The popularity of the ukulele will only get stronger as the younger generation grows up,” he says. “There are so many uke groups in schools, and you’ll see more musicians utilizing this instrument because they played it as kids.” But he notes that the approachable instrument is also very popular with retirees, who often see for the first time a chance to experience playing music without feeling intimidated. “The ukulele reaches every age bracket,” he says.
Chee majored in art at the UO, with an emphasis on multimedia design and photography. As a result, he can build his own websites and take care of his own social media, graphic design, and video production. Group projects at the UO, he says, also taught him how to work collaboratively. “You have to do that in this field.”
A BOON TO MUSIC STORES
Even as cuts in school music programs have greatly reduced sales of entry-level classical instruments, the National Association of Music Merchants reported a 54 percent jump in ukulele sales in 2013. “Rarely a day goes by when we don’t sell a uke,” says Pat Knaus, co-owner of Pacific Winds Music in Eugene. “We might sell a trumpet every six months.”
Popular artists such as Eddie Vedder and Jason Mraz feature the ukulele in their compositions. “It’s now a legitimate, professional instrument,” Chee says.
Chee plays a handmade, solid koa Kanile a ukulele. He created his signature strings in collaboration with GHS Strings, adapting high-quality acoustic guitar strings for the ukulele to create his unique sound.
UKE MUSIC AROUND THE WORLD
In Japan, Chee says, players love jazz stylings and focus more on solo instrumentation. In the UK, the George Formby style of fast, syncopated picking is popular, and in Australia, uke players love robust sing-alongs. Even in the US, he says, styles differ, with the Northeast favoring jazz stylings and the West Coast more into pop cover songs.