Ukeing It Up
The little instrument that could
Peter Zaccagnino, Uncle Zac to friends and fans, elevates the art of the ukulele in teaching and playing.
Photos by Ryan Lavine
In the arms of Peter Zaccagnino, the Martin baritone ukulele looks miniscule. He peers down at its mahogany body, plucking at the quartet of nylon strings that lines its narrow neck. Amid the breakfast rush in a busy diner near his Norwalk home, Zaccagnino strums and sings when he feels so inclined, either unaware, or undaunted, by the stares of customers around him.
Known in the area as “Uncle Zac,” “the Uke Guy,” or some combination of the two, Zaccagnino is not shy about sharing ukulele music. He has made a career of teaching and performing around the country, particularly in Fairfield County. He is one among many in our area championing an instrument once relegated to novelty, then seemingly on the brink of extinction, and now in the midst of a nationwide renaissance.
The ukulele and American popular music have had a long, complicated relationship. The early years of television brought the uke into America’s living room, earning the instrument a dedicated following and droves of new players. Howard Kelting, a regular at Westport Library’s monthly ukulele “meet-up,” remembers the time fondly.
“When I was in fourth or fifth grade, I saw Arthur Godfrey giving ukulele lessons on TV and went out to a little music store in Brooklyn and bought a ukulele and a method book for $10,” he muses. He has been taking lessons and playing ever since.
Zaccagnino was indoctrinated into ukulele culture around the same time, when an uncle returned from the Pacific, instrument in hand. “In a large Italian family, we were the entertainment,” he remembers. “We’d all go over to our grandmother’s on a Sunday and break out our ukuleles.”
But for some, Godfrey’s folksy image and the campiness of another legendary performer, Tiny Tim, known for his falsetto, were disaffecting. The intoxicating effects of rock n’ roll’s wailing guitars soon made the uke passé. The airwaves vibrated with music that the fragile strings of the uke were ill equipped to carry.
Until the 1993 release of Israel Kamakawiwo’ole’s medley of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow/What a Wonderful World,” the uke remained out of fashion. The broad reach of the top-selling record initiated a paradigm shift. “From that point on,” notes Zaccagnino, “all of a sudden people were forgetting Tiny Tim.”
Slowly, more mainstream American musicians began experimenting with the instrument. Eddie Vedder, formerly of Pearl Jam, surprised listeners with the release of his 2011 album “Ukulele Songs.”
Meanwhile, indie rockers Beirut and Magnetic Fields were experimenting on their own with the instrument, to the delight of hipsters everywhere. Today, the uke is far from the predominant sound on the radio, but it has certainly found its niche.
For musical novices, the instrument’s appeal is evident. Says Dan Neafsey, owner of DGN Custom Guitars in Fairfield, “You can buy a uke for $40, and it’s easier to learn than a guitar.”
Chris Mason, manager of Music and Arts of Fairfield, concurs: “The ease and size of the uke is great because it introduces a lot of younger players to music. Those who stick with it can go a lot of different places.”
According to Mason, there is a uke for all ages and abilities. The soprano and concert are small and easy to maneuver. The tenor and baritone are larger and more complex, perfect for the advanced player.
But ease and accessibility may come at a price. The uke’s status as a serious instrument remains a subject of debate. “As a guitarist,” Neafsey declares, “I find there are limits to how much I can do on it. There’s a limited range.” Mason disagrees, citing the virtuoso playing of Jake Shimabukuro, famous for a viral YouTube video of his cover of “While My Guitar Gently Weeps.” “Jake shows you the versatility and just how far that instrument can go when put in the hands of a very seasoned player that knows his uke.”
Seated at his perch in the diner, Zaccagnino reflects, “Is it a serious instrument? It can be. There’s a lot of different music that can come out of the uke, in a lot of different ways.”
Whether or not the uke retains its current cachet, the “Uke Guy” will strum on.