Ashland resident Julie Norman was headed out on a five-day rafting trip and wanted to take along a portable instrument.

Ashland resident Julie Norman was headed out on a five-day rafting trip and wanted to take along a portable instrument.

Norman bought a ukulele from Cripple Creek Music Co. downtown. That was three years ago, and she's been playing it ever since.

Like Norman, more and more Ashlanders are learning firsthand why the ukulele is gaining popularity here and across the nation.

"I've been in so many settings with people sitting around playing and singing. I would sing, but I thought it would be fun to join in the fun of playing something," Norman said. "I wanted something that would be easy — and the ukulele fit the bill."

Norman said she studied guitar from junior high into her college days but never became proficient. These days, she meets every other week with a group of fellow ukulele players to play everything from "Take Me Home, Country Roads" to hula tunes. They occasionally perform in public.

Mark DeGroft, floor manager at Cripple Creek, said the store sells five to seven ukuleles a week and just put in an order for 35 more.

Whereas most guitars have steel strings that require beginning players to build up fingertip calluses over weeks or even months, the ukulele has four soft nylon strings.

"It's much easier on the fingers than steel string guitar," DeGroft said.

"People who haven't had the success they would like with a guitar are having success with a ukulele much sooner than they would with a guitar. And they're finding that it's a lot of fun to sit around and play."

DeGroft said falling ukulele prices are another factor in the instrument's rising popularity. China is producing inexpensive ukuleles.

"In the past, you would pay $800 or $900 for a good ukulele. These days, you can start off at $60, $70 or $80 and have a pretty good, decent instrument that performs well," he said.

People such as ukulele virtuoso Jake Shimabukuro have also helped legitimize the instrument, DeGroft said.

Locally, DeGroft said he has seen more ukulele jam groups pop up, and music teachers are offering ukulele lessons.

"Guitar teachers and music teachers are coming in and saying, 'I'm also teaching ukulele,'" DeGroft said.

Ashland musician and music instructor Bil Leonhart, who was born in 1938, has been playing the ukulele since he was 10 years old. He taught his brothers and sisters how to play the instrument.

In the past, ukulele music was common on television shows and people often played the ukulele at parties, he said.

"You could still serenade your girlfriend with a ukulele as late as the 1950s," Leonhart said.

But with the arrival of Elvis and rock music, the ukulele's popularity sank, even though many musicians — including members of The Beatles — still enjoyed the instrument, he said.

Leonhart, who most often teaches guitar, said people are interested in the ukulele again.

"Just in the last two years, I've been getting ukulele students. I must have had 20 in the last year," he said.

Leonhart said the ukulele is relatively inexpensive, portable, easy to play and uplifting. Playing the ukulele gives people a mini-vacation of sorts from thinking about today's troubled economic times, he said.

DeGroft has seen the ukulele's ability to uplift the human spirit. An actress with a role in the Oregon Shakespeare Festival's 2010 play "Ruined" would come into the store and play the ukulele with DeGroft after matinee performances. The play chronicled the lives of women who had been viciously raped in the war-torn Congo.

"She would come in distraught, and she would leave happy," DeGroft said.

Local resident Linda Chesney, who plays in the ukulele jam group with Norman, said she picked up the instrument two years ago so she could play the ukulele for her father, who was in the hospital after suffering a stroke.

Leonhart said ukulele music tends to put people in a good mood. While some people are irritated at the sound of an electric guitar or a banjo, he said he's never seen anyone react negatively to a ukulele.

"There are people who are givers, and the ukulele gives. It gives a lot of people pleasure," he said.

Reach staff reporter Vickie Aldous at or 541-479-8199.