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March 17, 2022

In 1999, George Harrison Wrote a Letter Explaining Why You Should Have and Play a Ukulele

“The best thing about it for me is it’s just funny music. It’s very lighthearted. It’s hard to play a ukulele banjo without smiling. It tends to lighten your life a bit.” – George Harrison

George Harrison’s legendary career as a guitarist is well documented, and as a member of the Beatles he was of course one of the most influential and popular musicians of the twentieth century. But it’s a lesser known fact that Harrison was also a great ukulele player, and on his untimely passing in November 2001, uke fans the world over mourned the loss of a kindred spirit, for he was a great champion of the instrument.

‘Crackers’ may be the perfect word for Harrison’s uke-philia; he used it himself in the adorable note above from 1999. “Everyone should have and play a ‘UKE.’ It’s so simple to carry with you and it is one instrument you can’t play and not laugh!” He carried his uke with him and gave away ukes to friends whenever he could. “Everyone I know who is into the ukulele is ‘crackers,’ so get yourself a few and enjoy yourselves,” he said. Good advice from a Beatle. This course offers an introduction to playing the ukulele.

His bandmate and friend, Paul McCartney remembered 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.”

Born in Liverpool in 1943, Harrison grew up with the music of Lancashire comedian George Formby, as did all the Beatles. Formby’s huge popularity at the time meant that the sound of the ukulele banjo, and particulary his own rhythmic style of playing, were a familiar part of life. Harrison’s interest in Eastern mystic beliefs (from the mid-1960s onwards) led him to adopt a deep philosophy of self discovery and understanding, so it was only natural that in his later years he would re-explore his earliest musical roots and influences.

In a 1991 interview, Harrison recalled memories of his mother singing George Formby songs at home, and he developed an enthusiasm for Formby and the ukulele that would last for the rest of his life. Harrison attended meetings of the George Formby Society and the Ukulele Society of Great Britain (see picture, below left) and acquired a fine collection of ukes, including the Ludwig banjo-uke once a favourite instrument of Formby himself.

Harrison’s interest in the ukulele was acknowledged publicly in 1995, during the Beatles Anthology project, when he appeared playing the uke in the TV/video documentary series. At the end of the Beatles’ historic single “Free As A Bird” (their first new release for 25 years) George recorded his own small Formby tribute, by giving a brief rendition of Formby’s famous solo from “When I’m Cleaning Windows” at the end of the track, along with a clip of Lennon reciting Formby’s catchphrase “Turned Out Nice Again” - in reverse! The banjo-uke also featured (less prominently) on the single “Real Love” released in 1996.

In the artwork for his newly remastered release of the classic triple album All Things Must Pass in 2001, Harrison included a photo of himself holding a uke, so clearly not only did he have a great passion for the instrument, but he wanted the world to know about it! Throughout his final few years many rumors circulated about a possible new album release from George Harrison, and it seemed likely that the ukulele would figure in such a project. On his untimely death from cancer, it was revealed that much recording work had been done in Harrison’s final months. We now hope that this will be released as a posthumous addition to the already staggering legacy of this truly great man, taken too soon from the world.


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