Grace VanderWaal is helping make the ukulele cool again.

Grace VanderWaal is helping make the ukulele cool again.

Sony Music/

For such an itsy-bitsy instrument, the ukulele is having a super-sized impact on popular music. Again.

"It's small, it's cute, it's portable, it's easy to play ... for me, it just clicked," says Grace VanderWaal, the 14-year-old ukulele-strumming singer who makes her Dallas debut Tuesday night at Trees in Deep Ellum.

VanderWaal, who came to fame by winning America's Got Talent, joins a growing number of pop and rock musicians who tote the tiny four-stringed guitar onstage -- everyone from ukulele virtuosos like Jake Shimabukuro to "uke" dabblers like Taylor Swift and Paul McCartney.

"Ukuleles are by far the fastest-growing fretted instrument, partly because musicians are making everyone realize it's accessible and fun," says Billy Martinez, vice president of acoustic guitars for Fender.

Grace VanderWaal performs at the Billboard Women in Music event at the Ray Dolby Ballroom on Nov. 30, 2017, in Los Angeles. 

Grace VanderWaal performs at the Billboard Women in Music event at the Ray Dolby Ballroom on Nov. 30, 2017, in Los Angeles. 

Chris Pizzello/Invision/AP

"There's the instant gratification factor because it's so easy to play."

The ukulele evolved in the late 1800s from several small stringed-instruments that Portuguese merchants brought to Hawaii. Hawaiians named it the ukulele -- roughly "jumping flea" -- and pronounced it "oo koo lay lay," although Americans soon bastardized it as "yoo ka lay lee," the way most people pronounce it today.

Popular with vaudeville performers in the 1920s, the uke faded from the mainstream for decades before returning in the late '60s via Tiny Tim and his hit cover of "Tip Toe Thru the Tulips." Then it evaporated back into the pop ether.

Its latest resurgence dates to 1995, when George Harrison strummed one in the Beatles' Anthology documentary on ABC. Soon after Harrison's death in 2001, McCartney began playing a uke onstage during "Something" as a tribute to his ukulele-loving band-mate.

Like so much of pop culture, the uke got its biggest boost via YouTube. In 2006, a year after the channel debuted, Shimbukuro's wailing version of the Beatles' "While My Guitar Gently Weeps" became one of YouTube's first viral videos.

From there, scores of musicians started playing ukuleles, from American Idol star Jason Castro to off-beat acts like Nellie McKay and Magnetic Fields. Before long, entire albums were being done on the uke, including Vedder's Ukulele Songs and Amanda Palmer Performs the Popular Hits of Radiohead on Her Magical Ukulele.

VanderWaal fell in love with the instrument when she was 11, inspired partly by seeing the rock band 21 Pilots play it in their 2013 video "House of Gold." 

The key, she says, is the ukulele didn't seem intimidating.

"It was really easy to pick up on ... it's a lot easier to play than other instruments," she says. "I'm not really good enough yet to play solos, so I use it as more of a rhythm instrument, for accompaniment."

Grace VanderWaal (SOLD OUT)

Dallas singer-songwriter Colin Boyd has been playing ukuleles off and on since he was six, when his dad taught him how to play one.

"Though I was more attracted to the guitar sound, I recognized that the uke was a little guitar and I could get my hands around it at that young age," Boyd says.

Nearly 50 years later, Boyd mostly plays guitar, but he still performs a handful of songs each night on ukulele, including a reggae version of his own song "Juliet" and a cover of Peter Frampton's "Baby, I Love Your Way."

"I like its mellow sound ... when I mix it in with a rock band performance, it's quite unique," Boyd says. "Any song can be played on a uke. The only limitation is one I heard from as far back as I can remember: 'It doesn't sound like a guitar.' "

Then again, that could change. In the weird and ever-evolving world of pop, it may only be a matter of time before musicians start criticizing the guitar for not sounding like a ukulele.

If you go: Grace VanderWaal performs an all-ages concert Tuesday, Feb. 13 at Trees, 2709 Elm St., Dallas. Doors at 6 p.m., Show at 7 p.m. Sold out.

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