It is cheap and easy to learn. It makes happy songs sound happier and sad songs sound sadder. It is still most welcome at a cabin, campfire or beach, but is gaining great favor with more serious musicians. It is all over the Internet and on TV shows from "Spongebob Squarepants" to "Glee."

It is the ukulele. And despite its small size, it's clearly not a toy, taking up decidedly more space on guitar-store walls and more time at concert halls.

"I could have never foreseen this five years ago," said Andy Bell, owner of Twin Town Guitars, which has started offering ukulele classes to meet the demand. Sales of the instrument are up at least 35 percent at the store, which has "a pile of ukuleles on back order," he said.

The Hawaiian instrument, which looks like a tiny guitar but actually is part of the lute family, is enjoying a resurgence in tough financial times. But "it started long before there was an economic downturn," Bell said.

One reason: "It really goes well with the voice," said Twin Cities aficionado David Kapell, "because it's a high, twinkly thing and the voice is more of a midrange thing. It just works well sonically, especially with the great American classics -- Tin Pan Alley, Broadway, songs that are fun to sing."

So, yes, there's a playful aspect to the ukulele's renaissance, but some people have embraced it for practical reasons, such as singer Lucy Michelle, who is 5 feet tall. She took up the uke at 18, "partly because the guitar is too big for me," she said. "I do get a lot of, 'Oh, it looks like a guitar on you,' from my friends. But everybody likes the sound of it."

Local (and far-flung) flavor

Michelle and the Velvet Lapelles, who play Dec. 4 at the Nomad World Pub in Minneapolis, and Molly Maher and Her Disbelievers, who perform every Wednesday at Nye's on E. Hennepin Avenue in Minneapolis, are hardly the first uke-infused Twin Cities acts. The most noteworthy? Tiny Tim, even if he married a Minneapolis woman long after he had tiptoed through the tulips.

And his name should not be mentioned among longtime lovers of the instrument.

"Tiny Tim ruined the whole thing by making it into a joke," said Kapell, whose mother played the ukulele on Hawaii-bound planes filled with 3M executives during the 1950s.

That was the last heyday of the four-stringed instrument, as Arthur Godfrey plucked the uke every week on national TV and looming Hawaii statehood fueled intense interest in the islands' culture.

But the current surge goes well beyond plastic ukes, Don Ho crooning "Tiny Bubbles" or even a reprise of "Hawaii Five-O."

A raft of professional musicians play instruments that can costs hundreds of dollars. Even Fender now makes ukuleles.

YouTube videos featuring the astounding Jake Shimabukuro (especially on "While My Guitar Gently Weeps") and Julia Nunes have drawn millions of hits. The Ukulele Orchestra of England recently garnered rave reviews in New York. Rocker Amanda Palmer quickly sold out the first run of a ukulele-driven CD of Radiohead covers.

Some ukulele players are plugging the instruments into amps, and even those with inexpensive instruments are augmenting them with hand-wound strings from stores such as Twin Town or Podium in Minneapolis and Willie's American Guitars in St. Paul.

"The strings do a lot of the work, I think," Michelle said.

Simply a hoot

Still, the ukulele's appeal is elemental.

"You pick it up and after about five minutes you play it as well as 80 percent of the people who play it," said William Preston Robertson, a former Twin Citian who directed the documentary "Rock That Uke."

"It's just a sweet, joyful little instrument that anyone can play, and everyone should play," said Kapell, who invented Magnetic Poetry and has a collection of about 30 ukes. "It's so cute and so portable and so easy."

When Kapell's wife was in the hospital 12 years ago undergoing chemotherapy, he broke out a uke for the first time in years, "and that's all she wanted to hear, because it's happy and light and positive," he said. "It was really therapeutic for her."

The couple were later divorced, and the instrument provided some emotional therapy for Kapell on a trip to Brazil.

"At the beach, it's better than being a rock star," he said. "We ended up having circles of Brazilians singing Beatles songs. It's really conducive to singalong stuff."

Regardless of the tone, the ukulele tends to sell itself, Bell said.

"We have had a lot of moms and dads come into the store and buy 'em, sometimes to keep the kids away from Mom or Dad's guitar or banjo," he said. "And then they'll see it sitting somewhere and move it out of the way.

"And when they move it, they can't help but strum a little." No matter what kind of day you're having, he said, "you can't help but smile when you're holding it."

Bill Ward • 612-673-7643