By Madeleine Frank

"When you say you play ukulele, most people think you just strum a couple of chords," says Taimane Gardner, Hawaii's 26-year-old ukulele virtuoso. "They don't understand that you can take it and rip on it." Moving her fingers at lightning speed, Gardner plays the chords of Bach, Michael Jackson, and Led Zeppelin on her five-string Kamaka tenor ukulele. Her skill is undeniable, and her energy unwavering. (Need proof? Scroll down for a video, below.)

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Gardner took to the instrument at just 5 years old, when her father gave her one. By age 12, she was playing on the beaches of Waikiki with musicians several times her age. There, she caught the eye of well-known Hawaiian pop singer Don Ho, who invited Gardner on tour and set her career in motion. She's traveled the world, played with Grammy-winning musician Jack Johnson, and released two albums.

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Performing frequently throughout Oahu, Gardner intersperses perennial crowd favorites with her original works, improvising a set list as she discerns what the audience is in the mood for. But when she needs an extra dose of inspiration, Gardner goes to the Ong King Art Center, a community-based collaboration venue at the edge of Honolulu's Chinatown. "You'll see poets collaborating with musicians and DJs and even aerial dancers," she says. "Rocking out there really rekindled my passion for music and took me in the direction of writing new songs."

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Gardner has turned the idea of what ukulele music can be on its head, beguiling a new generation of fans. And although she does enjoy traveling to play—she has a European tour scheduled this summer—Hawaii will always be her home. "There's a community feeling with the musicians here," she says. "It is the best place to learn ukulele." Find videos, performance schedules, and more at taimane.com.

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