Are you unfamiliar with the greatness of ukuleles? Chances are you’ve heard a ukulele more than once, and can even identify one by its sound when you hear it, but there are plenty who still don’t know much about it — aside from seeing it as some sort of beach instrument.
Few instrument encapsulate a specific mood and sound as much as a ukulele does. These small guitar-like creations remain a favorite among beginner’s and advanced players alike, with many devoted enthusiasts preferring the instrument over their others.
While ukuleles do have a familiar shape and playing style, there is still a lot that makes them different, whether it’s their tuning, the way they can be played, and even their history.
This article will walk you through all of the essential information one should know about a ukulele, including its history, different types, famous songs with ukuleles, and more.
Let’s first start by defining what a ukulele is.
At its most simplest definition, a ukulele is a small, stringed instrument that is usually associated with different forms of Hawaiian music. It is a member of the guitar or lute family of instruments, and has several similarities with standard guitars, such as its shape, construction, and overall concept.
A conventional ukulele has four strings, although it is fairly common to see some use eight strings with two-string courses. Its overt simplicity and small size makes it relatively easy to pick up and learn, regardless of age and skill set.
Although the ukulele is a small instrument, it has one of the most complex, interesting, and unique histories you’ll come across.
The ukulele’s origins can actually be traced back to the Portuguese. It got its start in the late 19th century as a Hawaiian adaptation of the Portuguese machete, a small guitar-like instrument, which was first introduced to Hawaiian people by Portuguese immigrants that had arrived after leaving from Madeira and the Azores.
Three immigrants in particular, Madeiran cabinet makers Manuel Nunes, José do Espírito Santo, and Augusto Dias, are widely credited as the first actual ukulele makers.
In fact, two weeks after they arrived on the island via the SS Ravenscrag in late August 1879, the a local newspaper stated that the “Madeira Islanders recently arrived here, have been delighting the people with nightly street concerts.”
One of the biggest early fans and supporters of the instrument was King Kalākaua, who is seen as the major factor behind the spreading of its popularity. King Kalākaua loved music and the arts, which he showed by frequently incorporating it into performances at his royal gatherings.
As for the actual name, the origins are not as well-documented. Many attribute the name to a small court jester named Edward Purvis, who often jumped around during his performance that usually involved playing the instrument.
As the story goes, a delighted King Kalākaua gave him the nickname “uku-lele,” which roughly translates to “jumping flea.” But there is another story some swear by: Queen Lili’uokalani gave the instrument the name by using “uku” as “the gift” and “lele” as “to come.”
Regardless of the ukulele’s name origin, the queen herself was a fan, and would eventually write the song Aloha Oe, which became the island’s unofficial anthem.
So how did the ukulele get popular in the U.S? Well, it didn’t take long for it to make its way to the states after a few decades in Hawaii.
In 1915, the city of San Francisco held the Panama–Pacific International Exposition from the spring until the fall, helping introduce these cultures to American audiences.
Within the festival, the Hawaiian Pavilion featured a popular guitar and ukulele ensemble from Hawaii called George E. K. Awai and his Royal Hawaiian Quartet. Noted ukulele maker and player Jonah Kumalae was featured as well.
The sound instantly caught on, and the popularity of the ensemble ended up starting a fad for Hawaiian-themed songs from a loose group in the area known as the Tin Pan Alley songwriters.
The ensemble was also later responsible for introducing both the lap steel guitar and the ukulele into the mainland part of the U.S., where it was lauded by popular performers such as Roy Smeck and Cliff “Ukulele Ike” Edwards.
Smeck appeared at the Rivoli Theater in New York City on April 15, 1923, playing the ukulele in a short film called Stringed Harmony, a short film made in the DeForest sound-on-film process. Later, on August 6, 1926, Smeck appeared playing the ukulele in a short film His Pastimes.
These two events were widely credited with spreading the instrument’s popularity from the west to the east coast, and everywhere in between.
During this time, the Jazz Age was in full swing, and the ukulele soon became a favorite among many artists that found ways to incorporate it.
As with a guitar, beginning ukulele skills were easy to pick up, making the portable, often inexpensive instrument popular with amateur players all throughout the 1920s. This was evidenced by the widespread introduction of uke chord tablature into the published sheet music for a lot of the most popular songs during that era.
A number of U.S.-based instrument manufacturers such as Regal, Harmony, and Martin added the ukulele to their production lines to benefit from the burgeoning demand.
Around this time, the ukulele was also making its way into some forms of folk and early country music as a parallel to the mandolin, which was very popular at this time. It was frequently played by Jimmie Rodgers and Ernest V. Stoneman, and even some string bands at the time.
Ukuleles remained popular from the late 1940s to the late 1960s. Mario Maccaferri, a plastics manufacturer, ended up producing about 9 million inexpensive ukuleles, and the instrument continued appearing on many jazz songs throughout the next few decades.
Following the 1960s, the ukulele suffered a decline in overall popularity, which lasted until the late 1990s. Manufacturers began putting out ukuleles en masse again, and an entirely new generation started to play it,
Part of this can be attributed to all-time best selling Hawaiian musician Israel Kamakawiwo’ole, thanks to his 1993 reggae-rhythmed medley of “Over the Rainbow” and “What a Wonderful World,” which found its way into many different films, television programs, and commercials. The song had a resurgence in 2004, reaching no. 12 on Billboard’s Hot Digital Tracks.
The rise of YouTube had a large influence on the resurgent popularity of the ukulele as well. In fact, one of the first videos to go viral was Jake Shimabukuro’s ukulele rendition of George Harrison’s “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” on YouTube, eventually garnering over 15 million views by 2016.
The ukulele made its way to Japan in 1929 after Hawaiian-born Yukihiko Haida returned to the country, bringing his ukulele with him. Haida and his brother Katsuhiko formed the Moana Glee Club, and rose to popularity thanks to the growing enthusiasm towards Western music, mainly Hawaiian and jazz.
Western music was banned during World War II due to it being Western, but fans and players kept it alive, and it regained its popularity after the war had ended. In 1959, Haida founded the Nihon Ukulele Association in 1959, and now Japan is considered a second home for Hawaiian musicians and professional ukulele players.
There are a few common shapes you’ll often see with ukuleles.
The most popular shape is the traditional figure eight body that you see with most acoustic guitars. When used with a ukulele, it essentially gives the appearance of a miniature acoustic in some ways.
A newer and increasingly popular shape is what’s known as the “pineapple,” which is fairly self-explanatory. This shape is more of an oval, and gives the uke a slightly different sound, and a more distinct look in general.
Other shapes can include arch-backs, teardrops, and even cigar box-style ukes.
Ukuleles can be grouped into four primary types, each of which is based upon the actual size. These sizes provide varying levels of projection and tone, and also affect the playability on the neck and fretboard.
length: 21″ scale: 13″ (33.02cm)
The soprano size is widely considered to the the “original” uke size. It is the smallest of the four sizes, and produces a bright sound that most would associate with what a uke is supposed to sound like.
length: 23″ scale:15″ (38.1cm)
The concert ukulele size is a step up from the soprano, and offers a slightly louder sound, with a deeper tone as well. The concert size is becoming nearly identical to the soprano in terms of popularity, especially with beginners.
length: 26″ scale: 17″ (43.18cm)
A tenor size has a much deeper tone when compared to its smaller counterparts, and also offers a higher amount of resonance. The size of the fingerboard is noticeably larger too, giving it a better sense of playability for those with larger hands, or who simply prefer a bit more space on their frets.
length: 30″ scale: 19″ (48.26cm)
The largest option for a ukulele, a baritone size provides a much different playing experience in several aspects. The size gives it plenty of resonance, and also the most projection out of the four sizes. A baritone uke is tuned differently as well, with its four strings tuned to the same notes as you would with the first four strings on a standard guitar.
There are a few specialized ukes worth mentioning. The most common is an acoustic/electric, which is really just any ukulele that has an input for a cable, allowing it to be played through an amp, or a P.A.
Six-string and eight-string ukes exist as well, and even hybrid types that combine aspects of a banjo in the ukulele, or even features of a resonator guitar.
As with any other instrument, the material used to construct a ukulele has a huge influence on its tone, projection, and overall sound.
Ukuleles can come in a variety of materials, but the most common you’ll find is mahogany and Koa. You’ll typically see mahogany used with a wide range of ukes, from beginner’s models to some of the more expensive ones.
Koa is a beloved material choice among professional players, but it can be expensive. It produces a very balanced tone that is deal for ukuleles, but mahogany is quite capable of the same when used correctly.
Spruce is a somewhat new uku material as of late, as many guitar makers have started to use this common guitar wood for ukuleles as well. This gives the uke bright tones and sharper attack.
Cedar is mostly reserved for tenor and baritone ukuleles as its more conducive for offering warmer, deeper tones more appropriate for these larger sizes.
Rosewood and maple are common woods used for necks and fretboards.
Composite materials are generally reserved for cheaper ukuleles, and often exists as a combination of plastic and laminate wood.
The material choice isn’t always the full story, however. You can have a good wood choice, but it’s also relevant in regards to how it was shaped for the instrument.
Solid wood tops are crafted from one piece of wood, while laminate woods are made from several different layers fused together. Laminate woods are more resistant to damage such as warping, but the layers result in a diminished amount of tone and projection.
As you probably already know, proper tuning is essential if you want any stringed instrument to actually sound good when you’re playing it. The same goes with ukuleles.
If you’re familiar with guitar tuning, then you’ll be able to tune a ukulele fairly easily. Even if you aren’t it’s not too hard to pick up.
So with that said, below are a few different methods for tuning your ukulele, as well as some different tunings you can try out as well.
The most common tuning used for a ukulele in a regular setting is G-C-E-A. This is also fairly standard for soprano, concert, and tenor ukuleles as well.
Ukuleles do have four strings, so this tuning is listed going from the to string to the bottom. The fourth string is G, then C, and then E, and finally the A on the first string.
If you’re used to playing standard 6-string guitars, the reentrant and linear tunings can be a little confusing at first. Reentrant tuning strings are not ordered from the lowest to highest pitch. As for linear tuning, the G is tuned down an octave, which results in a broader tonal range.
So, if you’d like to have more of a guitar-like sound when you strum, you should go with a linear tuning setting.
The actual process of tuning the ukulele is done just like you would with any other stringed instrument. Tuning pegs are located at the end of the neck, which can either be tightened or loosened to alter the tone of each string.
It should be noted that one should avoid over-tightening the strings. This can make it much easier to break a string, and the added tension can have a negative effect on the instrument itself, especially on the neck.
There are accessories you can use to change and tune strings, or you can just do it the old-fashioned way. Whatever’s best for you.
There may be times when you don’t have other ways to tune the uke. In this case, you can tune it by ear. Tuning by ear isn’t exactly ideal, but it can be done to an extent. If you’re someone who has perfect pitch memory, you’re even better off, so good for you.
Here’s the process:
Using an electronic tuner is often the most preferred overall, mainly because it’s not only the most accurate, but also the most convenient.
You have two main options for electronic tuners. You can either use a ukulele tuner that uses a microphone, or one that attaches to the neck and tuning pegs, and actually senses the vibrations while gauging the tone.
If you are going to be tuning in noisy environments, it’s best to go with the the vibration sensing models, as the microphone versions can get disrupted. This is most ideal for those who will be performing live and need to retune after a few songs.
There are a number of other accessories one can use with their ukuleles to both improve its performance, or make it more convenient.
The ukulele is a great instrument to learn on, regardless of your proficiency with any other stringed instruments. Here are a few helpful tips when first starting out,
Ukuleles are easy to deal with because of their size, but the small profile can throw some players off at first. Practice holding the uke when both sitting down and standing up, and decide on a position that is ideal for your strumming preferences.
Trying to play a song at normal speed on a new instrument can be incredibly frustrating. Try playing the song at a much slower speed, and don’t strum or pluck until you have your hands in the perfect position on the frets. Over time, you’ll get the hang of it, and be able to play the songs faster and faster, without flubbing anything.
Working up your finger strength is crucial with any stringed instrument, and the same is true on a uke. Try moving your hands up and down the neck, pressing the strings one by one on each fret as you go. Squeeze toys are a good way to work up your hand strength as well.
Proper strumming on a uke is the key to getting that classic sound. Use your thumb when you stroke down, and your middle or pointer finger when you stroke up.
When first starting out, playing incredibly simple songs is the best way to build skills and confidence. This can be things like nursery songs, traditional bar songs — whatever works.
We recommend starting off by playing songs by picking on each string one by one to play a melody, and then moving on to playing chords.
YouTube is an excellent resource for beginner ukulele songs. Here are some of our favorite videos:
Hopefully by now you have a much better understanding of what makes the ukulele such an incredible and fun instrument to play. Ukes are in the midst of a massive surge in popularity as of late, so now is a better time than ever to get started playing.
With a quality ukulele, and some practice and dedication, you can be up and running in no time, playing some of your favorite songs, and even composing your own.
Ready to purchase a new ukulele? Be sure to check out our buying guide, where we highlight some of our favorite ukuleles, and offer some helpful buying advice as well. Good luck!