Updated on 23 September, 2016
The humble ukulele is the Rubik's Cube of instruments. Using only four strings, four fingers, and the first four frets, it can provide a dizzying variety of chords, melodies and accompaniment patterns.
Already one of the world's most popular instruments, its popularity is growing once again in a resurgence of personal music making. It is essentially a small guitar, but with its own distinct historical and social aura.
Educationalists in many countries1 are beginning to favour the ukulele as a primary-school classroom instrument. Advantages include:
- Its small size: good for carrying, for storing, for sturdiness, and for ease of playing
- Its supreme sympathy as an accompaniment to singing
- The grasp of harmony that it fosters
- The fact that cheap ukuleles can function perfectly, play and stay in tune, and sound lovely2
The name 'ukulele' covers a group of small guitar-shaped instruments, among a huge variety of other small guitar-type instruments in use around the world. The history of the ukulele goes back to the earliest necked string instruments, in the mists of antiquity, but the history of the name is rather more easy to pin down.
Like the present ukulele, the European 16th-Century guitar had four courses (pairs of strings in the old instrument, single strings now) and re-entrant tuning, that is, the strings not tuned in order from bass to treble3. Explorers brought such instruments around the world, and they took root in various colonies and cultures. Most famously, and quite late, the invasion reached Hawaii.
On 23 August, 1879, a ship called the Ravenscrag arrived in Hawaii from Madeira. On board were three cabinet makers, José do Espirito Santo, Manuel Nunes and Augusto Dias. They eventually set themselves up in Honolulu as makers of guitars and of a small Madeiran guitar called the machete4. The machete was also known by the names braguinha and cavaquinho; there is however room for confusion, as some writers distinguish these instruments from one another, and others allow more latitude in their definitions. Some sources describe the ukulele as taking the size and form of the braguinha, with its tuning derived from the five-course rajão. Others say the cavaquinho is the grandfather of the ukulele, and that it went from Portugal to Madeira in 1854 to become the braguinha, and thence to Hawaii to become the ukulele5.
The Hawaiians took quickly to the machete, as first played by another Ravenscrag immigrant, João Fernandes. By 1886 it had been given the name 'taro patch fiddle', though that name is now applied to a double-strung instrument6. By the 1890s, the name ukulele7 was in common use, though its original meaning is not unambiguously clear: Queen Lili'uokalani8 translated it as 'gift from afar', the word 'uku' meaning 'gift or reward' and 'lele' meaning 'to come' as well as 'to jump'; 'uku' also means 'small', while 'uke' means 'to strike'. There is also an unclear connection with the fidgety personality of Edward Purvis, an English player who had been assistant chamberlain to King Kalakaua9, the guitar- and ukulele-playing king of Hawaii; it would appear that Purvis was given the nickname 'ukulele' with the meaning of 'jumping flea'10.
The Conquest of the United States
The ukulele very soon began appearing in the United States, first documented in the World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893. Over the following decades it was heard in world's fairs in San Francisco, Omaha, Buffalo, Portland, and Seattle. Fine instruments were already being made in the USA by 1910, but it was the 1915 Panama Pacific International Exposition in San Francisco that really confirmed the US's addiction to the ukulele, which continued to rage through the 1920s, 30s and 40s.
Sizes and Tunings
In the mid-20th Century the commonest tuning was A-D-F#-B, with the alternative Bb-Eb-G-C. The first tuning is suitable for songs in sharp keys (G, D, A, E and so on) and the second (obtained by tuning each string one step higher) for flat keys (F, Bb, Eb, Ab and so on)11. Many songs of the 1920s, 30s and 40s were published with ukulele chord symbols above the piano/vocal score.
Currently the commonest tuning, for most sizes of ukulele, is the same as it had originally been in Hawaii: G-C-E-A12. There are pocket ukes and even folding ukes, but the smallest in general use is the soprano, with a scale length13 of 13 inches (33cm); this is nearest to the original Hawaiian ukes. Slightly larger (15 inches) is the concert uke, then the tenor (17 inches), and biggest is the baritone (19 inches). Surprisingly, the tenor, concert and soprano are often tuned exactly the same, though with a wound fourth string the tenor sometimes has a low G (non-re-entrant tuning). The baritone is tuned to the same notes as the top four strings of a guitar: D-G-B-E14.
Also found in today's ukulele bands16 is an instrument which is not really a ukulele at all, but a bass guitar built on a baritone uke body: the u-bass17. This is made possible by the development of fat strings made of polyurethane or similar material; it requires amplification.
The shape of the ukulele admits variety, with cutaways and ovals (called 'pineapples') turning up, as well as home-made cigar-box ukes. More radical is the use of a banjo body (essentially a drum head), giving the ukulele-banjo, banjo ukulele, or banjulele. There are also metal resonator and solid-body electric ukes in use.
Don't Knock the Plastic Uke
The ingenious instrument maker Mario Maccaferri developed a plastic guitar in the 1950s which, though acoustically successful, never caught on; he recouped his large investment, however, by selling plastic ukuleles. Originally very cheap, plastic Maccaferris now command good prices – although greatly exceeded by the holy grail of ukulele collectors, 1916-1940 Martin ukuleles made from mahogany or koa18.
Why were Madeiran cabinet makers emigrating to the then Sandwich Islands in the 1870s? Who did what, where, when? For the full story in fascinating detail, see the excellently researched and produced book The Ukulele: A History by Jim Tranquada and the late John King, ISBN: 978-0-8248-3634-4, University of Hawai'i Press, 2012.