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Ukuleles

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Updated on 23 September, 2016

A Hawaiian woman playing the ukulele.

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

Origins

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.

The Ravenscrag

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.

Ukulele strings, originally gut or wire, are now made from nylon, nylgut, or fluorocarbon15. Some players like black strings, others say that the dye does nothing for the sound.

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.

Further Reading

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.

1Ukes have been sighted in classrooms in Canada, Germany, Switzerland, the UK and the US among others. There are also cross-community classes for children in Israel.2This Researcher plays a 40-euro model for preference.3On the Renaissance guitar, the bass string was doubled at the octave, like the early lute and the current twelve-string guitar. Most ukuleles, as you run your thumb over the strings, go down-up-up, but there are other re-entrant patterns: the Venezuelan cuatro for instance is tuned A-D-F#-B, giving the same chord shapes as the uke, but going up-up-down (A3-D4-F#4-B3). The Renaissance cittern (which hung on the wall of Shakespearean barber shops) went down-up-up but in the pattern B-G-D-E.4There was nothing unusual in guitars being made by cabinet makers; since the Middle Ages, guitar makers were refused membership of the luthiers' guilds in Europe, and had to content themselves with membership of the cabinet makers' guilds.5The science of organology is littered with such conflicts, particularly where an instrument is exported and redeveloped in new surroundings. Names are not a good indication of structural or functional similarity.6Renaissance lutes, citterns, bandoras and guitars, and modern mandolins, bouzoukis and twelve-string guitars are among the many plucked instruments whose sound is enriched by having two strings to each course, either in unison or octaves. The cittern even had its lowest string tripled, and the Colombian tiple often has all four strings tripled.7The earliest spelling printed was ukelele, in 1891.8The last monarch of the Kingdom of Hawai'i, Lili'uokalani (1838–1917) was equally keen on music and on the ill-fated independence of Hawai'i. The islands were annexed by the United States in 1898, Lili'uokalani having abdicated following a pro-annexation coup in 1895. Born Lydia Kamakaeha, it is an intriguing possibility, but still only a guess, that she may have taken her regal name from the title of the popular opera The Lily of Killarney which premiered in 1862, the year she married. Lili'uokalani became queen 29 years later, on the death of her brother King Kalakaua. Lili'uokalani composed over 160 songs, including the famous Aloha 'Oe..9Kalakaua (1836–91) reigned from 1874 to his death in San Francisco, California. He also wrote songs, including the current State Song of Hawai'i, Hawai'i Pono'i.10The flea was a new and unwelcome immigrant to Hawaii, also arriving by ship. Purvis was forced to resign and leave the islands in 1886, having been suspected of publishing unflattering pamphlets about the king.11Band music including jazz is most often in Bb, the home key for trumpets, trombones, clarinets and saxophones.12These notes are all in the octave starting at middle C: G4-C4-E4-A4. 'My dog has fleas' is sung as a mnemonic, the vowels suggesting the falling and rising pitches.13The sounding length of the strings, nut to bridge.14Non-re-entrant: D3-G3-B3-E4. This is the closest to the Renaissance guitar, which with three double courses was tuned D3/D4-G3/G3-B3/B3-E4.15This Researcher favours clear fluorocarbon strings.16Google for instance Ukeristic Congress.17An instrument with the body of a ukulele and the mind of a bass, the u-bass is tuned exactly the same as a double bass or bass guitar: E1-A1-D2-G2.18Koa, the wood of the Hawaiian acacia, is the traditional material for ukuleles, though it may be argued that mahogany produces a better sound.

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