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The ukulele (ʻukulele in Hawaiian and standard Hawaiian English; pronounced /ʔukulele/, or the Anglicised /ˌjukəˈleɪli/), or uke, is a fretted string instrument which is, in its construction, essentially a smaller, four-stringed version of the guitar. In the early 20th century, the instrument's name was often rendered as ukelele, a spelling still used in Great Britain.

There is also the banjolele or banjo uke, which has a banjo body.



It is commonly associated with music from Hawaii (Hawaiʻi in Hawaiian) where the name roughly translates as "jumping flea" and was developed there in the 1880s as a combination of the Madeiran braguinha and rajão. A braguinha is an instrument similar to a cavaquinho, built in the city of Braga and named after it; the Portuguese cavaquinho is usually tuned in D-G-B-D, a G-major chord. The Madeiran rajão is tuned D-G-C-E-A, in other words. the D and G strings are both re-entrant, i.e., tuned an octave higher than expected in the normal low-to high course of strings. The GCEA strings of the rajão are the source of the re-entrant tuning of the modern ukulele.

In 1879 the three men generally credited as the first ukulele makers arrived from Portugal in Hawaiʻi, sailing into Honolulu on the ship Ravenscrag. These were Manuel Nunes, José do Espírito Santo, and Augusto Dias. One of these, Manuel Nunes, was the neighbour of famous ukulele player Bill Tapia. He sold Bill his first instrument for $0.75 many years later in 1915.

In general, the Ukulele is a smaller version of the cuatro, a four stringed guitar from Latin America, which had been around for hundreds of years before the Ukulele.

U.S. Mainland

The ukulele was popularized for a stateside audience during the Panama Pacific International Exposition held for most of 1915 in San Francisco, at which the Hawaiian Pavilion featured a guitar and ukulele ensemble, George E. K. Awai and his Royal Hawaiian Quartette, along with ukulele maker and player Jonah Kumalae. The popularity of the ensemble with visitors launched a fad for Hawaiian-themed songs among Tin Pan Alley songwriters. The ensemble also introduced both the lap steel guitar and the ukulele into U.S. mainland popular music, where it was taken up by vaudeville performers such as Roy Smeck and Cliff "Ukulele Ike" Edwards. The ukulele became an icon of the Jazz Age as this highly portable and relatively inexpensive instrument also proved popular with amateur players throughout the 1920s, as is evidenced by the introduction of uke chord tablature into the published sheet music for popular songs of the time (a role that would eventually be supplanted by the guitar). A number of mainland-based instrument manufacturers, among them Regal, Harmony, and Martin, added ukulele, banjolele, and tiple lines to their production to take advantage of the demand.

Ukulele in the hands of a Ziegfeld Follies chorus girl, c. 1920
Ukulele in the hands of a Ziegfeld Follies chorus girl, c. 1920

Tuning a ukulele

The ukulele comes in four sizes from smallest to largest:

  • soprano (the original size)
  • concert
  • tenor (created in the 1920s)
  • baritone (created in the late 1940s).

On a tenor instrument, the strings may be doubled: six strings (where first and third strings are doubled) or eight strings (where all four strings are doubled with second and fourth course). In traditional Hawaiian tuning, first and third courses are tuned in an octave.

Since the ukulele is a stringed instrument, it can be tuned with a piano, guitar tuner or a pitch pipe. The ukulele is tuned from top string to bottom string: G C E A. The C is middle C on the piano. Like all stringed instruments, the ukulele becomes detuned if not frequently tuned. The strings are typically nylon. When new, the strings cannot hold a tune for long. It can take up to two weeks for new strings to stretch out and hold a tune. If old strings are put on a ukulele, it will still take some time before the strings can hold a tune, but it usually only takes two days or less, depending on how much the string has been stretched in the past.

In the United States, soprano and concert ukes are usually tuned in the chord of C6: G-C-E-A, with the G-string traditionally tuned an octave up (re-entrant), so it is pitched between the E- and A-strings. In the past, it was not uncommon for the soprano to be tuned a whole step higher in the chord of D6: A-D-F#-B, with the lowest note being D (the A is a whole step below the B). This tuning was very popular in vaudeville in the days before amplification. The tension and tone are a little brighter and louder. This tuning is still used today by some known personalities in ukulele circles.

The baritone ukulele, which was not invented or developed until the 1940s at the request of Arthur Godfrey, is usually tuned in G (like the top four strings of a guitar, D-G-B-E) which makes it as much a guitar as a ukulele.

The tenor ukulele can be tuned either way, and in C tuning is sometimes tuned with the G-string an octave lower, so it's pitched below the C-string, where you might expect it. Some historians say such a tuning makes it a small guitar, since the re-entrant tuning is the characteristic that most identified the original ukulele.

An alternative tuning is B♭-E♭-G-C, raised a semitone to the key of E flat. Either of these tunings, and the C tuning above, are known when strummed by the mnemonic, "My dog has fleas", possibly referring to the "jumping flea" translated into Hawai'ian as "ukulele." Any song by this name postdates to the use of the phrase in published teaching materials by decades, at least.

Other tunings are in use today. Some more creative-minded ukulele players tune their ukuleles to the key of B♭, F, or any tuning they see the need to utilize. Some even tune their ukuleles to E-A-D-G—the bottom four strings of a guitar. These never became popular, but because the ukulele is a stringed instrument, it can be tuned to the player's specifications.

Ukulele musicians

Musicians and entertainers, both past and present, particularly known for playing the ukulele include:

  • Tsuji Ayano
  • Janet Klein
  • Stefan Raab
  • L S Coker
  • Jeff Pope
  • Imua Garza
  • Tiki King
  • Roy Smeck
  • Te Ava Piti
  • Sean Egan
  • Eddie Kamae
  • Neil Finn
  • James Hill
  • Gabby La La
  • Tiny Tim
  • Jon Ringel
  • Mike Bellusci
  • Chalmers Doane
  • Arthur Godfrey
  • George Harrison
  • Darren Hayman
  • Bob Brozman
  • Stephen Merritt
  • Ernest Kaʻai
  • Jesse Kalima
  • Wayne Federman
  • "King" Benny Nawahi
  • Buster Keaton
  • Mike Leboff and Hope
  • Jake Shimabukuro
  • Derick Sebastian
  • Granite Seade
  • Jack Johnson
  • Israel Kamakawiwoʻole
  • Herb Ohta ("Ohta-San")
  • The Secondhandpants
  • Langley Ukulele Ensemble
  • Ed's Redeeming Qualities
  • Luke Bailey and his Ukulele
  • Cliff Edwards ("Ukulele Ike")
  • Dan Scanlan ("Cool Hand Uke")
  • Tracey Terada ("Dr. Trey")
  • The Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain
  • Boulder Acoustic Society
  • Peggy Reza ("Aunty Uke") of the Blue Shoes Band
  • George Formby (played banjolele & Hawaiian ukulele)
  • The Mad Things
  • Bill Tapia
  • Brittni Paiva
  • Bruce Forsyth
  • Frank Crumit
  • uke til u puke
  • Ukes of Hazzard
  • Eddie Vedder
  • Cezar Wickaninnish
  • Zac Walker
  • Waste of Aces
  • Brian Skidmore
  • Patrick Wolf
  • The Minoans
  • Jens Lekman
  • Gerald Ross
  • Frank Williams

Former Beatle George Harrison became very excited about the ukulele in the last few years of his life in particular. He was reported to have always travelled with two ukuleles so that he could play with someone, including producer and musician Jeff Lynne and fellow former Beatle Paul McCartney. Eric Clapton plays the ukulele on the Bonzo Dog Band's "The Intro and the Outro".

Other famous people known to have dabbled with the ukulele are Brian May, Joni Mitchell, Jimi Hendrix, David Byrne, Chrissie Hynde, Neil Armstrong, Joe Strummer, Warren Buffet, Loudon Wainwright III, Nellie McKay, Tony Blair and Elvis Presley.

Another somewhat famous person, though not widely-known to have played the ukulele because he began at age 3, was Keith Green.

Tahitian ukulele

The Tahitian ukulele is significantly different from other ukuleles because it does not have a sound box. The body – including the head and neck – is carved from a single piece of wood, with a wide conical hole bored through the middle. At the back, the bore is about 4 cm in diameter; at the front it is about 10 cm in diameter. The hole at the front is covered with a thin piece of wood, on which the bridge sits, so the instrument works rather like a wooden-skinned banjo. Indeed some of these instruments are referred to as Tahitian banjos. The strings are usually made from light-gauge fishing line – usually green in colour (usually around 40-50 lb test).

The instrument seems to be a relatively recent invention, popular in eastern Polynesia, particularly French Polynesia. It is reported to have been introduced to the Cook Islands in 1990 by the band Te Ava Piti as a newly invented instrument.

Tuning a Tahitian ukulele

These instruments may have just four strings – or some strings may be paired, so that the instrument has six or eight strings.

The strings or pairs ("courses") are tuned to A6 D6 F#6 B5 or G6 C6 E6 A5 (See for International Pitch Notation codes).

After the Hawaiian ukulele was invented, the Hawaiians referred to a similar, eight-string instrument tuned GCEA as a taro-patch fiddle. Before the invention of the ukulele, taro-patch fiddle referred to the rajão.

Those who are familiar with ukulele chords will find that the same chord shapes will fit these tunings, but that the chords will be transposed and inverted.

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