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What is a Ukulele?

A ukulele is a charming stringed instrument, with Hawaiian origins, that offers a cheerful sound reminiscent of tropical breezes and serene beaches. Compact and portable, it has four nylon strings that produce a warm, inviting melody, making it a favorite for both beginners and seasoned musicians. Curious about how to play this delightful instrument? Let's explore the joyful world of ukulele together.
Paulla Estes
Paulla Estes
Paulla Estes
Paulla Estes

A ukulele, also spelled ukelele, is in the family of stringed instruments and looks like a small, four-stringed version of a guitar. Also called a “uke,” it is tuned and played just like a guitar, with tuning going from the top string to the bottom string using G C E and A on the piano, though the ukulele is usually tuned an octave higher than the guitar. It comes in four types, or sizes: the soprano, the concert ukulele, the tenor, and the baritone.

The instrument has long been associated with Hawaii, but its origins were actually in Portugal. In the late 1870s, Portuguese sailors brought a ukulele-type instrument called the braguinha to the Hawaiian Islands. The native Hawaiians were impressed when they saw the speedy and intricate finger-work of the man playing the stringed instrument; they dubbed it a “ukulele,” which means “jumping flea” in English. In only a decade, it became Hawaii’s most popular instrument.

A ukulele is often called a "Uke" for short.
A ukulele is often called a "Uke" for short.

There is also a Tahitian version, which is quite different from the traditional model. The body of this type is carved from a single piece of wood and does not have a sound box, per se. Rather, there is a hole carved right through the middle of the instrument, which is covered with a thin piece of wood in the front. The look and sound of the Tahitian ukulele is similar to a banjo; in fact, sometimes it is referred to as a banjo.

A ukulele has four strings.
A ukulele has four strings.

The ukulele became popular in the United States in 1915 in San Francisco, California during the Panama Pacific International Exposition, one of the most popular world’s fairs the country has ever seen. There, the Hawaiian Pavilion presented the Royal Hawaiian Quartette, which included guitar and ukulele players. The music was a huge success, and the instrument was quickly assimilated into the mainland music culture. Within five years, vaudeville acts were including it in their performances, and the newly popular jazz culture began using the ukulele regularly.

The ukelele became Hawaii's most popular instrument.
The ukelele became Hawaii's most popular instrument.

In recent years, the ukulele is often associated with some of the more unusual and eccentric musicians, such as Tiny Tim, but many mainstream artists have experimented with it. Former Beatles Paul McCartney and George Harrison were often seen playing the instrument, as well as Jimi Hendrix, Joni Mitchell, and Elvis Presley. Today, the uke is primarily associated with folk and Hawaiian music. It is a handy instrument in that it is inexpensive, small, lightweight, and portable.

Frequently Asked Questions

What is a ukulele and how is it different from a guitar?

Elvis Presley was often seen playing the ukulele.
Elvis Presley was often seen playing the ukulele.

A ukulele is a small, four-stringed instrument that originated in Hawaii in the late 19th century. It is similar in shape to a guitar but is smaller in size and has a higher pitch. The standard ukulele tuning is G-C-E-A, which is different from a guitar's E-A-D-G-B-E. Ukuleles come in four main sizes: soprano, concert, tenor, and baritone, each with its unique sound and scale length.

How do you tune a ukulele, and what are the most common tunings?

To tune a ukulele, you typically adjust the pegs on the headstock until the strings match the standard tuning of G-C-E-A. This tuning is known as 'reentrant tuning' because the G string is tuned higher than the C string. Other common tunings include the 'low-G tuning,' where the G string is tuned an octave lower, and the 'baritone tuning' (D-G-B-E), which is the same as the highest four strings of a guitar.

What are the different sizes of ukuleles, and how do they vary in sound?

Ukuleles come in four primary sizes: soprano, concert, tenor, and baritone. The soprano, often called the standard ukulele, is the smallest and has the brightest sound. The concert ukulele is slightly larger, offering a fuller sound and more room on the fretboard. The tenor ukulele provides a deeper tone and more volume, while the baritone is the largest, with a sound closest to a classical guitar due to its D-G-B-E tuning.

Can you play all the same chords on a ukulele as on a guitar?

While you can play chords that are similar in shape to guitar chords on a ukulele, they will not produce the same chords because of the ukulele's different tuning. For example, a G chord shape on the guitar is a C chord on the ukulele. However, the fundamental principles of chord construction apply, so you can play ukulele versions of all the chords you would on a guitar, just with different fingerings and pitches.

What types of music are best suited for the ukulele?

The ukulele is versatile and can be used in a variety of music genres, from traditional Hawaiian music to pop, folk, jazz, and even classical. Its cheerful and distinctive sound makes it particularly well-suited for strumming along to simple songs, fingerpicking melodies, or playing chord progressions. Artists like Israel Kamakawiwo'ole have popularized the ukulele in contemporary music, showcasing its adaptability across different styles.

Paulla Estes
Paulla Estes

Paulla is a freelance writer and website editor who currently lives in Maine. Paulla has a B.A. in English Literature from George Mason University and over 15 years of experience as a freelancer. She relishes the flexibility and consistency of working on MusicalExpert articles, as well as the opportunity to constantly learn something new.

Learn more...
Paulla Estes
Paulla Estes

Paulla is a freelance writer and website editor who currently lives in Maine. Paulla has a B.A. in English Literature from George Mason University and over 15 years of experience as a freelancer. She relishes the flexibility and consistency of working on MusicalExpert articles, as well as the opportunity to constantly learn something new.

Learn more...

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Discussion Comments

Glasshouse

I used to live in Hawaii, and Hawaiian Ukulele lessons were a mandatory part of our curriculum. It is an important part of Hawaiian history, which the state has been trying to preserve. It is great fun, and they have such a beautiful, unique sound.

parmnparsley

I went to Hawaii for a vacation a few years back and had ukulele lessons. The lessons were so much fun that I went ahead and bought a uke when I returned home. It is such an easy instrument to play and it is a lot of fun. At every social gathering, the uke is the first instrument anybody picks up.

william123

Have been playing a uke for a brief period. I also play accordion, keyboard, jaw harp, harmonica, banjo, guitar and the spoons (yes these really do add to country and blue grass) and overall was very surprised at the quality of the music produced. I own a Mitchell 70 and besides the looks, the sound as well as playability is something one would "fall in love with ' very easily. Just a note: from what I have heard about the troops (a.k.a. US military) in Afghanistan, the "uke" has become a very popular instrument, most likely for its playability as well as its transportability - "keep on strumming"

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    • A ukulele is often called a "Uke" for short.
      By: Jens Erbling
      A ukulele is often called a "Uke" for short.
    • A ukulele has four strings.
      By: schankz
      A ukulele has four strings.
    • The ukelele became Hawaii's most popular instrument.
      By: Galyna Andrushko
      The ukelele became Hawaii's most popular instrument.
    • Elvis Presley was often seen playing the ukulele.
      Elvis Presley was often seen playing the ukulele.