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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.
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.
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.
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?
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.