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Ukulele History

The Ukulele is commonly associated with music from Hawaii where the name roughly translates as "jumping flea" and was developed there in the 1880s as a combination of the Madeiran Portuguese braguinha and rajão. A braguinha is a cavaquinho-like instrument built in the city of Braga and named after it; the Brazilian 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 Hawaii, 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 neighbor of famous ukulele player Bill Tapia. He sold Bill his first instrument for $0.75 many years later in 1915.


The ukulele comes in four sizes, (from smallest to largest): soprano (the original size), concert, tenor (created in the 1920s), and 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 fourth strings are doubled with second and fourth course). In traditional Hawaiian tuning, first and third courses are tuned in an octave.


In the United States, soprano and concert ukes are usually tuned in the chord of C6: G-C-E-A from low to high, 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 tenor 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, may be referred to jocularly as "My dog has fleas", because the strings sounded in order are the same as the phrase in the song My Dog Has Fleas.


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.


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


The ukulele 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 spelled ukelele, a spelling still used in Great Britain.


Tuning a ukulele

Since the ukulele is a stringed instrument, it can be tuned with a guitar tuner or a pitch pipe. Like all stringed instruments, the ukulele becomes detuned if not frequently tuned. When the strings are new, the ukulele cannot hold a tune for more than a few seconds. 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.



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


Ukulele musicians

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


Luke Bailey and his Ukulele

Bob Brozman

L S Coker

Chalmers Doane

Cliff Edwards ("Ukulele Ike")

Ed's Redeeming Qualities

Sean Egan

Wayne Federman

Neil Finn

George Formby (who played both the banjolele and the Hawaiian ukelele)

Bruce Forsyth

Gabby La La

Imua Garza

Arthur Godfrey

George Harrison

Darren Hayman

James Hill

Jack Johnson (musician)

Ernest Kaai

Jesse Kalima

Eddie Kamae

Israel Kamakawiwoʻole

Buster Keaton

Janet Klein

Langley Ukulele Ensemble

Stephen Merritt

"King" Benny Nawahi

Herb Ohta ("Ohta-San")

Brittni Paiva

Jeff Pope

Stefan Raab

Peggy Reza ("Aunty Uke") of the Blue Shoes Band

Dan Scanlan ("Cool Hand Uke")

The Secondhandpants

Jake Shimabukuro

Roy Smeck

Bill Tapia

Te Ava Piti

Tracey Terada ("Dr. Trey")

Tiki King

Tiny Tim

uke til u puke

The Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain

Ukes of Hazard

Eddie Vedder

Zac Walker

Waste of Aces

Patrick Wolf


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 traveled 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, Warren Buffet, Loudon Wainwright III, Tony Blair and Elvis Presley.


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 color (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

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. From, the free encyclopedia.

Read more history
Banjo History
Guitar History
Mandolin History



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