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From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia


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.



The ukulele 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 neighbor of famous ukulele player Bill Tapia. He sold Bill his first instrument for $0.75 many years later in 1915.

The ukulele resembles a smaller cuatro, a four stringed guitar from Latin America, which had been around for hundreds of years before the ukulele.

Some of the most valuable ukuleles, which may run into the thousands of dollars in price, are made from koa (Acacia koa), a local wood known for its fine tone and attractive color and

U.S. Mainland

The ukulele was popularized for a stateside audience[1] 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).

A soprano uke has a 13" (33 cm) scale length and is usually about 21" (53 cm) total length.

A concert uke has a 15" (38 cm) scale length and is usually about 23" (58 cm) total length.

A tenor uke has a 17" (43 cm) scale length and is usually about 26" (66 cm) total length.

A baritone uke has a 19" (48 cm) scale length and is usually about 30" (76 cm) total length.

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. From low to high, the strings of the ukulele are tuned: 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 is 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 the use of the phrase in published teaching materials by at least decades.

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 (i.e., 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:

Former Beatle George Harrison became very excited about the ukulele, especially in the last few years of his life. 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".

Although not as widely-known, Keith Green was playing the ukulele when he was 3 years of age.

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 [1] 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.

Audio samples

  • Ukulele chords (file info) — play in browser (beta)
    • A chord being played on an ukulele - 47 kB
    • Problems listening to the file? See media help.
  • Henry Kailimai's hene (file info) — play in browser (beta)
    • A piece being played on an ʻukulele - 327 kB
    • Problems listening to the file? See media help.


  1. ^ A Little Uke History

External links

  • Hawaiian Concert Guide Podcast Free podcast featuring Hawaiian music that includes the Ukulele.
  • Interactive ukulele lessons for beginners
  • Several tutorials and videos about strumming, fingerpicking patterns, and a ukulele online radio
  • Ukulele blog
  • Ukulele Chord Finder
  • Ukulele tabs page, goofy stuff, uke info
  • UkeWiki
  • Videos of past and present ukulele players
  • Learn how to build/make your own Ukulele
  • Build your own Ukulele Instructions and photos at
  • "Uke Yak" at fleamarketmusic Questions answered by Chuck Fayne, featured collector of Jim Beloff's The Ukulele: A Visual History
  • Video of Jake Shimabukuro playing While My Guitar Gently Weeps by George Harrison
  • Langley Ukulele Ensemble
  • Interactive ukulele chord finder
  • UkeCast - Ukulele Podcast
  • neat Ukulele stuff, and the Ukulele name database
  • Ukulelia - the ukulele blog
  • Jayme's Ukulele Page

See also

  • Tiple
  • Timple
  • Charango
  • Bordonúa
  • Cuatro
  • Cavaquinho
  • Vihuela
  • Kamaka

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