Created on the exotic and warm island of Hawaii, the ukulele is known as one of the world’s most special and popular instruments.
Despite being small and built with very modest materials, this tender instrument has managed to captivate half the world thanks to its cheerful sound and ease of learning, being suitable for any type of person or age.
Now, how many kinds of ukulele are there? How was the first ukulele made? These and many other questions are common when you begin to investigate the origins of this precious instrument.
Therefore, with the intention of getting all this information to the rest of the world, we will now explain in detail the whole history of the ukulele. So that any music lover who has been impressed with this little musical angel can uncover all his secrets.
History of the Ukulele
In 1878, during California’s commercial expansion, the big businessmen who owned the best sugar plantations in the county needed to grow their business to meet a progressive increase in demand. In those years, the island of Hawaii was one of the places in the world where most sugar cane was produced, leading to an increase in migration to the foreign labor island.
It was the Portuguese community that recorded exponential growth at that time, bringing with it all its cultural customs. One of the main novelties they introduced was a small stringed instrument made of wood shaped like a “machete.” It was very simple, with four metal strings that gave it a rough look, but that didn’t make its sound any less beautiful.
The island’s locals quickly fell in love with this small instrument, and with the help of the more established immigrants began to create small modifications based on this first model. Taking as their main source of inspiration the different string instruments typical of Madeira, they ended up making what everyone would later know as the modern ukulele.
This led to the first official ukulele built on the island of Hawaii, crafted from the joint work of three local cabinetmakers who wanted to bring magic to this instrument worldwide. Despite the collective’s evident love for the instrument, no one understood how its success could become so great and spread so quickly throughout the country.
Such was the success that, in a short time, the ukulele went from being a simple wooden instrument of foreign origin to being a key sign within Hawaiian culture. The reason for this sudden success?
Many attribute them to the fascination felt at the time by King Kalakaua, which was a reference for the whole population, so that everything that the king liked was also loved by all his followers. From that moment on, the ukulele began to be introduced naturally into any cultural activities on the island, becoming known over time naturally throughout the American continent and later throughout the world.
Operation of the Ukulele
Once the history of this instrument is clear, it is essential that we really know how it works. There are many people who, despite knowing the anatomy and functioning of more sophisticated string instruments, such as the guitar, have a completely wrong idea about the mechanics of a ukulele.
Despite being recognized for its beautiful appearance and pleasant sound, there are still people who consider it a “toy” instrument, which is a real shame. Not because a Ukelele is smaller, it has to be less musical than a standard acoustic guitar, let alone a second-rate instrument incapable of generating high-quality music.
The reality is that the ukulele shares many similarities with the acoustic guitar, such as the shape, its soft sound, and in general, all the basic mechanics that make these two instruments create music.
However, the ukulele also has its own peculiarities, starting with its tuning, which is totally different, which makes its chords and execution techniques also different. It is at this point that another question arises: can a guitarist play the ukulele immediately without having to study the technique beforehand? The answer is clearly no.
Surely he will be able to defend himself and play the ukulele fairly well, but in no case will he be able to play it properly without having thoroughly studied the musical theory of this instrument. One of the most important characteristics of the ukuleles is that they only have four strings, whose standard tuning is as follows: G C E A.
Once you know this, it is easier to understand because a person who plays a perfectly good acoustic guitar, he can’t start playing well without studying the ukulele. Basically, because it lacks two strings and two of the notes that the ukulele possesses are not even in the guitars, therefore it will be possible to transfer neither chords nor scales from one instrument to another.
That said, no one else will possibly think to say that a ukulele is a Hawaiian souvenir that anyone can take home to decorate their wall in an original way, no. It is an instrument with all of the law, and it has its own history and its own mechanics, So he’ll need the same time and dedication as any other string instrument we want to learn how to play.
Anatomy of the Ukulele
At this point, you will also be interested to know that the construction of a ukulele is a process worthy of study. Although it seems very simple because of its small size, building a ukulele correctly and also making it sound like a real Hawaiian ukulele is complicated. Then we’ll explain it to you.
As with guitars, ukuleles have three main differentiated parts: body, neck, and hardware. In order to better understand the function of each of these parts, we will describe them in detail one by one.
The body of a ukulele in terms of form does not differ much from that of an acoustic guitar, as it also has that peculiar hourglass shape with the usual variety of treble and bass. As with all natural wood instruments, it is the nature of each material that will determine the sound it eventually produces.
There is no single universal ukulele always made with the same materials and proportions, but there is a wide variety of Ukulele sizes, a variety of wood types to build them with, different tones, etc.
The scale that a ukulele has is very short compared to a guitar, presenting on average of about 21 inches, although this aspect can always vary depending on the ukulele model we have.
This short distance in his neck, causes another peculiarity in the use of the strings, being impossible to use a standard type of strings for all ukuleles. Therefore, while a guitarist can choose any kind of strings and not worry about any other aspect in particular, for a person playing the ukulele, this will be impossible.
There are two main factors for choosing the ukulele strings: the length of the strings and the tuning for which they are to be used. This selection process at first can be a bit tricky, especially for beginners, but over the years, it will become something much more natural, and we will be able to distinguish perfectly between all kinds of strings on the market.
By Hardware, we know the outermost part of the ukulele, as it is the area where we find located the bridge, the tuners, and the mounts. This part is practically the same as that of the classical and acoustic guitars, also specifying that all the components that form it are of the best quality possible.
If we do not have a bridge or tuners that guarantee a good sound and the ideal tension in the strings, we will start to have serious tuning problems, being impossible to produce a pleasant and uniform sound.
As we have commented throughout the article, there is no single type of ukulele. As with guitars, there are different types of ukulele depending on their size, which in turn will determine their tuning.
The ukulele soprano is the most common type of ukulele, most people who start with this instrument acquire this type of ukulele. It is neither the smallest nor the largest, having a very practical standard size to learn more easily to place chords on frets and to start practicing strum.
The ukulele concert is two inches larger than the soprano, being more suitable for people with some expedition and more accustomed to the functioning of the instrument.
On the other hand, when its size varies, it will also change its tuning, being totally different from the standard. While the standard tuning is presented as follows: G4-C4 E4-A4 and A4-D4-F#4-B4, the tuning of the Ukulele concert can be this: G3-C4-E4-A4.
Its sound is just as pleasant, but two tones below the soprano, perfect for those who prefer a more subdued and enveloping sound in their songs.
The tenor ukulele is next in the ascending line of ukuleles depending on its size, being three inches larger than its predecessor. Of course, its sound is even more serious than the two previous ones, and it also has the possibility to tune with another type of adjustment.
The baritone ukulele is the least common to see, but not for them is less important or pleasant to play. It has a total length of 30 inches long and 19 inches of scale on its neck. Its sound is very serious, but unlike the others, it has a common tune: D3-G3-B3-E34
Although its sound is very different from that commonly associated with a ukulele, it is still very pleasant and similar to that produced by a classical guitar. Therefore, possibly this type of Ukelele is the most sought after among very experienced guitarists, accustomed to both its size and tone.
On the other hand, people who are looking to start playing an instrument for the first time and who have fallen in love with the classic ukulele sound should look for a Ukulele soprano. That is the type of standard ukulele perfect for beginners looking to learn easily and get the characteristic sound of this instrument.
What Makes a Ukulele Good
Once you know all this about the ukulele, the next question that will come to mind will be this: What is the difference between a good ukulele and a bad ukulele? Any beginner who wants to buy a ukulele and who has minimal guarantees of quality will ask the same question.
The answer is not simple, but it could be summed up in two aspects: the quality of the wood and the skill of the Luthier who manufactures it. From these two premises, you should look for a good material that guarantees the quality of the sound of your ukulele.
Among the woods most used in its manufacture, the Koa is considered the best for the construction of solid ukuleles and with a quality sound. This wood is native to Hawaii, and all ukuleles were originally made using this material.
However, there are other equally valid types of wood, such as maple or mahogany. Even so, if you get good wood, but the Luthier has no idea of making ukuleles, the result will be just as bad. Therefore, ensure that both factors are on an equal footing.
The experts in this instrument always recommend that we buy ukuleles made entirely by Luthiers from Hawaii, as they have been building ukuleles for hundreds of years and know very well what the ideal sound of each ukulele type is. This is not to say that a quality Luthier from another part of the world cannot do it well, although the margin of error will always be greater.
There is one not-so-traditional type of ukulele called banjolele or banjo ukulele.
What Kind of Music Can You Make with Ukulele
Another question to be addressed when you start playing the ukulele is this: What style of music can you really play with a ukulele? Of course, it’s all a question of attitude, and if we wanted to, we could transcribe almost any score to the ukulele tablature.
However, it would never sound the same. For starters, the most distanced styles from the musicality of a ukulele could be heavy or rock. Yes, we could try to play some of these pieces with the ukulele, but we could only reproduce the notes, not the sound at all.
The ukulele is a sweet instrument, whose sound is distinguished by being pleasantly sharp. Therefore, we should look for styles closer to that tonality, such as blues, jazz, or pop. The latter being the most suitable.
On the other hand, as with many other similar string instruments, the Ukelele also allows the expansion of your sound electronically. While that is not your usual style, there are people who like to experiment and take the music to the next level.
In any case, whether you are a lover of music with modern touches or enjoy the natural acoustics of the instruments, the ukulele will be a pleasant surprise for your life in every way.