What is a ukulele?

Ukulele: the Hawaiian musical instruments has its roots in the north of Portugal | Photo: Apichodilok/Creative Commons

It produces a characteristic sound that immediately takes us to tropical environments. The ukulele was born in Hawaii but has its roots in Western Europe.

The ukulele is a four-stringed musical instrument made from wood that resembles a small classical guitar.

English speakers pronounce it as "you-ka-ley-ley" but, in fact, the spelling of the word is an anglicized version of the original Hawaiian pronunciation "ju-ke-lei-li."

The father and mother of the ukulele are two musical instruments from Portugal - the cavaquinho and the machete, also known as braguinha. They were developed in Braga, a city located in the north of the country.

The history of the ukulele dates back to the late 19th-century. In 1879, Portuguese immigrants from Madeira decided to leave their home island in search of a better life and well-paid jobs.

Around 25,000 people found work in the Hawaiian archipelago, also known as Sandwich Islands.

In their luggage, they carried the machete, which immediately conquered the hearts and ears of the local population.

Ukulele: a traditional Hawaiian musical instrument with a surfy sound | Photo: Creative Commons

The Portuguese started working in Hawaii's sugar plantations, but soon they opened their own woodworking shops where musical instruments and furniture were sold side by side.

The European immigrants were excellent guitar players, and they quickly gained the appreciation of the local community and the royal family.

In less than two decades, the ukulele saw the light of day. It was a natural Hawaiian adaptation of several four and five-string instruments developed in Portugal.

Manuel Nunes, Augusto Dias, and Jose do Espirito Santo are often considered pioneers of the ukulele.

The popularity of the instrument grew in the first decades of the 20th-century when Mainland American tourists discovered the exotism of the Hawaiian archipelago.

So, what does ukulele mean? Interestingly, ukulele means "jumping flea." The name was given because of its small size and vibrant, cheerful, and exuberant sound.

Israel Kamakawiwo'ole: one of the most famous ukulele players of all time

Types of Ukuleles

There are four main sizes of ukuleles: the baritone ukulele (18-21 frets), the tenor ukulele (17-19 frets), the ukulele concert (15-18 frets), and the soprano ukulele (12-15 frets).

A ukulele sells for between $20 and more than $1,000, depending on the type and quality of the construction. High-quality ukuleles are made of acacia koa or mahogany.

The cheaper models are built using plywood, plastic, or laminate woods.

The best and most popular ukulele brands and manufacturers are Kala, Lanikai, Mahalo, Hola!, Luna, Oscar Schmidt, ADM, Sawtooth, Diamond Head, Lohanu, Ohana, Pono, Kamaka, and Kanilea.

The ukulele, also known as uke, is a versatile instrument, and it is often used and heard in a broad range of musical genres, including jazz, country music, pop, world music, and rock.

It is also the instrument that best represents surfing and surfers.

The standard and most common ukulele tuning is G4, C4, E4, A4. The ukulele strings can be made of fluorocarbon, titanium, wound nylon, wound metal, and steel.

The Hawaiian Ukulele Orchestra, the Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain, and the Wellington International Ukulele Orchestra are some of the most popular groups specialized in the Hawaiian musical instrument.

Learning to Play the Ukulele

There are seven basic major and minor ukulele chords - A(m), B(m), C(m), D(m), E(m), F(m), G(m) - and they can be played using between one and four fingers.

Want to know how to play the ukulele? Take a look at the following video featuring ukulele beginner tips.

The most famous ukulele players of all time are:

Cliff Edwards (1895-1971)
Wendell Hall (1896-1969)
Frank Crumit (1889-1943)
Roy Smeck (1900-1994)
Arthur Godfrey (1903-1983)
George Formby (1904-1961)
Bill Tapia (1908-2001)
Teresa Mary O'Shea (1913-1995)
Genoa Keawe (1918-2008)
Eddie Kamae (1927-2017)
Don Ho (1930-2007)
Peter Moon (1944-)
Jim Beloff (1955-)
Israel Kamakawiwo'ole (1959-1997)
Daniel Ho (1968-)
Jake Shimabukuro (1976-)
James Hill (1980-)
Andy Eastwood (1980-)
Julia Nunes (1989-))
Age Pryor (?-)
Billy Carpenter (?-?)

But iconic music stars such as Elvis Presley, Eddie Vedder, Elvis Costello, George Harrison, Taylor Swift, Joni Mitchell, and Jack Johnson also played the Hawaiian instrument in their live performances.

Ukulele: a four-string instrument that resembles a small classical guitar | Photo: Kala

The most popular ukulele songs of all time are:

"Somewhere Over The Rainbow" - Israel Kamakawiwo'ole
"I'm Yours" - Jason Mraz
"Longing to Belong" - Eddie Vedder
"Five Foot Two, Eyes of Blue (Has Anybody Seen My Gal)" - Lucille Ball
"Aloha 'Oe" - Queen Liliuokalani
"Hey, Soul Sister" - Train
"When I'm Cleaning Windows" - George Formby
"Riptide" - Vance Joy
"Tonight You Belong To Me" – The Lennon Sisters
"The Lazy Song" - Bruno Mars
"Ukulele Lady" - Bette Midler
"Mele Kalikimaka" - Bing Crosby

The World Play Your Ukulele Day is celebrated every year on February 2.