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Martin 3K Professional Ukulele
String instrument
Classification String instrument (plucked, nylon stringed instrument usually played with the bare thumb and/or fingertips, or a felt pick.)
Hornbostel-Sachs classification 321.322
(Composite chordophone)
Developed 19th century
Related instruments

The ukulele, (pronounced /ˌjuːkəˈleɪliː/ YOO-kə-LAY-lee, from Hawaiian: ʻukulele [ˈʔukuˈlele]; variantly spelled ukelele in the UK), sometimes abbreviated to uke, is a chordophone classified as a plucked lute; it is a subset of the guitar family of instruments, generally with four nylon or gut strings or four courses of strings.[1]

The ukulele originated in the 19th century as a Hawaiian interpretation of a small guitar-like instrument brought to Hawaiʻi by Portuguese immigrants.[2] It gained great popularity elsewhere in the United States during the early 20th century, and from there spread internationally.

Tone and volume of the instrument vary with size and construction. Ukuleles commonly come in four sizes: soprano, concert, tenor, and baritone.





The ukulele is commonly associated with music from Hawai‘i where the name roughly translates as "jumping flea",[3] due to the action of one's fingers playing the ukulele resembling a "jumping flea". According to Queen Lili'uokalani, the last Hawaiian monarch, the name means “the gift that came here”, from the Hawaiian words uku (gift or reward) and lele (to come).[4]

Developed in the 1880s, the ukulele is based on a small guitar-like instrument, the machete (similar to, though smaller than, the modern Portuguese cavaquinho and the Spanish timple), introduced to the Hawaiian Islands by Macaronesian (Portuguese and Spanish) immigrants.[5] Three immigrants in particular, Madeiran cabinet makers Manuel Nunes, José do Espírito Santo, and Augusto Dias, are generally credited as the first ukulele makers.[6] Two weeks after they landed aboard the Ravenscrag in late August 1879, the Hawaiian Gazette reported that "Madeira Islanders recently arrived here, have been delighting the people with nightly street concerts."[7]

One of the most important factors in establishing the ukulele in Hawaiian music and culture was the ardent support and promotion of the instrument by King David Kalakaua. A patron of the arts, he incorporated it into performances at royal gatherings.[8]

U.S. mainland

Pre-World War II

The ukulele was popularized for a stateside audience during the Panama Pacific International Exposition, held for most of 1915 in San Francisco.[9] The Hawaiian Pavilion featured a guitar and ukulele ensemble, George E. K. Awai and his Royal Hawaiian Quartette,[10] along with ukulele maker and player Jonah Kumalae.[11] The popularity of the ensemble with visitors launched a fad for Hawaiian-themed songs among Tin Pan Alley songwriters.[12] The ensemble also introduced both the lap steel guitar and the ukulele into U.S. mainland popular music,[13] where it was taken up by vaudeville performers such as Roy Smeck and Cliff "Ukulele Ike" Edwards.[14]

The ukulele soon became an icon of the Jazz Age.[15] Highly portable and relatively inexpensive, it 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,[15] a role that would eventually be supplanted by the guitar in the early years of rock and roll.[16] 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.

Post-World War II

From the late 1940s to the late 1960s, plastics manufacturer Mario Maccaferri turned out about 9 million inexpensive ukuleles.[17] Much of the instrument's popularity was cultivated via The Arthur Godfrey Show on television.[18] Singer-musician Tiny Tim became closely associated with the instrument after playing it on his 1968 hit "Tiptoe Through the Tulips".

Post-1990 Revival

After the 1960s, the ukulele declined in popularity until the late 1990s, when interest in the instrument reappeared. During the 1990s new manufacturers began producing ukuleles, and a new generation of musicians took up the instrument.[citation needed] Former Beatle George Harrison and former keyboardist of The Cars Greg Hawkes became enthusiastic players. The Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain, formed in London in 1985, are one such group, and have played to audiences across the world. Hawaiʻi-born Jake Shimabukuro has also become a popular ukulele performer in recent years, having played the instrument since the age of 4. Israel Kamakawiwo'ole also helped popularise the instrument, in particular due to his 1993 ukulele medley of "Over the Rainbow" and "What a Wonderful World", used in several films, television programs, and commercials. The song reached #12 on Billboard's Hot Digital Tracks chart the week of January 31, 2004 (for the survey week ending January 18, 2004). The instrument has also found use by some indie pop performers, such as Beirut and Noah and the Whale.


  • Japan: The ukulele came to Japan in 1929 after Hawaiian-born Yukihiko Haida returned to the country upon his father's death and introduced the instrument. Haida and his brother Katsuhiko formed the Moana Glee Club, enjoying rapid success in an environment of growing enthusiasm for Western popular music, particularly Hawaiian music and jazz. During World War II, authorities banned most Western music, but fans and players kept it alive in secret, and it resumed popularity after the war. In 1959, Haida founded the Nihon Ukulele Association. Today, Japan is considered a second home for Hawaiian musicians and ukulele virtuosos.[19]
  • Canada: In the 1960s, educator J. Chalmers Doane dramatically changed school music programmes across Canada, using the ukulele as an inexpensive and practical teaching instrument to foster musical literacy in the classroom.[20] There were 50,000 schoolchildren and adults learning ukulele through the Doane program at its peak.[21]
  • UK: The singer and comedian George Formby was perhaps the most famous ukelele player in the UK. There has been a recent upsurge in demand for the instrument, due to its relative simplicity and portability.[22]

Types and tunings

Ukuleles hanging in a music store.


Ukuleles are generally made of wood, although variants have been made composed partially or entirely of plastic. Cheaper ukuleles are generally made from ply or laminate woods, in some cases with a soundboard of an inexpensive but acoustically superior wood such as spruce. Other more expensive ukuleles are made of exotic hardwoods such as mahogany (Swietenia spp.). Some of the most valuable ukuleles, which may cost thousands of dollars, are made from koa (Acacia koa), a Hawaiian wood known for its fine tone and attractive color and

Typically ukuleles have a figure-eight body shape similar to that of a small acoustic guitar. They are also often seen in non-standard shapes, such as an oval, usually called a "pineapple" ukulele, invented by the Kamaka ukulele company, or a boat-paddle shape, and occasionally a square shape, often made out of an old wooden cigar box.

These instruments may have just four strings; or some strings may be paired in courses, giving the instrument a total of six or eight strings.


Four sizes of ukuleles are common: soprano, concert, tenor, and baritone. There are also less common sopranino and bass ukuleles at the extreme ends of the size spectrum.

The soprano, often called "standard" in Hawaii, is the smallest, and the original size ukulele. The concert size was developed in the 1920s as an enhanced soprano, slightly larger and louder with a deeper tone. Shortly thereafter, the tenor was created, having more volume and deeper bass tone. The largest size is the baritone, created in the 1940s.

Type Scale length[23] Total length Tuning[24]
(Helmholtz notation)
soprano or standard 13" (33 cm) 21" (53 cm) g'c'e'a' or a'd'f#'b'
concert 15" (38 cm) 23" (58 cm) g'c'e'a' or gc'e'a'
tenor 17" (43 cm) 26" (66 cm) gc'e'a', g'c'e'a', or d'gbe'
baritone 19" (48 cm) 30" (76 cm) dgbe'


The standard tuning for soprano, concert, and tenor ukuleles is C-tuning, g'c'e'a'. The g string is tuned an octave higher than might be expected. This is known as reentrant tuning. Some prefer "Low G" tuning, with the G in sequence an octave lower. The baritone is usually tuned to d g b e' (low to high).

Another common tuning for sopranos and concerts is D-tuning, a' d' f#' b', one step higher than the g'c'e'a' tuning. D tuning is said by some to bring out a sweeter tone in some ukuleles, generally smaller ones. This tuning was commonly used during the Hawaiian music boom of the early 20th century, and is often seen in sheet music from this period. D tuning with a low 4th, ad'f#'b' is sometimes called "Canadian tuning" after its use in the Canadian school system, mostly on concert or tenor ukes.

Hawaiian ukuleles may also be tuned to open tunings, similar to the Hawaiian slack key style.[25]

Related instruments

A speciality 'designer' ukulele

Ukulele varieties include hybrid instruments such as the banjo ukulele, harp ukulele, and lap steel ukulele. There is an electrically amplified version, the electric ukulele. The resonator ukulele is louder and of different tone quality from traditional wooden ukuleles, producing sound by one or more spun aluminum cones (resonators) instead of the wooden soundboard. Another unique variant is the Tahitian ukulele which is usually carved from a single piece of wood and does not have a hollow soundbox.

Close cousins of the ukulele include the Portuguese forerunners, the cavaquinho (also commonly known as machete or braguinha) and the slightly larger rajão. Other stringed variants include the Puerto Rican bordonua, the Venezuelan cuatro, the Colombian tiple, the timple of the Canary Islands, the Spanish vihuela, and the Bolivian charango traditionally made of an armadillo shell. In Indonesia, a similar Portuguese-inspired instrument is the kroncong.

Audio samples

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See also


  1. ^ Erich M. von Hornbostel & Curt Sachs, "Classification of Musical Instruments: Translated from the Original German by Anthony Baines and Klaus P. Wachsmann." The Galpin Society Journal 14, 1961: 3-29.
  2. ^ Norden, Ernest E.. "Portugese Americans". Multicultural America. Retrieved 2009-02-23. 
  3. ^ Beloff 2003, p. 13
  4. ^ Template:Cite book Alternatively it is commonly known on the islands as "uku" or fleas and "lele" to jump, or jumping fleas. This is a reference to the quick paced plucking motion made when the instrument is played. (
  5. ^ Nidel, Richard (2004). World Music: The Basics. Routledge. pp. 312. ISBN 9780415968003. 
  6. ^ Roberts, Helen (1926). Ancient Hawaiian Music. Bernice P. Bishop Museum. pp. 9–10. 
  7. ^ King, John (2000). "Prolegomena to a History of the ‘Ukelele". Ukulele Guild of Hawai'i. Retrieved 2008-06-11. 
  8. ^ "David Kalakaua (1836-1891) - Inaugural Hall of Fame Inductee, 1997". Ukulele Hall of Fame Museum. 2008. Retrieved 2008-06-11. 
  9. ^ Lipsky, William (2005). San Francisco's Panama-Pacific International Exposition. Arcadia Publishing. pp. 36. ISBN 9780738530093. 
  10. ^ Doyle, Peter (2005). Echo and Reverb: Fabricating Space in Popular Music Recording, 1900-1960. Wesleyan. pp. 120. ISBN 9780819567949. 
  11. ^ "Jonah Kumalae (1875-1940) - 2002 Hall of Fame Inductee". Ukulele Hall of Fame Museum. 2007. Retrieved 2008-06-02. 
  12. ^ Koskoff, Ellen (2005). Music Cultures in the United States: An Introduction. Routledge. pp. 129. ISBN 9780415965880. 
  13. ^ Volk, Andy (2003). Lap Steel Guitar. Centerstream Publications. pp. 6. ISBN 9781574241341. 
  14. ^ Whitcomb, Ian (2000). Ukulele Heaven: Songs from the Golden Age of the Ukulele. Mel Bay Publications. pp. 11. ISBN 9780786649518. 
  15. ^ a b Whitcomb, Ian (2001). Uke Ballads: A Treasury of Twenty-five Love Songs Old and New. Mel Bay Publications. pp. 4. ISBN 9780786613601. 
  16. ^ Sanjek, Russell (1988). American Popular Music and Its Business: The First Four Hundred Years. Oxford University Press. pp. 95. ISBN 0195043111. 
  17. ^ Wright, Michael (3 March 2002). "Maccaferri History: The Guitars of Mario Maccaferri". Vintage Guitar. Retrieved 2008-06-02. 
  18. ^ "Arthur Godfrey (1903-1983) - 2001 Hall of Fame Inductee". Ukulele Hall of Fame Museum. 2007. Retrieved 2008-06-02. 
  19. ^ Beloff, Jim (2003). The Ukulele: A Visual History. Backbeat books. pp. 110. ISBN 9780879307585. 
  20. ^ Karr, Gary, and McMillan, Barclay (1992). "J. Chalmers Doane". Encyclopedia of Music in Canada. University of Toronto Press. Retrieved 2008-06-09. 
  21. ^ Beloff, Jim (2003). The Ukulele: A Visual History. Backbeat books. pp. 111. ISBN 9780879307585. 
  22. ^ [[cite }}
  23. ^ The "Scale" is the length of the playable part of the strings, from the nut at the top to the bridge at the bottom.
  24. ^ On the soprano, concert, and tenor instruments, the most common tuning results in a "bottom" string that is not the lowest, as it is tuned a 5th higher than the next string (and a Major 2nd below the "top" string).
  25. ^ Kimura, Heeday. How to Play Slack Key Ukulule. 


  • Beloff, Jim (2003). The Ukulele: A Visual History (Revised & Expanded ed.). San Francisco: Backbeat Books. ISBN 0-87930-758-7. 

External links

Simple English


String instrument (plucked, nylon stringed instrument usually played with the bare thumb and/or fingertips, or a felt pick.)

Playing range
Related instruments
  • Bowed and plucked string instruments, namely the cavaquinho

The ukulele (pronounced /ˌjʉːkəˈlɛɪli/), also called the uke for short, is a chordophone classified as a plucked lute; it part of the guitar family of instruments, usually with four strings or four courses of strings. The strings are usually tuned G,C,E,A or A,D,F#,B.

The ukulele was born in the 19th Century in Hawaii, where people got the idea from small guitar-like instruments brought to the island by Portuguese sailors.

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