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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 (, , from Hawaiian: ʻukulele , ; British English: ukelele)[1] sometimes abbreviated to uke, is a member of the lute family of instruments; it generally employs four nylon or gut strings or four courses of strings.[2]

The ukulele originated in the 19th century as a Hawaiian interpretation of the machete,[3] a small guitar-like instrument related to the cavaquinho, timple, braguinha and the rajão, taken to Hawaii by Portuguese immigrants, many from the Macaronesian Islands. It gained great popularity elsewhere in the United States during the early 20th century, and from there spread internationally.

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



The ukulele is commonly associated with music from Hawaii where the name roughly translates as "jumping flea,"[4] perhaps because of the movement of the player's fingers. Legend attributes it to the nickname of the Englishman Edward William Purvis, one of King Kalākaua's officers, because of his small size, fidgety manner, and playing expertise. According to Queen Liliʻuokalani, the last Hawaiian monarch, the name means “the gift that came here,” from the Hawaiian words uku (gift or reward) and lele (to come).

Developed in the 1880s, the ukulele is based on several small guitar-like instruments of Portuguese origin, the machete,[5] the cavaquinho and the rajão, introduced to the Hawaiian Islands by Portuguese immigrants from Madeira and Cape Verde.[6] Three immigrants in particular, Madeiran cabinet makers Manuel Nunes, José do Espírito Santo, and Augusto Dias, are generally credited as the first ukulele makers.[7] Two weeks after they disembarked from the SS Ravenscrag in late August 1879, the Hawaiian Gazette reported that "Madeira Islanders recently arrived here, have been delighting the people with nightly street concerts."[8]

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 Kalākaua. A patron of the arts, he incorporated it into performances at royal gatherings.[9]


In the 1960s, educator J. Chalmers Doane dramatically changed school music programs across Canada, using the ukulele as an inexpensive and practical teaching instrument to foster musical literacy in the classroom.[10] 50,000 schoolchildren and adults learned ukulele through the Doane program at its peak.[11] Today, a revised program created by James Hill and J. Chalmers Doane continues to be a staple of the music education in Canada.


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 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.[12]

United Kingdom

The singer and comedian [14]

United States (mainland)

1916 cartoon by Louis M. Glackens satirizing the current ukulele craze

Pre–World War II

The ukulele was popularized for a stateside audience during the [16] along with ukulele maker and player Jonah Kumalae.[17] The popularity of the ensemble with visitors launched a fad for Hawaiian-themed songs among Tin Pan Alley songwriters.[18] The ensemble also introduced both the lap steel guitar and the ukulele into U.S. mainland popular music,[19] where it was taken up by vaudeville performers such as Roy Smeck and Cliff "Ukulele Ike" Edwards. On April 15, 1923 at the Rivoli Theater in New York City, Smeck appeared, playing the ukulele, in Stringed Harmony, a short film made in the DeForest Phonofilm sound-on-film process. On August 6, 1926, Smeck appeared playing the ukulele in a short film His Pastimes, made in the Vitaphone sound-on-disc process, shown with the feature film Don Juan starring John Barrymore.[20]

The ukulele soon became an icon of the Jazz Age.[21] 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,[21] a role that would eventually be supplanted by the guitar in the early years of rock and roll.[22] 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.

The ukulele also made inroads into early country music or old-time music.[23] It was played by Jimmie Rodgers and Ernest V. Stoneman, as well as by early string bands, including Cowan Powers and his Family Band, Da Costa Woltz's Southern Broadcasters, Walter Smith and Friends, The Blankenship Family, The Hillbillies, and The Hilltop Singers.[23]

Post–World War II

Boy in Hawaii wearing lei and holding a Maccaferri "Islander" plastic ukulele
alt text
A modern red ukulele.

From the late 1940s to the late 1960s, plastics manufacturer Mario Maccaferri turned out about 9 million inexpensive ukuleles.[24] The ukulele continued to be popular, appearing on many jazz songs throughout the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s.[25] Much of the instrument's popularity was cultivated via The Arthur Godfrey Show on television.[26] 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.[27] During the 1990s, new manufacturers began producing ukuleles and a new generation of musicians took up the instrument. Jim Beloff set out to promote the instrument in the early 1990s and created over two dozen ukulele music books featuring modern music as well as classic ukulele pieces.[28] Hawaiian musician Israel Kamakawiwo'ole helped re-popularise the instrument, in particular with his 1993 medley of "Over the Rainbow" and "What a Wonderful World," used in 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 creation of YouTube was a large influence on the popularity of the ukulele. One of the first videos to go viral was While My Guitar Gently Weeps" on YouTube. The video quickly went viral, and has received over 12 million views.[29] and launched Jake's career. The ready availability of thousands of instructional videos has greatly expanded the popularity of this easy to learn instrument.


Soprano pineapple ukulele, baritone ukulele and taropatch baritone ukulele.
Ukuleles in a music store.


Ukuleles are generally made of wood, though variants have been composed partially or entirely of plastic or other materials. Cheaper ukuleles are generally made from ply or laminate woods, in some cases with a soundboard of an acoustically superior wood such as spruce. Such instruments typically cost from $50 to $100. More expensive ukuleles are made of solid hardwoods such as mahogany (Swietenia spp.) Some of the most expensive ukuleles, which may cost thousands of dollars, are made from koa (Acacia koa), a Hawaiian wood.

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 cutaway shape and 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. The strings themselves were originally made of catgut. Modern ukuleles use nylon polymer strings, with many variations in the material. Some of the lower strings, particularly on the larger sizes, are wound with aluminum.

Instruments with 6 or 8 strings in four courses are often called taropatches, or taropatch ukuleles. They were once common in a concert size, but now the tenor size is more common for six-string taropatch ukuleles. The six string, four course version, has two single and two double courses, and is sometimes called a Lili'u, though this name also applies to the eight-string version.[30]


Common types of ukuleles include concert, soprano (standard ukulele), tenor, baritone. Less common are the sopranino (also called piccolo, bambino, or "pocket uke") and bass ukelele.[31] The soprano, often called "standard" in Hawaii, is the second-smallest and was the original size. 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 baritone was created in the 1940s, and the bass is a very recent innovation (2009).

Size and popular tunings of standard ukulele types:

Type Scale length[32] Total length Tuning[33]
sopranino (piccolo or pocket) 11" (28cm) ~16" (40cm) D5-G4-B4-E5 or C5-F4-A4-D5
soprano (standard) 13" (33cm) 21" (53cm) A4-D4-F#4-B4 or G4-C4-E4-A4 (most common)
concert ("super soprano") 15" (38cm) 23" (58cm) A4-D4-F#4-B4 or G4-C4-E4-A4 (most common)
tenor 17" (43cm) 26" (66cm) A4-D4-F#4-B4, G4-C4-E4-A4 (most common), G3-C4-E4-A4, or D4-G3-B3-E4
baritone 19" (48cm) 29" (74cm) D3-G3-B3-E4
bass 21" (53cm) 30" (76cm) E1-A1-D2-G2

Range of notes of standard ukulele types:

Notes that range varies with the tuning and size of the instruments. The examples shown in the chart are: sopranino ukulele with 10 frets - tuned to DGBE, soprano ukulele with 12 frets - tuned to ADF#B (re-entrant), concert ukulele with 14 frets - tuned to GCEA (re-entrant), tenor ukulele with 16 frets - tuned to GCEA (linear), baritone ukulele with 18 frets - tuned to DGBE, and bass ukulele with 16 frets - tuned to EADG.


Ukulele C6 tuning About this sound   .
"My dog has fleas" tuning. About this sound   

The most popular tuning found on the internet for the standard or soprano ukulele is C6-tuning: G4 C4 E4 A4.[34] The G string is tuned an octave higher than might be expected. This is known as reentrant tuning. Some players prefer "Low G" tuning, with the G in sequence an octave lower. The baritone is usually tuned to D3 G3 B3 E4, which is the same as the highest four strings of the standard 6-string guitar.

Another common tuning for the soprano ukulele is D-tuning, A4 D4 F#4 B4, one step higher than the G4 C4 E4 A4 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, is often seen in sheet music from this period, as well as in many method books through the 1980s. D tuning with a low 4th, A3 D4 F#4 B4 is sometimes called "Canadian tuning" after its use in the Canadian school system, mostly on concert or tenor ukuleles, and extensive use by James Hill and J. Chalmers Doane.[35]

Whether C6 or D6 tuning should be the "standard" tuning is a matter of long and on-going debate. There are historic and popular ukulele methods that have used each.[36]

The "higher pitched" instruments (sopranino, soprano, concert) most often employ re-entrant tuning, while the "lower pitched" instruments (tenor, baritone, bass) usually employ linear tuning, where the strings are tuned from low to high pitch across the instrument.

Hawaiian ukuleles may also be tuned to open tunings, similar to the Hawaiian slack key style.[37]

Related instruments

Ukulele varieties include hybrid instruments such as the guitalele (also called guitarlele), banjo ukulele (also called banjolele), harp ukulele, and lap steel ukulele. There is an electrically amplified version, the electric ukulele. The resonator ukulele produces sound by one or more spun aluminum cones (resonators) instead of the wooden soundboard, giving it a distinct and louder tone. The Tahitian ukulele, another variant, is usually carved from a single piece of wood,[38] 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 Venezuelan cuatro, the Colombian tiple, the timple of the Canary Islands, the Spanish vihuela, the Mexican requinto jarocho, and the Andean charango traditionally made of an armadillo shell. In Indonesia, a similar Portuguese-inspired instrument is the kroncong.[39]

Audio samples

A chord being played on a ukulele – 47 kB

Problems playing this file? See .
A piece being played on a ukulele – 327 kB

Problems playing this file? See .

See also


  1. ^ "ukulele".  
  2. ^ 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.
  3. ^ Tranquada and King (2012). The Ukulele, A History. Hawaii University Press.  
  4. ^ Beloff 2003, p. 13
  5. ^ Tranquada, Jim (2012). The Ukulele: a History. University of Hawaii Press. pp. 37–39.  
  6. ^ Nidel, Richard (2004). World Music: The Basics. Routledge. p. 312.  
  7. ^ Roberts, Helen (1926). Ancient Hawaiian Music. Bernice P. Bishop Museum. pp. 9–10. 
  8. ^ King, John (2003). "Prolegomena to a History of the ‘Ukulele". Ukulele Guild of Hawai'i. 
  9. ^ "David Kalakaua (1836–1891), Inaugural Hall of Fame Inductee, 1997". Ukulele Hall of Fame Museum. 2008. 
  10. ^ Karr, Gary, and McMillan, Barclay (1992). "J. Chalmers Doane". Encyclopedia of Music in Canada. University of Toronto Press. Retrieved 2008-06-09. 
  11. ^ Beloff 2003, p. 111
  12. ^ Beloff, Jim (2003). The Ukulele: A Visual History. Backbeat books. p. 110.  
  13. ^ Fladmark, Judy (2010-02-19). "Ukulele sends UK crazy". BBC News. 
  14. ^ Tranquada, Jim (2012). The Ukulele: a History. University of Hawaii Press. pp. 162–3.  
  15. ^ Lipsky, William (2005). San Francisco's Panama-Pacific International Exposition. Arcadia Publishing. p. 36.  
  16. ^ Doyle, Peter (2005). Echo and Reverb: Fabricating Space in Popular Music Recording, 1900–1960. Wesleyan. p. 120.  
  17. ^ "Jonah Kumalae (1875–1940), 2002 Hall of Fame Inductee". Ukulele Hall of Fame Museum. 2007. Retrieved 2008-06-02. 
  18. ^ Koskoff, Ellen (2005). Music Cultures in the United States: An Introduction. Routledge. p. 129.  
  19. ^ Volk, Andy (2003). Lap Steel Guitar. Centerstream Publications. p. 6.  
  20. ^ Whitcomb, Ian (2000). Ukulele Heaven: Songs from the Golden Age of the Ukulele. Mel Bay Publications. p. 11.  
  21. ^ a b Whitcomb, Ian (2001). Uke Ballads: A Treasury of Twenty-five Love Songs Old and New. Mel Bay Publications. p. 4.  
  22. ^ Sanjek, Russell (1988). American Popular Music and Its Business: The First Four Hundred Years. Oxford University Press. p. 95.  
  23. ^ a b The Old Time Herald, Volume 9, Number Five, Fall 2004, Pages 19-22., by Rev and Deb Porter, article in Just a Few Penny Dreadfuls, Ukulele and Old–Time Country Music
  24. ^ Wright, Michael. "Maccaferri History: The Guitars of Mario Maccaferri". Vintage Guitar. Retrieved 2008-06-02. 
  25. ^ "The Ukulele". Peterborough Music. 3 March 2002. Retrieved 2011-09-15. The Ukulele
  26. ^ "Arthur Godfrey (1903–1983), 2001 Hall of Fame Inductee". Ukulele Hall of Fame Museum. 2007. Retrieved 2008-06-02. 
  27. ^ John Shepherd (27 February 2003). Continuum encyclopedia of popular music of the world: VolumeII: Performance and production. Continuum International Publishing Group. pp. 450–.  
  28. ^ Mighty Uke, Interview with Jim Beloff, 2010
  29. ^ Jake Shimabukuro playing "While My Guitar Gently Weeps" on YouTube
  30. ^
  31. ^
  32. ^ The "Scale" is the length of the playable part of the strings, from the nut at the top to the bridge at the bottom.
  33. ^ 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).
  34. ^
  35. ^
  36. ^ Tranquada, J.; The Ukulele: A History; University of Hawaii Press; Honolulu: 2012. 0824-83634-0 According to Tranquanda, ""This is an old and seemingly never-ending argument. While the pioneering methods of Kaai (1906) and Rollinson (1909) both use C tuning, a sampling of the methods that follow give a sense of the unresolved nature of the debate: Kealakai (1914), D tuning; Bailey (1914), C tuning; Kia (1914), D tuning; Kamiki (1916), D tuning; Guckert (1917), C tuning; Stumpf (1917), D tuning."
  37. ^ Kimura, Heeday. How to Play Slack Key Ukulule. 
  38. ^ University of the South Pacific. Institute of Pacific Studies (2003). Cook Islands culture. Institute of Pacific Studies in Association with the Cook Islands Extension Centre, University of the South Pacific, the Cook Islands Cultural and Historic Places Trust, and the Ministry of Cultural Development.  
  39. ^  


External links

  • Tiki King's Ukulele Brand name database – information on over 600 ukulele makers past and present
  • The Ukulele & You - an exhibition curated by the Museum of Making Music, Carlsbad, CA that details the ukulele's history and waves of mainstream popularity.
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