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What Is a Ukulele?
A ukulele, also known as uke or ukelele, is a small stringed instrument that originated in Hawai‘i. Similar in shape to a guitar, a ukulele has four nylon strings that musicians play by strumming with their fingers or a pick. The name “ukulele” roughly translates to “jumping flea” in Hawaiian, which, according to one origin story, refers to the energetic look of players’ fingers while fingerpicking.
Ukuleles can be made from any number of woods, including laminate wood, solid cedar, rosewood, and tonewoods. Koa, a Hawaiian acacia wood, is among the most popular woods used to make ukuleles.
A Brief History of the Ukulele
In 1879, three Portuguese immigrants from Madeira—Manuel Nunes, José do Espírito Santo, and Augusto Dias—disembarked from the SS Ravenscrag in Honolulu, Hawai‘i. The three men were cabinetmakers who missed the small guitar-like instruments—like the machete, the braguinha, and the cavaquinho—that were popular back home in Portugal. As a result, they made the first ukulele in the early 1880s.
While Portuguese immigrants introduced the ukulele to the island, King Kalākaua, then-monarch of Hawai‘i, was responsible for the popularity of the ukulele and its eventual reverence in Hawaiian culture. The instrument also became popular in the mainland United States, where Hawaiian music and hula dances were trendy in the mid-twentieth century. With appearances on The Arthur Godfrey Show and in music by Tiny Tim (especially his song “Tiptoe Through the Tulips”), the ukulele remained in the spotlight.
In the 1990s, the ukulele enjoyed a new rise in popularity in the United States, when Hawaiian musician Israel Kamakawiwo'ole released his ukulele versions of the popular songs “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” and “What a Wonderful World.” The popularity of ukuleles has led to a surge in hybrid musical instruments, such as the guitalele (a guitar ukelele) and the banjolele (a banjo ukulele).
9 Types of Ukuleles
There are many types of ukuleles on the market:
- Soprano ukulele: The original size (the second-smallest ukulele) with a C4–A5 range
- Concert ukulele: Slightly larger than the soprano, with a C4–C6 range
- Tenor ukulele: Slightly larger than concert, with a G3–D6 range
- Baritone ukulele: Slightly larger than the tenor, with a D3–A♯5 range
- Bass ukulele: The second-largest ukulele, with an E2–B4 range
- Contrabass ukulele: The largest of the ukulele sizes, with an E1–B3 range
- Pocket ukulele: Also known as piccolo, sopranino, or sopranissimo, this is the smallest ukulele, with a G4–D6 range
- Electric ukulele: A ukulele that can plug into an amp
- Pineapple ukulele: A ukulele that has a round, pineapple-shaped body, instead of a guitar shape
What Is the Difference Between Ukuleles and Guitars?
As string instruments, ukuleles and guitars may look very similar, but they have several significant differences, including:
- Size: The most apparent difference between guitars and ukuleles is their size: ukuleles range from 11 to 21 inches, while a full-size guitar can be up to 40 inches. Due to their small size, the ukulele can be more manageable for beginners to learn with, because they don’t have to stretch their fingers too far on the fretboard (or fingerboard) to make ukulele chords and notes.
- Strings: Guitars have six strings tuned from the lowest to highest (most often tuned with a tuner to E-A-D-G-B-E), while ukuleles only have four and don’t follow low-to-high order (standard ukulele tuning is G-C-E-A). With fewer strings, ukuleles can be easier to learn how to play—especially considering ukulele strings are usually soft nylon, rather than the tougher-on-the-fingers nickel-coated strings found on most guitars.
- Range: Since guitars are larger instruments than ukuleles, they have a much more extensive range of notes—standard classical guitars can play from E2 to E4, while a soprano ukulele can play only from C4 to A5.
- Sound: Acoustic guitars produce a loud, full sound, due in part to their larger size and nickel-coated strings; ukulele music is lighter and brighter than the richness of a guitar.
Want to Pack Some Hawaiian Punch Into Your ‘Uke Skills?
Grab a MasterClass All-Access Pass, stretch out those fingers, and get your strum on with a little help from the Jimi Hendrix of ‘ukulele, Jake Shimabukuro. With some pointers from this Billboard chart topper, you’ll be an expert on chords, tremolo, vibrato, and more in no time.