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The guitar and the ukulele are two of the most widely recognized string instruments in popular music. Both trace their ancestry back many centuries to the ancient lute, but their construction and use have diverged over the years.

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Jake Shimabukuro Teaches ʻUkuleleJake Shimabukuro Teaches ʻUkulele

Jake Shimabukuro teaches you how to take your ʻukulele from the shelf to center stage, with techniques for beginners and seasoned players alike.

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What Is a Ukulele?

A ukulele is a small stringed instrument that originated in Hawai’i based on instruments brought to the islands by Portuguese immigrants. A ukulele is typically made of tonewood with four nylon strings that musicians strum with their fingers or play with a pick. The name “ukulele” roughly translates to “jumping flea” in Hawaiian, which, according to one origin story, refers to the energetic appearance of players’ fingers while fingerpicking.

There are several types of ukuleles available to today's players. The most common is the concert ukulele, which is voiced in the alto register. Other models include the soprano ukulele, tenor ukulele, baritone ukulele, and bass ukulele. More obscure models include a contrabass ukulele, a pocket ukulele, and a pineapple ukulele (with a pineapple-shaped body). An electric ukulele contains a magnetic pickup and can plug into an amplifier, much like an electric guitar or electric bass.

What Is a Guitar?

A guitar is a stringed instrument that derives from the ancient lute. Guitars have existed for centuries in various forms. The most common of these forms are the nylon-string classical guitar, the steel-string acoustic guitar, and the electric guitar, each of which has six strings. Other variants include the lap steel guitar, the pedal steel guitar, and the resonator guitar.

The vast majority of guitars are voiced in the tenor range, although tenor guitar, baritone guitars, alto guitars, and soprano guitars, though rare, do exist. The term "bass guitar" usually refers to an electric bass, which requires a different playing style than a standard guitar.

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4 Similarities Between Ukuleles and Guitars

Ukuleles and guitars share many common characteristics. These include:

  1. Body shape: Most ukuleles and acoustic guitars share a common shape that amplifies sound in a lightweight body. Some ukulele sizes even approach those of an acoustic guitar, particularly the bass ukulele.
  2. Frets: Ukuleles and guitars are both fretted instruments. Each features a wooden neck with horizontal metal frets. Guitarists and ukulele players use these frets to sound different pitches.
  3. Playing styles: Both the guitar and the ukulele can be played as harmonic instruments (for playing chords) and melodic instruments (for playing melodies). In general, the guitar is a more resonant instrument and projects greater distances, so it is more likely to be used as a melodic instrument in a large ensemble.
  4. Musical styles: Ukuleles feature most prominently in traditional Hawaiian music, as well as some forms of folk, pop, and jazz. All of these genres also feature guitar. In general, the guitar covers a wider range of genres, appearing in nearly every style of music except EDM and other techno genres.

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4 Differences Between Ukuleles and Guitars

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Jake Shimabukuro teaches you how to take your ʻukulele from the shelf to center stage, with techniques for beginners and seasoned players alike.

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Ukuleles and guitars may look similar, but they have several significant differences, including:

  1. Size: When comparing ukuleles and guitars, the most obvious difference is the instruments' sizes: Ukuleles range from 11 to 21 inches, while a full-size guitar can be up to 40 inches. Due to its small size, the ukulele can be more manageable for new players. Ukulele players don’t have to stretch their fingers far on the fretboard to play ukulele chord shapes and scale patterns. By contrast, some guitar chord shapes can stretch a player's hands, on account of the guitar's longer scale length.
  2. Strings: Ukuleles and guitars have a different number of strings. Guitars have six strings tuned from the lowest to highest (most often 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 since ukulele strings are usually soft nylon, rather than the tougher-on-the-fingers nickel-coated strings found on most guitars.
  3. Range: Since guitars are larger instruments than ukuleles, they have a much more extensive range of notes—standard classical guitars can play from E2 on their lowest string to E4 on the twelfth fret of their top string. By contrast, a soprano ukulele can play only from C4 to A5. High-quality electric guitars routinely go all the way up to the note C♯5, and some can go even higher.
  4. 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 guitar music. Meanwhile, an electric guitar player can produce an array of different sounds thanks to guitar amps and effects pedals.

Can You Tune a Ukulele Like a Guitar?

A standard ukulele is tuned more like a banjo than a guitar. Standard tuning on concert ukuleles is G-C-E-A in order from the fourth string to the first string; for baritone ukuleles, it's D-G-B-E. You can tune a ukulele in fourths, which will mimic the tuning of a guitar. However, a ukulele only has four strings—compared to the six strings of a standard guitar—so while it is possible to tune a ukulele this way, it may defeat the purpose of playing ukulele. The distinctive ukulele sound is partly based on the instrument's tuning, and changing that tuning will dampen the unique characteristics of the instrument.

Want to Pack Some Hawaiian Punch Into Your ‘Uke Skills?

Grab a MasterClass Annual Membership, 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.

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