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The ukulele ( , from ; variantly spelled ukelele in the UKmarker), sometimes abbreviated as the uke, is a chordophone classified as a pluck lute; it is a subset of the guitar family of instrument, generally with four nylon or gut strings or four courses of strings.

The ukulele originated in the 19th century as a Hawaiian interpretation of a small guitar-like instrument brought to Hawai imarker by Portuguese immigrants. It gained great popularity elsewhere in the United Statesmarker 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‘imarker where the name roughly translates as "jumping flea", 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).

Developed in the 1880s, the ukulele is based on a small guitar-like instrument, the machete (similar to, though smaller than, the modern cavaquinho), introduced to the Hawaiian Islands by Portuguese immigrants. Three immigrants in particular, Madeiranmarker cabinet makers Manuel Nunes, José do Espírito Santo, and Augusto Dias, are generally credited as the first ukulele makers. 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."

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.

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 Franciscomarker. The Hawaiian Pavilion featured a guitar and ukulele ensemble, George E. K. Awai and his Royal Hawaiian Quartette, along with ukulele maker and player Jonah Kumalae. The popularity of the ensemble with visitors launched a fad for Hawaiian-themed songs among Tin Pan Alleymarker songwriters. The ensemble also introduced both the lap steel guitar and the ukulele into U.S. mainland popular music, where it was taken up by vaudeville performers such as Roy Smeck and Cliff "Ukulele Ike" Edwards.

The ukulele soon became an icon of the Jazz Age. 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, a role that would eventually be supplanted by the guitar in the early years of rock and roll. 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. Much of the instrument's popularity was cultivatedvia The Arthur Godfrey Show on television. 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. Former Beatle George Harrison became an enthusiastic player and advocate, frequently giving ukes as presents. The Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain, formed in London in 1985, are one such group, and have played to audiences across the world. Hawai i-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 Japanmarker 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.

  • Canada: In the 1960s, educator J. Chalmers Doane dramatically changed school music programmes across Canadamarker, using the ukulele as an inexpensive and practical teaching instrument to foster musical literacy in the classroom. There were 50,000 schoolchildren and adults learning ukulele through the Doane program at its peak.


While the mainstream American English pronunciation of "ukulele" is {yoo-kuh-ley-lee}, some English speakers prefer to accurately follow the original Hawaiian pronunciation: {oo-koo-ley-ley}. Though the American English pronunciation is more common overall, the Hawaiian pronunciation is favored within Hawai i and by individuals interested in Hawaiian culture.

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 figure. photo

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, or a boat-paddle shape, invented by the Kamaka ukulele company, 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 Total length Tuning
(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 re-entrant 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.

Related instruments

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 Colombianmarker tiple, the timple of the Canary Islandsmarker, the Spanish vihuela, and the Bolivianmarker charango traditionally made of an armadillo shell. In Indonesia, a similar Portuguese-inspired instrument is the kroncong.

Audio samples

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. Beloff 2003, p. 13
  3. The "Scale" is the length of the playable part of the strings, from the nut at the top to the bridge at the bottom.
  4. 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).


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