Within the musical instrument classification of chordophones the ukulele has a unique sound unlike any other. It is a stringed and fretted musical instrument and generally considered to be in the sub-class of the guitar. The ukulele is a descendant of the lute family of instruments developed from the Portuguese cavaquinho, which is a small, four string musical instrument resembling a miniature acoustic guitar. It was imported into Hawaii, an island state of the United States, by Portuguese sailors in the late 19th century. It was later called the ukulele by the islanders. The ukulele is also frequently called a uke which has become an acceptable abbreviation for its longer name.
Before and during World War 1 the ukulele gained high popularity for being a lightweight, portable, low cost musical instrument and of course for its musical character. Also, during the 40’s and 50’s the ukulele became popular again. Currently, the ukulele continues to be a popular instrument of the islands of Hawaii as well as extending into Indonesia and Japan, in fact most of the rest of the world where it has found its way into a variety of countries and music genres. The ukulele remains the signature instrument of Hawaiian music.
The ukulele is very similar to the guitar in shape and construction but on a much smaller scale. The four most common sizes are the soprano, concert, tenor, and baritone ukuleles with scales, the distance between the nut and the bridge of the instrument, ranges from 13” or 33cm for the soprano models to 19” or 48cm for the baritone models. In comparison the scale for the acoustic and classical guitar standard models range from 24.6” or 62.5cm to 26” or 65.0cm in length.
The unique sound qualities of the ukulele are distinct and readily recognizable. Played most frequently with the flesh of the fingers of the right hand on the strings and fretted using the left hand fingers. The following video provides two excellent examples of the sound qualities of the ukulele. Daniel Ho (ukulele & vocals) a six-time Grammy Award winner for Hawaiian music, Steve Billman (bass), Randy Drake (drums), Nani Edgar (hula). The video was made at Whittier College (12.4.10) featuring an instrumental introduction titled Keanuhea followed by “Living In Paradise” composed by Ho was featured in an episode of Hawaii Five-O.
We certainly hope this brief overview of the ukulele encourages you to seek out more and additional information about this unique and beautiful musical instrument.