Friday, 2 September 2011

A Short History of the Ukulele

The ukulele is one of the smaller members of the guitar family.  It has four nylon strings which can be plucked or strummed and comes in four sizes: soprano, concert, tenor and baritone.  The soprano is the most popular. 

Although adopted by the people of Hawaii at the end of the 19th century, the instrument was introduced by Portuguese immigrants and is generally thought to be based on two instruments, the cavaquinho and the rajao.

The Hawaiian word ‘ukulele’ is derived from the word ‘uke’ meaning a gift and ‘lele’ meaning ‘to come’.  Other sources translate the Hawaiian word ‘ukulele’ to mean ‘dancing flea’, perhaps a reference to the finger plucking action when played.

The ukulele became very popular amongst jazz musicians of the 1920s.  It was cheap, comparatively easy to play and easy to transport. 

Made from wood and occasionally plastic, ukulele makers have utilized spruce, mahogany and koa, a Hawaiian wood.
As regards tuning, in short, there are two basic forms:

‘C’ tuning - G,C,E,A     
‘D’ tuning - A,D,F#,B

What makes this unusual is that the strings are not arranged in ascending pitch order.  For example, in the ‘C’ tuning, the G of the 4th string is pitched between the E and the A of the 2nd and 1st strings.  Hawaiian instruments may resort to open tuning. 

Many ukulele innovations have extended the instrument’s scope and application.  It has been crossed with a guitar to produce a guitalele, with a banjo to produce a banjolele or ukulele banjo as played by George Formby and there’s even an electric ukulele. 

The resonator ukulele is equipped with aluminium resonating cones instead of a fret board and so offers a different sound altogether.  The Tahitian ukulele is made from a single, solid piece of wood. 

Since the late 1800s, the ukulele has undergone many transformations and has adapted itself to numerous styles of music.  Thanks to artists such as Tiny Tim, George Formby and the Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain, it’s an instrument that is appreciated and played all around the world.

Photo by Gabriel Negreiros

No comments:

Post a Comment