The Ukulele

Before I played guitar, I played ukulele. Because it was my first instrument I’ve retained a special love for the uke. 1

The ukulele is a great starter instrument for children. Small hands are not a problem on the ukulele. It is a fun instrument for people of all ages. It is highly portable so you can bring with you on picnics, vacations and other travels. It can be used to play simple chords to accompany your singing or you can learn advanced solo styles which have become popular. You can purchase a starter ukulele for under a $100. Fancy, exotic and deluxe ukuleles can cost over a $1000. And there are many choices for instruments costing between these extremes. If you want a solid wood instrument you will probably have to pay over $100 USD.

The ukulele has gone through repeated cycles of popularity followed by semi-obscurity. The first wave of ukulele popularity in the United States mainland started with the Panama Pacific International Exposition in 1915 and extended through the Jazz Age of the Roaring Twenties.

Roy Smeck was a famous peformer who played ukulele (among other instruments) during this period. Harmony made a Roy Smeck model ukulele. (Gibson made a Roy Smeck guitar).
Soprano 2 and Baritone 3 Ukuleles.
The second wave was during the 1950s and 60s. Arthur Godfrey was a popular radio and television personality who played and promoted the ukulele. Mario Maccaferri designed the plastic Islander Uke and Godrey’s promotion helped sell millions of instruments. That was the first uke I played.

The ukulele is currently ascending in popularity again. The current trend probably started with the recording of “Over the Rainbow” and “What a Wonderful World” by the Hawaiian performer, Israel Kamakawiwo’ole (IZ) in 1993. The next boost to uke popularity has to be Jake Shimabukuro. He released his first album in 1998 as a member of Pure Heart. His virtuosity has had a tremendous effect on inspiring others to extend the ukulele beyond traditional chordal accompaniment.

The Ukulele Family

The ukulele isn’t just one instrument but a family of instruments the same as violins and mandolins are a families of instruments.

Soprano ukulele: Scale Length 13 inches
Concert ukulele: Scale Length 15 inches
Tenor ukulele: Scale Length 17 inches
Baritone ukulele: Scale Length 19 inches
There is also a bass ukulele. It is a relatively new member of the family.
Ukulele Tunings

The Soprano, Concert and Tenor ukulele each have the same choice of tunings that can be used. The baritone is tuned the same as the high 4 strings of a guitar (DGBe).

The most popular uke tuning 4 during the early part of the twentieth century was ADF#B. The alternate then and most popular now is GCEA. Note that the main difference between these two tunings is only that ADF#B is tuned two half-steps higher.

The second variation in tunings concerns the tuning of the 4th string. The classic or standard ukulele tuning sets this string to be higher than the 3rd string. This often shown with a lowercase note name for the string, thus, aDF#B or gCEA. Another way to show this is by including the octave for the strings. Thus A4-D4-F#4-B4 or G4-C4-E4-A4. This type of tuning with the 4th string higher than the 3rd is called reenterant tuning.

The alternate to reenterant tuning is linear tuning where the 4th string is lower than the 3rd in pitch. The Soprano, Concert and Tenor ukulele can all be tuned using a linear tuning. Thus, GCEA instead of gCEA – or G3-C4-E4-A4 instead of G4-C4-E4-A4. This of course could also be applied to the aDF#B tuning giving ADF#B (A3-D4-F#4-B4). The tenor could also be tuned the same as the baritone.

Although all of these options exist, the most common tunings for the soprano and concert ukulele are reenterant. The tenor is probably split between linear and reenterant tunings. Jake Shimabukuro plays tenor ukulele with a reenterant tuning but another virtuoso, James Hill, uses a linear tuning on his tenor uke.

There are two ways to name these tunings. The first and common naming convention is to use the name of the lowest note of the reenterant tuning – this is the name of the 3rd string note. Thus, gCEA is called “C” tuning and aDF#B is called “D” tuning. An alternate naming convention, not as popular, is to use the name of the chord sounded when all strings are played open. the gCEA is thus a C6 tuning and aDF#B is a D6 tuning.

If you are a guitar player you can take all the chord shapes (just the 4 high string finger positions) you know for guitar and apply them to the ukulele. The finger positions on the uke do not give the same root names, but the relation between chords is maintained. As an example, an open G chord on guitar with the 3rd finger on the 3rd fret of the 1st string (all other strings played open) when applied to the ukulele in C (C6) tuning would produce a C chord. If the ukulele is tuned to D tuning then the same chord shape would produce a D chord.

Uke to Watch on YouTube

This is in REVERSE chronological order. Most recent first.

Many singers and singer songwriters now use ukulele’s occasionally if not always. One of the most original and talented that I’ve discovered has to be Merrill Garbus of tUne-yArDs. She isn’t a ukulele virtuoso but she is an original.

tUne-yArDs: NPR Music Tiny Desk Concert

James Hill is a virtuoso. One of his best known tricks is playing three parts on his ukulele at the same time. Drums, bass and chords. You’ve got to see this.

Billie Jean – James Hill & Anne Davison (2011 Gorge Uke Fest)

The Ukulele Orchestra Of Great Britain has been around since 1985. They currently have 8 members. They’re a lot of fun to watch. Here’s two of their favorite numbers.

Ukulele Orchestra Of Great Britain – Shaft

Ukulele Orchestra Of Great Britain – George Frideric Handel or Medley?

Finally, a sample of two of the most famous ukulele players – the two probably most responsible for the current revival of the ukulele.

Jake Shimabukuro LIVE Ukulele Concert: While My Guitar Gently Weeps

OFFICIAL – Somewhere Over the Rainbow 2011 – Israel “IZ” (please excuse the ad – it’s from the official site)

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Footnotes

  1. Ukulele was my first instrument – not counting forced clarinet lessons in grade school. The uke wasn’t the first instrument I wanted to play. I wanted to play piano, drums, sax, guitar, trumpet … etc. But it was the first instrument I had access to and I enjoyed.
  2. My dad purchased this soprano uke sometime about 1960. It went through a house fire in 1971 and has been held together with tape and hope ever since then.
  3. The baritone was purchased online for under $30.
  4. excluding the baritone uke

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