The ukulele has become strongly associated with island music and is sometimes thought of as a small guitar.
But where, exactly, did the ukulele come from? What family of instruments does it belong to? What is a ukulele, anyway?
In this guide, we answer the question, “what is a ukulele?”
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What Is A Ukulele? – Quick Answer
A Ukulele, sometimes called “uke” for short, is an instrument belonging to the stringed instrument family.
Unlike some stringed instruments, the ukulele is rarely if ever bowed. Plucking is the primary technique, using a bare thumb, fingertips, a combination of the two, or a felt pick.
The ukulele features frets on the fingerboard (more on this later) and is usually equipped with nylon strings.
The ukulele shares much in common with the guitar (especially classical guitars), and its appearance is also close, with the main difference being that a ukulele is smaller, and instead of six strings, it usually has four.
What Family Of Instruments Does The Ukulele Belong To?
The ukulele is considered a part of the lute family of instruments, or more broadly, the plucked subcategory of stringed instruments.
Plucked stringed instruments usually feature fret wires (or frets) along the fingerboard. The lute, guitar, and ukulele all share this in common. The frets make finger positioning easier, because each new fret reflects a half note change in pitch.
Instruments like the violin, viola, cello, or contrabass, on the other hand, do not have frets, so players of these instruments need to rely very heavily on memorization and muscle memory for finger position.
I sometimes refer to instruments like the ukulele, mandolin, banjo, guitar, and bass as “fretted and stringed instruments.” You’re welcome to use the term if you find it helpful.
Where Did The Ukulele Come From?
The ukulele was created in the 1880s and it was based on small guitar-like instruments like the machete, timple, cavaquinho, and the rajão – all of Portuguese origin. If you have the time, research each of these instruments for yourself – you will see just how similar they are to guitars and ukuleles as we know them today.
The ukulele was therefore brought to the Hawaiian Islands by Portuguese immigrants. But it was “The Merrie Monarch” King Kalākaua’s support and promotion of the uke that ultimately established it as a staple in Hawaiian music. It was even used at performances held for royal gatherings.
What Types Of Ukuleles Are There?
Ukuleles are generally classified by their size, sonic range, and shape. The most common types include soprano, concert, tenor, and baritone, but there are others. Here’s an overview of all ukulele types we’re aware of:
- Pineapple. The pineapple ukulele is defined by its body shape, which is closer to an oval than a pineapple (at least in my opinion). Pineapple ukuleles can come in different sizes, so we make no guarantee as to their tuning, though they are very likely the same as soprano, concert, or tenor ukes (also seen below). Pineapple ukes are also thought to be good beginner instruments.
- Soprano. The soprano ukulele is one of the smallest, and it is tuned G – C – E – A. What’s unique about a soprano uke is that the G is located where you might expect the lowest note to be, but it’s higher than the C string that appears directly below it. The technical term for this is “re-entrant tuning.”
- Super Soprano. The super soprano uke has been increasing in popularity in the last decade or so. It’s basically a long-necked soprano, or a ukulele featuring a soprano body with a longer neck.
- Concert. Concert ukuleles are a little bigger than soprano ukes and feature the same “re-entrant” tuning.
- Tenor. Tenor ukuleles are a little bigger than concert ukes, and also feature a G – C – E – A tuning. Some people do like to tune their G an octave lower, however, and “low G tuning” is quite popular, especially with guitarists.
- Baritone. Baritone ukes are a little bigger than tenor ukes and the tuning is where you’ll notice the biggest difference. Baritones are tuned D – G – B – E, a fourth down from G – C – E – A tuning.
- Bass. The whole idea of a bass ukulele is still a relatively new one, but with products like Kala’s U-BASS growing in popularity, this instrument type introduces a whole new world of possibilities. A bass ukulele is to be tuned much the same way you would tune a bass guitar. In other words, E – A – D – G.
How Many Strings Does A Ukulele Have?
Most ukuleles have four strings, but this is not universally true. There are also five, six, and eight string variations.
The five-string ukulele is a relatively new addition to ukulele instruments. It features a double course string. This design makes a lot of sense, as it gives you both a high G and low G (designed to be played simultaneously). So, you’d never need to debate over which, because with a five-string uke, you’d get both!
You might assume the six-string ukulele to be a guitalele, but it’s not (even though that would kind of make sense). The six-string uke comes with two double course strings – C and A.
Finally, the eight-string ukulele is a lot like a 12-string guitar. It comes with four double course strings. The G and C are tuned in octaves, while the E and A are tuned to unison.
The ukulele is a well loved instrument, and as you can imagine, there are plenty of inventors and innovators out there. We’ve heard of a nine-string ukulele, and no doubt there are other variations if you go looking for them!
What Is A Ukulele Made Of?
A standard ukulele is made up of 10 basic parts – the body, soundboard, soundhole, neck, fretboard, headstock, tuners, nut, bridge, and heel.
The body, which is the largest piece of the instrument, is made of thin pieces of wood, which have been glued together. Some of the best ukes are made of koa wood, but spruce and mahogany ukes are probably more abundant (and more cost effective) overall.
The soundboard is also made of wood, usually koa, sitka spruce, or acacia.
The neck? Also, wood, usually a single piece. Again, koa is quite common.
Fretboards are wooden too, and the wood used is predominantly rosewood.
Basically, most of the instrument is made of wood, though frets, tuners, and nuts are made of other materials. Frets are typically a mix of nickel and copper with small amounts of lead, zinc, and cadmium. Tuners and nuts vary from one instrument to another, but you can usually find this information in the product specifications.
What Styles Of Music Can You Play With The Ukulele?
Ukuleles are used most in island music. But they are more in vogue than ever, and you can also hear them on singer-songwriter tunes, pop, alternative, and more.
For instance, Tyler Joseph of pop duo Twenty One Pilots uses ukulele quite liberally in their tunes, and Pearl Jam frontman Eddie Vedder also exposed his love of ukulele on albums like Ukulele Songs (and these songs weren’t very island oriented either).
So, ultimately, it doesn’t matter whether it’s rock, blues, or jazz. You can play just about any style of music you want on the ukulele and have it sound great, too.
What Artists Are Most Associated With The Ukulele?
In addition to artists already mentioned, it’s well worth exploring the following:
- Israel “Iz” Kamakawiwo’ole. The legend himself, best known for his rendition of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow / What a Wonderful World.”
- Jake Shimabukuro. Ukulele virtuoso. Jake proves you can literally play anything on the uke, whether it’s “Stairway to Heaven” or “While My Guitar Gently Weeps.”
- George Formby. The late George Formby was a big ball of talent if there ever was one, and besides being an actor and comedian, he was a skilled ukulele player and singer-songwriter too.
- Taimane Gardner. Taimane started early and her talent was discovered early too. She’s a very talented player and a great songwriter too.
- James Hill. James is a well-trained, well-studied, and well-equipped ukulele player if there ever was one. He’s got all the experience in the world, plus he takes advantage of percussive style and effects while performing.
- Eddie Kamae. From Honolulu, Hawaii, Eddie was best known for his ability to play chords and melody on the uke simultaneously.
- May Singhi Breen. One Christmas morning, there was a ukulele sitting under the tree for young May. At the time, no one knew that it would turn into a music career spanning multiple decades.
- Arthur Godfrey. Arthur is credited with ushering in a second ukulele boom across the United States.
- Daniel Ho. Grammy-winning Daniel Ho is prolific beyond comprehension and he’s an accomplished multi-instrumentalist besides – ukulele, slack-key guitar, and piano. He knows his way around Hawaiian standards, that’s for sure.
- Cliff “Ukulele Ike” Edwards. Cliff rose to fame in the 20s and 30s. He was known best for taking pop standards and turning them into jazzy masterpieces.
And of course, there are plenty of other amazing ukulele players out there. Sorry if we missed anyone!
Does What You Learn On The Ukulele Translate Well To Other Plucked Stringed Instruments?
So, if you learn the ukulele, does it mean you can also play guitar, banjo, mandolin, bass, or something slightly more “out there” like bouzouki?
Having learned the ukulele, very likely, you will feel most at home on a guitar. Sure, it’s adding two strings, and that can take some getting used to. But the same fingerings and chord shapes you’ve learned on ukulele totally work on guitar.
It varies a little bit with other instruments. Mandolin and banjo have different tunings, and there’s a “mindset shift” that needs to happen for you to be able to play bass well.
That said, the basics of fretting notes and plucking them very much apply to other plucked stringed instruments. So, whatever you learn on the uke should translate nicely to other plucked stringed instruments.
What Is A Ukulele? Final Thoughts
What is the ukulele? It’s a fun, plucked stringed instrument! It can often be heard in island music, but nowadays you can find it in just about any genre or style of music if you go looking for it. Ukuleles come in a variety of shapes and sizes, but bottom line, most are very close to the same thing and are often chosen based on personal preferences.