The ‘Ukulele

One of Hawai’i's most recognized symbols, the ‘ukelele is not Hawaiian in origin. Bet ya didn’t know THAT!!

The ‘ukulele, chordophone is classified as a  plucked lute; it is a subset of the guitar family of instruments, generally with four nylon or gut strings. The ‘ukulele originated in the 19th century as a Hawaiian interpretation of a small guitar-like instrument brought to Hawai’i by Portuguese immigrants.  It gained great popularity elsewhere in the United States during the 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‘i 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 Portuguese cavaquinho and the Spanish timple), introduced to the Hawaiian Islands by Macaronesian (Portuguese and Spanish) immigrants. Three immigrants in particular, Madeiran 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 Francisco. 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 Alley 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 cultivated via 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 and former keyboardist of The Cars Greg Hawkes became enthusiastic players. 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. Punk Cabaret artist Amanda Palmer of The Dresden Dolls has also enthusiastically taken an interest in the instrument.

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