Legend has it that ‘ukulele’ was the nickname of Englishman Edward William Purvis, Assistant Chamberlain to King David Kalakaua (the last reigning King of Hawaii), perhaps because of his small stature, his energetic personality, and his expertise in playing the ukulele. It was thought the instrument he played for the King eventually adopted the same name. The last Hawaiian monarch, Queen Lili’uokalani, explains ‘uku/lele’ to be “the gift or reward to come”.
King David Kalakaua was very fond of the ukulele, and passionate about the arts. Hence he had this small instrument used not only in traditional Hawaiian music and as accompaniment to hula, but also at formal royal functions, to re-ignite interest in the Hawaiian culture.
The ukulele (sometimes abbreviated as the uke) is a member of the lute family of plucked string instruments. It is an adaptation of the Portuguese machete, a small guitar-like instrument, which was introduced to Hawaii in the 19th century by Portuguese immigrants. It has since gained popularity internationally.
Ukuleles are traditionally made of wood, preferably koa, although variants have been made partially or entirely of plastic or other materials. Expensive ukuleles are made of solid hardwoods such as mahogany, and cheaper ukuleles are made from plywood or laminate wood. They typically have a figure-eight body shape similar to that of a small accoustic guitar. They can also come in unconventional shapes such as a paddle-boat shape, a cutaway shape or an oval (called a ‘pineapple’ ukulele), or occasionally in the shape of a square, made out of an old wooden cigar box.
Ukuleles come in four sizes–soprano, concert, tenor, and baritone–with the tone and volume varying with the size and construction of the ukuleles. The soprano, the second smallest and the original in size, is the standard in Hawaii. Thereafter, the concert, which is larger and louder with a deeper tone, was developed in the 1920s as an enhanced soprano. The development of the concert was closely followed by the tenor, which has more volume and a deeper bass tone than the former. In the 1940s emerged the baritone, which resembles a smaller tenor guitar. The contrabass and the bass are the most recent developments in the world of ukulele.
Ukulele strings are originally made of catgut, but modern ukuleles now use nylon polymer strings, with some of the lower strings, particularly on the larger sizes, wound with aluminium. The ukulele can then be strummed or plucked, like a guitar.
Here’s Brett McQueen, from www.ukuleletricks.com, demonstrating the various strumming patterns:
Or you could learn to fingerpick, like a pro:
This video by Aaron from Hawaii Music Supply in Wahiawa shows you the basic major chords on a ukulele:
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