In western harmonic music, most chords only require three notes. Complex chords need four. That means most music that is not polytonal can be played on a four-stringed instrument. Ukuleles (say oo-koo-leh-lehz out of respect) have four strings. They are also inexpensive and easy to play at a beginner level. You can tune one to an open chord and just put your finger across all four strings and have a perfect-sounding chord at every fret. Additional strings are used to extend the range of available pitches or reinforce the chords by repeating the notes of a chord at a higher or lower octave. This musical adaptability is why guitar supplanted ukulele in popularity as a folk instrument, but guitars are harder to play because of more strings and a wider neck.
David Laʻamea Kamanakapuʻu Mahinulani Nalaiaehuokalani Lumialani Kalākaua became the last reigning King of Hawaii in 1874. The King was called the Merrie Monarch for being an enthusiastic patron of all things joyful. He reintroduced the previously banned hula, surfing, and was an ardent supporter of an adaptation the natives had made of a four-stringed instrument brought to the islands by Portuguese laborers. The new instruments were made of local koa wood in imitation of the “machete”, a high-pitched sub-guitar. Madeiran cabinet makers Manuel Nunes, José do Espírito Santo, and Augusto Dias, are credited as the first ukulele makers. They came to Hawaii in 1879 and entertained people with street concerts. King Kalākaua added ukulele performances to royal gatherings. The word ukulele means “jumping flea”, after the action of the fingers upon the strings.
The Panama-Pacific International Exposition of 1915, held in San Francisco, included a Hawaiian ensemble that introduced both lap steel and ukulele to the mainland. Tin Pan Alley composers wrote popular songs for uke and Vaudeville performers began using it. Cliff Edwards aka “Ukelele Ike” did a lot to popularize the instrument. This was two decades before he became the voice of Jiminy Cricket in Pinocchio. Sheet music from the ‘20s and ‘30s often included uke chord symbols. Arthur Godfrey played ukulele on radio, TV and in movies. However, beginning in the late ‘40s, most ukuleles were made of plastic, and unlike the wooden instruments they were not musically comparable. George Harrison, a long-time enthusiast, bought ukuleles for all his friends, but by the late 1960s the once traditional folk instrument was mainly associated with quaint novelty acts like Tiny Tim and the Times Square Two.
Ukulele was out of favor for two decades during the rapid ascendancy of the guitar as a people’s instrument. It began a comeback in the 1980s as new manufacturers began making wooden ones again. The Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain, formed in 1985, has played all over the world:
Jake Shimabukuro, a child prodigy, is now a grown-up uke god:
Israel Kamakawiwo’ole (Bruddah Iz) also helped bring it back with his simple, emotional medley of “Over the Rainbow” and “What a Wonderful World“:
On the mainland, 21 year old YouTube sensation Julia Nunes (is she related to Manuel?) uses ukulele in support of her killer vocal chops, brilliant covers and original songs:
What’s my connection to ukulele? One of the last jobs I performed in showbiz was to re-create Arthur Godfrey’s playing for two songs in the Doris Day film The Glass Bottom Boat. His original playing was on the same track as his and Doris’ sung English, and Warner’s wanted a separated Music and Effects track so they could dub it for foreign DVDs. He was playing a baritone ukulele, which means the four strings are in the same tuning as the top four strings of a guitar. I took off the bottom two strings of my Godin Multiac Nylon, narrowed the eq to sound like uke, and wailed away on the Foley stage. Man, that guy played fast! It took me hours to match it, and I had to go section by section, editing them together afterward.
My brother is a Hawaiian music enthusiast and supporter. He plays with SUPA, the non-profit Seattle Ukulele Players Association. They get together a couple of times a month and invite people at all playing levels to participate by providing workshops, songbooks and by playing benefits for charities. I went to one of their benefits on my birthday. They played traditional tunes, pop songs and fun stuff like “I Want a Hippopotamus for Christmas”. Along with the wooden varieties, they also played some unusual-looking ukuleles. The instrument now comes in designer and high-tech styles.