Our string instrument specialists could probably spit out a thousand-and-one facts about ukuleles but, since no one’s got all day, we’ll stick to just five!
1. Peak Popularity
Around 1880, the ukulele made its way to Hawaii in the suitcases of Portuguese immigrants who had based the design on guitar-like instruments. A few decades later, Hawaiian musicians took the little string instrument to the 1915 World’s Fair and what followed was a massive surge in popularity. In fact, the famed guitar brand Martin sold more than 100,000 ukuleles throughout the roaring twenties alone. Demand soared again just after the Second World War ended, while Israel Kamakawiwoʻole’s legendary 1993 cover of ‘Over The Rainbow’ kick-started a craze that’s actually still going strong today.
The sound and size aren’t the only good thing about ukuleles. What’s also great is that there are many different makes and models, ranging from the itty-bitty sopranino to the more common soprano, concert and tenor models. What’s more, you can even get your hands on a bass ukulele, an electric ukulele or a hybrid guitalele or banjolele.
3. A Spry Little Guy
The word ukulele does come from the Hawaiian language but no one really knows how it came about. Some folks believe it comes from the words ‘uku’ (which means gift) and ‘lele’ (which means to come), which would translate to something like ‘the gift that came here’, referring to the Portuguese immigrants who initially brought it to the Hawaiian archipelago. Another common translation is ‘jumping flea’ (from ‘uku’ = flea and ‘lele’ = to jump), referring to the fast-moving fingers of ukulele players. What’s more plausible however, is that ‘jumping flea’ refers to Edward Purvis – a British army officer who served in king Kalakuau’s court and was nicknamed ‘Jumping Flea’ because of his relatively short height and spry character. Incidentally, word has it Purvis was also a skilled ukulele player.
4. Odd Tuning
The most common type of ukuleles – the soprano and concert models – feature a special tuning called re-entrant tuning, which means that the pitch of the four strings doesn’t go from high to low like it does in the case of most other stringed instruments. Reentrant tuning starts with a high note, the G, then drops down to a C before it goes back up to E and ends with an A. The G string of tenor ukuleles is often tuned an octave lower which results in a consecutive order and gives you a fuller sound instead of that typically bright-and-chipper, high-pitched sound. Fun fact: if you stick a capo on the fifth fret of a guitar, the four bottom strings are tuned just like a ukulele. It’s a fun way to make a guitar sound a bit like a uke.
5. The More, The Merrier
It’s not just singer-songwriters who are getting a kick out of the ukulele these days. The instrument is also frequently played by pop and folk acts – better yet, if you haven’t heard of the Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain, we would strongly urge you to look it up. After all, there’s nothing better than seven or eight skilled ukulele players performing side by side, right?
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