In this piece, we explore the history of this four-stringed instrument that dates back to the 1800s, the ukulele. Contrary to popular belief that it was invented in Hawaii, its origin is actually from Portugal. Migrants from Madeira brought a small instrument called the “machete” to Hawaii.
Hawaiians made their own version, calling it the ukulele. Keep reading for theories of how it got its name.
The first Hawaiian ukulele was made in 1879 by Augusto Dias and Jose do Espirito Santo. They arrived on the island on the Ravenscrag. Dias and Espirito Santo are pioneers of the instrument.
Nobody knows exactly how the ukulele got the name. The actual translation is “jumping flea”. One theory is that when Joao Fernandes, a passenger on the Ravenscrag, reached the Honolulu port, he started playing the instrument. People who saw this compared his fingers to fleas jumping around the fingerboard.
Merriam Webster claims that the name comes from the fact that Edward Purvis played the instrument. He was the King David Kalakaua’s Assistant Chamberlain. Because he was a small man, with a vibrant personality, his nickname was “ukulele” or “jumping flea”. The instrument then took on the name.
Ukulele History Timeline
In 1874, Hawaii’s sugar industry was growing. However, the native population was decreasing because of disease. 25,000 migrant workers came from Portugal.
Among these new arrivals were woodworkers Manuel Nunes, Augusto Dias and Jose do Espirito Santo. The Portuguese immigrants played the “machete de Braga“, which is what the ukulele was originally called.
In 1879, the Hawaiian Gazette mentioned the Madeira imports. “Madeira Islanders recently arrived here have been delighting the people with nightly street concerts. The musicians are fine performers on their strange instruments, which are a kind of cross between a guitar and a banjo, but which produce very sweet music…”
These three all had contractual obligations working on the sugar plantations. In 1884, they each started to work on other things including making furniture, repairing instruments, and even giving music lessons. Within a decade, the instruments were being sold all around the Hawaiian islands and beyond. Nobody knows which of the woodworkers made the instrument in its final form. Nunes advertised the ukulele in newspapers.
By the early 1900s, the ukulele was being mentioned further afield. Jack London, the American novelist, likened the instrument to a small guitar in his writing. London wrote about the ukulele regularly.
Hawaii’s last ever monarch, King Kalakaua, the “Merry Monarch” definitely played a part in the growth of these string instruments. He used to host huge banquets and parties. The instrument entertained the guests and more people wanted to buy a ukulele after attending.
Through the 1900s, the ukulele gained some famous players. The popularity grew even further up until the modern age. The uke is now played all over the world.
Important Facts About the Ukulele
1. George Harrison Helped the Ukulele Grow in Popularity
The Beatles helped music in dozens of ways. Both George Harrison and Paul McCartney are ukulele fans, but George was the most fanatical. He said that everyone should have a uke. Some people say that he had thousands in his collection by the time he died. On top of that, he used to give them to friends as gifts.
2. There Are Loads of Varieties of Ukuleles
As well as the four main sizes of ukulele, there are many other variations. As well as soprano, concert, tenor, and baritone, manufacturers are making interesting new styles. You can buy a guitar hybrid called a guitalele or a U-bass, a type of bass ukulele that has a deeper sound. Electric ukuleles and even plastic ukuleles are common, too.
3. Ukuleles Sell Like Hot Cakes
The instrument has had lots of surges in popularity. In the 1920s when the first “boom” happened, C.F. Martin sold as many ukes as guitars. Martin is one of the best-known manufacturers of guitars in the world. They still make ukuleles today. Because ukes are cheap, they are even more popular when the economy takes a turn for the worse.
4. Ukulele Strings Used to Be Made Of Animal Guts
If you buy a ukulele today you will probably get nylon strings. In the early days, the strings were made of animal intestines. Sheep gut or even cat guts were common. In the modern-day, you can buy gut strings at specialty music shops. We don’t recommend it unless you really want to know what they sound like.
5. There is a Ukulele Orchestra
The Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain started in 1985. It’s still going strong. The ensemble works really well due to the different types of ukulele. The band plays festivals and has a big online following. They even release albums. The Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain mainly does cover versions, including Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” and David Bowie’s “Life on Mars?”.
6. It’s Big in Japan
During World War II, the uke reached Japan. The American influence meant that Japanese experienced the ukulele for the first time. After the war ended many Japanese companies started making the instrument. Japan was a poor country at a time, and the cheap design made it the ideal solution.
7. It Uses an Unusual Tuning
You will have noticed this already if you play the uke. It has “reentrant tuning”. The strings don’t go from low to high or high to low. The third string of the ukulele is lower in pitch than the fourth.
This is different from most string instruments. Some types of uke can be retuned to make use of a standard, guitar-style tuning. But if you do this, you will lose some of the charm of the ukulele tone.
8. Over The Rainbow, Over the Moon
The first man on the moon, Neil Armstrong, played the instrument. When the crew of the Apollo mission got back from the moon, they had to quarantine for 21 days. In this time, Armstrong played his uke a lot. There are many photos of him strumming away while in quarantine. You could say the ukulele has NASA’s seal of approval.
The Ukulele Popularity
In 2019, it is estimated that 1.6 million ukuleles sold in the US alone. Why is the uke so popular today?
One of the reasons is the price. You can pick up a good ukulele for $50-100. This is cheaper than a guitar. It means that people who don’t have a lot of money can make the investment. It also means parents are more likely to buy a ukulele for their kids.
Even though it’s cheap, most pop and rock songs can be played on the ukulele. Your lessons don’t have to focus on traditional ukulele songs either.
Another reason for the boom in popularity is the fact that a lot of famous and popular musicians play the ukulele.
Popular Ukulele Players
Taylor Swift is a global star with platinum albums. She has a history in country music, but also loves to play the Ukulele. In concerts, she has even covered “I’m Yours” by Jason Mraz. One of the most famous ukulele songs ever.
The lead singer of Pearl Jam, Eddie Vedder also enjoys playing the uke. In 2011 he actually released an album of songs played on the instrument, inventively titled “Ukulele Songs”.
Vedder can play many instruments but it looks like the uke has a place in his heart.
The King of Pop, Elvis Presley, loved the ukulele. He played the instrument in a lot of concerts during his career. The film “Blue Hawaii” shows Elvis playing the instrument. Elvis loved all things Hawaiian.
Steven Tyler is known for many things. He’s a judge on American Idol, Liv Tyler’s father, and the frontman of Aersomith. He has an amazing voice, but he plays instruments, too. The harmonica and the ukulele are some of Tyler’s favorites. You can even find acoustic performances of Tyler and his uke.
Billie Eilish started her journey by learning the ukulele. She’s now a global pop megastar and plays loads of musical instruments. She still sticks to her roots and uses the uke. She even has a signature ukulele range, made with Fender.
Shimabukuro is famous for being a ukulele virtuoso. His videos have millions of views. He’s got Japanese roots but was born in Honolulu, Hawaii. Maybe this contributed to his love of the uke.
He’s so well-known because he can play in a number of styles, from bluegrass to folk, jazz and even flamenco. Jake’s finger work is incredible. If you haven’t heard of him, be warned, you can easily end up watching hours of his videos on YouTube.
Israel Kaʻanoʻi Kamakawiwoʻole
Israel Kaʻanoʻi Kamakawiwo’ole is one of the most famous ukulele players and an icon of Hawaiian music. He released a famous medley of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow/What a Wonderful World”. This featured in films and TV commercials, and achieved commercial success.
Sadly he died in 1997, but Israel embodies the ukulele. His Hawaiian roots and albums full of ukulele tunes make him a great icon for the instrument.
Herbert Buckingham Khaury, also called Tiny Tim on stage, was another famous ukulele player. He covered songs including “Tiptoe Through the Tulips” and “Livin’ in the Sunlight, Lovin’ in the Moonlight” and combined ukulele with a unique falsetto voice.
Beloff is an influential figure in the history of ukulele. Jim worked in the music industry for years, and later discovered the ukulele. He publishes “Jumpin’ Jim’s Ukulele Songbooks” which are a good resource for beginners and pros. He’s a fantastic musician, too.
Most Popular Ukulele Brands
Martin and Co.
Martin and Co. is a prestigious brand. Many of their guitars and ukuleles are aimed at professionals. This is one of the oldest uku makers. They first released models of the instrument back in 1917 and recently celebrated 100 years of ukuleles.
Martin instruments are too expensive for most beginners but they are great for recording and performing, offering handcrafted quality.
Kala is based about 30 miles north of San Francisco in Sonoma wine country. Their range of ukuleles is huge. There are models for beginners and professionals alike.
Kala sells a lot of bundles which include tuners, bags, and other accessories.
They started in 2005, so Kala doesn’t have as much history as some other brands. In that time, they have grown so much that they boast one of the biggest ranges of ukuleles on the market.
Luna embraces the spirit of Hawaiian music. Their ukes are usually tattoo-inspired in design and they look incredible. They have a big range including all of the body styles and sizes.
Cordoba started out making classical guitars. Now, they may be better known for the ukuleles they manufacture. Cordoba use great tonewoods and most of their instruments sound rich and authentic with the Hawaiian vibe. The Cordoba team learned the Portuguese traditions around the instruments before they started to sell them to the public.
The Oscar Schmidt brand has a rich history. They first made instruments in the 1800s and you can find some very historic ukuleles in their range.
They make a variety of string instruments. Oscar Schmidt make a lot of ukuleles, but also classical guitars, banjos and even autoharps.
Those Portuguese immigrants arriving at Honolulu harbor to work on sugar plantations had no idea what was to come. The ukulele had a huge impact on music and continues to sell millions to this day. What stemmed from the Hawaiian islands is now global.
Further reading on the subject can be found at The Atlantic. “The Rise and Fall (and Rise) of the Ukulele” charts the history of this unique instrument.
Nowadays, some high-profile musicians like Billie Eilish continue to show how important the instrument is. It is the ideal first step into music.
Anna teaches piano and guitar and also has extensive experience recording music. She’s well read in music psychology and love to share the benefits of learning to play music.