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About Ukulele

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The ukulele has been an icon of Hawaiian music for over 120 years.

Here is some history and information about ukuleles:

Ukulele History

The original ukuleles were a combination of several instruments from the Iberian Peninsula of Europe brought to Hawaii along with sailors and plantation workers in the 1880s. The ukulele combined elements from the Cavaquinho from Portugal and the Braguinha and Rajão from Maderia near the Canary Islands.

The Cavaquinho looks like a little guitar with four strings. The Portuguese sailors brought their cavaquinhos on their travels in the 15th and 16th centuries, spreading the instrument to other cultures, influencing the Maderia Braguinha, Brazilian Cavaquinho, and the ukulele in Hawaii. The Rajão, also from Madeira, has 5 strings and its D-G-C-E-A tuning is thought to be the root of modern ukulele tuning. Today's Hawaiian soprano ukulele has 4 strings, just like the Braguinha, but is tuned G-C-E-A just like the Rajão.

Cavaquinho from Portugal
Cavaquinho
Braguinha from Maderia
Braguinha
Rajão from Maderia
Rajão
'Ukulele from Hawaii
'Ukulele
Photos from www.atlasofpluckedinstruments.com

The word "ukulele" is Hawaiian for "jumping flea". The story goes that a Portuguese immigrant jumped off a ship into the water while playing one, and the Hawaiians watching dubbed him - and the instrument - the ukulele!

 

Types of Ukuleles

The ukulele comes in four basic sizes. There is the soprano (or standard), the concert, the tenor, and the baritone. The soprano, concert and tenor ukes share the same traditional tuning of GCEA, but differ in scale length (measurement from bridge to the nut) and body size.

Sopranos are smallest, and generally work well for small hands and new students. Their small scale and compact body are also popular with people on the go, and they are usually the uke you'll spot being played on the beach, or while the owner walks around town.

Concerts are a little larger, usually with a 2-3 inch increase in scale and a slightly larger body. Like the name suggests, these are the most popular for live performance, as their comfortable size and good projection work well in amplified or acoustic settings.

The Tenor is also popular for performances, but is used more often in acoustic sessions and recording. Their larger scale makes them an easier adaptation for guitar players, and their large bodies produce warmer, more complex tones that are desirable for any genre of music.

So if the other sizes are siblings, we'll say the Baritone is the hanai (adopted) brother. It's very similar to the others, but is tuned DGBE like a 4 string guitar. It has the longest scale of all, and is a little smaller than a 3/4 size guitar. These instruments are more popular in Hawaiian music from the early part of the last century.

 

Ukulele Construction

Ukulele construction is similar to that of a guitar, but generally uses less bracing because of the small size of the instrument. They can have 4, 6 or 8 strings, but the extra strings are pairs with the same 4 note course. The most common wood used in high-end ukulele building is the Hawaiian koa tree, which is known for it's density, resonance and, most notably, it's beautiful golden curls in the grain of the wood. Makers like Kamaka, G-string, Kanile'a and Po Mahina use koa to build instruments that are both sonically and aesthetically pleasing. With the depletion of koa forests, other types of wood are becoming popular in 'ukulele construction, like mahogany, mango, and cedar, but they don't hold the same desirability as the traditional koa uke. With a shrinking supply of koa for ukulele, prices of koa instruments in the past decade have risen sharply, and the trend will only continue.


Solid Koa Ukulele

 

Selecting your Ukulele

There are several things to think about when selecting your ukulele. There is the external look to consider, but ukuleles also differ in size, materials used, and machine heads.

Here, Ken Cameron, owner of Hilo Guitars and Ukuleles, talks about things to consider when buying a ukulele.

Differences between laminate and solid wood
Differences in machine heads on Ukuleles
Differences in sizes in Ukuleles

Visit or Contact us in downtown Hilo if you would like more information about ukuleles.

Copyright 2008