You might have noticed an abundance of tiny guitars floating around recently, and wondered what the big deal is. Or, maybe you know exactly what a ukulele is, and I’m being a little patronizing. For the sake of inclusion, let’s pretend that none of you have ever heard of a ukulele before. Let’s start at square one.
History of the Ukulele
A ukulele is a small-bodied stringed instrument, similar in concept to a guitar. It is Hawaiian in origin, and its name is a combination of the words for ‘reward’ (uku) and the verb ‘to come’ (lele): ‘the gift that came here’. The name is a reference to similar instruments, which were brought to Hawaii by Portuguese immigrants in the 1880s. While it has remained popular in Hawaii ever since, it was a relatively obscure instrument in the Continental United States until the mid-1960s, when artists like Tiny Tim brought it into the mainstream.
The uke experienced a resurgence in popularity in 2002, when Paul McCartney played one onstage at the Concert for George, in tribute to fellow Beatle George Harrison.
Construction of the Ukulele
The ukulele has 4 strings, which in most cases will be tuned G, C, E, and A, with the G-string tuned a fifth higher than the C (you can remember this with an easy mnemonic device: Good Children Eat Apples). In this tuning, most chords can be played with one or two fingers, making it perfect for beginners and people with small hands. The width of the neck is typically between 1-2 inches, which makes it significantly easier to wrap your hand around than the neck of a guitar or bass.
Press your fingertip down on the highest string (the one closest to the ground, if you’re holding the ukulele horizontal) at the 3rd fret (Where the yellow dot is). While holding it down, strum all 4 strings from top to bottom, with the index finger of your right hand. If your ukulele is in tune, you just played a C major chord. You officially play the ukulele!
What You Need to Begin
Now all you need is your own ukulele! At Certain Sparks Music, we carry several different brands, all at different price levels. Most often, the price of a ukulele reflects the quality of the materials used to build it. Our Diamond Head brand ukes are our most affordable ($50), and are made of laminated maple. For beginning to intermediate players, these work just fine. If you’re looking for something a little sturdier, our Sunlite ukuleles ($75) are made of sapele, a wood similar to mahogany, which results in a fuller and richer sound. If you’re the type of person who likes to get the best of everything, our Hilo and Alani brands are built with solid spruce tops and sapele backs and sides, Nylgut strings, and are inlaid with pearl and abalone ($99-$300).
Most importantly, they can be carried in a small case or backpack, and played quietly in almost any environment. They’re great for songwriters, performers, kids and adults of all ages and experience levels.
And in case you need it, here’s a simple online tuner: Ukutuner.com