Introduction to the Hawaiian Ukulele, & How to Find a Good One

The Ukulele is a Hawaiian instrument, influenced from the Spanish & Portuguese Stringed Instrument culture.

Portuguese and Spanish cowboys and traders came to Hawaii and brought with them their stringed instruments, such as the guitar, and some others which were uncommon by today’s standards. Many were skilled Luthiers.

Hawaiians soon learned to start making their own Instruments from local hardwoods, like Koa wood, in the style and tradition of Spanish & Portuguese guitar & other stringed instrument makers. I’m sure they were close friends and just made things together.

They called the unique instrument ‘Jumping Fleas’. Uku are fleas, and Lele means to jump. Ukulele has the sound of little fleas jumping around, or so someone back then thought. Music is an important and integral part of Hawaiian Culture, so perhaps they were creating a musical score for an ensemble of busy fleas, a flea circus perhaps.

They chose to create a small, portable, light-weight, great-sounding 4-stringed instrument, allowing for full Key-Scale Chord composition, Triad + 7th.

Theoretically, an instrument only needs one string to pluck a rhythm, 2 strings for a more complex rhythm, with 1-5 harmonics & perfect octaves.

3 strings allows for base Triad true chord creation

Making it 4 strings allows for the addition of 7th chords, m7th maj7th, aug7th, dim7th, add9th, sus2, sus4, 6th, etc

The Ukulele Fretboard has a minimum of 12 frets, allowing for the entire Tonal Scale of a complete octave, C to C.

They decided the tuning would be an open m7th chord, and tuned it to GCEA, giving it an open chord at Am7/ C6.

By creating a tuning that is open in a 7th or Minor 7th, they allowed for some easy 7th chords, & it frees up the fret board for creating Major & Minor Triads, Augmented, Diminished, & Suspended 2/4 chords, etc

So from even the smallest ukulele, we are given the power to create over 140 complete base chords, plus many other partial suspended, 6/9 variants, add variants, & other variants, each with 3-4 different positions on the fretboard up the scale

Larger ukulele like the tenor or baritone have as many frets as a guitar does, and have a great deal of diversity.

Really the only difference between an ukulele and a guitar is that it just lacks the ability to create the true 9th, 11th chord extensions and variations of those & the modified 13th chord extension, that you can make with a guitar, as well as the very little extra chord movement & picking stretch you get with the slightly longer guitar fretboard. All of those chords are quite rare and easily replaced with a 4-string version out to 7ths.

There are 4 kinds of Ukulele:

  • Soprano Ukulele
    • Usual Tuning: GCEA
    • Frets: 12-14
    • Overall Length: Around 21 inches
  • Concert Ukulele
    • Usual Tuning: GCEA
    • Frets: 14-17
    • Overall Length: Around 23 inches
  • Tenor Ukulele
    • Usual Tunings: GCEA or LowGCEA
    • Frets: 17-19+ (Close to Guitar)
    • Overall Length: Around 26 in.
  • Baritone Ukulele
    • Usual Tuning: DGBE (same as bottom 4 strings of Guitar), & LowGCEA
    • Frets: 19-23 (same as Guitar)
    • Overall Length: Around 30 in.

Which one to Choose?

  • Tenor is the most popular, its still GCEA, and has almost as many frets as a guitar, and a nice full sound.
  • I would avoid a Soprano unless its a really good one, since the sound is generally not very good at all unless it’s really top of the line. These are the most common crappy ukulele people get started with because they don’t know about the ukulele and thing its a toy or joke or something.
  • Choose Baritone if you don’t mind learning a non-standard ukulele tuning, and if you prefer guitars. It has the size to play most things a Guitar can. Its very popular with Jazz, and some very very famous jazz musicians play the baritone ukulele.. its like a guitar, without the top 2 strings.. tuned the same as a guitar as well (bottton 4 strings)

How to Find a Good Ukulele:

  • Wood:
    • Look for an ukulele that is not colored or painted, just a raw wood finish or raw wood with a gloss finish etc. Look at it with the same discretion you’d look at a high quality Acoustic Guitar
  • Body:
    • Hold the body away from you, put your fingers on the strings, and tap the bottom center with your finger, and you should hear a deep, clear echoing sound.. repeat with the top, between the hole and the side
  • Keys:
    • Should be completely metal, with an adjustable screw at the end of each key that can be tightened
    • The part you grab should be heavy and high-quality hard-plastic or something fancy, not light or cheap
  • Strings:
    • Be sure you can buy extra stings at the shop you buy your Ukulele from, and if possible, negotiate new strings for the Ukulele at the time you buy it.
    • Black or Clear strings are ok, so long as they are high quality.. i prefer the higher quality Red ones with the nickel- wound C string though
  • Sound:
    • hold the body of the ukulele away from your body and strum it loudly and see how far the sound travels.. go outside and try it, and try it in different sized rooms, if possible.. have someone play it for you while you listen to it from far away
  • Cases:
    • Hard Cases are best, and they can be found in most shops.. also some types of violin cases will work as well
  • Brands:
    • All brands make good ones and not so good ones, better not to look at brands and go with what you prefer. Kamaka is generally considered #1. My Kamaka Concert Ukulele is what I loved most, before I started making my own.
  • Price:
    • Again, Prices don’t really reflect quality, so check em out carefully and go with the one you like most, but try and spend the most you can afford to spend, you generally get what you pay for.
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