The Ukulele, or Ukelele as it is sometimes spelled, and generally referred to as a Uke, is a stringed instrument whose invention is generally attributed to Portuguese immigrants to Hawaii around 1880.
Although there are modern variations, the Uke is generally strung with 4 nylon or gut strings and comes in four recognized sizes. They are: Soprano, the smallest, with a length around 13-14″ from the nut to the saddle. Concert, around 15-16″ for the same measurement, the Tenor at 17-18″ and the Baritone which is the largest at 19-20″. To look at, they appear to be small guitars, as they have a similar body shape, although there are a number of variations available such as ‘pineapple’, ‘cigar box’ etc. There are also variants that look more like a banjo or Mandolin.
The three smaller sizes, Soprano, Concert and Tenor, are typically tuned with the reentrant tuning of gCEA, also known as ‘High G’ tuning where the uppermost string of the instrument is tuned an octave higher than you might expect. ‘Low G’ tuning may be encountered occasionally, especially on the Tenor Uke, where the notes GCEA progress from the lowest to the highest in pitch as you strum down across the instrument.
The Baritone Uke is the exception that proves the rule, so to speak, in that, although it can be strung and tuned in either of the above ways, it is generally tuned to DGBE in the same manner as the lowermost 4 stings on a six stringed guitar.
Over the last century the Uke has risen and fallen in popularity a number of times, first coming to prominence around 1915, around 35 years into it’s history. The biggest dip in real popularity came during the 1960′s where plastics in the toy industry enabled mass production of toy instruments that were badly produced and, more importantly, badly strung. This gave the instrument a poor reputation and the instrument was largely ignored by musicians for more than a generation. Over recent years, that reputation has recovered somewhat and the roller-coaster of Ukulele history is again on an upward trend 130+ years after it’s invention.
The reason for it’s popularity is the ease in which raw beginners can produce real music out of the instrument. Despite it’s diminutive size, it can be played by people with large hands as easily as it can be played by children. Schools have started to use the Ukulele for teaching music as, unlike the Recorder, the Uke can be played while singing along. learning your first song is literally the work of a few minutes, and with a short practice each day for a week, great strides can be made with the instrument.