I LOVE Ukulele. No, I really mean it. And it’s a funny thing because I never thought I’d be interested in something so kitschy. Let’s face it, on the surface it appears that we’ve got a tiny guitar – like Christmas tree ornament with four strings. Simply utter the name Ukulele and images of Tiny Tim and Don Ho are conjured up in one’s mind – not exactly poster children for hip, modern and cool. Then why was the Ukulele one of the biggest growing imports from overseas this past year? Why is it being used on loads of new pop recordings by the likes of Train, Jason Mraz, and Eddie Vedder? Hmmm? So, what’s the Deal with Ukulele?
The Ukulele actually started it’s life as another instrument from Portugal, the Machete. It was first introduced to the Hawaiian Islands in the 19th century by Portuguese immigrants and slowly developed into the instrument we know today as the Ukulele. The Uke, as it is often called, eventually made it’s way to the United States and began appearing in Popular and Jazz music around the time of World War I. It quickly made it’s way into Tin Pan Alley / Vaudeville acts and was transformed into variant forms of the instrument such as the Banjo Ukulele to fit the idioms. In response to it’s popularity, instrument manufacturers such as Martin, Gibson, and Harmony all began to make Ukuleles on the mainland U.S. After World War II however, the popularity of the Ukulele began to wane, most likely as it was overshadowed by the emergence of the Guitar.
However, all was not lost for the little Guitar and in the 1990’s, production of Ukuleles began into increase as did it’s popularity. By the early 2000’s, the Ukulele was definitely on the up swing probably thanks to Native Hawaiian singer, Israel Kamakawiwo’ole and his now famous rendition of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow”.Since then, many other brilliant Ukulele players began to emerge such as Jake Shimabukuro and Rob MacKillop, each bringing their own unique flair and influence to the instrument.
So what’s so cool about the Ukulele? Here are 4 reasons why I believe YOU need to check it out.
- Range: While people often view the Ukulele as a limited, accompaniment instrument, it is capable of real beauty and intricate musical passages. In fact, it has a lot in common with the Baroque Guitar, as it has a similar kind of Re-entrant Tuning. The great news is that from Baroque Guitar Music, to Jazz, to just strumming away to your favorite song, the Ukulele can handle it all and handle it well.
- Variety: The Ukulele actually comes in 4 sizes (starting from the smallest to the largest): Soprano, Concert, Tenor, and Baritone. While they all look and sound like Ukulele’s, they all have their own unique tone and characteristics.
- Portability: For traveling with an instrument, it doesn’t get any easier than this. Occasionally, I have trouble with my Guitar not being able to travel with me on the plane, but never the Ukulele. It fits perfectly in the over head compartment of any plane and is easy to carry around ; even in it’s case, it weighs only a few pounds.
- Timbre: Or tone of the Ukulele is unique with it’s Re-entrant tuning. This gives it a brighter, higher pitched sound within the texture of the various chords being played. Overall, most players would probably agree that the Ukulele basically has a sound similar to a higher pitched Classical Guitar. However, some Ukulele’s are tuned to tunings other than the standard C6 tuning. Some even have a Low G rather than a High G as it’s last string, opening up the sonic possibilities even further.
So there you have it, my low down on the amazing Ukulele. Whether you’re looking for a great first instrument for your kindergartner, are an adult looking to play Pop Songs for fun, or a Guitar Player looking for something new, the Ukulele has something for everyone. And, it’s probably one of the easiest instruments to pick up and learn.
Tune in next time for the next installment of Have Guitar Will Travel.