What is a Ukulele?

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What is a Ukulele?

The ukulele is a string instrument often associated with Hawaiian music. It belongs to the guitar family of instruments, and shares many similarities with standard guitars, including its basic shape and construction. A standard ukulele has four strings, though some use eight strings with two-string courses. Its simplicity and compactness makes it easy to pick up and learn, even by beginners. People who want to learn how to play the ukulele benefit from even a cursory knowledge of its background, construction, and basic types.


A Brief History of the Ukulele

Despite its Hawaiian name, the ukulele did not originate in Hawaii. On August 1879, a Portuguese ship docked in Honolulu. With it came Joao Fernandes and his stringed instrument called the braguinha. He played and sang along with it, and the instrument became a hit with the Hawaiians. This sudden interest caught the attention of three Portuguese craftsmen: Manual Nunes, Augusto Dias, and Jose de Espirito Santo. Not soon after, they churned out braguinha after braguinha.

The origin of the name ukulele is less clear. One popular story involves a small court jester named Edward Purvis, who jumped around during his performance. Thus, King Kalakua, then ruler of the island, gave him the nickname "uku-lele," which roughly translates to "jumping flea." Another story about the name tells of Queen Lili'uokalani, the King's sister, interpreting "uku" as "the gift" and "lele" as "to come." Queen Lili'uokalani composed the song Aloha Oe, which became the island's unofficial anthem.

The opening of the Panama Canal made the United States more aware of Hawaiian culture, and thus, of the ukulele. Its distinct sound permeated different musical genres. Big name musicians such as Elvis Presley increased its popularity. This recognition and widespread use turned the ukulele into a mainstream instrument.


Anatomy of a Ukulele

The ukulele's body usually has a figure-eight shape like a guitar, but other shapes do exist. The pineapple-shaped body is perhaps the second most popular ukulele shape, followed by others such as the triangular shape and the cigar box. Artisans construct the ukulele's body from an acoustically superb piece of wood. An example of this is the koa, the wood from an acacia tree that is endemic to Hawaii. Mahogany is another choice, but most cheap ukulele manufacturers use plywood or laminate. Better woods produce a better tone, which is why most professional musicians prefer koa ukuleles.

Somewhere off-center on the body is the sound hole. The neck is near the sound hole, and the headstock attaches to the other end of the neck. The bridge, situated just beside the sound hole, holds the four strings in place. The strings stretch out from the bridge all the way to the nut, found in between the headstock and the neck. Finally, the strings rest on the tuners. Aptly named, these tuners tighten the strings until they reach the desired tune or pitch.


Types of Ukuleles

There are four types of ukuleles, determined by size and scale length. The scale length is the length of playable string, from the nut to the bridge. As the scale length increases, the sound becomes fuller. The distinct jangly sound of a ukulele is more apparent in soprano-ukuleles; the sound more closely resembles a guitar as the size increases to baritone.


Type of Ukuleles

Scale Length

Common Tunings

Soprano ukulele

13 5/8 inches

D-tuning: A-D-F#-B

E-tuning: Bb-E-G-C

Concert ukulele

14 3/4 inches

C-tuning: G-C-E-A

Tenor ukulele

17 inches

A-tuning: E-A-C#-F

Bb-tuning: F-Bb-D-G

Baritone ukulele

20 1/8 inches

G-tuning: D-G-B-E


Aside from differences in tone, there are also different playing styles suitable for each type of ukulele. Because soprano-types have tighter fret spaces and less tension on the strings, they are better suited for rhythmic playing. Conversely, baritone-types have wider fret spaces, allowing blues and folk musicians to play single notes easily.


How to Buy Ukuleles on eBay

eBay has an abundance of ukuleles and ukulele accessories. Buyers find thousands of results just by typing a generic term such as "ukulele" into eBay's search bar. As the search term becomes more specific, the results become more significant to the buyer's needs. For example, adding a brand name to the search term narrows the results to products of the desired brand. Thus, search terms like "Kala ukulele" or "Kamaka ukulele" always yield more specific results than a generic search term.



The cute and comic look of the ukulele might make it seem like a novelty product, but it certainly is a serious musical instrument. Its relaxed and distinctive sound gained the attention of prominent rock artists such as Paul McCartney and Eddie Vedder. Blues, jazz, folk, and indie musicians occasionally use the ukulele as well, and its sound is a common inclusion in most electronica samples. Musicians with a desire to add the ukulele to their repertoire find a wide selection of the instrument and accessories on eBay.



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