Ukulele Explained: All You Need To Know (2020)

Ever been to the big island of Hawaii? If so, there is a good chance you have heard the seductive sounds of the ukulele. You may not have known what it was, but we can guarantee you heard it. 

When it comes to the culture of the island, the ukulele, which is often overlooked, plays a huge role. 

And though the ukulele originated in Hawaii, it has managed to make its way all across the globe. These days, it is bringing great joy to people from every corner of the earth. 

With that being said, you might now be wondering, what exactly is the ukulele? Where did the idea to create it come from? Are there different kinds? 

These are just a few of the many questions we hope to answer with this article. When you’re done reading it, we hope that you will have a new found love for this amazing little instrument. 

A Brief History of The Ukulele

It all started in 1878. Back then, Hawaii was known for its ability to produce sugar cane in large quantities. At the time, no other states could compete. 

Eventually however, new markets started to pop up in California. Demand was growing faster than plantation owners could keep up with. 

To help handle the demand, the plantation owners decided it was time to spread their business around. 

In order to do this they needed more workers. Those workers came over to the island from Portugal in large numbers. 

Anytime people start to migrate to a new country, it’s only natural they bring part of their culture with them. 

When the Portuguese started arriving on the island of Hawaii, they brought with them a small instrument known as the machete de braga. 

Though simple in design, it only had four metal strings, the people on the island quickly fell in love with it. 

Over time, as the immigrants settled into their new home, they started making small changes to the machete de braga. 

They started by adding a few popular features they noticed on other similar stringed instruments. By the time it was all said and done, we had what is now known as the modern day ukulele. 

The ukulele became an instant hit in the Portuguese community. They literally could not get enough of it. Neither could the locals. 

After hearing about the ukulele, King Kalakaua, the man credited with saving the Hawaiian national identity, insisted it be played at royal events. 

And because the king loved it so much, it naturally became one of the most popular instruments on the island. 

The ukulele eventually became known as the national instrument of Hawaii. Once that happened, it didn’t take long for the ukulele craze to take over the United States, followed quickly by the rest of the world. 

The Ukulele Explained - All You Need To Know

Now that we understand how the ukulele came to be, let’s dive a little deeper and talk about how it works. 

When it comes to this very unique instrument, there is no shortage of misconceptions. And while most people have heard of the ukulele, they don’t really know much about it. 

Most people believe the ukulele is nothing more than a smaller version of the acoustic guitar. And yes to some degree that is true. But the ukulele is much more than just the little brother to the acoustic guitar. 

Due to the way it is tuned, the ukulele is able to play different chords than your regular old acoustic guitar. It also uses different playing techniques. 

This means, just because you can play the regular guitar, doesn’t necessarily mean you will be able to play the ukulele. As far as music theory goes, you may find yourself starting from scratch. 

While the standard guitar has six strings, the ukulele only has four. And when it comes to tuning, the standard is G – C – E – A. 

If you play the guitar, you know G – C – E – A are completely different keys than the standard guitar. That means, the scales you play on your standard guitar, cannot be easily transferred to the ukulele. 

We say all that to say, the ukulele is not just a smaller version of the acoustic guitar. It is actually in a league of its own. 

Next, let’s talk about the anatomy of the ukulele, and the three key parts that make it so unique. 

The Three Key Parts Of The Ukulele

Like most guitars, regardless of what kind they are, the ukulele has three key parts. The body, the neck, and the hardware. 

Let’s briefly discuss each one. 

The Body

The average ukulele is shaped just like the classic guitar. The body is in the shape of an hourglass, and it has the standard treble and bass bouts. 

As with all acoustic instruments, the body is what ultimately determines the sound you hear. The ukulele can be made using different types of tonewood, and in different sizes. 

The Neck

The length of the neck will vary depending on the type of ukulele you are using. However, on average, the neck length is around 21 inches. 

Due to how short the scale is, the strings on the ukulele must be properly chosen. With a regular guitar you can walk in your local music store and get any type of strings you like. 

With the ukulele however, that can’t be done. When choosing strings for this particular instrument, there are two important things you must know. 

First you must know the length of the strings, and secondly you must know the tuning of the strings. 

In the beginning, picking out the right strings can be a bit overwhelming. But once you get the hang of it, it’s easy going from there. 

The Hardware

When we say hardware, we are referring to four important elements of the ukulele. The bridge, the saddles, the nut, and the tuning machines. 

These four elements are not original to the ukulele. As a matter of fact, they can all be found on your standard acoustic guitar. 

The bridge and the tuning machines are the most important elements of the hardware. If the bridge is of poor quality, you can expect to have problems in the not too distant future. The same goes for the tuning machines. 

Having good quality tuners is vital to keeping your instrument in tune. Otherwise, you won’t enjoy the sound being produced by your ukulele. 

The 4 Types of Ukuleles

Like many guitars, the ukulele comes in a variety of different sizes. The size you choose will determine the sound that gets produced. 

Here are the four types of ukuleles: 

The Soprano Ukulele

This is the standard ukulele and it is the most common. When people start learning to play the ukulele, they usually start with the soprano. 

Of the four types of ukuleles, the soprano is the smallest. Due to its size it is perfect for traveling. 

If you have large hands, you may find it difficult to play this particular ukulele. Not only are the frets closer together, but the strings also have less tension. This makes it more likely you will bend a string out of tune. 

Even still, if you are looking to save a few bucks, the soprano ukulele is the best way to go. 

The Concert Ukulele

The concert ukulele, often referred to as the alto, is about two inches longer than the soprano. Because of this extra length, it is able to produce a fuller sound. 

While the concert ukulele is known for using standard tuning, it's not uncommon for some people to use linear tuning. 

The strings on the concert ukulele have more tension, which is great for those who tend to bend strings out of tune. 

And being that the frets are more spread out, those with larger fingers should have no problem playing this ukulele. 

The Tenor Ukulele

If you are a performer, the tenor ukulele is just what you need. Because of its size, it’s a little bigger than the concert ukulele, it is able to produce a fuller sound and tone. It also has more frets which means you will be able to reach higher notes. 

The Baritone Ukulele

The baritone ukulele is the big daddy of them all. If you have small hands you will probably have a hard time playing it. 

The baritone ukulele is tuned using D-G-B-E baritone tuning. This gives it a deeper sound than the other three ukuleles. 

The deep sound it produces makes it the perfect instrument for blues players and fingerpickers. 

P.S You can now also buy electric ukulele!

What Type of Ukulele Is Best For You?

Now that you know the four types of ukuleles, the next question is, which type is best for you? If you are a complete beginner, we would recommend starting with the soprano ukulele. They are affordable and easy to learn. 

If you have small hands, but you want something that produces a fuller sound, the concert ukulele is the best way to go. 

If you want to be able to reach higher notes opt for the tenor ukulele. And if you have really large hands, the baritone ukulele will be the best option for you. 

When it boils down to it, the type of ukulele that’s best for you will depend on a variety of different things. 

For example, what type of sound are you trying to accomplish? Which ukulele feels the best in your hands? Which one looks the best? 

The easiest way to find out what type is best for you, is to go to your local music store and try a few out. 

What Makes a Good Quality Ukulele?

While this is indeed a great question, it is also one that is hard to define. 

There are basically two things that will determine the quality of a ukulele. The materials used, and the skills of the person who made it. Also known as the luthier. 

As far as materials go, tonewood is always the best option. But you don’t want just any tonewood, you want good quality tonewood. 

The best tonewood for the ukulele is Koa as it is the wood that was originally used. For the best tonal properties, look for a ukulele where the sides, top, and bottom are made using Koa. Luckily, Koa is native to Hawaii so it shouldn’t be too difficult to find. 

With that being said, it doesn’t matter the quality of the Koa if the luthier has no idea what they are doing. 

This leads us to the second factor that will determine the quality of your ukulele. While a ukulele can be made anywhere in the world, truth be told, the best ones will always come from Hawaii. 

Yes, having a ukulele made in Hawaii will cost more money. However, it will be well worth it in the long run. 

Luthiers from Hawaii have the knowledge and skills that have been passed down from their predecessors. This means they know more about the ukulele than most people will ever know. 

When building a ukulele, the margin for error is very low. One misstep and the instrument will be useless. 

You have to build it just right if you want it to produce the best sound. And while an inexperienced player may not notice the issues with tonality, an experienced ukulele player will. 

The Biggest Misconception About The Ukulele

When it comes to playing the ukulele, there are far more misconceptions that we care to acknowledge. 

However, there is one that really gets under our skin. The biggest misconception about the ukulele is that it is easy to play. People think they can just pick it up and turn into the next great ukulele player. 

People who make these claims have probably never played a single note on a ukulele. As with learning anything new, playing the ukulele takes a great deal of time and effort. 

But if you stick with it, you can no doubt become a great ukulele player. 

The Best Type Of Music To Play On The Ukulele

When most people think of the ukulele, they think of the Hawaiian beach songs that make everyone want to roll their hips. 

Don’t limit yourself to just those types of songs. You should instead explore all possibilities. If you really think about it, there is no limit to the type of music that can be played on the ukulele. 

From jazz, to blues, to can all be played on the ukulele. You just have to learn how to experiment. Don’t let people put you in a box. 

Listen to the songs you like, and see if you can find a way to translate the guitar licks into something that can be played on the ukulele. 

It really boils down to learning how to translate the notes. If you can do that, you can pretty much learn how to play any type of music on the ukulele. 

Similar to other acoustic instruments, the ukulele can be plugged into an amp. By playing the ukulele in amplified form, you will be able to take the sound to a whole new level. 

Not only will you be able to determine how loud the instrument plays, but you will also be able to play around with different effects. 

Add in a decent looper pedal, and there is no limit to how creative you can be. Want to have some serious fun? Add a distortion pedal to the mix. Trust us, it will liven things up quite a bit. 

As previously stated, don’t limit yourself. Don’t allow what other people think to put you in a creative box. You should instead explore all possibilities with your new instrument. 

Don’t be fooled by the small size of the ukulele. This little instrument can do more than you could possibly imagine. 

Should You Get a Ukulele

While we absolutely love the ukulele, that doesn’t mean everyone else will. Whether or not you should get a ukulele is something you have to figure out for yourself. 

Head to your local music store and see if they have one available. If they do, spend at least 30 minutes playing around with it. See how it feels in your hand. 

How does it feel as you strum the strings? All it takes is a few minutes to determine if the ukulele is right for you. That initial feeling will tell you everything you need to know. 

Please know that once you start playing the ukulele, you won’t want to stop. You will fall in love with it just like so many others. 

And while it's not easy to learn how to play the ukulele, once you get the hang of it you will catch on really quickly. 

There are a lot of things to love about the ukulele. One being its size. It's compact enough to fit in almost any backpack. That means taking it with you as you travel is super simple. 

Something else to love about the ukulele is the price. For the most part, all ukuleles are affordable. However, you can get a starter model at an unbelievably low price. 

Starter models give you the opportunity to test out the waters before investing too much money. If you find that you like the instrument, you can upgrade it to a real model. 

Once you start playing the ukulele you will become part of a huge community. This community is constantly growing and it is the type of community that takes care of its own. 

To join a community of like minding ukulele players, consider joining one of the many ukulele Facebook groups. 

A few good ones include I’ve Got a Ukulele, Uke Players, and Ukulele Blues Club. Just type those names in the search bar and the groups will pop up. 

You may also find other groups to join. Join as many as you like. The idea is to find other ukulele players you can learn from. The groups allow you to ask questions and get quick answers. 

Groups are valuable resources that can help you cut your learning time in half. And the faster you are able to learn how to play the ukulele, the faster you will fall in love with it. 

A Final Word

The ukulele is one of those instruments that people often overlook. They see it as this little guitar looking instrument that can’t do very much. But don’t be fooled by its size. It may be small, but trust us, it packs a mighty punch. 

This little instrument can put a smile on anyone's face. And once you try it, we are sure you will fall in love with it just like we did. 

The reason we wrote this article is because we wanted to introduce more people to what we believe is one of the most fascinating instruments in the world. 

And while there was no way we could cover absolutely everything about the ukulele, this article does cover all you need to know to decide if the ukulele is the right instrument for you. 

We started by giving you a brief history of how the ukulele came about. We also talked about the anatomy of the ukulele, and the different types you can choose from. 

Putting this information in one place makes it a lot easier for you to decide if you want to give it a try. 

When people think of the ukulele, they think of two things, happiness and good times. That is how impactful this small little instrument has been, not only in Hawaii, but all over the world. 

In Hawaii, the ukulele is a way of life. We know this might sound dramatic, but it's really true. One visit to Hawaii and you will understand why. 

You will be able to see firsthand the type of joy and happiness this instrument brings. 

We do hope this article has taught you something new about the ukulele, and opened you up to a new world of opportunities. 

Whatever you do, don’t stop learning. The more you learn about the ukulele, the better off you will be. 

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