The ukulele was born in Hawai’i, a modification of a guitar-like instrument called the machete that had been brought to the islands by Portuguese immigrants in the late 19th century. Today, the ukulele continues to grow in popularity for many reasons. As an easily portable instrument with an affordable entry level price, it is accessible to many. Its design makes it easily to learn, with beginners able to enjoy the satisfaction of playing a complete song quite quickly.
A poignant, upbeat tone, and an association with the laid back vacation paradise of Hawai’i, link the sound of the ukulele with positive feelings. Today, musicians are utilizing the ukulele in increasingly unique ways, from indie rock and folk tunes. Large ukulele playing clubs and festivals continue to grow, giving more and more people ways to share the love for this unique instrument.
The journey to picking up a ukulele can begin in many places. An obvious association with the ukulele is its birthplace - the State of Hawaii. Music-loving Hawaiian King KalaKaua enjoyed the ukulele as a part of royal concerts, and its popularity has endured since. For many uke players, that is where their adventure began.
For some in the 50th state, ukulele playing was a part of formal education. Aldrine Guerrero, head instructor at UkuleleUnderground.com, remembers first playing it as a child, “when I was in the fourth grade, we used ukuleles for music class in Hawaii.” Guerrero is a ukulele player from Kauai who has recorded three unique and innovative full length albums.
Other players first noticed the ukulele as a part of the overall Hawaiian environment. Brad Bordessa, creator of LiveUkulele.com, moved to Hawai'i in 2005 when he was 13 years old. Due to this tropical relocation, “the ukulele went from a vague Hawaiian name in the back of my head to the most commonly heard instrument on the radio. It was only a matter of time, and, a few months after arriving in the islands, I picked up the 'ukulele and began learning.”
In the Hawaiian homeland of the ukulele, it is not as rare or exotic as it can be in other parts of the world. Guerrero remembers, “in Hawaii, it was very mainstream in the 90's. I was inspired by ukulele players that I heard on the radio such as Troy Fernandez (of Ka'au crater boys), Jake Shimabukuro (of Pure Heart), and Imua Garza (of Opihi pickers).”
Walking and Strumming
Bordessa recalls hearing the ukulele everywhere in Hawaii, “and seeing people play as they walked down the street made it seem like a very natural thing to try out.” It went from a hobby to a profession, and Bordessa continued his training with attending “various workshops where I had the chance to study under artists like Herb Ohta Jr., Kimo Hussey, and James Hill.”
Some start strumming young, and some pick it up when older. The small size of the ukulele can be easier for young hands to play. The ease of the ukulele’s learning curve makes it a great choice for musical beginners of any age. Songwriter Ralph Shaw remembers that he was “only two when I first picked up a ukulele. We had an old, but unplayable, 1920s banjo-uke that belonged to my granddad and was strung with gardening twine. It was always a mystery object to me: a sort of drum with a handle.” Shaw, known as the King of the Ukulele, has recorded 5 solo albums and continues to influence the current ukulele craze via RalphShaw.ca.
A Likeable Travelling Companion
The portability of the ukulele is one of its most notable features. It can be travelled with, brought to remote locations, and easily shared with others. Composer, educator and performer Carl Thomas, who runs the site Uke Of Carl, cites the small size of the ukulele as being a big part of why he started playing. “I have a TV theme obsession. One year I was lucky enough to have an extended holiday and decided to learn as many themes as I could. Fortunately, the uke was the only instrument that would fit in my luggage and hence Uke of Carl was born.”
Singer-songwriter, YouTube star, and national touring musician Julia Nunes also had travel as an influence on her ukulele beginnings. “I first picked it up when I was 15. That summer, I went to camp for 4 weeks and couldn't bring my guitar (because it was technically my dad's) so I brought the uke. I spend the whole summer writing songs and falling in love with the instrument!” Find her tour dates and more at JuNuMusic.com.
The ukulele lends itself to group activities; clubs, festivals and performance nights. Desire to join this community can lead people to start strumming. John Henderson recalls that he “saw a television article in late 2009 about a group called the Brisbane Ukulele Musician’s Society (BUMS) and thought that might be something interesting to do. In early 2010, I started attending the BUMS Jam nights – which consisted of about 25 people.”
This community helped Henderson learn quickly by example. “I learnt by joining in with all the rest of the crowd in viewing the (simplified) music which was being projected on-screen and being led by experienced facilitators. Playing in a group allows you to observe strumming patterns, rhythms and to generally be a bit bolder than when you are alone.” Henderson is now the president of the 200+ member BUMS.
No Pressure To Be A Prodigy
Many came to the ukulele after playing other instruments, most commonly the guitar. The different expectations, associations, and experience of playing the ukulele is often more satisfying. Tim Szerlong, who runs ukulele review site Ukeeku.com, found happiness with the ukulele after many less-enjoyable years working at the guitar. “I have an older brother who is an amazing guitar player - I grew up with him being this guitar prodigy, and that is very intimidating.” At 15, Tim started teaching himself to play the guitar with help from books and friends. 15 years later, he chose “to take guitar lessons formally to fill in my gaps, and I even bought the $1500 Martin to show I was serious. About a year into private lessons at a local shop I noticed there was a cheap $50 Oscar Schmidt uke on the wall, tried it.”
This was the beginning of his interest, but it took a coconut bra and grass skirt to seal the deal. “For a few weeks I could not stop thinking about it, and one of my good friends was having a Halloween party, I decided that I should buy the uke and be a hula girl. I never went back and sold the guitar a year later. In the end, I like to tell people that I am the best uke player in my family (I am the only one, so...)” Szerlong now co-hosts a monthly ukulele jam in Normal, IL, and can be found on NormalUkeJam.com, and is involved with many other ukulele events and groups.
The ukulele is often called one of the happiest instruments. Experienced players cite a variety of reasons for this. Associations with sunny vacations and comedians like Tiny Tim can plant it in lighthearted territory. The small physical size of the ukulele can be used as a humorous visual device. Thomas admits that “the contrast of an adult sized person playing a tiny soprano can add to the comical factor.”
Joy on Top (and Bottom)
Guerrero thinks that the sounds generated by the ukulele are somehow tied to eliciting strong human emotions. “I'm sure there's a scientific reason explaining how the bright treble notes just strike a chord to a person's heart, but some things are just a mystery. The ukulele invokes emotions on everyone who hears it. It sounds innocent, playful, and pure. Personally, the ukulele takes me to a place in my mind where I am at my happiest by conjuring memories that make me smile.”
Shaw thinks that it is as simple as the ukulele’s construction, “having high strings on top and bottom means that whether you strum up or down you always end on a high note. That helps make the bouncy uplifting sound of a uke.”
“I think a lot of it has to do with the "Hawaiian" image that the 'ukulele brings to mind, says Bordessa. “Part of it could be that it is one of the most gentle sounding instruments. It's rare that you ever hear an 'ukulele with an edge to its timbre. However, the ukulele is not only useful in simple, cheerful ways. Bordessa thinks that there is more to explore with this instrument, “it's different and hasn't been explored to its full potential yet.”
Nunes can get more out of her ukulele than just basic happy chords. “The ukulele is as versatile as any other instrument, if you play a happy song on it, you can emphasize that with the sweet plucky tone of a uke but sad songs can ring extra poignant on a uke because it has an innocence and clarity that can hit you right in the heart strings. I also tend to rock out pretty hard on ukulele so I wouldn't say it's all sunshine and lollipops on 4 strings.”
The joy of playing the ukulele can also come from sharing it, either in the form of teaching or performing. The ease of learning the ukulele can give you the gift of performing before other instruments. Tribe loves ”the immediate response of all ages when you play it, and especially with young ones who can be so close to the experience of making music that the small steps to becoming a musician can be encouraged at a very early age.”
Tim Hatcher agrees that “the act of making music is a creation that inspires joy, and so often people don't have the patience to travel the long journey it takes to learn an instrument and to get proficient at it, and get in touch with that joy. With a uke, the journey to joy is usually a shorter one. It's as simple as that.” Composer and arranger Hatcher loves performing with ukulele groups worldwide, and blogs at Vo-Do-De-O Days.
John Henderson agrees that the ukulele’s scale and simplicity make it a handy way to share or start a love of playing music. “Because of their size you can leave them lying around the place like some people would with interesting travel books or magazines on a coffee table – but the thing with Ukes is that they’re like Labrador puppies – you just can’t resist picking them up and playing with them. They’re just darned cute (and they won’t excavate your back yard). Playing songs on a ukulele is very reachable, but can still be challenging. Whether you’re a beginner or more accomplished – you can always pick up your Uke and play what you’ve just heard or want to learn – and the joy of making music – even if it’s just for yourself.”
Indulge Frequently With Your Friends
Performing in a group (at all skill levels) is an activity unique to the ukulele. With thousands of clubs and festivals worldwide, there is surely a way to join one near you. Henderson advises that “playing the Uke is something you can do by yourself – but I’d recommend indulging with friends. It’s what makes the Uke such an attractive instrument.”
Folk singer songwriter Danielle Anderson, who can be found at Danielle Ate The Sandwich, has been lucky enough to record four independent albums and tour nationally. She agrees that “after being immersed in ukulele culture, attending festivals around the US and meeting other people that play the ukulele, I think that the true magic of the instrument is in those who play and love it.” Size truly does not matter to Anderson - the ukulele is “not just small and cute. There is a kindness, a friendliness and a big, inclusive atmosphere that comes with the territory. I love the situations it gets me in. It’s an honor to be a part of the ukulele movement!”
As a souvenir from a distant Hawai’ian vacation, or a reason to join a local club - the reasons to start playing the ukulele are many. Regardless of the type of songs you choose to play, this unique and easy to learn instrument will bring you a special form of happiness.
For part two of this series, please visit Beginning and Bonding with the Ukulele.
Learn more about ukuleles of all types with our Ukulele Buying Guide.