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A Short History of the Ukulele
First, a quick ukulele history lesson because if you had a Hawaii connection, wouldn’t you want to celebrate that at least a little bit?
Sure, you would!
Ukuleles were developed in the late 1800’s in Hawaii and have been associated with Hawaiian music ever since. Portuguese immigrants based the ukulele design on guitar-like instruments in their native Portugal. The Hawaiian Gazette reported in 1879 that "Madeira Islanders recently arrived here, have been delighting the people with nightly street concerts." It’s pretty cool that from the beginning of the ukulele’s existence, its’ distinctive music was shared and received with joy.
Today we hear the uke in diverse genres of music- we’ve come a long way since Don Ho’s “Tiny Bubbles”. Pearl Jam’s Eddie Vedder and alternative rocker Jason Mraz play ukuleles in their popular music. Jake Shimabukuro is a talented ukulele player and 2016 America’s Got Talent winner Grace vanderWaal strummed her ukulele in her original song to the delight of millions.
Learning to play the ukulele is not overly difficult and can be a great starting place for a beginning musician. Plus, it’s easy to carry around with you so you can play in your free time and entertain your friends, family and random strangers. Try doing that with your tuba.
Pick A Uke Type That Matches Your Needs!
Of course, there are some things you want to know before you buy your first ukulele.
Ukuleles come in five main sizes- sopranissimo, soprano, concert, tenor and baritone.
Sopranos are the smallest with a length of 20-21 inches. They are the highest pitched and it’s likely this “thinner” sound is what you think of when you think of ukuleles. The soprano ukuleles have 12-15 frets and are tuned GCEA. There is less tension on the strings so you may find yourself needing to tune your instrument more often.
Concert ukuleles are slightly larger than sopranos- typically 23 inches long with 15-20 frets. They are sometimes called alto ukuleles and have a fuller sound than the sopranos. Concert ukuleles are tuned GCEA like the soprano uke. The slight increase in length allows more tension on the strings which can be beneficial and keep your uke in tune longer. Folks with larger hands/longer fingers may find it easier to play this size instrument.
Tenors are 26 inches long with 15 or more frets. The increased size produces a deeper, fuller tone. The increased number of frets means you can reach higher notes on the fretboard. Tenor ukuleles can be tuned the same as sopranos and concerts or tuned lower like a baritone ukulele to DGBE.
The baritone is the largest in the ukulele family at 30+inches in length with 19 or more frets. They have the lowest pitch and are tuned differently than the other sizes of ukuleles to DGBE like the bottom four strings on a guitar. The deep sound of the baritone is different from the bright, jangly sound of the smaller ukes. If you’re into blues or fingerpicking or simply want a deeper sound, the baritone is a good choice.
Because of the varied sizes and tones, having an idea of which sound you like can help you decide which instrument you would prefer. If you have smaller hands, the smaller instruments can be easier to manage. You may also be able to find a less expensive soprano ukulele so it’s less of a financial investment to explore the fun, happy world of ukes.
The uke is such an enjoyable instrument, it’s hard to go wrong with whatever one you choose. Whether you’re a beginner or an experienced musician, there is a ukulele for you!
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