If you’ve ever heard Israel Kamakawiwoʻole’s medley of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” and “What a Wonderful World,” you know how beautiful ukulele music can be. The ukulele—sometimes referred to as a uke—may look like a miniature version of a classical acoustic guitar, but it’s an instrument all its own.
In fact, there are many different sizes and types of ukuleles, ranging from tiny to nearly the size of a standard guitar.
What Is a Ukulele?
Like a guitar, a ukulele is a chordophone (i.e., a stringed instrument) and features a long neck, a hollow body, and a sound hole. In fact, the four-stringed instrument looks like a small version of an acoustic guitar. Generally, ukuleles have a neck and body made from solid wood, with nylon or metal-wound strings.
The mellow, hollow sound the ukelele makes is immediately recognizable and often associated with tropical settings, like Hawaii—which makes sense, considering it was popularized in the Hawaiian islands.
Famous Ukulele Musicians
Israel Kamakawiwoʻole is perhaps the most recognizable player, but if you want to learn to play the ukulele, there are several other musicians whose music you might enjoy—and even aim to emulate.
Daniel Ho, for example, is a native Hawaiian musician who specializes in the ukulele. He has recorded 18 solo albums and produced 50 albums, which have earned him several Grammy nominations—and a few wins.
Eddie Kamae was one of the founding members of Sons of Hawaii, a popular Hawaiian music group in the 1960s. An important part of ukulele history, he was inducted into the Ukulele Hall of Fame in 2001.
A musician with less traditional roots, Jake Shimabukuro got his start on YouTube posting instrumental ukulele covers. After his take on The Beatles’ “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” went viral, he now headlines sold-out concerts.
Where Is the Ukulele From?
Although the ukulele is most commonly associated with Hawaii, it actually has Portuguese roots. While there was never a Portuguese ukulele per se, the instrument stems from both the cavaquinho and the braguinha (also referred to as the machete). These instruments were originally developed in Europe and were introduced to Hawaii by Portuguese immigrants in 1879. Hawaiians instantly loved the instruments’ sounds, and the Hawaiian version of the ukulele swept across the islands. Even the reigning monarch at the time, Kalakaua, learned how to play it.
Visitors from the mainland first heard—and loved—the sounds of the Hawaiian ukulele in the early 1900s, and before long, retailers like Sears Roebuck and other department stores began to carry plastic versions of the instrument. As an inexpensive option compared to pricey instruments like pianos and accordions, the ukulele continued to grow in popularity into the 1930s, when it became a staple of bluegrass bands.
What Does Ukulele Mean?
When the Portuguese immigrants arrived in Hawaii with their tiny guitars, the Hawaiians were so impressed with their deft strumming and finger-picking that they termed the instrument ukulele, which loosely translates to “jumping flea.”
Ukuleles come in many different sizes, each of which produces a different type of sound. If you’re interested in buying a ukulele, it’s important to understand which size will work best for the type of music you want to play.
When you picture a ukulele in your mind, you probably envision a soprano ukulele, which is the original, traditional size of the instrument. This size produces the classic ukulele sound, with a bright but soft tone. Because of its small nature, it offers less projection and resonance than larger versions of the instrument. However, because it’s small and light, it’s the perfect choice for beginners, including young players.
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The next size up in the instrument family, the concert ukulele is about an inch longer and a bit wider than a soprano uke. It features more space between frets, so it’s better suited for those with larger hands and longer fingers. Because the concert ukulele is a bit bigger, it offers a louder sound and warmer tone.
If you want to focus on finger-picking, the tenor ukulele is a great option. About two inches longer than a concert version and with a slightly wider neck, the tenor instrument provides even more spacing between frets. It also creates a louder, deeper sound with better projection.
The largest size of the standard instrument, the baritone ukulele measures about 30 inches long. Its size and deep tone are most similar to a classical guitar, so this is a great transitional instrument if you already know how to play guitar.
Just like a bass guitar plays lower tones than a regular guitar, a bass ukulele produces deeper sounds than a traditional uke. A bass ukulele can have a solid or hollow body, and it generally features thicker strings than the traditional instrument. The strings are tuned like a bass (E, A, D, G) rather than a traditional ukulele (G, C, E A). However, a bass ukulele plays notes an octave higher than a traditional bass guitar.
The contrabass ukulele is a bit larger than the bass version of the instrument. While it is tuned to the same notes as a bass ukulele—E, A, D, G—it plays the notes an octave lower (the same as a standard bass guitar).
On the other end of the spectrum, you have the smallest ukuleles. Primarily referred to as sopranino ukuleles, they may also be called pocket or piccolo ukuleles. These miniature instruments are typically 19 inches long with just 10 frets, compared to a soprano ukulele’s 12. In contrast to standard ukes, pocket ukuleles don’t produce much sound, and because they are so small, they’re generally better suited for strumming, rather than finger-picking.
Anatomy of a Ukulele
Before you learn how to play the ukulele, it’s important to understand your instrument. The three main parts of a ukulele are the body, the neck, and the headstock. Within those main ukulele anatomy components, there are several smaller elements as well.
The largest part of the ukulele, the body is typically made of wood—traditionally koa wood, but other common varieties include spruce and mahogany. The body is hollow, which allows sound to resonate when the strings are played. The body includes the following components:
- Soundboard: On the front of the body is the soundboard, a flat piece of wood that helps amplify the sound of the strings. The type of wood it’s made from can affect the quality of the sound. For example, koa wood produces a bright sound, while mahogany creates a warmer tone.
- Sound hole: In the center of the soundboard is a hole, called the sound hole, which further amplifies the strings. Plucking the strings directly above the sound hole produces a louder sound, while strumming farther away from the hole creates a quieter tone.
- Bridge: Below the sound hole is the bridge, which is a piece of plastic or wood where the strings are connected to the body.
- Saddle: The saddle sits on top or above the bridge. It contains grooves that keep the strings separated and the appropriate distance above the frets.
The neck of the ukulele extends out from the body. When playing a ukulele, the musician grasps the neck with one hand, while strumming or plucking the strings with the other. The neck contains the following components:
- Fretboard: On the front of the neck is the fretboard, which contains a series of frets, or thin metal strips.
- Fets: The individual metal strips, or frets, are what allow a musician to play different notes. Pressing on the frets closer to the sound hole creates a higher-pitched note, while pressing the frets closer toward the headstock produces lower-pitched notes.
- Fret markers: The neck often contains fret markers—typically dots—which help a musician quickly locate specific notes.
- Nut: At the very top of the neck, between the fretboard at the headstock, there is a small piece of plastic called the nut. Just like the saddle, the nut contains small ridges that hold the strings in the correct position and guide them up into the tuning pegs.
At the far end of the neck is the headstock, which is the anchor for the strings. There are two main types of headstocks: solid and slotted. However, the style you choose doesn’t affect the sound of the ukulele; it’s mostly a matter of aesthetic preference. Whichever style you choose, the headstock contains the following components:
- Tuning pegs: The strings of the ukulele extend from the body up to the tuning pegs, where they are wound tightly to maintain the instrument’s pitch. Tuning pegs may also be referred to as tuning heads, tuning keys, or even just tuners.
- Strings: The strings run from beneath the sound hole all the way up to the headstock, so technically they’re part of all three ukulele anatomy components. The strings are typically made of nylon, although some ukulele varieties (primarily the bigger instruments) may have metal-wound strings.
Types of Ukuleles
Beyond choosing the right size ukulele, you must also consider different ukulele types, which can produce a range of different sounds.
While ukulele players generally want to maintain the signature, cheery sound of the instrument, you may also want to have the option to amplify its sound—for example, if you want to perform on stage with a band. An electric ukulele has a traditional hollow body, but also contains an electronic pickup that you can use to amplify or record the sound.
A banjo ukulele, which is sometimes called a banjolele, combines the distinctive sound of a banjo with the signature size of a ukulele. Originally created for vaudeville or comedic performers who needed small but loud instruments, the banjo ukulele offers versatility and volume.
A standard ukulele mimics the shape of a traditional acoustic guitar, with a curved, figure-eight shape. A pineapple ukulele, on the other hand, features an oblong shape reminiscent of its namesake fruit. But it’s not just an aesthetic difference; the pineapple shape gives the instrument a more mellow sound and a louder volume.
Similar to a resonator guitar, which was designed to help the guitar stand out among percussion and horns in dance orchestras, the resonator ukulele was created to make a louder sound than a standard uke. Instead of a traditional wooden soundboard, a resonator ukulele uses aluminum cones to create a loud, distinct sound. However, while resonator guitars are often played flat in the guitarist’s lap, musicians typically play resonator ukuleles in a conventional manner.
An unmistakable and unique instrument, the harp ukulele has an extra arm extending from the top of the soundboard, with additional unfretted strings. The extra strings are generally tuned to bass notes to give the uke a fuller sound. The harp ukulele was developed in 1910 following the popularity of the harp guitar.
Lap Steel Ukulele
Designed to be played flat on a musician’s legs, a lap steel ukulele features strings raised above the fretboard. Rather than pressing the strings down onto the fret, the player uses a metal slide to change the pitch of the instrument.
The baritone nui ukulele is a tenor-size instrument with nylon strings tuned to D, G, B, E. This type of guitar was created by ukulele brand Pono. The company developed the nui ukulele as a larger, longer baritone ukulele with harmonic overtones and beautiful tone.
Difference Between a Ukulele and a Guitar
The most noticeable difference between a ukulele and a guitar is, of course, the size of the instruments. Ukuleles are generally 35% to 50% smaller than guitars. However, there are many additional differences:
- Ukuleles feature four strings, while most guitars have six.
- Guitar strings are typically made from metal, while most ukuleles feature nylon strings.
- Ukulele strings have lower tension than guitar strings.
- Most guitars have a loud, bright sound, while ukuleles are softer and more mellow.
Ultimately, with fewer, low-tension strings, simple chords, and a smaller size, the ukulele is typically considered easier to learn than guitar.
Difference Between Ukulele and Mandolin
OK, but what about the ukulele compared to the mandolin? These small, stringed instruments also seem similar at first glance, but ultimately, they are very different.
The ukulele is considered a chordophone, which is a class of musical instruments that produces sound by stretched, vibrating strings. The mandolin, on the other hand, belongs to the lute family, which features strings that are plucked. However, the differences go much deeper than that:
- Ukuleles feature four strings, while mandolins have four pairs of strings (eight strings total).
- Mandolin strings are typically made from steel, while ukuleles generally have nylon strings.
- Ukuleles are generally used to play folk music, but mandolins are common in a wide variety of genres, from bluegrass to classical.
- Mandolins are often more expensive than ukuleles.
Given the complexity of the mandolin’s eight strings, the ukulele is considered easier to learn than the mandolin.
Similar Instruments in Other Nations
The ukulele may seem uniquely Hawaiian, but you can find similar instruments in nations all across the world. Here are just a few that resemble the ukulele’s appearance and sound.
The timple is a small, five-stringed instrument common in the Canary Islands. It’s similar in structure to a ukulele, with a wooden body, soundboard, sound hole, and neck. Its standard tuning is G, C, E, A, D, so players can—and commonly do—omit that fifth string and play the instrument like a ukulele.
Like the mandolin, the Tahitian ukulele (also called a Tahitian banjo or Polynesian uke) is a member of the lute family and features four pairs of strings, for eight strings total. The Tahitian ukulele does not have a hollow sound box, and it produces a higher and thinner sound than a traditional ukulele. It’s generally strummed or plucked very quickly, unlike the Hawaiian ukulele, which is typically played in a more leisurely style.
The requinto jarocho, also known as the guitarra de son, is a stringed instrument with similarities to both the standard guitar and the ukulele. It originated in Veracruz, Mexico, and is often used in conjunto jarocho ensembles, or Mexican folk groups. The group typically consists of a few different types of guitars, as well as an arpa jarocha, which is a large wooden harp.
The kroncong is an Indonesian instrument named for the sound it makes: chrong-chrong-chrong. Like the ukulele, the kroncong was introduced to Indonesia by Portuguese immigrants. Today, the instrument is generally played in kroncong ensembles, which feature a flue, a violin, a cell, a string bass, a vocalist, and at least one (but often a pair of) kroncongs.
A predecessor to the ukulele, the rajão is a five-stringed instrument from Madeira, Portugal. It was originally used to play music for the country’s folklore dances. When the rajão was brought to Hawaii, it was given the nickname “taro-patch fiddle.”
The ukulele is much more than a novelty instrument or a small version of a guitar. It’s a unique instrument with a rich history and a distinct sound. And, there’s a ukulele for any type of music you might want to play—from the traditional, mellow sound of the soprano ukulele to the deep tones of the contrabass. Plus, with just four strings, it’s a beginner-friendly instrument that’s suitable for even the youngest of players. It’s a joy to hear and play—so pick one up and get strumming today!
The Complete Beginner’s Guide to Learning Ukulele