Ukulele History – A Brief and Inaccurate Guide

If you’re looking for an extensive and accurate guide, take a look at John King’s Nalu Music.

The story of the ukulele starts in Europe. By the 18th Century stringed, fretted instruments had a long history. Larger instruments such as guitars and lutes had developed smaller cousins of particular benefit for sea-faring musicians. In Portugal the guitar had shrunk down to became a machete – retaining the figure of 8 shape despite the size making it redundant.

In 1879 the Ravenscrag set off for Hawaii with four Portuguese cabinet makers on board. The market for large, ornate Portguese furniture amongst Hawaii’s largely poor and agrarian population presumably not being large enough to support them all, the four started to make instruments. The one that took hold was the machete in a new form.

The truth behind much ukulele mythology that surrounds the ukulele – where it got its name, the tuning and ‘my dog has fleas’ – is mostly lost to us. What is true is that the uke became a big hit with the Hawaiian Royal Family and the Hawaiians in general and had become firmly established as their instrument by the start of the 20th Century.

After the US’s annexation of Hawaii – or when the, “business men stole Hawaii from the Hawaiians” as Bob Brozman puts it – the new owners were keen to sell it on to mainland America as a dream tropical island. Their big push was the Panama Pacific international Exposition in 1915. Their show included plenty of ukulele music and featured the ukuleles of Jonnah Kumalae. It sparked the original ukulele boom in the 1920s amoungst people dreaming of a mythical island getaway.

The ukulele started to move away from purely a Hawaiian novelty and became such a part of music making that by the start of the 30s most piano scores featured ukulele chord diagrams. Thanks to Ukulele Ike, the uke’s image turned almost 180 degrees to become associated with smoky bars, trilbies and jazzy songs.

When Wall Street collapsed in 1928 the economy and the uke’s popularity in the US took a big dive.

However, the uke – in it’s louder, harsher banjolele form – started growing in popularity in music halls of the UK. The biggest star of the era was George Formby whose banjolele strumming was the sound of the Second World War.

WWII also provided an impetus for the revival of the ukulele in the US. Troops returned with souvenier ukuleles from Hawaii and the islands’ accession to offical US statehood proved the perfect occasion for a celebratory strumming.

The booming consumer economy of 1950’s US saw mass produced plastic goods flooding shops. The ukulele was a prime instrument for mass selling to kids and – jazz guitar manufacturer – Maccaferri jumped on the opportunity with their ranges of plastic ukes.

This was bolstered by the use of the ukulele by huge TV star Arthur Godfrey and the second ukulele boom came into being.

The rather less aspirational figure of Tiny Tim was the soundtrack to the uke’s crashing popularity in the 60s and 70s.

For most of the 90s alternative music scene was dominated by traditional guitar bands and, as a reaction to this, the first decade of the 200s saw a growing acoustic alternative scene using more eclectic sounds and more unusual instrumentation. The ukulele found its place in this sound with bands like Beirut and The Magnetic Fields.

Two huge trends that helped bring the ukulele back to popularity were the proliferation of the internet and the huge increase in imports from China and the East. The internet has put ukulele music in front of people and has created a groundswell growth of people being inspired to pick up the instrument by others like themselves who are playing for their own enjoyment rather than superstardom.

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31 Comments

  1. Rose March 2nd, 2010 6:56 pm

    Thanks for this Woodshed, I have always wanted to know this stuff. Some of the paragraphs end rather unexpectedly though…

  2. Woodshed March 2nd, 2010 10:06 pm

    Rose: They do. This is very much a first draft.

  3. CharlesHugh March 2nd, 2010 10:13 pm

    Took the words out of my mouth Rose. Otherwise it’s good stuff.

  4. Woodshed March 2nd, 2010 10:33 pm

    CharlesHugh: I’ll work on it. I did warn you it was brief and inaccurate.

  5. Steve Provost (rockinstephen) March 3rd, 2010 8:08 pm

    Very good concise write up. Uke players should be aware of the history of their instrument and famous players from the past…

  6. Woodshed March 3rd, 2010 9:49 pm

    Steve: Thanks.

  7. inesias March 8th, 2010 1:07 am

    all the site is really very good.

    congratz

    and thank you very much

  8. Woodshed March 8th, 2010 10:03 am

    inesias: You’re welcome.

  9. MyUke April 15th, 2010 4:45 am

    Don’t forget Ukulele Ike! (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cliff_Edwards)

  10. Liloa June 6th, 2010 4:06 pm

    great article. ‘ukulele comes from the hawaiian words ‘uku-flea and lele-jumping. some say that when they saw a portuguese sailor playing this new instrument, his fingers jumped around like a “jumping flea”. Hence, ‘ukulele. it is prounced oo-koo-le-le with the “le” sounding almost like “lay” but, without the exagerrated “ay”sound. it’s more like “le” in the word “let”.

    My dog has fleas, is probably a reference to the leteral translation of ‘ukulele, jumping-flea.

    Great article, though and some very good history.

  11. mandy June 15th, 2010 4:16 pm

    Enjoying your site very much.
    Your readers and Uke fans might be interested to learn that apparently Gorge Harrison’s favorite instrument to play at home was the Ukulele. (While his guitar gently wept…)

  12. mandy June 15th, 2010 4:16 pm

    Enjoying your site very much.
    Your readers and Uke fans might be interested to learn that apparently Gorge Harrison’s favorite instrument to play at home was the Ukulele. (While his guitar gently wept…)

  13. D!no December 23rd, 2010 6:25 pm

    This is everything you promised and perhaps a tiny bit more :) Waiting in line at a music store moments ago on my lunch break I found myself at a standstill in front of the Uke display. Passersby and other line-standers enjoyed my brief solo, and one lady with a young son bought one. I taught the boy a C and told her about this site – I’ve learned more about my instrument here in 24 hours than I had in the year I’ve owned my Luna!
    Thanks,
    ~D!

  14. karl January 26th, 2011 1:35 pm

    A prominent scientist conducted very important experiment. He trained a flea to jump upon giving her a verbal command (“Jump!”).

    In the first stage of experiment he removed flea’s leg, told her to jump, and the flea jumped. So he wrote in his scientific notebook: “Upon removing one leg all flea organs function properly.”

    So, he removed the second leg, asked the flea to jump, she obeyed, so he wrote again: “Upon removing the second leg all flea organs function properly.”

    Thereafter he removed all the legs but one, the flea jumped when ordered, so he wrote again: “Upon removing the next leg all flea organs function properly.”

    Then he removed the last leg. Told flea to jump, and nothing happened. He did not want to take a chance, so he repeated the experiment several times, and the leg less flea never jumped. So he wrote the conclusion: “Upon removing the last leg the flea loses sense of hearing”

  15. Woodshed January 28th, 2011 10:13 am

    karl: Lol!

  16. Marisa Javier August 27th, 2011 12:24 am

    Manuel Nunes went to Hawaii from the Azores, where he crafted stringed instruments for the Portuguese people. He saw the Hawaiian people did not have a stringed instrument, so invented the ukulele by combining 2 of the Portuguese instruments. He later opened a factory to build ukuleles and taught others.

    He was my great-great grandfather.

  17. Woodshed August 27th, 2011 3:34 pm

    Marisa: Thanks for the info.

  18. Steve Provost August 28th, 2011 4:38 pm

    To Marisa Javier – Marisa, very interesting bit of historical trivia about your great-great grandfather. Surely you must have more information. Have you ever considered writing a book?

  19. Polly KitKat October 4th, 2011 6:30 am

    it was useless

  20. Woodshed October 4th, 2011 10:34 am

    Polly: Too many capital letters and punctuation marks?

  21. Mani December 15th, 2011 7:29 am

    ^
    Nice, Woodshed.
    x)

  22. ukehead June 17th, 2012 4:27 am

    More info on Tiny Tim would be nice.

  23. Woodshed June 18th, 2012 11:01 am

    ukehead: Ahahaha!

  24. syd November 8th, 2012 11:56 pm

    9/11/2012 10/44/am enjoyed your debunking of myths &comments re different chord styles etc but! you say anything but a bariuke. I played my music at age 71 a bariuke suited the bent fingers better, learnt to transpose soprano chords as we played, made a lot of mistakes but now play [with] all, and love it. thank you for a great site. regards Syd.

  25. Woodshed November 9th, 2012 10:00 am

    syd: Thanks very much! Glad you’re enjoying it.

  26. greg December 12th, 2012 5:00 pm

    Hi. Interesting site. Tried to download PDF in New to Ukelele–nothing. Can you help?
    Thanks

  27. fatima February 15th, 2013 7:41 am

    thanks this will come in handy with
    my music home work (history of the ukulele)
    thanks again

  28. Woodshed February 15th, 2013 9:21 am

    fatima: Good luck with the home work.

  29. RubY October 2nd, 2013 2:37 am

    My dog has fleas is what its suppose to sound like if you strum a string like the first top string if you tug it or ‘strum” it then it will sound like ‘my’ same for the 2nd, 3rd, 4th for dog has fleas

  30. Woodshed October 2nd, 2013 8:22 am

    RubY: But why that phrase rather than any other four word phrase?

  31. karl October 2nd, 2013 9:11 am

    Basically because the pre-existing song (nog long-forgotten) used the intervals. Some old cartoons still have the full melody (with often different lyrics: ‘they bite his knees’, ‘from his head down to his knees’ and so). But my favourite is Rowlf’s version in the Muppets, who sings it on his ukulele: “My man has mosquito bites.”

    In French they use ‘Elle avait des bagues, à chaque doigt’ (she had rings on every finger, from a Rezvani song in the film Jules&Jim), in Japanese the playground chant Ha-Na-Ko-San (‘the ghost-girl in the toilet’, I’m not making this up).

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