The ukulele (pronounced , or the Anglicised ), or uke, is a fretted string instrument which is, in its construction, essentially a smaller, four-stringed version of the guitar. In the early 20th century, the instrument's name was often rendered as "ukelele", a spelling stilll used in Great Britain. The Hawai'ian spelling 'ukulele is also sometimes seen.

It is commonly associated with music from Hawaii where the name roughly translates as "jumping flea" and was developed there in the 1880s as acombination of the Madeiran Portuguese braguinha and raj㯮 A braguinha is a cavaquinho-like instrument built in the city of Braga and named after it; the Brazilian cavaquinho is usually tuned in D-G-B-D, a G-major chord. The Madeiran raj㯠is tuned D-G-C-E-A, in other words. the D and G strings are both re-entrant, i.e., tuned an octave higher than expected in the normal low-to high course of strings. The GCEA strings of the raj㯠are the source of the re-entrant tuning of the modern ukulele.

The birth of the ukulele by the marriage of the raj㯠and the braguinha was verified in 1998 in Funchal, Madeira, when the international project, "The Father and Son Reunion: the Braguinha Meets the Ukulele" returned to the ukulele to its ancestral home of Madeira Island off the coast of North Africa. Flora Fox, a great grandaughter of Manuel Nunes (mentioned below)

In 1879 three 'ukulele makers arrived from Portugal in Hawai'i. One of these, Manuel Nunes, was Bill Tapia's neighbor. He sold Bill his first instrument for 75? in 1915.

The ukulele comes in four sizes (from smallest to largest): soprano (the original size), concert, tenor (created in the 1920s), and baritone (created in the 1940s).

In the United States, soprano and concert ukes are usually tuned in the key of C6: G-C-E-A from low to high, with the G-string traditionally tuned an octave up (re-entrant), so it is pitched between the E- and A-strings. In the past, it was not uncommon for the soprano to be tuned a whole step higher in the key of D6: A-D-F#-B, with the lowest note being D (the A is a whole step below the B). This tuning was very popular in vaudeville in the days before amplification. The tension and tone are a little brighter and louder. This tuning is still used today by some known personalities in ukulele circles.

The baritone, which was not invented (or developed) until the 1940s at the request of Arthur Godfrey, is usually tuned in G like the top four strings of a guitar, D-G-B-E, which makes it as much a tenor guitar as a ukulele. The tenor can be tuned either way, and in C tuning is sometimes tuned with the G-string an octave lower, so it's pitched below the C-string, where you might expect it. Some historians say such a tuning makes it a small guitar, since the re-entrant tuning is the characteristic that most identified the original ukulele.

An alternative tuning is B♭-E♭-G-C (raised a semitone to the key of E flat). Either of these tunings, and the C tuning above, may be referred to jocularly as "My dog has fleas", because the strings sounded in order are the same as the phrase in the song My Dog Has Fleas.

Missing image
Ukulele being played by a Ziegfeld Follies chorus girl, c. 1920

Musicians and entertainers particularly known for playing the ukulele have included:

Tahitian Ukulele

The Tahitian ukulele is significantly different from other ukuleles because it does not have a sound box. The body?including the head and neck?is carved from a single piece of wood, with a wide conical hole bored through the middle. At the back, the bore is about 4 cm in diameter; at the front it is about 10 cm in diameter.

The hole at the front is covered with a thin piece of wood, which the bridge sits on?so the instrument works rather like a wooden-skinned banjo. Indeed some of these instruments are referred to as Tahitian banjos.

The strings are usually made from light-gauge fishing line?usually green in colour (and apparently about 50lb test).

The instrument seems to be a relatively recent invention, popular in eastern Polynesia?particularly French Polynesia. It is reported to have been introduced to the Cook Islands in 1990 by the band Te Ava Piti ([1] ( as a newly invented instrument.

You can hear the playing of a Tahitian ukulele by Vehia, of Te Ava Piti at [2] (

Tuning a Tahitian Ukulele:

These instruments may have just 4 strings?or some strings may be paired, so that the instrument has 6 or 8 strings.

The strings or pairs ("courses") are tuned to A6 D6 F#6 B5 or G6 C6 E6 A5 (See [3] ( for International Pitch Notation codes).

After the Hawaiian ukulele was invented, the Hawaiians referred to a similar, eight string instrument tuned GCEA as a taro-patch fiddle. Before the invention of the ukulele, taro-patch fiddle referred to the raj㯮

Those who are familiar with ukulele chords will find that the same chord shapes will fit these tunings, but that the chords will be transposed and inverted.

Audio samples

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