The Ukulele: A Brief Look at its History and Iconic Players

The ukulele, ukelele, uku, or uke is a plucked string instrument, generally with four strings, which can be double, hence the six and eight-string ukuleles.

Its name comes from the Hawaiian ´ukulele and means “jumping flea”.

Mainly four sizes are manufactured: Soprano, Concert, Tenor, and Baritone. There are also rare versions of the instrument: sopranino, banjolele, resonators, 5-string versions, and recently Electroacoustic ukuleles.

Over the years, this instrument became world famous and a symbol of Hawaiian culture, but its origin is very distant from those Pacific islands. Let’s see how it became what it is today.

A note from George Harrison signed with his Hawaiian nickname, Keoki

Brief History Of Ukulele

To rediscover its birth, we must travel back in time to the end of the 19th century, specifically to the Portuguese island of Madeira, from where the British ship SS Ravenscrag set sail for Hawaii with 423 crew members; most to work on the sugar cane plantations.

The Ravenscrag, after four months of travel, arrived at the port of Honolulu on the island of O’ahu on August 23, 1879. Among its crew, we will remember the name of only four of them: João Fernández, Augusto Dias, Manuel Nuñez and Jose do Espirito Santo.

Original label on an M. Nunes & Sons ukulele

The story goes that upon arriving in Honolulu, João Fernandes took his cavaquinho, a four-stringed instrument very popular in Portugal, and Madeira (also known as machete, braguinha, machete do braga) and played a song on it, captivating the locals with its sound and the speed of its fingers. It is said that this is when the natives called it ‘ukulele, which means “jumping flea” (‘uku is flea in Hawaiian, and lele means to jump), although there are other possible etymologies of the word, like the one attributed to Queen Lili’uokalani, according to which ‘ukulele means “the gift that came to us” (referring to its overseas origin). Whatever the origin of the name, we can affirm that the history of the ‘ukulele begins at that moment.

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Our three other Ravenscrag crewmen, after completing their three-year contract on the sugar cane plantations, settled in Honolulu as carpenters. They made furniture and musical instruments such as guitars, cavaquinhos, and five-stringed rajãos (another typical Madeiran instrument). At one point they created a hybrid, in the shape of the cavaquinho and its four strings, but with a reentrant tuning similar to the 5-string rajão. This is how the ukulele was born.

The exact date of manufacture is unknown, although it is believed to have been around 1886. It is also unknown which of the three was the first to conceive the first ukulele as we know it, as Manuel Nuñez awarded it to himself and demonstrated it in the labels of their ukuleles.

The official presentation was in 1889, on the British yacht Nyanza in the port of Honolulu. A trio of women, including Princess Victoria Kaiulani, ukulele-playing niece of King David Kalākaua, did the honors.

Perhaps the fact that the instrument was linked to royalty both to King Kalākaua and to his successor and last Hawaiian monarch, Queen Lili’uokalani, author of the well-known Aloha ‘oe, that it was built with Koa wood native to Hawaii and a symbol of respect for the land and nature, made the instrument an indisputable symbol of Hawaii, very popular among the native Kanaka ‘oiwi and the fight for their cultural identity. It is also worth mentioning the fervent passion of King Kalākaua for the instrument, as the main promoter of its origins and the later association of the ‘ukulele with Hawaiian culture.

Throughout the 20th century, the instrument evolved. The different sizes that we know today appeared, and banjoleles and ukuleles with resonators appeared too.

In the 1920s, the manufacturer Martin Guitars, among others, sold as many ukuleles as guitars. The shadow of the economic crisis caused many manufacturers (including Gretsch and Gibson) to join the production of this cheap instrument to get through the lean years. After World War II, Maccaferri had a daily production of 2,500 instruments, with even plastic models in the early 1950s.

King David Kalākaua, the main promoter of the ‘ukulele in its early days

There have been different manufacturers of ukuleles during these last 150 years of history. Today there are many brands and they all manufacture classic, decorated, psychedelic designs, and more. Among the best brands, we can find KALA, MAKALA, Mahalo, Fender, Washburn, Regal, Harmony, Yamaha, Lanikai, Ohana, and Kamaka, being the latter the first official manufacturers of Hawaii and the only ones from that time that continue creating ukuleles until now.

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The 4 Types Of Ukulele



It is the smallest and measures 51cm, this is considered the “standard” or traditional Ukulele, because it is the most common because it has the characteristic sound of the Ukulele, therefore being the most popular, this Ukulele is ideal for anyone but especially for children. This does not mean that it is a toy, because of its size it is easier for children to play, if you have very large hands it may be difficult for you to play the chords as you have less space.


It is the next size and measures 58cm, this has a larger body and a slightly longer neck, thus having more space between its frets making it more comfortable to play chords. This Ukulele continues to maintain the traditional sound of a Ukulele and because it is bigger it sounds louder than a Soprano. This is ideal for anyone looking for a “traditional” sound and comfort, it can be a perfect ukulele for anyone.


It measures 66cm, being larger than the Sopranos and Concerts, it has a deeper sound. Many feel that this sound is a bit of a departure from the traditional ukulele sound, but this is preferred by major artists for its versatility. It is ideal for tall people or with large hands, but it is suitable for anyone, also if you want to play live this Ukulele gives you a much greater range than the others.


It is the largest and measures 76cm. He has the deepest sound of all therefore it is more like an acoustic guitar and in turn, is tuned differently from the other three Ukuleles. It is tuned the same as the first 4 strings of a guitar. This is the least popular Ukulele since it sounds more like a guitar, but it is a good option for those who want to start playing the guitar or those guitarists who want to experiment with this Ukulele.

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Growth Of Popularity And Famous Ukulele Players

The Ukulele had moments of great popularity during the 20th century. From the enormous popularity in the USA during the 1920s and 1930s thanks to artists like Cliff “Ukulele Ike” Edwards and Roy Smeck, to the great George Formby in the United Kingdom, to the jazz of Lyle Ritz in the fifties.

Later, beginning in the 1960s and 1970s, and always linked to a strong claim to Hawaiian cultural identity, rights, and independence, there was a revival of the ‘ukulele as a symbol of Hawaiian tradition. Artists such as Eddie Kamae (of the Sons of Hawai’i group), Peter Moon, and Herb Ohta were driving forces behind this movement, which was later taken over by Israel “IZ” Kamakawiwo’ole (with the Makaha Sons of Ni’ihau and later solo). and groups like the Ka’au Crater Boys (with Troy Fernandez on ‘the ukulele) succeeding outside the islands. The “IZ” phenomenon is still going strong outside of Hawai‘i, reaching number one on the German charts.

Today we are going through the third wave of popularity of the Ukulele through social networks, with covers, viral videos, and tutorials. But without a doubt, it has been present in the musical field for much longer: many famous and recognized musicians adore it and use it in their songs.

One of the great lovers of the ukulele was the guitarist of the Beatles: George Harrison.

He came to have a collection with more than 40 ukuleles that his son Dhani later inherited; he is also passionate about this instrument.

Harrison bought a house in Honolulu (he spent his last days there) and bought ukuleles non-stop to give to all his friends. A note from him signed with his Hawaiian nickname (Keoki) was also found, in which he said that “everyone should have a ukulele”.

Other artists like Paul Mac Cartney, John Lennon, Jimi Hendrix, Elvis Presley, Jason Mraz, Bruno Mars, Taylor Swift, Julieta Venegas, and Eddie Vedder also had unconditional love for him.

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