What is a Ukulele?
The ukulele is a stringed musical instrument in the lute family. It generally has 4 nylon strings and resembles a small guitar. Although the specific details are unclear, it is credited as originating in Hawaii in the 1880s and was derived from a small guitar-like instrument known as a “braguinha,” or “Machete,” that Portuguese sailors brought with them.
The Hawaiian pronunciation is OO-koo-LAY-lay, but it is most commonly referred to by the Americanized pronunciation as yoo-ke-LAY-lee. The Hawaiian word “ukulele” roughly translates to “jumping flea” and is a reference to the movement of the player’s fingers on the fretboard.
History of the Ukulele
- Panama-Pacific International Exposition held in San Francisco featured an ensemble that introduced ukulele and lap steel guitar to the U.S.
- The Panama-Pacific International Exposition led to a fad for Hawaiian-themed songs among Tin Pan Alley songwriters and mainstream music.
- The rise of vaudeville performers such as Roy Smeck and Cliff “Ukulele Ike” Edwards.
- Sears Roebuck and other department store catalogs offer ukuleles for the wide-spread consumer market.
- During the depression-era, ukulele outsold guitars due to its affordable price and optimistic tone. Martin credits the ukulele for saving their business in a time where guitar sales slumped. The company vows always to maintain production of ukuleles.
- Flood of members of the armed forces brings ukuleles back home after being stationed in Hawaii.
- Arthur Godfrey frequently performs with a ukulele on his show Arthur Godfrey Time and gives lessons on air.
- Educator J. Chalmers Doane introduced school music programs using the ukulele as an affordable and practical classroom instrument in Canada. (Note: James Hill and Doane revised this program in the 2000s which influence Canadian music classroom curriculum.)
- Hawaiian music revival and the start of blurring boundaries between genres of Hawaiian folk and pop music in the United States.
- All-time best selling Hawaiian musician Israel Kamakawiwo’ole helped re-popularize the instrument with his medley of “Over the Rainbow” and “What a Wonderful World” used in films, television programs, and commercials.
- Jake Shimabukuro’s virtuosic rendition of “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” is one of the first videos to go viral on YouTube in 2006.
Other Popular Music featuring the ukulele:
- Hey There Delilah by Plain White T’s (2006)
- I’m Yours by Jason Mraz (2008)
- Hey Soul Sister by Train (2009)
Popular music performed with ukulele:
- Riptide by Vance Joy (2013)
- House of Gold by Twenty-One Pilots (2013)
- I Don’t Know My Name by Grace VanderWaal (2016)
Why Play Ukulele?
Begin playing with quality instruments starting at just under $40.
Ukuleles are Easy to Learn…and the Perfect Lead-in to Guitar
Because of its smaller size, the ukulele is more comfortable to hold and play than a guitar. The ukulele uses the same fingerings as guitar, but with only 4 strings instead of the guitar’s 6 strings. This makes learning how to play chords much simpler, allowing the student to focus on individual skills such as strumming, than combining chord changes with more complex finger positions on a guitar.
For example, the major C chord on the ukulele requires one finger to be positioned on a single string, whereas the same chord would require three fingers, all on separate strings, on a guitar. Here is an example, showing 3 fingers to make the same chord shape on guitar, versus only 1 finger on ukulele.
Plus, the ukulele’s softer, all-nylon strings are much easier on the tips of beginner’s fingers than guitar’s steel strings. All skills learned are transferable too…if you can play the ukulele you can use the same techniques to play guitar (and vice versa)!
Ukuleles are Versatile
The ukulele is an instrument that can be played alone or with a group, regardless of the skill level or genre. Plus, it can be used to accompany while singing or with other instruments, songwriting, or alone with instrumental arrangements.
Ukuleles are Portable
With all the fun you will have, you will want to take it everywhere – which is easy to do with the convenient size of ukulele!
Ukuleles are Fun!
Students are enthusiastic to learn such a diverse instrument that can be used to express and discover themselves through music. Because of its versatility and similarity to guitar, ukulele players can use their skills to enjoy making music throughout the rest of their lives.
With so many benefits, it is easy to see why ukulele is becoming a staple in every household!
there are 4 different sizes of ukuleles to choose from: soprano, concert, tenor, and baritone. The different sizes exist not to match the size of the player – as in the fractional sizes available for violin or guitar – but to match the tone and application the player is looking for. Although the name implies different tuning, the 3 smallest sizes (soprano, concert and tenor) are tuned exactly the same to g’-c’-e’-a’.
The smallest of these, the soprano, is the most common for beginners. This is because the soprano size is usually the least expensive of the bunch, making it the best value when learning the basics of the instrument. The soprano is also considered the “standard” ukulele size and is suitable for adults and children alike.
Children and adults alike can enjoy soprano size ukulele and will be pleased with the bright, signature sound, portability, and cost. But what about the larger concert or tenor sizes, which feature the same tuning? If your budget allows, there can be several advantages if you decide to use a larger size ukulele in your classroom.
Advantages of Using a Larger Size Ukulele:
Fuller, Deeper Sound
A larger resonator body allows the lower tones to resonate, providing a fuller, deeper sound. This creates a more well-balanced and pleasing tone over the soprano model.
The larger body and longer neck may be more comfortable to hold, which may put the instrument in a more natural playing position for some students.
Most soprano ukuleles typically have up to 12 frets on the fretboard, while concert and tenor ukuleles will have higher range with 17 or more frets. Many beginning classes will focus on learning to play in the first position (within the first 5 frets) and will not go much further up the fretboard. The extra frets may be more useful if you plan on playing more advanced chords, styles, and with more frets/notes higher up on the fretboard, such as when playing with an ensemble.
More Space = Less Cramped
The larger sized ukuleles not only have more frets but also more space between them. This will allow for easier finger positions especially when moving up the fretboard as fingers will become less cramped.
Concert or Tenor?
Only a bit larger than a soprano, concert size ukulele may be the ideal choice for many of these reasons. For this reason, the concert size is often referred to the in-between, or “Goldilocks” size for its perfect blend of characteristics of the soprano and tenor.
A tenor ukulele is also an option, with it having the fullest sound due to an even larger body than the concert size. But it can become considerably more expensive than the soprano when you start adding more options such as the larger body (using more raw material), decorative finishes, etc.
What About Baritone?
The baritone ukulele tuned differently to a fourth lower than the other ukulele sizes, which are the same pitches as the top four guitar strings. Therefore, the baritone is in a different key and requires different fingering from the soprano/concert/tenor sizes. See this article for more information on ukulele tunings and size comparisons: Models and Tunings and Sizes, Oh My! How to Choose the Right Ukulele for You.
Parts of the Ukulele
It is good to get acquainted with the terms used to describe the different parts and features of the ukulele. Here is a quick reference:
Selecting a Ukulele
Which model is right for you?
Ultimately, the deciding factors are going to come to the budget you are working with, and whether you plan to use this ukulele as a basic introduction to the instrument or to look to use it for more advanced play or performance. Here are some of the factors to consider:
Types of Construction
Ukuleles are available in a variety of materials such as laminate wood, solid wood, plastic, and other composites.
Most entry-level ukuleles feature bodies that are constructed of laminate wood as it is inexpensive, durable, and more stable to play. This strength is due to the cross-grain of multiple layers of wood which (like plywood) adds stability and distributes tension evenly. Models with this type of construction can have painted, stained, textured, or even a thin top layer of beautifully figured woods to give it the appearance of a solid piece of wood. These models offer a substantial amount of durability and are not as susceptible to warping or damage from extreme variances in temperature or humidity as solid wood instruments. The tone on laminate model ukuleles can widely vary from being mellow and warm to full and bright, but most laminate models tend to be more in the mellow and warm range.
Many solid wood instruments feature a single, book-matched pair, or several piece construction for the body. Utilizing solid wood is a more traditional method of construction and these instruments are usually more expensive as the wood needs to be properly aged, cured, and or kiln-dried to ensure it is ready for use. These instruments also require more time, skill, and craftsmanship. Solid wood instruments have a mass appeal for more advanced players as the sound tends to “open up” with more play and age.
Please note, ukuleles with solid wood construction require more attention as they can be the most susceptible to warping or damage caused from too much heat or humidity.
The tone on solid wood ukuleles can vary and different types of wood have distinct tonal characteristics.
- Mahogany is used on many traditional and vintage American-made brands, such as Gretsch, Gibson, and Martin. It is used for the full top and back of instruments and is known for its well-balanced medium-range tonal range and warm, soothing resonance.
- Koa is a native species of Hawaii and widely used on traditional, hand-crafted models from such makers as Kamaka, Kanile’a, and KoAloha. It can have a beautifully grained or flamed finish and has a well-balanced tone with excellent projection.
- Acacia is in the genus of Koa and has a mix of the visual and tonal characteristics between mahogany and koa. It has a well-rounded tone with excellent projection.
- Spruce is one of the most common woods used for guitar tops and has a full, bright tone with a lot of projection. It is usually paired with rosewood or mahogany back and sides to round out the lower tonal range for a balanced sound with full volume.
Some ukulele brands feature full plastic construction such as the Kala Waterman series ukuleles – paying homage to the Maccaferri series that was popular in the 1950s. Except for the metal tuning gears and tuning pegs, the entire instrument is made of molded plastic and is virtually maintenance-free with no wood to warp from temperature and humidity changes.
Kala’s Dolphin series ukuleles are made with a combination of plastic and wood construction. They have a traditional wood neck, headstock, bridge, and fretboard with metal frets on a molded plastic body. The wood neck makes for an instrument with a wood-like tone and but with the durability of a plastic body.
Other composite models are made from other plastic/resin, carbon fiber, and even solid metals such as Gold Tones Resonator concert ukulele with a steel body.
Summary of Materials:
For beginners, laminate instruments are an excellent choice as they are typically less expensive, durable, and require minimal maintenance. Wood instruments required additional care, but have a warmer sound.
In most cases, ukuleles have nylon strings and will usually feature a piezo-style pickup which uses the vibrations of the strings to transmit the signal to an amplifier or power source. (Electric guitar pickups use coiled magnets to create a powerful electrical signal to amplify the sound.) Microphones can be used to amplify acoustic ukuleles for a good sound in many performance situations as long as the player maintains the same distance to the microphone for a consistent sound. However, this may be difficult to endure for a more extended period and may cause feedback.
For more frequent performances that require an amplified ukulele, a model with a pickup may be much more practical. Many models are available at a minimal price difference with the pickup already pre-installed such as 303850 Makala MK-CE Concert Ukulele with Pickup or 303851 Makala MK-TE Tenor Ukulele with Pickup.
If you are looking to add a pickup to an instrument you already have you will need to consider:
a) purchasing a high-quality pickup, such as the 355288 LR Baggs FIVE.O Ukulele Pickup, plus
b) the cost of installation from a reputable dealer.
Note: Most ukulele manufacturers will not honor the warranty on modifications made to the instruments so be sure to do your research.
Some of the concert and tenor size ukuleles will have a “cutaway” feature. Cutaway means that the body has a part that is notched out or “cutaway” to allow for easier access higher up the fretboard. This feature is usually included with many options that come with a pre-installed pickup.
Tried and True Ukulele Models
Makala MK Series Ukuleles
Kala KA-15S Soprano Ukuleles
- Laser-etched design around the sound hole
Makala MK-S/Dolphin Ukuleles
Kala Waterman Ukuleles
Learning to Play
Private lessons can be the most effective and rewarding means to learn any new musical instrument. A certified music teacher will be sure to guide you in your quest to learn proper technique, theory, performance, and mastery of the instrument. However, the simplicity of the ukulele makes it easy to learn and get started, especially with the abundance of materials that are available.
There are countless websites to get acquainted with the basic skills of playing the ukulele. Here is a quick start online resource from Kala: Learn to Play.
Books and Materials
Hal Leonard applies the same concepts featured in their proven Essential Elements series for Ukulele. This method begins with basic chords and strumming patterns for immediate student gratification. Note reading, theory, and some advanced techniques are introduced later to round out the essentials of playing. There is a large selection of recognizable folk and popular songs as well. Examples include Home on the Range, Hound Dog, La Bamba, The Lion Sleeps Tonight, The Rainbow Connection, Take Me Out to the Ballgame, and much more! This method also includes an access code for audio files in place of a CD. Can be used as a resource to brush up your skills, to have as a reference for their classroom, or for each student to use for practice.
Hal Leonard’s Ukulele Method book 1 is perfect for anyone who wants to learn the ukulele. With many different styles of songs spread throughout, this book mixes fun into each lesson. Written by renowned ukulele player Lil’ Rev and including online audio access, you will have everything you need to master the ukulele.
Includes tuning, music reading, chords, scales, tremolo, music notation and tab, music history and styles, and more. The added online audio access contains 46 tracks of song demonstrations and play along.
This DVD is perfect for anyone who wants to improve their ukulele playing technique. Even if you have never played the ukulele before you will discover that Ralph Shaw (the King of the Ukulele!) will lead you through the basics and beyond so that you will learn tips, tricks and techniques that will have you sounding like a ukulele maestro!
Just some of the things you will learn in this 1 hour lesson include: Beginners uke – including tuning, strumming & basic chords How to use ‘ornament’; notes Play chords up the neck How to play 4/4, 3/4 and jig time and develop right-hand techniques such as the syncopated ‘split stroke’ as used by George Formby How to play Rolls and Triplets The basics of melody chording In short this one DVD will set you up for a lifetime of fun and music with the world’s greatest little instrument… The Ukulele!
For Younger Students
Ukulele for Kids by Chad Johnson is a method specifically for children to learn ukulele as quickly as possible. The layout and pages are simple to maintain student focus. This method can be used with a teacher, parent or classroom. The included online audio access contains demo and play-along tracks. Pictures demonstrate proper techniques and finger placements.
Lessons involve: choosing and purchasing your ukulele, parts of the ukulele, holding the uke and hand position, reading music, counting, notes on the strings, strumming, picking, and more!
Few people are better qualified to teach a children’s ukulele course than Ralph Shaw. As an educator, Ralph has helped many people of all ages improve their ukulele skill. Kids love music and the small size of the ukulele makes it the perfect instrument for children to develop their innate musical abilities. Ralph starts with a lesson on tuning the ukulele and then guides the student through carefully prepared lessons that cover: Playing four chords in the key of C Strumming and rhythmic techniques Changing keys Playing 4/4 and 3/4 time Understanding simple transposition Along the way, Ralph’s young students from the Wondertree Learning Centre will demonstrate the songs so you can play along!
Includes 15 kid-friendly songs: He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands When the Saints Go Marching In Frere Jacques This Little Light of Mine Grandfather’s Clock Farewell to Nova Scotia Aloha Means I Love You And more! Ages 7 and up! Running time: 90 minutes (plus bonus features!) NTSC / Region 1 – English
Gig bags are the most popular ukulele storage option as they provide padding for protection, allow for easy transport and prevent dust from collecting on and inside the body.
Some series of ukuleles, such as the Makala Dolphin, Kala Waterman, and Westwood series, include a non-padded gig bag, which offers limited protection. Most wood model ukuleles, such as the Makala MK-S and Kala KA-15S, do not include a gig bag and will fare better and be better protected while in storage and transit if there is some padding in a gig bag. Here are some of our most popular gig bag options.
Kala BB-S Series Gig Bags
Kala’s BB series gig bags offer 10mm of padding with handle, strap, and accessory pocket. Available in soprano, concert, tenor, and baritone sizes.
Kala UB-S Series Gig Bags
For more substantial protection, Kala UB series gig bags are available with 12mm of padding and available in soprano, concert, tenor, and baritone sizes.
A single ukulele stand keeps your instrument on display and always ready to play so you can maximize your practice time. These options are compact and easily fold-up, so you can involve have it with you:
356171 Westwood Ukulele-Guitar Rack
The Westwood Ukulele Rack is a great option if you have several ukuleles or even a mix of ukes, guitars, or other stringed instruments. This is a versatile rack that is completely adjustable to hold 12 soprano-size ukuleles, ten concert-size ukuleles, six guitars, or a combination of instruments while taking up only 40” x 18” of floor space.
Wall Storage Options
If you have space, proudly display your ukuleles by hanging them on your classroom wall! The String Swing Wall Mount has a neck cradle sized especially for ukulele necks and comes with complete mounting hardware!
I recommend using a digital clip-on tuner for fast, precise tuning. Although it would be ideal to have a tuner for each student, you should plan to have at least 3-4 for your classroom if you are on a limited budget. It is a good idea to have a few extras on hand in case any go missing. Also, batteries can go bad or if you have more than one person to help fine tune the instruments.
Snark SN-6 Ukulele Tuner
The Snark SN-6 is a widely-used tuner due to its large clamp and an easy to read color LED screen. Because the vibration sensor is specially calibrated for the tonal range of ukulele, it is also fully chromatic. This functionality allows it to be used for just about any other instrument or application.
Kala Klipz Tuners
Another option is Kala’s Klipz series of clip-on models, available in several colors!
D’Addario Planet Wave NS Mini Headstock Tuner
The D’Addario Planet Wave NS Mini Headstock chromatic tuner is extremely compact with fewer moving parts, which makes it more durable. Not to mention, it has a fast and accurate sensor with a color screen.
Recommendation: Extra Batteries
I recommend picking up replacement CR2032 watch-style batteries used in many digital tuners to ensure your instruments are always in tune. This D’Addario 4-pack of batteries will give you the backup power you need always to stay perfectly tuned!
The Aquila Nylgut strings that come pre-installed on most ukuleles are quite durable. These strings are not as easily susceptible to break as steel or nylon-wound guitar strings. You can expect to get about 2-3 years out of a set of the Aquila Nylgut strings. However, the general rule is to replace them when you see or feel visible signs of discoloration or wear. Examples of this are fraying or variances in string diameter.
Furthermore, you may wish to have several sets on hand just in case a string on one of your classroom ukuleles breaks. While there are many other options available, it is easier to keep the same type of strings for all of your classroom ukuleles. Be sure to match the size of the strings to the size of your ukulele. For example, the 354171 Aquila Soprano Uke string set is the correct length and is gauged specifically for soprano ukuleles. Not to mention, more sizes and options are also available.
Your students will be learning the fundamentals of playing ukulele starting in the first position and will not use a capo. However, you may opt to use the ukulele to accompany yourself or your class. A capo is a useful device to assist you in quickly changing the key of a song to match your preferred vocal range. Here is a ukulele capo from On-Stage that will work well for your classroom.
Ukulele Felt Picks
Most ukulele players do not use a pick because the soft nylon strings are easy on the fingers while strumming. Likewise, other advanced techniques, such as finger picking, and strum rolls, would be restricted while holding a pick. However, some players may opt to use a pick for strumming and playing individual notes. A felt pick is recommended (over a plastic pick) as the semi-rigid material mimics the feel and sound of a finger used while strumming.
Most of us live in areas with changing seasons and fluctuations in temperature and humidity. You will want to keep your instruments stored in a location you would find comfortable. Room temperature, out of reach from direct sunlight, and away from heating/cooling vents. For extremely dry regions or during the cold-weather winter season, the lack of moisture in the air can dry out wood instruments. Dry conditions can result in cracking or damage.
Most student model ukuleles are manufactured using resilient plywood or laminate wood construction, which is less susceptible to damage from dryness as each layer sandwiched with the grain perpendicular to the one adjacent. (More expensive instruments typically feature solid wood construction where the grain is along a single plane and more likely to react to the humidity changes.) Therefore, it is recommended to store instruments in a climate-controlled room that has a building, room, or individual instrument humidifier. This model humidifier will work with any size, individual ukulele.
A strap can be handy for ensuring your ukulele is always in the right playing position. It is also an essential tool for performing while standing and for teachers to free up their hands in front of a classroom.
The most reliable way to use a strap with a ukulele is with strap buttons. Most ukuleles do not include strap buttons, and these should be installed from your local guitar shop or luthier. Professional installation will ensure the ukulele is not damaged and void the manufacturer warranty. Kala offers a nylon ukulele strap that is lightweight and has a tailored fit for use with ukuleles.
Another option is to use a hook-style strap which has a loop end to wear around your neck and connects to the hooks onto the lower part of the sound hole. This method will keep the ukulele at the proper playing position and will free up your hands as long as your right forearm is resting on the ukulele body. The hook-style strap will not allow you to go completely hands-free but does not require the installation of strap buttons.
This resource covers some of the basics of the ukulele so that you know to start playing – even if you’ve never played an instrument before. When it comes to selecting a ukulele you will want to consider:
- Your budget
- Tone you like
- Features you need
- Looks to match your taste
For more information call or stop in one of our West Music locations and talk with a specialist to help find the best ukulele for you!
Sam Marchuk is an Education Consultant for West Music specializing in folk instruments and curriculum for the elementary classroom. He has been playing ukulele since 2005 and is an avid collector of vintage and contemporary ukulele models. As an Education Consultant, Sam assists with the selection and acquisition of instruments and curriculum with teachers across the U.S. He enjoys matching up players of all skill levels and classroom teachers with the right ukulele to fit their personality, style, and budget. Sam has demonstrated the potential of the of the ukulele at numerous state and national music education conferences, helped with the startup of ukulele programs across the U.S., and has taught beginning ukulele at the annual Strathmore Ukulele and Guitar Summit in Rockville, MD.