Affordable and easy to learn instrument for all ages
The ukulele has slowly but surely eased its way into the eyes of the mainstream like no other instrument. Once seen as the symbol of either grass skirts or George Formby, the little guitar is now a firm favourite of players of all ages and skill levels. For starters, it is one of the simplest instruments to pick up and play. There’s a very slim learning curve, only four strings and a tiny body which doesn’t require man-handling in the way a full acoustic guitar may do. Indeed, more and more schools are choosing to teach their pupils ukulele over the traditional mandatory musical entry point, the recorder.
There are ukulele groups popping up all around the country. Ukulele covers of popular songs have flooded YouTube channels, and you know something has truly hit the mainstream when the purists come out bemoaning its popularity. Quite simply, it’s everywhere. So, with that in mind, we felt it was high time we shone the spotlight on one of the coolest instruments there is. First up though, a bit of background. What is a ukulele?
A Brief History Of The Ukulele
In the 19th century, a group of Portuguese immigrants found their way to the small island of Hawaii carrying ‘machetes’. Now, the image of the Portuguese stood on the beaches with machetes wasn’t as traumatic for the Hawaiians as it sounds. The machetes in question were actually small acoustic guitar-like instruments which, perhaps wisely, the native Hawaiians rebranded as ‘ukuleles’.
This was a rough translation of ‘jumping flea’ on account of the speed at which the player’s fingers moved up and down the fretboard. The new islanders quickly became popular as a result of their regular street concerts, which caught the eyes and ears of King Kalakaua and became incorporated into the royal orchestra. From there, a legend was born.
The ukulele quickly became known in the United States, and grew in popularity with both players and music fans alike. Fast forward to now and this dainty little four stringer has become ubiquitous; hardly a TV advert break can pass without some kind of perky uke accompaniment. Couple its popularity with its simplicity and you have a party to which everyone’s invited.
Anatomy Of The Ukulele
Maybe you’re reading this thinking you want in and want to join the fun. Good news! It’s easy and doesn’t cost the earth. Let’s take a look at a few different types of ukulele, what they’re made from, and what you’ll need to get started.
First up, we should examine the instrument a bit and outline the things that give it its unique characteristics. At first glance you can see that it is effectively a tiny guitar. It features the same body, neck and soundhole as a standard acoustic, but you’ll notice it only has four strings. And, whereas a standard 6 string guitar will be tuned EADGBe, a ukulele is often standard tuned with a high G, then lower CEA. The reason for this is that ukuleles employ something called ‘reentrant tuning’, which means the strings don’t tune in natural order of low to high. Some players do prefer to tune that top string to a more familiar low G, but those who don’t find the higher pitch sound gives chords a nicer sparkle, in keeping with the happy vibe of the instrument.
The strings themselves are usually made from nylon, like classical acoustics, which further adds to the ease at which non-players can become accustomed to shaping chords without developing callouses on their fingertips. Be thankful for this too; traditionally, ukulele strings were constructed from ‘catgut’, which was formed from the intestines of various animals like sheep and goats. But not cats, confusingly.
The ukulele’s body is constructed from wood, either from cheaper woods like ply in the entry level models, through to specific tone woods like koa in professional models. The type of wood gives the resulting sound its character; at a beginner’s level this isn’t a major consideration but for recording artists it can make a huge difference. The body and neck combined are usually a fraction of the size of a full size acoustic guitar, yet the proportions will remain to scale.
Variations And Types Of Ukulele
As well as the common ukulele – to be read in an Attenborough voice – there are variations like the banjolele and guitarlele. The banjolele, as you might imagine, is a small scale banjo body featuring the same string configuration as a regular uke. It was created as a way of coaxing more volume from an unplugged ukulele, yet doesn’t mirror a standard banjo in terms of string layout or construction. The guitarlele is a halfway house between a guitar and a ukulele – I know, crazy – designed to stand around 1/4 the size of an acoustic.
Now that we’ve explained some of the different types of ukulele, let’s check out some of the different options available to you.
First up, the best of the bunch. Swiping away any notions of the ukulele being a novelty instrument we have this rather attractive Martin T1K. Martin, if you’re new to this world, are one of the biggest names in acoustic guitars. Their instruments are well renowned as a high watermark of quality and tone, and can often be seen in the arms of people like Eric Clapton and Ed Sheeran.
The Martin T1K is their premier ukulele offering, crafted from the finest cuts of koa to give a tone with the right balance of mid-range depth and upper register sparkle. It has a glorious satin sheen to it, which makes the wood smooth to the touch, and benefits from high quality fixtures like its nickel open tuning system.
We’ll level with you, this one is for the ukulele experts. It marks the pinnacle of manufacturing and craftsmanship, and if you own one of these you probably know your Panama Pacific International Exposition from your Cowan Powers and his Family Band. For anyone else, just marvel at the brilliance on show here and aspire to make it your own in the future.
Something more realistic for the beginner now, with the Redwood S20. This great little uke offers playability which far belies its price tag, making it a tasty proposition for anyone who fancies a dabble but doesn’t want to commit just yet. A few sessions on the Redwood S20 will nicely usher you into the world of ukulele, while the laminated mahogany body is a step up sound-wise from the woods used on the ultra cheap models.
Any electric guitar players reading may well recognise the body shape of this one from Fender. The Fender Ukulele 52 is indeed modelled on their classic Telecaster shape, and features a combination of spruce and mahogany woods and, interestingly, an integrated pickup. This enables the Ukulele 52 to be plugged into an amplifier and played at far higher volumes than would otherwise be possible. With that in mind, the Fender Ukulele 52 is perhaps the ideal uke for any intermediate players looking to take to the stage and perform. The legendary Fender build quality means it won’t fall apart under pressure, plus it looks pretty cool in its three colour vintage sunburst.
Any Dire Straits fans may find this one recognisable; as a ukulele version of a resonator guitar, the Gretsch G9112 offers volume projection well above what a standard ukulele could deliver. It does this on account of the 6″ resonator cone which resides inside the metal plate. This vibrates upon playing to project the instrument’s voice far higher than would be possible otherwise. Two ‘f’ holes at the top of the body offer a more natural sound to balance things out. This particular model would be perfect for anyone looking to play in a band or ensemble with other non-ukulele players, as the extra volume provided will ensure you don’t get lost in the mix.
We’ll finish this list with the rather splendid Redwood V-Shaped Ukulele. There isn’t yet such thing as a heavy metal uke – although they can be used for heavy metal – however this is the closest thing out there. It’s modelled on the classic Gibson Flying V electric guitar, and is perfect for non-uke players to have lying around for a quick strum. It also has that cool factor that might just be the encouragement your son or daughter needs to get them playing, so for that alone it has to be worth considering.
We hope this article has helped highlight some of the options available if you’re considering taking up the ukulele. It is one of the easiest instruments to get started on, and will introduce you to world of creative, social fun which can be ridiculously addictive. We even stock a superb book to start your musical journey off. If you need any more advice, speak to our in-store product specialists or call us on 01925 582 420 for more information.