Hawaii's Modern Musical Instrument Ukulele

Hawaii’s Modern Musical Instrument: Ukulele (History & Facts)

Did you know that around the world, millions of people will strum their ukuleles today? This mighty Hawaiian instrument is loved worldwide because of its charming small size, mellow sound, and how easy it is to learn to play.

The ukulele has become Hawaii’s official modern musical instrument and has a long history and wide varieties and tuning options.

Ukulele Quick Facts:

  • It was developed in the 1880s from small, guitar-like instruments of Portuguese origin.
  • The first ukulele makers were three Portuguese immigrants.
  • Ukulele translates as ‘jumping flea.’
  • Common ukulele variations include soprano, concert, tenor, and baritone.
  • Ukuleles are made of wood, plastic, or other materials, with cheaper ones made of plywood and expensive ones made of solid hardwoods like koa.
  • Ukuleles typically have a figure-eight body shape and four nylon polymer or synthetic gut strings.
  • The tuning varies by type, with most soprano ukuleles using C6 tuning and baritone ukuleles using G6 tuning. Bass ukuleles are tuned like bass guitars.

History Of The Ukulele

The ukulele is a string instrument that’s been around since way back. It first appeared in Hawai’i in 1879 when Portuguese immigrants brought it over from Madeira and the Azores Islands. 

The first creators of the ukulele based it on guitar-like instruments from Portugal, and street concerts were held in the streets. The Hawaiian Gazette, a newspaper printed from 1865-1918, reported where ukulele concerts were held. The word “ukulele” translates to “jumping flea,” The first documented printing was in 1907.

One of the biggest reasons that the ukulele became so popular was because King Kalakaua cherished the instrument, which opened the door for incorporating its sound into Hawaiian music.

Since then, this tiny four-string guitar has become one of the most recognizable symbols of Hawaiian culture as one of the official state instruments of Hawaii together with Pahu.

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The ukulele is known for its sweet sound – some say it is mellow like angels’ singing. Its small size has made it a popular choice for travelers who want to bring their string instruments on trips. There are many different types and tunings to choose from, and anyone can learn to play them.

Description And Types Of Ukuleles

Ukuleles come in all shapes and sizes. The most common are soprano, concert, tenor, and baritone. If you’re looking for something different, you can try soprano, bass, or contrabass. There are banjo-style and electric ukuleles for those who want to be more adventurous.

Soprano is the standard size and the second-smallest. Concert ukuleles are a tad larger and produce a more profound, louder tone. Tenors have a lot more volume and deeper bass. Meanwhile, baritone ukuleles look like smaller tenor guitars. Contrabass and bass ukuleles are recent inventions from 2010 and 2014, respectively, so they’re relatively new to the game.

All have their unique sound and feel, and no matter what type of ukulele you choose, rest assured that playing will bring you joy like no other! Strum along while standing at the shoreline and let your worries drift away in the salty air – because when it comes to making music, there’s nothing quite like a ukulele!

How Ukuleles Are Made

Manufacturers create ukuleles from various materials, ranging from wood, plastic, and other materials. 

Budget-friendly ukuleles are often constructed of plywood or laminated woods, while pricier ukuleles are made of solid hardwoods such as mahogany. 

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Koa, a wood native to Hawaii, is traditionally preferred for ukuleles. They usually have a figure-eight body shape and often come with four strings but can have six or eight. A traditional four-string ukulele has nylon strings for tuning, but some people prefer metal strings as they give off a brighter sound.

Modern ukuleles often feature strings made of nylon polymers or synthetic gut. Instruments with six or eight strings in four courses are known as taro patches. The figure-eight, cutaway, oval, boat-paddle, and square shapes are all popular ukulele shapes.

Tuning A Ukulele

Tuning a ukulele isn’t as complicated as it looks; you only need simple tools and the proper technique. First, you’ll want an electronic tuner or pitch pipe to help you tune each string correctly.

Size and Tunings of Standard Ukulele Types:


  • Also known as piccolo, sopranino or sopranissimo.
  • Length: 16 inches (41 cm).
  • Scale length: 11 inches (28 cm).
  • Frets: 10-12.
  • Range: G4-D6 (E6).
  • Common tuning: D5 G4 B4 E5.
  • Alternate tuning: C5 F4 A4 D5.


  • Also known as standard or ukulele.
  • Length: 21 inches (53 cm).
  • Scale length: 13 inches (33 cm).
  • Frets: 12-15.
  • Range: C4-A5 (C6).
  • Common tuning: G4 C4 E4 A4.
  • Alternate tuning: A4 D4 F♯4 B4 or G3 C4 E4 A4.


  • Also known as an alto.
  • Length: 23 inches (58 cm).
  • Scale length: 15 inches (38 cm).
  • Frets: 15-18.
  • Range: C4-C6 (D♯6).
  • Common tuning: G4 C4 E4 A4.
  • Alternate tuning: G3 C4 E4 A4.


  • Also known as taro patch or Liliu.
  • Length: 26 inches (66 cm).
  • Scale length: 17 inches (43 cm).
  • Frets: 17-19.
  • Range: G3-D6 (E6).
  • Common tuning: G4 C4 E4 A4 (“High G”).
  • Alternate tunings: G3 C4 E4 A4 (“Low G”), D4 G3 B3 E4, A3 D4 F♯4 B4.
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  • Also known as bari, bari uke, or taro patch.
  • Length: 29 inches (74 cm).
  • Scale length: 19 inches (48 cm).
  • Frets: 18-21.
  • Range: D3-A♯5 (C♯6).
  • Common tuning: D3 G3 B3 E4 (Guitar tuning).
  • Alternate tuning: C3 G3 B3 E4.


  • Also known as U-Bass or Rumbler.
  • Length: 32 inches (81 cm).
  • Scale length: 21 inches (53 cm).
  • Frets: 16.
  • Range: E1-B3.
  • Common tuning: E1 A1 D2 G2.
  • Alternate tuning: D1 A1 D2 G2 (“Drop D”).

Once you have tuned your strings correctly, you’re all set to play.

Top 10 Popular Songs Played On The Ukulele

Let’s get down to what makes the ukulele fun: playing it! There are some classic tunes and modern songs to enjoy strumming on our ukes. 

Here’s a list of the top 10 ukulele songs:

  1. Panic at the Disco – “I Have Friends in Holy Spaces”
  2. Paul McCartney – “Ram On”
  3. Ingrid Michaelson – “You and I”
  4. Colbie Caillat – “I Do”
  5. Jake Shimabukuro – “Ukulele Weeps” (George Harrison’s “While My Guitar Gently Sleeps” Cover)
  6. Taylor Swift – “Fearless”
  7. Vance Joy – “Riptide”
  8. Eddie Vedder – Ukulele Songs (album)
  9. Train – “Hey, Soul Sister”
  10. Max Schneider – “Hey There Delilah” (Plain White T’s cover)

The most important thing is having FUN when playing your uke – whether it be learning a new song or even creating your masterpiece with your newfound skills.