The ukulele is a string instrument that originated in Portugal in the second century B.C. With a small, guitar-shaped body that is fitted with four strings, it is considered a member of the chordophone family. Sound is produced through these instruments by plucking and strumming the strings. The strings in turn vibrate and are amplified by the resonating body. The ukulele is manufactured in a similar way as a full size guitar.
String instruments date back many centuries and have been developed independently by most ancient cultures. The earliest instruments were single strings tied to bows. Evidence of these primitive instruments has been found in Asia and Africa dating back over 3,000 years. Over time, instrument makers added more strings.
Ukuleles first had their start in Portugal in 139 B.C. in the Lusitani tribe. The development of the ukulele has been influenced by instruments from Spain, South America, and Africa. By the thirteenth, century four-string instruments were being used in Spain. When six string instruments were introduced in the 1700s the popularity of chordophonesexploded. Although ukuleles are most commonlu associated with Hawaii, it wasn't until 1879 that the first ukelele was brought over from Portugal. One of the Portuguese immigrants on the ship Ravenscrag, Joao Fernandez, started playing his four-string Portuguese instrument known as a braghuina. Local residents were intrigued with the instrument, adopted it as their own, and renamed it ukulele which in Hawaiian means "jumping flea." This name reflected the way the islanders thought the fingers jumped around the fretboard when it was played. Within 10 years of its introduction, the ukulele became the most popular instrument in Hawaii.
The first ukuleles were made by hand, a process that was both painstaking and time consuming. Subsequently, the number of ukuleles in existence was quite low prior to 1910. Eventually, special wood cutting and shaping machines were created to produce ukuleles. The instrument was steadily modified making it look and sound more like the modern day ukulele. Manuel Nunes was one of the most important innovators. He modified the instrument by replacing steel strings with gut strings. He also suggested a different tuning pattern to make chord formation easier. He also began using wood from the koa tree to produce a lighter, more resonant ukulele.
The ukulele was introduced to the United States mainland during the Panama-Pacific Exposition in San Francisco during 1915. Record sales of Hawaiian music grew rapidly and United States guitar manufacturers began selling their own version of the ukulele. By the 1920s and 1930s, the popularity of the ukulele spread throughout North America, and its sound became closely associated with vaudeville music shows. Since then, the ukulele has often been played as a jazz and solo instrument.
The plastic ukulele, called the "TV Pal" was developed by Mario Maccaferri in 1950. He was a well-known guitar maker who became intrigued with plastics. He used his instrument-making skill to produce the plastic ukulele which sold over nine million units between the time it was introduced and 1958. Its popularity was mainly due to the fact that it was inexpensive, had a good sound, and was tied in with the popular television show "Arthur Godfrey and his Ukulele."
The body of the ukulele is primarily made from wood, although plastic instruments have also been sold. Woods from all over the world are used including Hawaiian koa, maple, walnut, rosewood, myrtle, brazilian canary, cocobolo, madrone, elm, lacewood, and black limba. The type of wood has a significant impact on the sound, tone, and quality.
For example, mahogany is a "soft" hardwood and it creates a warm, mellow tone. It is thought by many manufacturers to be the finest wood for making ukuleles. It also has excellent aging properties, sounding better as it gets older. Koa wood is the most revered of Hawaiian woods for ukulele manufacturing. These trees have unique grain patterns and colors making every ukulele made from them distinct. Typically, the same type of wood is used for the entire instrument.
Beyond the wood, other materials used in a ukulele's manufacture are nylon, steel, plastic, coatings, and glues. The strings are typically made from nylon although some ukuleles are produced with steel strings. The wood is treated with different lacquers for both protection and decoration. Various types of glue can be used such as superglue, aliphatic or yellow glue, hide glue, and epoxy. For instruments made in the tropics, synthetic adhesives are superior because they are less prone to degradation by fungus.
The ukulele is a portable instrument with a small guitar-like body. It consists of a short neck, a main body, four strings and tuning keys, a bridge, a fretboard, and a sound hole. There are a variety of different types of ukuleles including the soprano, concert, tenor, and baritone. The most common type is the soprano ukulele which is about 21 in (53 cm) long. The strings are tuned to the notes G-C-E-A.
The various parts of the ukelele are made in separate processes and then put together in a finishing step. The process begins with wood selection which is the most important factor because it will will affect sound quality and instrument appearance.
As of the year 2000, there are only three major ukulele manufacturers in the world. These are small companies and many of the instruments are handmade. This enables workers to inspect the instrument during every step of the manufacturing process to ensure a high quality product. It begins with inspection of the incoming raw materials and parts. The physical appearance and condition of the wood evaluated and rejected if it does not meet specifications. Final inspections are done on the finished product and in this way, most flaws are detected.
Improvements in the future of ukulele manufacture will focus on better quality, growing sales, and increasing output. The quality of a ukulele is primarily dependent on the type of wood used. Manufacturers are constantly looking for new wood sources and blends that can give a cleaner, more consistent sound quality. Sales growth will be driven largely by promotional efforts. In manufacturing, improvements in string quality, wood consistency and instrument durability can still be realized. Other improvements will focus on automating the production process and increasing production speeds.
Beloff, Jim. Jumpin Jim's Ukulele Tips 'N' Tunes. Hal Leonnard Publishing Corporation, 1994.
Beloff, Jim. The Ukulele: A Visual History. Miller Freeman, 1997.
Brosnac, Donald, ed. Guitar History. New York: Bold Strummer Ltd., 1995.
Ukuleles by Kawika. 1626 Kino'ole Street, Hilo, HI 96720-5021. (808) 969-7751. firstname.lastname@example.org. http://www.ukuleles.com (January 2001).
Ukulele Hall of Fame Museum. 15 Concord Ave., Cranston, RI 02910. (401) 461-1668. email@example.com. http://www.ukulele.org (January 2001).
— Perry Romanowski