is a small stringed instrument that has seen a huge increase in popularity in recent years. Whether you are familiar with the ukulele from songs like “Over the Rainbow,” or more recently with Jason Mraz’s “I’m Yours,” there is no doubt that this instrument is a great option for children, beginners and experienced players alike. While learning the ukulele can be relatively simple, its history is anything but!
Origins of the Ukulele
The ukulele is a member of the lute family of instruments and was originally developed in the 1880s. It was adapted from the Portuguese small guitar-like instrument, the machete, and introduced to the Hawaiian Islands by Portuguese immigrants, specifically Manuel Nunes, José do Espírito Santo, and Augusto Dias. These three Madeiran cabinet makers are commonly credited as making the standardized version of the ukulele as we know it today. While the people of Hawaii enjoyed the nightly street concerts these islanders brought with them, the most important factor of the instrument becoming established in the music culture there was King Kalakaua. A huge supporter and lover of the arts, King Kalakaua promoted the use of the ukulele and ensured it was part of all performances at royal gatherings.
How Did the Ukulele Get Its Name?
According to the last Hawaiian monarch, Queen Lili’uokalani, the name ukulele means “the gift that came here.” The word was derived from the Hawaiian words uku, which means "gift," and lele, which means "to come."
Ukulele Popularity in the United States
The ukulele became popular stateside in 1915 at the Panama-Pacific International Exposition in San Francisco. Local musicians were featured at the Hawaiian Pavilion, which included a guitar and ukulele ensemble. This soon launched a fad for Hawaiian-themed songs among top songwriters and musicians. Some of the most popular ukulele players of this period were Roy Smeck and Cliff "Ukulele Ike" Edwards. Due to its portability and reasonable cost, the ukulele quickly became an icon of the Jazz Age.
History of the Ukulele from the 1940s Through the 1980s
After World War II, the ukulele would see another large increase in popularity as servicemen brought them home after being stationed in Hawaii. New technology brought an all-plastic model from Mario Maccaferri in the 1950s, making it a must-have for children in every household. In the late 1960s, Tiny Tim became closely associated with the instrument after he played it on his song "Tiptoe Through the Tulips."
The Rise of the Ukulele from 1990s Through the Present
While the interest in the ukulele would fade after the 1960s, it only took one huge hit to bring it back to the forefront and encourage millions of new musicians. Israel Kamakawiwo'ole, the all-time best-selling Hawaiian musician, released a reggae medley of “Over the Rainbow” and “What a Wonderful World” in 1993, and it instantly took off as a top track of the time. Soon appearing in films, television shows, and commercials, this Billboard topping song made the instrument popular once again.
Thanks to the creation of YouTube, and later television voice and talent shows, the ukulele picked up a completely new fanbase and audience. There are many popular musicians that are known for playing the ukulele at concerts and on their albums, including Taylor Swift, Jason Mraz, Train, and Vance Joy. As more students are interested in taking up the instrument, its popularity continues to rise. Read about famous celebrities you didn’t know played the ukulele.
West Music is an excellent resource for ukuleles of any type or size, as well as ukulele accessories such as strings, cases, racks, and tuners. Explore our site to learn more about the ukulele, sign up for lessons, or browse our wide selection of ukuleles.