For the past few years, a few of the staff have been (secretly) predicting the demise of the ukulele craze. We keep thinking, “it’s just seasonal,” or “they mostly sell at Christmas.”
Well, it’s time to admit our mistake. The ukulele is here to stay, and here’s what you need to know.
The ukulele originated in the 1800s when Portuguese immigrants to Hawaii introduced a Madeiran 4-stringed instrument called the machete. Local adaptations gained widespread popularity in the early 20th century and featured prominently in music through the 1960s. After the success of Tiny Tim’s classic “Tiptoe Through the Tulips,” however, it appeared that the world had heard about all the ukulele it could handle.
It’s hard to say when the ukulele’s current popularity started. Looking back, we attribute it in large part to Hawaiian songwriter Israel Kamakawiwo’ole, who released a seminal ukulele-driven medley of “Over the Rainbow” and “What a Wonderful World” in 1993. The song appeared in television, movies, and commercials, even charting in 2004. From there it gets a little bit murky, but to fully understand the ukulele’s adoption in pop culture you have to examine the instrument itself.
We’ve noticed a trend: the number of players starting out with an electric guitar has decreased in the last few years. That isn’t to say that there aren’t tons of talented young guitar players out there. When young people are looking for musical inspiration, there is a world of incredible music to choose from, more readily available than ever before. It is a fact, however, that technical electric guitar playing isn’t very common in chart-topping songs right now.
What we see instead is an emphasis on singers and songwriting. In that context, the guitar adds texture or allows a songwriter to accompany themselves. It turns out that with a few chords and a bit of rhythm, anyone can write powerful, catchy, or entertaining songs that tell a story. The ukulele takes those essential functions of a guitar and makes it easier and more approachable to learn.
First, you only have four strings, instead of six. Those strings are also made of nylon instead of metal, which makes them easier to push down and softer on the fingertips. The relative tuning of the strings is also similar to the top four strings of a guitar, so it’s easier to learn one if you know the other.
Those differences make the ukulele easy to learn as a simple accompaniment or songwriting tool, which allows you to get to the business of performing, writing, and recording much faster than on a guitar. With the spread of songwriting and cover channels on YouTube, a number of crossover digital-to-mainstream artists like Grace VanderWaal brought the instrument even further into the public eye.
Easy to learn, difficult to master
Also behind the wave of popularity is a new class of expert ukulele players, who have done a great deal to legitimize it as a serious instrument. Showcasing virtuosic skill and creative arrangements of popular songs, musicians like Jake Shimabukuro are the main reason why some of our staff started learning the ukulele. Even though it seems easy, it can provide a lot of the challenge and fun of a guitar in a much more portable package suitable for camping, backpacking, road trips, or a day at the beach.
Ukulele groups like S.O.U.P. (Southern Ontario Ukulele Players) have also provided an incredible forum for like-minded players of all skill levels to learn and perform songs together. The uke has something to offer for any level of player at any level of commitment. Ukuleles are also typically more affordable than their larger guitar counterparts.
Now that you know why you need a uke, which one do you get? After a great deal of testing, playing, (and repairing!) we’ve chosen to carry Kala Ukuleles, the best-selling worldwide brand of ukes, as well as relative newcomer, Canadian-designed Twisted Wood Ukuleles. They all represent an incredible value, use good quality materials, and make for a very reliable instrument. No matter what brand of uke you decide to buy, however, there are some universal similarities.
Most obviously, there are four main sizes of ukulele. From smallest to largest, they are soprano, concert, tenor, and baritone. The first three are usually tuned G-C-E-A (like the top four strings of a guitar at the fifth fret) whereas baritone is tuned D-G-B-E (like the bottom four of a guitar). The scale lengths of the instruments are also different, meaning that larger ukes typically have more frets spaced farther apart – this can make them easier to play for people with larger hands or long fingers. Larger ukes will also usually be louder because the resonating chamber for the instrument’s vibrations is physically larger.
Some ukuleles will also have built-in electronics systems that allow them to be run directly through a PA system or amplifier without the need for a microphone. If you have ambitions to play live with your ukulele, consider buying an instrument with the electronics included – the added cost from the manufacturer is less than adding a pickup later on!
From there, you’ll want to consider the materials and construction of the instrument. Some players feel that ukes with solid wood tops, or even solid wood back and side construction, will have a richer tone than laminate instruments. These typically also cost more and are more sensitive to changes in temperature and humidity. We generally have a variety of ukes in stock, and the best way to judge whether the extra cost is worthwhile is to test them out yourself. That being said, we’ve tested every uke that we carry and stand behind their quality. You can rest assured that as long as you choose a ukulele that inspires you to play, you’ll have chosen a reliable instrument.
Yes, ukuleles are our friends. It appears that they’re here to stay and we’ve fully embraced the #ukelife. Check out https://bellonesmusic.com/product-category/folk/ukulele or stop by the shop to join the movement.