The Evolution of the Ukulele

by Lee Johnson Google
Ukuleles look like small guitars and usually have four strings.

Ukuleles look like small guitars and usually have four strings.

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Learning the history of the ukulele can help you understand where the instrument comes from and how it has evolved through time. The ukulele is a four-stringed guitar-like instrument, which has its strings tuned to G, C, E and A (from top to bottom). Its musical forerunners are called the braguinha and the rajao, both small stringed instruments of Madeira.


The braguinha gained popularity in Madeira, a Portuguese island, after being shipped over from the mainland in 1854. The instrument can be thought of as basically a small guitar but with four strings. It is one of three stringed instruments that were popular in Madeira at the time. The braguinha has four strings, tuned to D, G, B and D, somewhat like a banjo. The instrument has a flat back and four tuning heads like a guitar. Generally, the braguinha is played by strumming chords, and it was used as a basic accompaniment in folk music. The braguinha was taken to Hawaii in 1879, where it was used as part inspiration for the ukulele.


The rajao is a slightly larger instrument; however, it is in many ways similar to the braguinha. In terms of appearance, it looks like a small guitar and also has six strings. Although the rajao has six strings, they are only tuned to five different notes: D, G, C, E and A. The final A is repeated on the sixth string. The instrument has a bridge like a guitar and also features other similarities, such as a raised fret-board. This is another instrument from Madeira, and it was moved over to Hawaii in 1879, at the same time as the slightly smaller braguinha.

Birth of the Ukulele

The ukulele can simply be thought of as a combination of the braguinha and the rajao. The scale length of the original ukulele is the same as the braguinha. An instrument's scale length represents the portion of the string that vibrates when one is plucked. The size of the ukulele is entirely taken from the braguinha, but this is technically only true of "soprano" ukuleles (as opposed to larger versions, such as "baritone" ukuleles). The tuning of the ukulele was taken from the rajao, with the duplicate A string and low D string removed. The ukulele was developed in Hawaii in 1879, when the two instruments were shipped over from Madeira.

Modern Ukuleles

Modern ukuleles come in four different sizes. The two extreme ends of the spectrum, the "soprano" ukulele and the "baritone" ukulele have the most obvious differences, and the "concert" ukulele and the larger "tenor" ukulele are between them in terms of size. The soprano ukulele is the most popular of all ukuleles, and the concert ukulele is slightly larger than the soprano ukulele, with few other differences. Tenor ukuleles are even bigger than concert ukuleles and can have anything from four to eight strings. The biggest ukulele, the baritone ukulele, has six strings and can be tuned like a small guitar.

About the Author

Lee Johnson has written for various publications and websites since 2005. His articles have appeared in "Sandman" magazine, the "Crewe Chronicle" and on the website Beyond Hollywood. He is primarily a music journalist but has written on many subjects. Johnson has a Bachelor of Arts in creative writing from Manchester Metropolitan University.

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