Light and portable, the four-stringed ukulele remains one of the most accessible instruments in popular music. Originally associated with Hawaiian music and culture, the ukulele's adoption by rock artists like George Harrison and Eddie Vedder has awakened listeners to its melodic possibilities -- which are made possible by its stripped-down simplicity. As the success of cult performers like the late Tiny Tim shows, the ukulele can be adapted to virtually any voice, no matter how untrained it sounds.
Approaching the Instrument
The ukulele's simplicity is one of the most commonly cited reasons for its appeal. Ukuleles have just four strings, or two fewer than the guitar. Most chords only require one, two or three fingers. Holding the ukulele underneath the right arm, the player strums all four strings so they sound at practically the same time, according to theuke.com. The combination of minimal finger movement and singing to C, the thickest string, enables players to use only one chord for such well-known songs as "Row, Row, Row Your Boat."
Getting in Tune
Ukuleles are generally tuned in standard C. The third string is tuned to middle C, while the fourth string is tuned higher -- to G above middle C, according to the ezfolk.com website. One way of remembering this tuning is to sing the phrase, "my dog has fleas," to the notes on a tuned ukulele, according to ukeschool.com. Each word matches one of the ukulele's four strings -- G, C, E and A. By turning the four notes into an easy-to-remember short song, with each word corresponding to a string, players can tune up quickly, even if they have no other instrument for a reference.
Portuguese instrument maker Manuel Nunes is credited with introducing the ukulele to the Hawaiian islands on his 1879 arrival there, according to a history posted on the ukes.com website. In 1916, a Hawaiian music craze that took hold in San Francisco helped spread the instrument's popularity to the U.S. mainland. By the 1920s, national instrument makers like Dobro, Martin and National began mass-producing thousands of ukuleles to keep up with their new-found popularity.
The Harrison Influence
Beatles guitarist George Harrison became one of rock's most avid ukulele players. Like his fellow Beatles, Harrison grew up in the 1940s with the music of George Formby, who popularized the instrument for British audiences. Formby's use of the ukulele banjo and distinct rhythmic style made the greatest impression on Harrison, according to a tribute by fellow ukulele enthusiast Andy Eastwood. Later in his life, Harrison amassed a large collection, including the ukulele banjo that Formby once favored.
The Ukulele Revival
Interest in ukuleles peaked during the late 1960s, when quirky performers like Tiny Tim turned "Tiptoe Through the Tulips" into a Top 20 hit. The instrument fell out of favor again until the early 1990s, when Hawaiian music culture reasserted itself, The New York Times reported in April 2011. The instrument's discovery by indie rockers like Amanda Palmer and Pearl Jam vocalist Eddie Vedder helped the ukulele gain additional mainstream credibility that showed no signs of slowing down during the 2000s.
- Ukes.com: The Hawaii Ukulele Guide Presents Over Century of Ukulele History
- EZ Folk: Tuning Your Ukulele: Richard Hefner
- "The New York Times"; Ukulele Crazy; Ben Sisario; April 2011
- Pineapple Pete's Uke School: My Dog Has Fleas
- The Uke; How to Play the Ukulele in Three Minutes or Less; Ed Kalua; May 2004
- Andy Eastwood; Ukulele Hero George Harrison; December 2001
- Thinkstock/Comstock/Getty Images