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A Brief History of the Ukulele and Learning to Play Tips

By Edited Jul 30, 2016 0 1

The ukulele is a peaceful instrument.  Its notes and the harmonies created can turn even the lowest of hearts upbeat.  When played well, the ukulele is mesmerizing and produces delicate sound.  Many modern ukulele players take the sweet sounds produced by an ukulele and put them to popular music that has turned the songs up to a whole new level.

Ukulele on the beach


Something that bothers me about the ukulele is the pronunciation error that most people make.  It was hard to decide whether to put "an" or "a" in front of the word ukulele while writing this article because the pronunciation makes a big difference.  So, here it is.  I'm going to go with "common" and "less common" instead of "right" and "wrong"

Common- (sound like you're reading this out loud: yoo-ka-lay-lee)

Less common-(sounds like you're reading this out loud: oo-koo-lay-lay)

Incidentally, Hawaiians use the less common pronunciation.  I'm just saying...

What is an Ukulele?

A Brief Ukulele History Lesson

Plainly, the ukulele is a small, 4-stringed guitar.  But it is so much more than just that.  To really understand the ukulele you need to appreciate its origins.

The story actually starts in 18th century Europe.  While most people would refer to the ukulele as primarily a Hawaiian instrument and having roots there, they would only be half right. 

Stringed and fretted instruments have been part of European culture for as long as the continent has had people.  We’ve all seen movies and re-enactments of talented court entertainers playing such things like guitars and lutes. 

In Portugal, the instrument eventually became a miniature version of one of these instruments and shrunk down.  These were called machete de braca and they have been played there for a long time.

Ukulele playing for beginngers

The machete was actually introduced by Portuguese immigrants in the 19th century.  Boats arrived with Portuguese laborers to work on sugar cane plantations and along came Portuguese culture as well.  On one particular boat, there were four famed woodworkers and cabinet makers.  In Portugal they were best known for making ornate wooden furniture.  However in Hawaii, the large ornate furniture didn’t go over that well and the demand was lost on the woodworkers.

Instead, they began construct machete and the little instrument soon became loved amongst the native Hawaiians.  The Hawaiian royal family admired the instrument greatly which probably helped to spur the instrument’s popularity along the rest of the islands. 

Literally translated into the native Hawaiian language, the word ukulele means “jumping flea” but no one really knows why it was called that.  There are theories that perhaps the term “jumping flea” was to try to describe the way a ukulele player’s hands jumped around on the instrument.  There is also legend that implies the possibility that “jumping flea” was a description of one of the Hawaiian King’s Officers, an Englishman named Edward Purvis.  Purvis was said to have been an expert ukulele player and also had the tendency to be overly-hyper, small and fidgety.  

Hamano U-30BK Colorful Soprano Ukulele - Black
Amazon Price: $34.13 Buy Now
(price as of Jul 30, 2016)

Learning to Play the Ukulele Tips

First of all, just like anything else on the internet:  Don’t believe everything you read on the internet.  You cannot learn to play any instrument in 5 minutes or become a “master ukulele player” in 30 days.  Hell, it took me 20 minutes to learn how to make a papaya smoothie!

To become proficient at playing the ukulele (and most other instruments) you first need to have a deep understanding and appreciation of the music and what the ukulele can and cannot do.  This is developed over time.  (Lots of time if you’re not in the least musically inclined) 

All of that being said, it is possible to play and practice the ukulele in small, five minute bursts.  I mean, it takes 5 minutes to actually learn a note and where your fingers and hands need to be and move to play that note.  However, it takes lots of time and practice to be able to play that note proficiently and automatically.  Moving between notes can be difficult, as well.  It takes the act of learning about three notes and then practicing to play them and switching back and forth to those notes to have any chance of your ukulele play sounding anything like music.

Here are a couple of my favorite YouTube tutorials on where to begin if you’re just starting out on a ukulele.


Kala KA-15S Mahogany Soprano Ukulele
Amazon Price: $50.00 Buy Now
(price as of Jul 30, 2016)

As you can see, it can be difficult.  My big, clumsy hands always manage to be in the wrong place or slightly grazing a string I have no intention to touch and throwing things way off. 

As another tip, I would recommend this:  Don’t buy an expensive ukulele to learn on.  Why?  Because you’re really just trying to learn the strings here and see if the ukulele and you are going to be a good fit.  Now, I’ll be the first to admit that well-crafted ukulele sounds a heck of a lot better than a cheap one but you really don’t need spend $150 dollars on a ukulele to learn.  More like $50.  Another argument is that an ornate, wooden ukulele on a nice stand is a great decoration for a room and a conversation piece.  If that’s the way you feel then go ahead and buy something really nice to start off with.  My personal, though, opinion is to go inexpensive at first.

Here is something that most people won’t tell you, especially those sites and con-artists that will try to convince you that you can be a great ukulele player in a few weeks: Your fingers are going to hurt.  The first day I played the ukulele three of my fingers went numb and were sore for about a week afterwards.  Stay with it!  Over time your fingers will strengthen and stop being sore.  Your fingertips will toughen and will stop hurting.

As you learn to play, record yourself and play it back.  Keep a sort of audio diary as you progress.  Just like in a new fitness goal, once you start to see (or in this case, hear) the improvement, it is a great motivator to keep on playing.

Practice slowly.  And I mean, painfully slow. So slow that it is almost impossible to make a mistake.  Once you start playing a chord wrong then it is very difficult to “unlearn” that mistake.  The same goes on the opposite spectrum.  When you begin slowly and not making mistakes then it is more likely that you’ll be playing cleanly. 

Don’t hold your ukulele too tightly.  The ukulele is small and delicate and that makes it easier to smother, warp and distort the sound if you’re holding it wrong or too tightly.

Once you get the feel for your ukulele and decide that you and this magnificent instrument can get along nicely, go out and buy yourself a nicer one as a reward.  You’ll appreciate the sound and feel that much more!


My Favorite Ukulele Songs of All Time!

Diamond Head DU-150 Soprano Ukulele Mahogany Brown
Amazon Price: $30.39 Buy Now
(price as of Jul 30, 2016)


May 14, 2014 5:59pm
I started to learn how to play Ukulele this year in January and I have to admit it's very difficult, but I really love it. I started with some simple songs with one and then two chords and I'm going on to improve. Meanwhile I found out that it's also possible to play nice melodies on the ukulele (Love me tender sounds great), but it's difficult to find the tabs for that.
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