The Humble Uke

On seeing the title of this article, the casual reader might assume it’s about brave Ukrainian peasants, led by fearless, democracy-loving President *elensky, and the battle to stop wicked Putin’s army dead in its tracks, and thwart the evil Russian plan to conquer the whole of Europe.

Or you might think the ‘humble ukes’ are really a rather nasty bunch, and it’s well past time for them to be sorted out. Whatever your opinion about the Ukraine conflict, this article has nothing to do with that country. It’s about a very different type of Uke.

The Humble Uke of this article is a small musical instrument, which normally sports four strings, and goes by the name of Ukulele. No doubt a midget, slightly comical instrument has now come into most readers’ minds – and indeed many comics and novelty artistes have featured the instrument in their acts: George Formby, Tiny Tim, Frank Skinner, Peter Sellers and others.

An image of a ukulele player furiously strumming the instrument may have also come to mind. But a uke can be played quite sensitively as well.

My father was a great ukulele fan in the 20s-40s, and was often centre stage at a sing-song party, before, during, and after the war. He dusted down his instrument from time to time for his own amusement, and for a bit of community singing at family gatherings, right into the 70s.

The sad state of Dad’s ukulele today. Last played over 30 years ago. It’s a Keech Long Scale, Model A, serial number 376. Signed by Alvin D. Keech, and famously used by George Formby in the film No Limit (1935). It’s missing strings, the ‘nut’, and 2 fret wires, and there are two ‘minor’ splits to the soundboard.

Casually surfing the Net recently, I was presented with an ad for a music shop in a nearby town. Mann’s Music in Colchester to be precise, which started trading in 1854, and has operated from the same High Street premises since 1891. It’s currently run by the great, great grandson of the founder.

As I hadn’t been inside the shop for 40 years, I clicked on the ad for a quick virtual look around. Amongst the instruments listed for sale was the Ukulele. I just had to check it out, as I’ve been known to play my father’s uke myself. I was surprised to find not just one ukulele was listed, as might have been the case back in the 80s, but loads of the things.

Digging deeper I discovered that instead of there just being one type of uke, as I’d always assumed – a standard uke, if you like, there are several different versions, all different sizes, and each with its own unique frequency range.

Brief History of the Ukulele

This guitar-like instrument dates to the late 19th Century, and is derived from several small instruments of Portuguese origin, most notably the machada, or machete, and the cavaquinho, timple, and rajão.

Portuguese immigrants introduced those instruments to the Hawaiian Islands in the 1870s. Three of the immigrants were cabinet makers, and they began making ukuleles, which soon became established in Hawaiian music. The literal translation of the word into English is “flea” or “jumping flea”.

This instrument can be said to be a genuine, if rare benefit of immigration, and provided considerable cultural enrichment to the host nation. King Kalākaua (reigned 1874 – 1891) loved the ukulele, doing much to promote it by incorporating it into performances at Royal gatherings.

It’s no surprise then, that there have been several notable Hawaiian ukulele players down the years: Ernest Kaʻai (1881 – 1962), Genoa Keawe (1918 – 2008), Eddie Kamae (1927 – 2017), Peter Moon (1944 – 2018), Israel Kamakawiwo’ole (1959 – 1997), and others.

The ukulele soon spread to other countries. Basic ukulele skills were easy to learn, the instrument was highly portable, and it was relatively inexpensive. It achieved great popularity with amateur players throughout the 1920s, helped by the addition of ukulele chord tablature to published sheet music for the popular songs of the era.

In Great Britain, the instrument’s heyday was the 1920s – 1940s, thanks in large part to George Formby (1904 – 1961), who purchased his first uke in 1923. Formby was actually a masterful player of the instrument and developed a unique and very fast right-hand technique – the split-stroke – a syncopated rhythm where the musician would strike all of the strings, and then on the return, catch the first string, and then before starting again, hit the last.

The sad state of Dad’s banjo ukulele today. It’s a Revelation Will Van Allen Ukulele-Banjo, from the cheaper end of the manufacturer’s range. It needs re-stringing, and it’s missing one of the tensioner ‘brackets’, and the tailpiece. I’m amazed to see that the calf skin head hasn’t split or been punctured after all these years.

The three guitar players in The Beatles were quite partial to the instrument. Indeed George Harrison often gave ukes as presents to friends. One such recipient was American rocker Tom Petty, and Harrison taught Petty how to play it.

It’s popularity declined after the 60s before interest revived again in the 1990s. Today there are plenty of great ukulele artistes, and many ukulele clubs and societies around the world, including several hundred in the UK alone. Many are listed on the website.

In 2009 at the BBC Proms, 1,000 members of the audience turned up at a Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain concert with their ukuleles, waved them all in the air, and joined The Orchestra in a rendition of Beethoven’s Ode to Joy.

Ukulele Variants

The overall length of a uke from the top of the head to the bottom of the resonator body varies from about 16 inches to 32 inches (40 – 80 cm).

The ‘soprano’ was the original, standard uke, and is the size most commonly used. It was later followed by the ‘pocket’ (c. 1900), ‘concert’ (1920s), ‘tenor’ (1920s), and the ‘baritone’ in the 1940s.

At the low end of the frequency range, the ‘contrabass’ arrived circa 2010 and the ‘bass’ as recently as 2014. Both are around the same sort of size, with the contrabass tuned to the same notes as a standard bass guitar, while the bass ukulele is tuned to the same notes, but one octave up.

The ‘scale length’, or more accurately the ‘string length’ is what determines the range of notes the instrument can produce. The following measurements are approximate.

Mini or Pocket Ukulele: instrument length 16 inches, scale length 11 inches.

Soprano Ukulele: instrument length 21 inches, scale length 13 inches.

Concert Ukulele: instrument length 23 inches, scale length 15 inches.

Tenor Ukulele: instrument length 26 inches, scale length 17 inches.

Baritone Ukulele: instrument length 29 inches, scale length 19 inches.

Bass & Contrabass Ukuleles: instrument length 30-32 inches, scale length 21 inches.

A selection of Dad’s uke song books from the 20s and 30s. Minstrel songs were a big favourite in those days.

Ukulele Technical Stuff

The ukulele is invariably made of wood, with the preferred wood being koa from an acacia tree, the koa being the second most common tree on the Hawaiian Islands. Other ukes are made from cheaper plywood or laminated wood, while at the high end, hardwoods like mahogany are sometimes used.

Some ukes have been made partly, or even entirely, from plastic, and ukuleles with metal bodies (resonators) have also been produced.

A standard ukulele has a figure of eight body shape similar to an acoustic guitar, although several other shapes can be seen such as the cutaway, the oval or tear-drop, a boat-paddle shape, and occasionally a rectangular shape.

Normally a four-stringed instrument, six and eight string versions are available, with either two single strings, and two closely spaced ‘pairs’, or ‘courses’, or four ‘courses’, with each pair played as a single string, either tuned in unison, or an octave apart.

The strings were originally made of catgut, a fibre found in the walls of animal intestines. Despite the name, catgut is not made from cat intestines, but instead from the innards of sheep or goats, or sometimes cattle, pigs, horses, or donkeys. These days nylon and other synthetics are used, and some strings are wound round with polymers or metal.

The strings on the new, modern, bass ukuleles are made rather differently, because if they’re too thick, the sound becomes dull and lifeless, and if the tension is too loose, the strings would be floppy and, well….. unplayable.

So these strings are made with added density, and different manufacturers use their own particular technology to make them. They are basically polyurethane strings, and take about 2 weeks to settle down after an instrument has been strung, or re-strung. They are said to have a rubber band sort of feel to them.

There is an alternative to these polyurethane strings, namely a nylon/silk core string, wound with some form of silver or copper plating. These strings are rather expensive however, but are much more like bass guitar strings.

Various tunings are possible, but the standard tuning for the long-established ukes (not the modern bass ukes) is G – C – E – A. This tuning does not ascend in the order of strings because the first G is an octave higher than might be expected. Often called “high G” tuning, it enables close-harmony chording, where all the notes of the chord are close to each other, and in the same octave.

There is a mnemonic jingle which helps with the tuning of a uke, with each word sung in the note order of the tuning: “My dog has fleas”.

A page from a songbook showing ukulele tablature – the little square diagrams with dots to indicate where to put your fingertips at which point in the song.

The Banjo Ukulele or Banjolele

Surprisingly, the banjolele is not a completely separate instrument to the uke, but is in fact a development of the uke, which incorporates a banjo’s drum-like body with the express purpose of increasing the volume.

Arriving on the music scene in 1917, the banjolele has the same scale length as the soprano uke, or, less commonly, the concert or tenor-sized ukulele. Banjo ukuleles originally incorporated calf skin heads, but synthetics have been used in recent years. The banjolele may be open-backed, or may have a closed back, which delivers an even louder sound. Either way, the banjolele generates a lot more volume than a ukulele does.

Ukulele Videos

So all that remains to do now is to enjoy a few videos featuring this fun and versatile instrument, the Humble Uke.

Video 1. When I’m Cleaning Windows – George Formby

The greatest ukulele player ever? An excerpt from the film Keep Your Seats, Please (1936). English actor, singer-songwriter and comedian George Formby recorded over 200 songs, and this is arguably the best-known. Originally banned by the BBC for its ‘racy’ lyrics, the song won Formby the first ever silver disc for record sales in excess of 100,000 copies.

Video 2. Carry Me Back to Old Virginny – Dear Old Dad

My Old Man with a chorus and the first verse from James A. Bland’s (1854 – 1911) best known song, which was Virginia’s state song from 1940 until 1997. Bland was reputedly “The World’s Greatest Minstrel Man”.

Video 3. Crazy – The Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain

That’s not a bass guitar you can hear – it’s the deep and rich sound of a bass ukulele. It incorporates a microphone-type pickup, so it’s an amplified instrument.

Video 4. While My Guitar Gently Weeps – Jake Shimabukuro

The last word, or note, comes from this Hawaiian ukulele virtuoso.


Image of soprano and pocket ukuleles by Zapyon, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International licence.

Other images plus text © NeverUpToTheJob 2023.