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Anatomy of an Instrument: The Ukulele

Laura  Barnes
Anatomy of an Instrument: The Ukulele

In this special edition of our Anatomy of an Instrument series, we’ve handed things over to an expert in the instrument this instalment focuses on. Mark Pugh has worked in the MI business for over thirty years and has extensive knowledge of the ukulele. Here he runs down everything you need to know about the instrument and why “Uke can’t afford to ignore the Ukulele”…

What image comes to your mind when you hear the word "ukulele"? Surely we've moved away from the likes of George Formby and Tiny Tim, ubiquitous, and usually very annoying, ad music for bacteria-laden yoghurts designed to kick your digestive tract into gear, or a group of fifty-somethings wearing loud shirts, funny hats and strumming and singing "You Are My Sunshine"?  

Very real stereotypes, for sure, but every instrument has those, don't they? For me, some of these include banjo (Deliverance), flute (James Galway's eyes), synthesizer (Rick Wakeman), harmonica (Bob Dylan), flugelhorn (that lass from Brassed Off) and so on. They're all real but they don't sum up the whole breadth of the instrument.

WHAT IS A UKULELE?
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It's a diminutive four-string* member of the cordophone family, originating in Portugal and carried across the seven seas by seafaring cabinet makers and itinerant workers in search of their fortune overseas. The logistics of transporting an instrument in confined spaces necessitated it being small, so it's no surprise that wherever sailors sailed, there came a proliferation of related instruments. A tour of just the Americas will present charangas, tiples, timples, cuatros, requinto timples, taropatches, cavaquinhos and more. When the SS Ravenscrag landed in Hawai'i in 1879, the story of the ukulele really begins. Three Madeiran cabinet makers - Manuel Nunes, José de Espírito Santo, and Augusto Dias - are credited with bringing their machetes, or braguinhas, with them to the islands.  According to legend the ukulele was named after the nimble fingers of the players (the Hawaiian for "jumping flea" is "uku-lele") and it was soon adopted as the island nation's instrument. 

We have US intervention, and the overthrowing of the Kingdom of Hawaii, to thank for the explosive growth in the instrument's popularity. 1915's Panama Pacific International Exposition, in San Francisco, brought the ukulele to the mainland and the first great boom followed shortly afterwards, with instruments makers such as Martin, Gibson and many others getting in on the act.

HOW DO YOU PLAY IT AND WHAT DOES IT SOUND LIKE?

Originally the ukulele was offered mainly in the soprano size (~13.75" scale) and, although other tunings are used, the standard tuning of gCEA (the "g" being "re-entrant", a fifth higher than the C) prevails. Other sizes - Concert and Tenor - share the same tuning, the difference in scale, string tension and body size giving a variation in tone and playability.  In terms of playing, for the guitarist having a go, it's like playing a guitar with a capo on the fifth fret (minus the two bass strings, of course).

The largest common size - Baritone - is usually tuned DGBE, the same as the top four strings of a guitar.

Fingerpicking, fan strumming, triplet strumming, using felt, leather, plastic or metal picks are all common techniques.  Although most ukuleles have nylon or fluorocarbon strings, some may have wound strings or even steel strings and magnetic pickups.  The traditional body shape (like a small guitar) is most common but banjo ukuleles, resonators and solid bodies are also popular - check out the LP, TE and ST style electrics from RISA, which created a stir at this year's NAMM Show.

Why the * earlier? Although the standard uke has four strings, brands such as Baton Rouge, Kala and others offer 5-string, 6-string and 8-string models.

Check out these impressive ukulele performances:

WHY UKE CAN'T AFFORD TO IGNORE THE UKULELE

The styles of music played on the ukulele are as varied as the guitar - classical, folk, rock, pop, comedy and more - and the number of players is increasing year on year.  Plus, and importantly for instrument retailers, ukulele players tend to collect instruments.  I don't just mean vintage and rare, although that does happen, but it's not uncommon for a player to have a loved beginnner uke, that goes in the boot of the car when they're off camping, a better one once they've been playing a while, an electro, a different size, a 5-string etc etc. Some go on to spend thousands of pounds on an instrument - is that the kind of business you can afford to ignore?

WHO MAKES THEM?

There's no doubt that, seeing an opportunity, many companies have jumped on the ukulele bandwagon in the last few years, and most guitar brands now also offer a ukulele line. It doesn't take much to see which ones take the ukulele seriously, and perhaps those are the best ones to look at, if you're looking to increase your ukulele sales rather than just have a token offering. 

Kala are probably the biggest brand in beginner and intermediate-level instruments (quite a feat, since they only started up in 2005) but notable others include Baton Rouge, Brunswick, Mahalo and Ohana.

Moving upmarket, RISA (Germany), Magic Fluke, Martin, Collings (USA), Uluru, ANueNue (Vietnam) and the K brands - Kamaka, KoAloha, Koalau, Kanile'a (Hawaii) – stocking any of these will show your customers you're serious about the ukulele.

If you're not sure, why not do what your customers do and look online? 

There are loads of resources aimed at ukulele players, particularly beginners.  www.gotaukulele.com has had almost 12 million hits on his website, offering advice and impartial reviews.

Mark Pugh has worked in the MI business for over thirty years, having studied Musical Instrument Technology (Modern Fretted Instruments) at the London College of Furniture, for much of that time self-employed, trading under the business name Stones Music. He has also written regularly for UKE Magazine.

Stones Music distributes the following ukulele brands and products: Uluru, Magic Fluke, RISA, Baton Rouge, Boing Stands and the Rhythm Ring - alongside the Jumping Cow ukulele accessory line.

Tags: ukulele , Stones Music , mark pugh , Anatomy of an Instrument

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