If there were to be an instrument that deserves the Order of (Musical) Merit for its big comeback in the last twenty years, it certainly would be the ukulele! This small instrument was all the craze in the early 20th Century, from the explosion of Hawaiian music in the 1910s to roaring twenties all the way to the post-war years, in the hands of big vaudeville names such as Roy Smeck (1900-1994). However, it ended up almost entirely forgotten up until very recently, where it has succeeded by its (apparent) simplicity in seducing an audience of young amateur musicians of all ages, in adapting without taking itself seriously to all repertoires and, most importantly, in reintroducing into many households the activity which consists in making music amongst family, friends, or for oneself. What nerve in the digital age of ready-to-consume music!
Everything about the ukulele is rather whimsical: its real origin, its early forms, the pictorial translation of its name, its early exotic repertoire, the tender humor of its “baby guitar” tone…
Where the soprano (the feisty leader of the bunch), the concert, and the tenor models are concerned, the ukulele is tuned a fourth above the four treble strings of a guitar, with the lowest string tuned an octave higher. We therefore end up with a chanterelle (the upper string where we make the melodies sing), this allows for very simple inversions which give the instrument a unique and flowery form of polyphony. The baritone model is a late comer to the band and the biggest of them all, and is typically tuned like the 4 treble strings of a guitar. This makes for great accompaniment along with smaller ukes, or a great standalone instrument to explore guitar voicings with an entirely different tone.
Easy to learn and have for some quick fun with, it does not become less demanding than any other musical instrument when it comes to really getting into it. Thus, from Bobby Lapointe (1922-1972) to Marylin Monroe (1926-1962), from the baroque repertoire revised and adapted, to covers of the Beatles or Metallica, from Giuseppe Verdi (1813 – 1901) to Celine Dion (1968-), the ukulele – “the jumping flea” – of Portuguese origin and born in Hawaii at the end of the 19th century is a heck of a little character!
There is not a guitarist that couldn’t do without one on holidays!