'The Nation's Ukulele Orchestra'
BBC News, Radio 4, 23rd September 2014
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  • How did the ukulele get its name?

    It could be that in 1879 in Honolulu, Joao Fernandes, who had just disembarked from Madeira, played the braguina with such virtuosity and speed that the Hawaiians, impressed with his jumping fingers, called the instrument the "ukulele", meaning dancing flea. But then according to Queen Lili'uokalani the name means "the gift that came here", made from "uku" (gift or reward) and "lele" (to come). Perhaps the name comes from "ukeke lele" or "dancing ukeke" (the ukeke is a Hawaiian musical bow). Some say that Edward Purvis, an English army officer, who was a small man and an agile braguina player, was himself nicknamed "ukulele" and the name later became connected to the instrument itself. Then again, it could be that Gabriel Davian and Judge W. L. Wilcox coined and translated the name, joking that the way one scratched at it, the instrument must have been a jumping flea.

  • What is a Ukulele?

    It is a small, four course, or four string, re-entrant tuned, plucked chordophone. In other words, it has four strings, and if you play it right handed, the string nearest your nose is tuned high. A ukulele is a bit like a small guitar although the construction details are different and give it a distinctive tone. The ukulele is not related to the banjo, although the ukulele-banjo is often referred to as a "uke". The Ukulele is arguably related to the cavaquinho, the braguina, the cuatro, the mandora, the chittarino and the requinto. The early guitar had four strings. A modern guitar can be thought of as a "genetically modified" ukulele. A ukulele can be thought of as a "bonsai" guitar. There are some ukulele style instruments which have more than four strings, such as the "taro-patch" which has up to four courses (that is to say, some of the strings are double, tuned in unison or octaves). Distinctions between guitar like, mandolin like and other fretted, plucked stringed instruments are sometimes difficult to make. There is even a mando-uke. (The instrument called the ukeline is actually a cross between a zither and a bowed psaltery, and is not related to either the ukulele or the mandolin, but that's another story). The history of the ukulele, from its origins in Madeira via early construction and naming in Hawaii to its popularity in America is well documented. See the links page for more information.

  • Why play the Ukulele?

    The ukulele is small, convenient and relatively inexpensive, and one can often quickly and easily learn the basics to a rewarding level. One can then undertake a world tour with only hand luggage. Some people go so far as to say that playing a tune on a ukulele is a way of identifying good music; if the composition is good, it sounds good on a ukulele; the very limitations of the instrument encourage thinking creatively about music.

  • How do I tune a Ukulele?

    One way is to buy a pitch pipe and twiddle the tuning pegs on your uke until the notes of the four strings sound at the the same pitch as those of the pitch pipe. The four strings of the ukulele are often tuned to the notes A D F# B or G C E A. (The string nearest your nose if you're right handed being A.) The relationship between the strings in each case is the same but the actual pitch is different. In the following, we're using G C E A as the default, but A D F# B is only one tone higher.
    Perhaps you don't know much about music. Try this: If you can find "middle C" on a piano, the notes to the right of it are these notes: D E F G A. The black note to the right of F is F# (F sharp). Tune the relevant strings to the appropriate notes.
    Haven't got a piano or a pitch pipe? Try this: Tune the "C" string to a note that isn't so high that the string is too tight, but not so low that the string is floppy and without pitch or projection. Then taking the note of the string as the first note of the tune "The Holly and the Ivy", tune the other strings like this: G (Ivy, first syllable) C (The Holly and) E (Ivy, second syllable) A (the). Maybe this is clearer:
    (C) The Holly and
    (A) the
    (G) I-
    (E) -vy
    Getting the hang of this means you can tune "by ear" without needing a pitch pipe. If you want to play with other fixed pitch instruments you'll need to have an accurate note to start from, but if you're solo, or with other tunable instruments you can tune to any notes as long as the pitch relationships between the strings are accurate, ie if you can play "The Holly and the Ivy" on them.
    As alternatives, you could use
    The (C) Camp (E) bells (A) are (G) Coming Hurrah Hurrah
    or
    Put your (C) glad (E) rags (G) on and (C) join (E) me, (G) hon,
    We'll (C) have (E) some (G) fun (A) when the clock strikes one,
    English ukulele tuning is said to be adf#b, whereas American tuning is gcea. Another good tuning is Bb Eb G C. Baritone ukes tend to be tuned DGBe.

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