How is the name of the instrument spelled?
English speakers often call the instrument the "uke" (yook) or "ukulele" (yoo-koo ley-lee), whereas given the instrument's Hawaiian origin, it might be more accurate to say the "uku" (oo koo), or "ukulele" (oo koo lay lay). In Hawaiian apparently, all syllables end with a vowel and 'e' is always pronounced as a long 'a'. The conventions of transliteration from Hawaiian probably allow both spellings: ukulele and ukelele. The Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain use the former spelling but they don't speak Hawaiian.
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.
Where can I get Ukulele music in chords and lyrics form?
See our 'Links' page.
How did the members of the orchestra meet?
Some say it was at Bobby's Club in Hastings, some that they were all moonlighting BBC radio announcers. The truth is that when two or three ukulele players are gathered together the gravitational force means that other ukulele players start to come into the orbit. Very soon you are awash with pluckers.
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.
Where can I find a good Ukulele?
You might find that your grandparents have got one in the attic anyway. There are many good ukulele makers all over the world. A guitar maker might make one for you, though a small guitar does not sound the same as a ukulele; the construction methods and materials are different. Members of the Ukulele Orchestra have obtained good ukuleles from: Marshall Stapleton, Pete Howlett and many other manufacturers including Hawaiian experts, but a relatively good one can be obtained from most music shops. The traditional wood for ukulele construction in Hawaii is Koa, though many ukuleles are made from other woods. In the UK, a reasonable uke can be found for around 25 UK pounds although one can find old collectable ukes or high quality instruments which cost thousands of pounds.
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
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
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.
Arranging for Orchestras
Ukes are tuned g' c' e' a' for soprano, and d g b e' for baritone.
The easiest thing is to write for soprano (or concert or tenor: they all usually have the same tuning) in treble clef (assuming 12 frets on the instrument this gives a range from middle c upwards to a, an 8va and a 6th above).
For baritone, write as though its a classical guitar with the two lowest strings removed (so that means assuming 12 frets, a range from d below middle c, up to e on the top space of the treble clef). Your players might have more frets available and if so could go higher.
This means the baritone is a transposing instrument, for example, you write a "d" below the bottom line of the treble clef, and when the baritone reads and plays this, it sounds an octave lower than notated. As with guitar.
"Normal" ukes are tuned in re-entrant fashion (g' c' e' a', rather than g c' e' a'). This enables "between the strings" melodic work (campanile), sustaining adjacently pitched notes on different strings, for a bell like effect. Its a bit idiomatic for some tastes so you might persuade your players to use a low g string (g below middle c, instead of g above middle c) which will give you a wider range on the soprano uke. Baritones are rarely tuned in re-entrant style.
What is the correct version of the orchestra's name?
There have been references to the group as The Ukelele Orchestra, The Ukes, "The Ukes", The National Ukulele Orchestra, The Uke Orchestra, and even the Ukelele Band, The English Ukelele Band, or The British Ukulele Band, but they prefer to be known by their original name of The Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain.
Are there any Ukulele references in the sacred texts?
In the Insane Krusty episode of The Simpsons first broadcast on12 Nov 2000, we find..
Sophie: Hey hey, Dad!
Krusty: Hey hey! Now, look, Sophie, I know you think your daddy's perfect.......
Sophie: No, I don't.
Krusty: ....... but I did a bad thing. I lost your violin in a poker game.
Sophie: You WHAT?
Krusty: But don't worry, I got you an even better one! (gives instrument to Sophie)
Sophie: This is a UKULELE!
Krusty: Yeah, the thinking man's violin. Check it out. (Grabs uke, plays and sings) I wanna go back to my little grass shack in Ke-al-ake-kua, Hawaii.
Sophie: I want my violin.
Krusty: But, honey, I, I...
Sophie: I can't believe you would gamble with something that meant so much to me.
Krusty: Wait. Time out. Four aces is not a gamble.
Sophie: Mom was right. I was better off not knowing you.