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Ukulele History

Image of Martin 3K Professional Ukulele
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Roughly translated as “jumping flea”, the ukulele has long been associated with music from Hawaii, where it originated and was developed as a concoction of the Madeiran braguinha and raj√£o.  Being similar in appearance as the cavaquinho, the braguinha originated from the city of Braga, thus its name.  With regards to its tuning, the Madeira raj√£o is tuned D-G-C-E-A, while the Portuguese cavaquinho is tuned D-G-B-D, in G-Major chord.  Both the D and G strings are re-entrant, which means that they are always tuned an octave higher than what is usually used in regular low-high string course.  The GCEA strings of the raj√£o, on the other hand, is the basis for the tuning of the modern ukulele.

Ukuleles made from Koa wood or Acacia Koa is one of the most expensive types of ukuleles today, which can easily sell for thousands of dollars.  They are well-known for their elegant color and appearance, as well as their exceptional tone.

US Mainland

During the Panama-Pacific International Exposition, the ukulele started to gain popularity due to the regular performances by the George E.K. Awai and his Royal Hawaiian Quartette in the Hawaiian Pavilion, which featured an ensemble of guitars and ukuleles.  These performances started a fad for Hawaiian-themed songs among Tin Pan Alley songwriters.  They were also the one who introduced the lap steel guitar and ukulele in the United States mainland music, where it was highly popularized by theatre performers in the likes of Cliff “Ukulele Ike” Edwards and Roy Smeck.

The ukulele then started to become an icon of Jazz Age, attributable in part to its portability and inexpensive nature, which also have become a hit for amateur musicians coming into the year 1920.  This can be seen in the introduction of tablatures for ukuleles in most music sheet publications at that time.  Examples of well-known manufacturers of these instruments include Harmony, Regal and Martin.

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Wood Finish

New ukulele day! // back
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There are different varieties of finishes for ukuleles, these include gloss, satin and varnish.  Ukuleles with satin finish have a matte and soft appearance, making them very appealing for customers who have a taste for natural-looking instruments.  In this setting, nitrocellulose lacquer finish is used.  Since the satin finish is more convenient to administer, the costs are usually lower for it, making them more affordable.  Classic ukuleles usually have this type of finish, and this is due to the fact that the new high-gloss automotive-type finishes haven’t been invented in that time.

The newer gloss finish have very elegant, bright and mirror glow which highly accentuates the color and grain patterns of the wood.  They are also very durable.  Since there more work done in this type of finish (this includes the application and buffing of the gloss finish), this type is more expensive when compared to satin finishes.  Nowadays, more and more people are making the switch to this kind of finish.  Ukuleles with lacquer finishes typically gives them superb tone and volume.

The varnish type of finish, which is also known as the “French Polish”, is the most traditional of all finishes – making use of natural resins which are combined with spirit solvents.  The concoction used is then applied manually and polished thoroughly in order to give the ukulele a very thin and protective finish.  The varnish finish is an excellent way of retaining the acoustic properties of the ukulele, allowing the wood to vibrate freely too.  This type of finish does not really look perfect at all, but better looking varnishes can commonly be found on acoustic guitars and violins.

The French polish finish is essentially done by dissolving resin in alcohol, which is then administered in the wood with the use of a small cloth pad.  Despite the name, this type of finish is not considered the same as furniture polish, but more of a lacquer finish.  This type of finish is also very labor-intensive and the process may take a long time because of the work being 100% manual.  Because of this, the varnish finish is the most expensive of all ukulele finishes.  For me, these three types of ukulele finishes does not make much of a difference at all – try playing these 3 types in a dark room, you hardly won’t notice any difference in the sound produced.

To make things simpler, it is best that you base your decision on the sound quality of the ukulele you are about to buy, and not on the finish.

One important thing to remember is that whatever you ukulele’s finish is, they all require proper care and maintenance.  Refrain from using rough picks, and make sure you don’t scratch the body of your ukulele with your fingernails.  Always keep a clean polishing cloth with you to keep your ukulele shiny.

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Intonation

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Intonation

Intonation, as taken from the definition of Wikipedia, states: “Intonation, in music, is a musician’s realization of pitch accuracy, or the pitch accuracy of a musical instrument.”  Having what is known as “bad intonation” means that the musician is playing or singing out of tune.  Intonation can also refer to tuning.

Strings

When it comes to stringed instruments, intonation matters a lot more than with other musical instruments.  Since majority of stringed instruments are unfretted, the note can easily go out of tune in the event that a finger is too high or too low, even if it is less than an inch.  In order to have good intonation, a musician needs to have years of practice and experience, which makes this the most difficult part of mastering a stringed instrument.

Ukulele Intonation

There are some individuals, more commonly guitar players, who often ask me if there is a ukulele which has superb intonation but costs little, I always tell them the same thing over and over again: “Forget it…”

Despite the majority of ukulele fretboards manufactured today being cut precisely by computer-guided laser cutters, issues sometimes exist in relation to the free string configuration of the ukulele, which is extremely short, and makes perfect intonation quite hard to attain.  Also, ukulele strings which were made from plastic materials like nylon are not very precisely constructed as compared to their steel counterparts – those which are usually installed on banjos, mandolins and the ever popular guitar.  Strings made of plastic tend to expand and eventually become flat, making them quite hard to use during the initial stages of use.  And if that’s not enough, getting the right intonation greatly depends on the skills and experience of the musician.  Intonation will also change in relation to the key played.

Ukuleles have long been known as the instrument of “innocent merriment”, period.  They provide hours of fun and enjoyment with every use, although they can’t be considered as acoustic physics laboratories having small sound chambers.

With guitars, most people will usually invest a lot of money making modifications in order to have better intonation, and the ukulele not much that different.  Even if the ukulele you are looking at right now is said to have the “prefect intonation”, chances are there is something fishy about it.

If its the intonation of your ukulele that is giving you headaches, it may be a good idea to purchase strings of better quality such as well-known brands Worth and Aquila.  You may be surprised on the really big difference this change will give.

Intonation can also be achieved based on how relevant the note played is to the pitch as the musician moves up the fingerboard.  In order to check the set-up of your ukulele, the 12th fret needs to sound exactly the same when played on an open string at a higher octave.  For example, open A string first course 440Hz, 12th fret 880Hz).  Playing a 12th fret harmonic and comparing it with a fretted 12 fret note is also a good way of checking your ukulele.  A good instrument will always be able hit each note played exactly to the required frequency.  Example is G=392 Hz, C=261.6 Hz, E=329.6 Hz, etc.

When constructing a good instrument, intonation is always an integral part of its overall quality.  Playability is also another important factor considered by musicians.  How do we actually acquire that much needed intonation?  Most people will tell you that it is just as simple as making the measurement from the 12th fret doubled, but the truth is, it just does not work.  Always keep in mind that the instrument you are using contracts and expand, and that wood also breathes.   The playing style of a musician can greatly influence the intonation of a instrument – someone who strums hard and bends the strings too much when playing the instrument makes more of a noise rather than music.  On the other hand, a good musician will do the exact opposite and you feel like the instrument and the musician playing as one.

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Sizes of Ukulele

Image of Martin 3K Professional Ukulele
Image via Wikipedia

For this type of stringed instrument, four sizes are available, to which the volume and tone are relative to its size.
In Hawaii, the standard-sized Soprano is the preferred ukulele and is also the smallest in size.

By the year 1920, changes have been made with the design, increasing the ukulele’s size and therefore giving it a deeper and louder tone. This was then known as the Concert ukulele.

After some time, a Tenor ukulele came out, with size greater than that of the Soprano and Concert. This consequently translated into increased volume and deeper bass tone. This sound quality can often be attributed to the bass strings of the Tenor ukulele (1-2 strings), which gives it excellent resonance.

The Baritone ukulele comes next, with body width extending to 10 inches and has the DGBE configuration of strings similar to a guitar, which in essence makes it a mini-guitar with 4 strings.

If you are looking for a classic, gentle and bright tune, then your best bet would be the Soprano and Concert ukulele. For a bigger, deeper and more “guitarish” sound, then the Tenor and Baritone is an excellent choice. Despite the popularity of the Concert and Tenor ukuleles, some clients still prefer the more traditional Soprano and Baritone variants.

There are also multiple-stringed ukuleles available besides the regular four-stringed variants. For example, the Concert type ukulele can be custom-fitted with as much as five strings, placing the two upper most strings in high unison. As for the Tenor and Baritone ukuleles, they are also available in configurations of either six or eight strings.

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