The History of the Ukulele: All Your Questions Answered

 

history of the ukulele

The ukulele is a unique instrument that is loved all over the globe for its simplicity and cheerful sound. However, many people incorrectly assume that the ukulele had its origin in Hawaii.

Although the state plays an important role in the development of the ukulele’s image, the initial version of the ukulele was surprisingly not developed in Hawaii. Keep reading to find out where the ukulele originated, and more interesting facts about its unique history.

The Unique History of the Ukulele

When and Where Did the Ukulele Originate?

The history of the ukulele begins in Madeira, a very small mountainous island in the Atlantic Ocean, located southeast of Portugal. The island began attracting tourists in the early 1800s, and these new visitors enjoyed a wide range of music. They especially enjoyed tunes created by an instrument known as the machête, a smaller version of the guitar.

The machête was the precursor to the modern-day ukulele we know and love today! A Portuguese immigrant named Joao Fernandez brought this guitar-like instrument to Hawaii by  in 1879. The Portuguese referred to the machête as the “braginho,” however, the natives later renamed it to the “ukulele.”

When the Portuguese immigrants arrived in Hawaii and began playing the “braginho” in the streets, the townspeople naturally loved its sound. Its popularity rose quickly on the Hawaiian Islands and soon became Hawaii’s musical image.

Who Created the First Ukulele?

Three woodworkers from Portugal were key in the advancement of the ukulele. These three woodworkers and former cabinet makers – Manuel Nunes, Augusto Dias, and Jose do Espirito Santo – found a new way to make money on Oahu as they settled into their homes.

The three craftsmen quickly saw a market in selling guitars, machêtes, and other stringed instruments. One by one, they each opened up their own shop and boasted their ability to make machêtes.

Although the exact moment of the creation of the ukulele is unclear, we know that these three woodworkers had a hand in the production, proliferation, and dispersion of the instrument.

The modern-day ukulele appears to be a combination of the machête and another Portuguese instrument called the rajão. The rajão is a five-stringed instrument, but its top four strings are in the order of the ukulele’s strings: G-C-E-A.

How Did the Ukulele Get so Popular?

Portuguese immigrants, including Joao Fernandez and the three craftsmen, certainly helped fuel the ukulele’s popularity. But the instrument’s expansion was largely due to its promotion by Hawaii’s last king, David Kalakaua who reigned from 1874-1891.

The ukulele often played a major role in royal events. The king also encouraged local people to learn how to play the ukulele, and even decided to learn it himself!

The Ukulele Travels Across the Globe

Jonah Kumalae, a Hawaiian ukulele manufacturer and musician, brought the ukulele to San Francisco in 1915 for the Pan Pacific International Exhibition. The ukulele’s introduction at the exhibition caught the world’s attention, and thus the first “ukulele craze” began.

One of the ukulele’s three original craftsmen, Manuel Nunes, passed on his legacy to his son who started a ukulele factory in Los Angeles, California. Throughout the 1920s the ukulele began to successfully make its way across the globe, from Canada to Japan, thanks to a variety of musicians.

SEE ALSO: 3 Big Benefits of Taking Ukulele Lessons

Which Famous Musicians Play the Ukulele?

Undeniably, one of the most famous ukulele musicians is George Formby from the UK. Formby was a multi-talented actor, singer, musician, and comedian. His most famous song titled “Leaning on a Lamp Post” was inducted into the Ukulele Hall of Fame in 2014.


Jake Shimabukuro, another famous ukulele musician, first held a ukulele in his hands at the age of 4. Jake credits many musicians in Hawaii for influencing his music. He came to fame by accident when someone posted one of his songs on YouTube!

You may also recognize a few of these names: Eric Clapton, Elvis Presley, Jack Johnson, Cyndi Lauper, Paul McCartney, and P!nk. These musicians have all incorporated the ukulele into their music.

From its humble origins on a Portuguese island, the ukulele continues to grow in popularity. We hope you enjoyed learning about the diverse history of this unique instrument. If you’re interested in learning how to play, check out the online ukulele classes at TakeLessons Live and find out why so many people love the uke!

Guest post by Colleen Kinsey, Editor in Chief at Coustii. Colleen enjoys teaching ukulele and guitar skills online, and her uke has traveled with her around the world!

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