What Jumping Flea Comes From a Volcanic Archipelago in the Central Pacific?
That’ll be the wonderful Ukulele, a small four-stringed guitar of Hawaiian origin, the word literally means ‘jumping flea’. It’s an instrument that has received a bit of resurgence in recent years. In this article, Lydia Pugh takes a look at the fun-size guitar in more detail.
Looking back, the Ukulele was hugely popular back in the ’20s and ’30s thanks to the likes of artist such as George Formby, and it had another surge in popularity during the late ’60s before its je-ne-sais-quoi seemed to dwindle into obscurity.
That is until now, the fashionableness of the folk-rock movements during the late noughties, the rise of bands like the Mumford and Sons, and the ever-increasing number of folk driven music festivals have all contributed in bringing about a new chapter in the life of the Ukulele.
How exactly does the Ukulele work?
The Ukulele comes in a variety of sizes; Soprano (most common), Concert, Tenor, and Baritone. It has just 4 strings, G-C-E-A, and is generally tuned with ‘re-entrant’ tuning, which means the first G is, in fact, higher in pitch than the C and the E. Soprano, Concert and Tenor all tend to be tuned the same, although sometimes the Tenor has a low G. The Baritone Ukulele has a lower tuning and is most commonly tuned to the same pitches as the top 4-strings on a guitar; D-G-B-E, but again, sometimes the low D can be a re-entrant D instead.
There are some less common Ukuleles, which include the 6-string and the 8 strings, the Sopranino (which is smaller and higher than the Soprano), and the Uke-Bass (tuned like a regular bass, sometimes an octave higher). You can also get fun Ukulele Hybrids, like the Banjolele, and the Guitalele. Regardless of which Ukulele you choose to play, the playing techniques are essentially the same as a guitar; strumming chords, playing melodies, and either in a fingerpicking style or with a felt or leather plectrum. At SOPMs Ukulele clubs, students get to learn all the techniques of Ukulele playing whilst playing the music they love. Have a listen to our Junior Ukulele Club (ages 8+) working on their version of ‘Boulevard of Broken Dreams’.
Why play the Ukulele?
It’s certainly not just a fad instrument, it’s incredibly useful, and the Ukulele is a fantastic beginners instrument, for a number of reasons:
It’s smaller, so very young musicians can get to grips with building their finger coordination and dexterity more quickly than they might be able to with the guitar, and even adults, who perhaps have struggled in the past to learn guitar because of how big the neck on a guitar is, might find learning the basics on a Ukulele a better place to start.
It has fewer strings. Some people are just daunted by the idea of 6 strings but only having 4 fingers! The ukulele solves that issue somewhat.
Once you got your head around a couple of basic chords, it is pretty easy to start playing songs and accompanying yourself singing, or start playing music with friends. A few examples of songs we have done in our Ukulele clubs include ‘Riptide‘ by Vance Joy, ‘This is Me’ from The Greatest Showman, and ‘Seven Nation Army’ by The White Stripes.
The Ukulele is just a really fun and happy sounding instrument! In my opinion, it is pretty difficult to hear the Ukulele and feel sad! By its very nature, it creates a bright and upbeat sound, which means every time you practice you’ll get a lot of joy out of it.
Learning Ukulele at SOPM
At SOPM, our Ukulele clubs run on Saturdays from 12.30pm, where our students get to learn how the instrument works, chords, strumming patterns, play songs they enjoy and create music as a team. Soren Brun, aged 6 attends the Minis Ukulele Club, and when I asked him how he felt about playing the Ukulele he said, “I really love it! I love learning new chords, I love the sound it makes, and I really love getting on stage to show everyone my songs!” But the Ukulele is not just for young players, adults can also learn Ukulele with SOPM, either through private lessons or within a group setting.
And don’t be fooled into thinking that just because it’s a great instrument for beginners means that there’s not much you can do with it either. There has been some incredible Ukulele music and musicians come about in recent years, including Pearl Jam’s Eddie Vedder, who produced an entire album of music simply titled ‘Ukulele Songs’.
You’ll probably remember the lovely version of ‘Over The Rainbow’ which was covered by Hawaiian musician Israel Kamakawiwoʻole, and this version of ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ by Jake Shimabukuro (below) is just something else.