The ukulele is a string instrument that originated in Portugal in the second century B.C. With a small, guitar-shaped body that is fitted with four strings, it is considered a member of the chordophone family. Sound is produced through these instruments by plucking and strumming the strings. The strings in turn vibrate and are amplified by the resonating body. The ukulele is manufactured in a similar way as a full size guitar.
String instruments date back many centuries and have been developed independently by most ancient cultures. The earliest instruments were single strings tied to bows. Evidence of these primitive instruments has been found in Asia and Africa dating back over 3,000 years. Over time, instrument makers added more strings.
Ukuleles first had their start in Portugal in 139 b.c. in the Lusitani tribe. The development of the ukulele has been influenced by instruments from Spain, South America, and Africa. By the thirteenth, century four-string instruments were being used in Spain. When six string instruments were introduced in the 1700s the popularity of chordophonesexploded. Although ukuleles are most commonlu associated with Hawaii, it wasn't until 1879 that the first ukelele was brought over from Portugal. One of the Portuguese immigrants on the ship Ravenscrag, Joao Fernandez, started playing his four-string Portuguese instrument known as a braghuina. Local residents were intrigued with the instrument, adopted it as their own, and renamed it ukulele which in Hawaiian means "jumping flea." This name reflected the way the islanders thought the fingers jumped around the fretboard when it was played. Within 10 years of its introduction, the ukulele became the most popular instrument in Hawaii.
The first ukuleles were made by hand, a process that was both painstaking and time consuming. Subsequently, the number of ukuleles in existence was quite low prior to 1910. Eventually, special wood cutting and shaping machines were created to produce ukuleles. The instrument was steadily modified making it look and sound more like the modern day ukulele. Manuel Nunes was one of the most important innovators. He modified the instrument by replacing steel strings with gut strings. He also suggested a different tuning pattern to make chord formation easier. He also began using wood from the koa tree to produce a lighter, more resonant ukulele.
The ukulele was introduced to the United States mainland during the Panama-Pacific Exposition in San Francisco during 1915. Record sales of Hawaiian music grew rapidly and United States guitar manufacturers began selling their own version of the ukulele. By the 1920s and 1930s, the popularity of the ukulele spread throughout North America, and its sound became closely associated with vaudeville music shows. Since then, the ukulele has often been played as a jazz and solo instrument.
The plastic ukulele, called the "TV Pal" was developed by Mario Maccaferri in 1950. He was a well-known guitar maker who became intrigued with plastics. He used his instrument-making skill to produce the plastic ukulele which sold over nine million units between the time it was introduced and 1958. Its popularity was mainly due to the fact that it was inexpensive, had a good sound, and was tied in with the popular television show "Arthur Godfrey and his Ukulele."
The body of the ukulele is primarily made from wood, although plastic instruments have also been sold. Woods from all over the world are used including Hawaiian koa, maple, walnut, rosewood, myrtle, brazilian canary, cocobolo, madrone, elm, lacewood, and black limba. The type of wood has a significant impact on the sound, tone, and quality.
For example, mahogany is a "soft" hardwood and it creates a warm, mellow tone. It is thought by many manufacturers to be the finest wood for making ukuleles. It also has excellent aging properties, sounding better as it gets older. Koa wood is the most revered of Hawaiian woods for ukulele manufacturing. These trees have unique grain patterns and colors making every ukulele made from them distinct. Typically, the same type of wood is used for the entire instrument.
Beyond the wood, other materials used in a ukulele's manufacture are nylon, steel, plastic, coatings, and glues. The strings are typically made from nylon although some ukuleles are produced with steel strings. The wood is treated with different lacquers for both protection and decoration. Various types of glue can be used such as superglue, aliphatic or yellow glue, hide glue, and epoxy. For instruments made in the tropics, synthetic adhesives are superior because they are less prone to degradation by fungus.
The ukulele is a portable instrument with a small guitar-like body. It consists of a short neck, a main body, four strings and tuning keys, a bridge, a fretboard, and a sound hole. There are a variety of different types of ukuleles including the soprano, concert, tenor, and baritone. The most common type is the soprano ukulele which is about 21 in (53 cm) long. The strings are tuned to the notes G-C-E-A.
The Manufacturing Process
The various parts of the ukelele are made in separate processes and then put together in a finishing step. The process begins with wood selection which is the most important factor because it will will affect sound quality and instrument appearance.
- 1 The front piece of the ukelele is produced by a process called bookmatching. In this method a piece of wood is cut into two equal sheets. This gives a distinct symmetrical grain pattern. At this point, the wood pieces are kiln dried before any more work is done. The wood pieces are then glued together and sanded to the desired thickness. The bottom piece of the ukelele is made in the same way.
- 2 The wood pieces are then sent to a shaping machine, which cuts the wood into the ukelele shape. For the front piece, the soundhole is also cut out at this point.
- 3 The next step is to glue wood braces on the underside of the front section. This process is called strutting. It serves to reinforce the wood against the pressure created when the strings are plucked. It also helps control the way the instrument vibrates. The bottom piece may also have some strips of wood glued to it to provide more strength to the instrument.
Making the sides
- 4 The sides of the ukulele are produced by cutting and sanding an appropriate length of wood. The wood is then softened in water and placed in a mold. This mold is designed to cause the wood to take on the curved shape of the ukulele. It is clamped down and held in place for the required amount of time. The two ends of the piece of wood are joined together with glue at the place where the neck of the instrument will go. A small piece of wood, called an endblock, is fastened here and near the bottom of the ukulele so the front, back, and neck can be attached.
- 5 After the sides are joined and the endblocks are attached, the front and back of the instrument are glued on. The excess wood is shaved off and the joints are sanded to make them smooth.
- 6 The ukulele's neck is carved from a single piece of wood. This may be made using a harder wood than the main body because it holds the strings tight and is consequently under greater stress. The whole part is then sanded and a wooden piece is attached to make the fingerboard. On the fingerboard, small grooves are cut across the width of the neck. Thin metal or wood strips are placed in these grooves and glued. These strips are the frets that allow the musician to change the sound of the instrument.
- 7 The neck is then attached to the main body of the instrument. When the glue dries, the entire instrument is stained or painted for decorative purposes.
Attaching the bridge
- 8 Next, the bridge and saddle are attached to ukulele just below the sound hole. These pieces are held on to the body of the instrument by tiny screws and wood glue. Another bridge is placed at the top of the instrument's neck. The saddle is the section where one end of the strings are attached. The strings pass over both bridges and this area creates the distinct length where the strings vibrate.
- 9 At the top of the ukulele, four holes are drilled and pegs, which hold the strings, are inserted. Tuning keys are attached to these pegs and fastened to the neck with screws. These keys have a gear mechanism which rotates the pegs and tighten the strings when turned.
Attaching the strings
- 10 Strings are then put on the ukulele. They are first tied to the bottom saddle section and strung up to the tuning pegs. Each peg has a hole in it where the string is inserted and tied. The tuning keys are turned to make the strings tight. The instrument is then inspected for flaws and put into the final packaging. Depending on the manufacturer, the whole process of making a ukulele can take weeks.
As of the year 2000, there are only three major ukulele manufacturers in the world. These are small companies and many of the instruments are handmade. This enables workers to inspect the instrument during every step of the manufacturing process to ensure a high quality product. It begins with inspection of the incoming raw materials and parts. The physical appearance and condition of the wood evaluated and rejected if it does not meet specifications. Final inspections are done on the finished product and in this way, most flaws are detected.
Improvements in the future of ukulele manufacture will focus on better quality, growing sales, and increasing output. The quality of a ukulele is primarily dependent on the type of wood used. Manufacturers are constantly looking for new wood sources and blends that can give a cleaner, more consistent sound quality. Sales growth will be driven largely by promotional efforts. In manufacturing, improvements in string quality, wood consistency and instrument durability can still be realized. Other improvements will focus on automating the production process and increasing production speeds.
Where to Learn More
Beloff, Jim. Jumpin Jim's Ukulele Tips 'N' Tunes. Hal Leonnard Publishing Corporation, 1994.
Beloff, Jim. The Ukulele: A Visual History. Miller Freeman, 1997.
Brosnac, Donald, ed. Guitar History. New York: Bold Strummer Ltd., 1995.
u·ku·le·le / ˌyoōkəˈlālē/ • n. a small four-stringed guitar of Hawaiian origin.