Friday, August 22, 2008

Me & Uke, Part 2

Most everybody knows the uke came from Hawaii. Fewer folks know that it got there by way of Portugal—seems the Portuguese had this small guitar called the cavaquinho, which is the uke’s progenitor, so to speak.

Anyway, in terms of instrument classification, the uke is a type of guitar. In fact, the standard uke tunings (most commonly these days g-c-e-a, but sometimes a-d-f#-b) are the same intervals (i.e., the same relationship between notes) as the four highest pitched strings on a guitar in standard tuning (d-g-b-e). In fact, the baritone uke is typically tuned just like the top four strings of a guitar, & some folks tune tenor ukes that way, too—an example would be the jazz uker Lyle Ritz, whose How About Uke? album really showcases the instrument’s possibilities.

These days there are four sizes of uke, though the original ukulele was the soprano—the “little uke” that everyone thinks of when you say “ukulele.” The ukulele as such is usually dated back to the late 19th century. Around the 1920’s—which was the uke’s first big heyday on the mainland—the concert and tenor sized ukes (both somewhat larger than the soprano) were developed. These days the concert & tenor sizes are quite popular—I myself prefer them to the soprano scale uke, which I find cramped; it’s just so small.

Another form of uke that originated in the “roaring 20’s” is the banjo uke, also sometimes called the “banjolele.” These are wild & wonderful little machines, & as the proud owner of one I can say they almost always get folks asking “What is that”—plus they lend themselves to the joke “I’m going to play a little banjo…” which can’t be passed up. The banjo uke probably was created for two reasons: first, the one instrument that surpassed the uke in popularity during the ‘teens & 20’s was the banjo in all its various incarnations—those were the days of hot jazz, & jazz bands typically featured some form of banjo as their rhythm & chord instrument. Banjos are LOUD, & they can cut through the blare of the trumpets, cornets, clarinets etc. that were usually featured in this style of music. So partly the banjo uke was emulating a popular instrument of the day (& of course the banjos featured most often in hot jazz were the plectrum & tenor forms, both of which are also four-string instruments). But second, ukes are not loud instruments. For this reason they lend themselves to accompanying a singer—you don’t have to strain to sing “over” one. But they also can be hard to hear in an ensemble with other instruments. The banjo uke was a solution to this. Banjo ukes are surprisingly loud; I’ve been told by experienced soundmen that my banjo uke is actually louder than my plectrum banjo. In addition, ukes were more typically tuned to a-d-f#-b back in the 20’s, & this higher tuning is a bit louder than the g-c-e-a tuning that’s commonly used now.

Another solution to the volume problem was to make resonator style ukes—in the pic accompanying this post I’m playing a Beltona tenor resonator uke while my good pal Dani Leone plays the steel drum. Resonator instruments—like the dobro or the resonator guitars used in delta blues—have at least one cone in the body that acts essentially like a megaphone. Back in the 20’s, National & a few other manufacturers made guitars, ukes & mandolins in this resonator style.

The baritone uke was the final variant to come along—this instrument is relatively new; it was developed in the 1950’s, & was the brainchild of radio & TV personality Arthur Godfrey. The baritone is the most guitar-like of the ukes, & also the largest. It’s quite fun to play pseudo-classical guitar stuff on this instrument, but a lot of folks use it for vocal accompaniment, too.

One more-or-less defining feature of the uke is what’s called “re-entrant” tuning. This means that the fourth string (the string nearest your nose when you hold the uke) is pitched higher than the third or second strings, & is just a tone below the first string (the string closest to the floor). Obviously this is different than the guitar or mandolin or either of the four-string banjos, etc.—most stringed instruments proceed from the lowest to highest pitch in a direct line. This re-entrant tuning gives the uke its characteristic sound when playing chords. However, I said a “more-or-less” defining feature because a lot of players these days use the so-called low G tuning, which means the fourth string is the lowest pitched. Although it makes the uke more “guitar-like,” it also increases the number of notes available, & as such facilitates melody playing. & of course the baritone typically isn’t tuned in the re-entrant fashion, though it can be if it’s strung with special strings.

If you want to know even more about ukes, you should check out the blog at Those folks not only feature lots of quirky & wondrous uke stories, but also have links to lots of other uke sites.

Anyhoo: now you know almost everything about the uke—so why aren’t you playing one?

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