Hawaii’s Most Famous Musical Instrument

Ukelele ( spelled ukelele in the UK, abbreviated to uke; pronounced yoo-kuh-ley-lee [American English] or oo-koo-ley-ley [original Hawaiian]) is a small, guitar-like lute with four to ten strings. Developed in the 1880s, the ukulele is the Hawaiian interpretation of the Portuguese braguinha.

Hawaii’s most famous musical instrument produces big tone and sweet sound. Ukuleles usually come in 4 sizes: Soprano (or what Hawaiians refer to as Standard size), Concert, Tenor , and Baritone. The Solid Body Cutaway is a more recent innovation.

Ukuleles are typically made of wood, although there are some models made of plastic or a composite of plastic and wood. Expensive models are made from hardwood (e.g.mahogany, kulawood, spruce, and sequoia), the most expensive of which are made from koa tree.

A typical ukulele has a figure 8 shape like that of a small acoustic guitar. There are also other interesting shape variations such as oval (called pineapple ukulele), boat paddle, and square (usually made from an old wooden cigar box).


Ukulele was brought to the Hawaiians by Portuguese immigrants. To celebrate their arrival on August 23, 1879, Joao Fernandes played Portuguese folk songs on the wharf using a braguinha borrowed from a friend. Hawaiians who witnessed him on the dock where so impressed not only with his music, but also with the speed of his fingers: it seemed like they danced across the fingerboard. Hence, they called the instrument “ukulele,” meaning “jumping flea.”

(Queen Lili’uokalani, the last monarch of Hawaii, gave a different version to the origins of “ukulele”. She thought ukulele meant “the gift that came here,” from uku meaning “the gift” and lele meaning “to come.”)

There were 419 immigrants aboard the ship Ravenscrag, but three people would be the first to establish ukulele shops. They were Manuel Nunes, Augustine Dias, and Joao Fernandes.

Within 10 years after the arrival of the Portuguese, the ukulele became Hawaii’s most popular instrument. It is said that Joao Fernandes was a key behind this, as he spent a lot of time playing around Honolulu with his instrument.

Ukelele: A royal endorsement

It was also from Fernandes that King Kalakaua first heard

the music from the ukulele, but he learned to play it from Augusto Diaz. He encouraged that it was played during royal gatherings. A patron of arts,  King Kalakaua’s enthusiasm over ukulele made it more acceptable to people of Hawaii. It was played by Hawaiian from all walks of life— from taro farmers to fishermen to royalties. Other royalties who learned how to play included Queen Emma, Queen Lili’uokalani, Prince Leleihoku, and Princess Likelike.

In 1915, ukulele’s popularity moved to the mainland beginning in San Francisco during the Panama Pacific International Exposition. As a result, ukulele sales increased. In addition to its sweet sound,