Ukuleles, Surfing, & Surfers

The ukulele, also known as the “uke”, is closely associated with surf culture and with the Hawaiian islands in general.

It produces upbeat, vibrant music reminiscent of island life.

But where did the ukulele come from, what is it made out of, and why is it so intrinsically linked to surfing?

History of the Ukulele

Although the ukulele is closely associated with Hawaiian culture, it can trace its routes back to a Portuguese instrument known as the braguinha.

Portuguese workers brought these mini guitars with them when they were contracted to work on the island’s many sugar plantations.

The locals heard the instrument and fell in love with it.

According to legend, that obsession began in August 1879 when the SS Ravenscrag, a British ship carrying Portuguese immigrants from Madeira docked on the Hawaiian Islands.

Several of the passengers were carrying braguinhas and played them upon docking.

The locals are said to have been so entranced by the way the player’s fingers danced along the fretboards that they nicknamed the instrument the “jumping flea” or “ukulele”.

There were three craftsmen on board the Ravenscrag: Manuel Nunes, Augusto Dias, and José do Espirito Santo.

When they had earned their way onto the island, they began making their own instruments.

Once they adopted the shape and style and used wood found on the island, the ukulele was born.

Parts of this story are difficult to prove as one of the first recorded uses of the word “ukulele” came nearly four decades after the docking of the Ravenscrag.

The names of the craftsmen seem to be well recorded and widely accepted, but there is some debate about the term “jumping flea” and its origin.

Even when this definition is accepted, people still argue about its meaning.

We checked the top articles on the history of the ukulele and half of them state that it refers to the jumping fingers while the other half states that it’s a reference to the “upbeat” and “vibrant” sound.

How is Surfing Linked with the Ukulele?

Hawaii is the birthplace of surfing.

It’s the heart and soul of this sport and all surfers feel drawn to the islands.

Surfing is linked to Hawaii because it is the instrument of the islands and it plays the music of the islands.

It’s also compact enough to carry around with you and play music on the beach, in camper vans, and around campfires.

In addition, the upbeat and happy-go-lucky nature of ukulele music makes it the perfect accompaniment to life on the surf.

How Do You Pronounce “Ukulele”?

The word “ukulele” is anglicized and many English speakers pronounce it as “you-ka-lay-lee” or “you-ka-ley-ley”.

Technically, it’s correct, as it’s now the accepted pronunciation in English and the one you’ll hear from most English speakers. However, the Hawaiian pronunciation is “oo-koo-ley-ley”.

If you use the English pronunciation in a room full of surfers, you’ll almost certainly have at least one person referencing the Hawaiian pronunciation and telling you that you’re saying it wrong.

Is “you-ka-lay-lee” actually wrong, though? Not at all.

Most English reference guides will tell you that it’s correct while also noting that Hawaiians say it differently.

Do you pronounce Barcelona as “Barthelona” like the Catalans do? Of course not, and no one expects you to.

That doesn’t mean that “Barthelona” is wrong, nor does it mean that “Barcelona” is a bastardized anglicized form.

That’s just how language works.

As long as people know what you’re talking about, who cares?

Types of Ukuleles

A ukulele can cost anywhere from $20 to over $1,000.

The best ukuleles are made from koa wood, which is said to deliver the most distinctive and truly Hawaiian sound.

Good ukuleles can also be made from mahogany, while cheaper options tend to be made from plywood or plastic.

In addition to the material, ukuleles can also differ in style and size:

  • Soprano Ukulele: As the smallest of all ukuleles, the soprano features just 12 to 15 frets.
  • Concert Ukulele: The concert typically has between 15 and 18 frets.
  • Tenor Ukulele: Between 17 and 19 frets.
  • Baritone Ukulele: The baritone is closer to a guitar in size and style and features up to 21 frets (a guitar typically has 20 to 24).

Can I Play the Uke if I Know How to Play Guitar?

A ukulele is stringed differently from a guitar. Standard tuning is gCEA and it’s also often tuned to D (aDF#B), which is vastly different from the standard tuning on a six-string guitar (EADGBe).

The standard chord shapes you learn as a guitarist won’t help you here, but it shouldn’t take you long to learn new ones.

In addition, ukulele songs are strummed, so you don’t need to learn finger-picking and won’t be playing individual notes.

All things considered; a guitarist can probably learn to play the ukulele in a few hours.

You just need to learn the chord shapes and get used to the smaller structure.

How to Play the Ukulele From Scratch

If you don’t know how to play guitar, then learning the ukulele can be more of a challenge.

It’s often seen as an easier instrument to learn, but while that’s true, it doesn’t mean you can pick it up today and be an expert by next week.

The smaller size might be easier and the nylon strings require less force, so your fingers should hurt less and you’ll adapt quickly.

You still need to make chord shapes, though, and you also need to transition quickly between those chords.

Let’s be honest, those rapid transitions (along with the synchronicity between left hand and right hand) is the hardest part of learning a stringed instrument.

While the lighter strings and smaller frame can help, you’ll still need to put the time in.

JustinGuitar has a very good tutorial video on playing the uke.

He’s a great teacher and while he usually focuses on guitar, this 12-minute video serves as the perfect introduction for newbie ukers.