No other instrument sounds, or looks, quite like the ukulele. This tiny member of the lute family has made a big impact on music worldwide, enchanting players and listeners alike.
As you might expect from such a unique instrument, the history of the ukulele is a one-of-a-kind, globe-spanning tale with a note of mystery. Let’s take a closer look at how the instrument we love so much came to be.
The Ukulele’s Country of Origin (It’s Not What You Think)
Where was the ukulele invented? Did you say, “Hawaii?” Surprisingly, that’s not the correct answer – at least if you want to be as precise as possible.
Without a doubt, the instrument and music of the ukulele are thoroughly intertwined with Hawaiian history and culture. But the history of the ukulele doesn’t start in the Hawaiian Islands. Rather, it begins half a world away on the tiny island of Madeira.
Madeira is an autonomous region of Portugal, found in the Atlantic Ocean about 350 miles from North Africa. Today, the region is a popular tourist destination known for its comfortable climate and abundant wildlife. The area is also famous for high-quality wooden furniture and delicious, Sherry-like wine.
Madeiran Life in the 1800s
At the turn of the 19th Century, people from all over Europe flocked to Madeira to vacation. It was beautiful, accessible, and vibrant. Tourists could explore the many different types of natural landscapes and then return to the towns for fun, food, and drink.
During the early 1800s, Madeira was home to a rich musical scene, too. Musicians strolled the streets strumming folk songs, waltzes, and other tunes. Two popular instruments at the time were the guitar and the machête (ma-CHET), a small stringed instrument. (It’s also called the “machête de Braga” after the city in Portugal where it was invented.)
Life on Madeira was good in the early part of the century but steadily worsened as the years went on. By the mid-1800s, a series of calamities beset the island, including outbreaks of oidium and phylloxera, two grape-killing diseases that essentially shut down the wine industry. Economic collapse and famine soon followed.
The people of Madeira were desperate for work, and many looked to flee the region entirely for better lives elsewhere.
The Sandwich Islands
Meanwhile, in a different part of the world, the Sandwich Islands were flourishing. Hawaii wouldn’t become a state until 1959, so at the time the area was known as the Sandwich Islands, and it was the heart of the sugar industry.
There was just one problem: the Sandwich Islands had a worker shortage. Diseases introduced by European colonizers had decimated the local population. Sugar plantation and factory owners began a search to find able-bodied men and women.
People from Madeiran became a prime labor source for the sugar industry in the Sandwich Islands. While the work was quite brutal by modern standards, back then, these jobs definitely had appeal, including wages of up to $10 a month, room and board, and free passage to a new life in a tropical paradise.
The Three People Responsible for the Ukulele
Over 25,000 workers and their families made the journey from Madeira to the Sandwich Islands. Among them were three men who would prove crucial in the creation of the ukulele. They were:
- Manuel Nunes (40)
- Augusto Dias (37)
- Espirito Santo (28)
In 1879, all three men arrived in Honolulu Harbor. Like all the other new arrivals, they began to work off their contract at the sugar plant.
As more Madeira Islanders arrived, the locals began to take notice of their culture, especially their music. On September 3, 1879, the Hawaiian Gazette ran a story about how the new arrivals were delighting the public with nightly concerts featuring music from their native land.
The newspaper article described the “strange instruments” the musicians played, describing them as a cross between a guitar and a banjo. (The paper was describing the machête, not the ukulele.)
During the next three years, the men worked off their respective contracts with the sugar plantation. Now free to choose other careers, they each set off to Honolulu for new opportunities.
The Woodworking Shops of Honolulu
Although history lumps these three men together, they were neither partners nor rivals. Nunes and Santo found jobs at the Pioneer Furniture House, the largest furniture store in the Islands. Meanwhile, Dias opened a small woodworking shop.
The Madeira Islands were home to generations of woodworkers, so it was no surprise many of the immigrants found jobs related to the trade when they’d finished working off their debt to the sugar plantation.
In 1885, Dias’ woodworking shop had a new neighbor when Nunes opened his own store within walking distance. Soon after, Santo opened up a shop in the neighborhood as well. Newspaper ads from the day indicate all three men provided basically the same services simultaneously.
They each started as general woodworkers but gradually shifted their business focus to musical instruments. They offered repair services, sold accessories such as strings and, eventually, began making instruments themselves. Most likely, the shift was practical, caused by the demands of the music-loving immigrant community.
Who Invented the Ukulele?
Roughly ten years after Nunes, Diaz, and Santo arrived on the island shores, the ukulele became fairly well-known throughout the area. So, who invented it?
Nobody knows for sure. In fact, nobody even knows exactly when the instrument first appeared. All three of the men customized the machête in many different ways. The ukulele possibly evolved into existence as the machête continued to be refined, meaning no one person invented it.
Nunes certainly wanted to be known as the inventor of the ukulele. He ran multiple newspaper ads claiming the instrument was his invention. But the ads appeared after the instrument was already in wide use around town, so it’s unknown if he was telling the truth or just attempting to boost sales at his shop.
Of the three men, Nunes stayed in business the longest, both making instruments and teaching the trade to younger generations. Today, his legacy lives on at Kamaka Ukulele and Guitar Works, a music shop created by an apprentice of Nunes and run by his great-grandchildren.
Historians know the most about Augusto Dias. He’s the first documented luthier in Hawaii, appearing in an 1884 business directory. Throughout his life, he achieved fairly widespread fame as both a ukulele maker and player. He even played for King David Kalakaua at the Iolani Palace.
While famously associated with the ukulele, nobody knows if he invented the actual instrument. Some of his early fame was likely because he was the only one of the men listed in what was the equivalent of the phone book (although he was an undoubtedly talented player and craftsman).
Diaz lost his shop in a fire that also destroyed much of Chinatown. For the last part of his life, he dedicated himself to teaching. His son Leonardo made ukuleles in Los Angeles until the 1930s.
Not as much is known about Santo as the other two. His business changed locations frequently, complicating our understanding of when he switched from general woodworking to instrument making.
Fortunately, Santos was a prolific advertiser. Of the three men, he was the first to use the word “ukulele” in a newspaper ad that appeared in 1898. Note that his use of the term in print before Nunes does raise some questions about Nunes’ claims, but there’s also no particularly compelling evidence that Santos invented the instrument himself.
Santo died in 1905, much earlier than the other two men, so his role in creating the instrument is perhaps the least understood.
How the Ukulele Got Its Name
In the early days, when the three men were still making instruments part-time, they all likely experimented with different types of machêtes and small guitars. One element that helped the ukulele stand out from the others was that it had a name.
Naturally, considering the unknown origins of the instrument, the origins of the name “ukulele” are a bit mysterious, too.
In the late 1860s, the ukulele was already a word commonly used on the Island. It was even in the dictionary. Ukulele meant “cat flea.” Of the nine types of fleas found in Hawaii, the cat flea is the biggest pest, biting both people and pets. Today, the flea is still around, but it’s just called the cat flea, not the ukulele.
By most accounts, the ukulele got its name because of how it’s played. A talented ukulele player’s fingers will bounce and move all over the strings, which reminded people of the jumping cat fleas.
There might be more to the story. Legend tells the tale of Joao Fernandes, a singer and machête player who arrived on the same ship as Nunes, Dias, and Santo. According to the story, when the ship landed in Hawaii, Fernandes played an elaborate solo in celebration, and it was his specific finger-work that inspired the term.
Whether or not the name was the work of one individual, it quickly caught on among the entire region. In the 1900s, the term gained even broader prominence as Jack London wrote about it frequently, most notably in the Valley of the Moon.
The Similarities and Differences Between Ukuleles and Other Instruments
When looking at the history of the ukulele, it’s easy to overlook how innovative it was at the time. The ukulele is far more than a tiny guitar.
Early ukuleles were a hybrid of the following:
- Machête – A small, four-stringed instrument shaped like a small guitar
- Rajao – A small, five-stringed instrument from Portugal
The ukulele combines elements from each in novel ways.
The uke’s small size and curved shape are taken almost directly from the machête. The machête’s 17-fret fingerboard also provided a design foundation.
A machête uses D-G-B-D tuning, but not the ukulele. For tuning, it finds inspiration in the rajao, which has top strings of G-C-E-A-D. The ukulele uses the first four but drops the low D.
Native Hawaiian Wood
Another key difference is the materials used to make each instrument. Machêtes and rajaos are made from light woods, such as juniper.
The Hawaiian environment offered fledgling ukulele makers access to superior woods. Early ukes were made with Koa, the largest native tree in Hawaii. Hawaiians had long used the honey-brown lumber for furniture and other creations because it was durable, easy to work with, and looked naturally beautiful.
Koa proved a perfect fit for ukuleles. It kept the instrument lightweight and allowed for the top and body to remain ultra-thin.
Plus, it was easy to carve. The first ukuleles typically had intricate, hand-carved patterns, which was a style taken from machêtes. Santo, in particular, was known for his beautiful, ornate ukuleles.
Where was the ukulele invented? The answer is but one of many interesting stories about the ukulele. Here are some more fascinating facts.
It’s Available in a Wide Range of Sizes and Materials
Ukuleles don’t have one single, standard size. Instead, there are four types of ukuleles:
- Soprano – 20″ with 12 to 15 frets
- Concerto – 22″ or 23″ with 14 to 17 frets
- Tenor – 26″ with 15 to 19 frets
- Baritone – 30″ with 19 to 21 frets
You can also find guitar-hybrid models, which are larger and have a different body style. A guitar-ukulele hybrid is commonly called a U-bass or a Guitalele.
While ukes made from Koa wood are popular, they’re also expensive, as the wood is only available in Hawaii. Fortunately, more affordable options are available. High-quality, authentic-sounding ukuleles are made from mahogany, maple, rosewood, and more. You can even find great sounding ukes made from plastic!
Royalty and Celebrities Helped Make It Famous
Almost immediately after its introduction, many influential people have helped generate interest in the ukulele.
King Kalakaua, known as the Last King of Hawaii, was a huge fan of the ukulele, as were his wife, Emily, and the future Queen, Lili’uokalani. They regularly held parties so local musicians could play, including Manuel Nunes. Their early support helped increase awareness of the instrument throughout the Sandwich Islands.
Later, when Lili’uokalani became the Queen, she wrote and performed Aloha Oe, one of the most well-known ukulele songs in history. The song is bittersweet. Lili’uokalani was the last Queen of Hawaii before it became part of the US, and the song is about saying goodbye.
Although not a King or Queen, George Harrison is still rock-and-roll royalty, and he also helped popularize the uke in America during the 60s and 70s. He had a personal collection that included thousands.
It’s Easy to Learn How to Play
The ukulele is accessible. Most people can learn the basics in just a few weeks, even if they don’t have previous guitar experience.
Two factors help make it easy to learn:
- The short fretboard
- The relatively low number of strings
Additionally, the uke is versatile. You don’t have to learn by playing traditional Hawaiian songs if you don’t want to. Instead, you can practice by playing a wide range of modern tunes, including Beatles songs, Radiohead’s “Creep,” or Jason Mraz’s “I’m Yours.”
You can learn to play in many different ways, such as by hiring a teacher or watching videos online.
The ukulele might seem like a fringe or novelty instrument, but it’s gone through periods of tremendous popularity.
The first “ukulele boom” occurred in the 1920s. Department stores, then a novel concept, sold ukuleles for just a few dollars. Even better, every purchase included free lessons. Folks across the country bought ukuleles in droves.
This period also saw the rise of several popular ukulele manufacturers such as Martin, Gibson, and Harmony. Some of these companies, such as Martin, still make ukuleles today.
The ukulele fell out of fashion for a few years but returned with a vengeance in the 1950s. Elvis Presley even played the ukulele in Blue Hawaii, his most successful movie.
After another period of low interest, the ukulele again found popularity in the early 90s. Israel Kamakawiwo’ole is almost single-handedly responsible for the instrument’s resurgence with his hits “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” and “What a Wonderful World.”
Today, the ukulele is often heard in popular songs, soundtracks, and even commercials.
Where Was the Ukulele Invented? Final Thoughts
When we ask, “Where was the ukulele invented?” There are two answers. From a geographical standpoint, the instrument was invented in the Sandwich Islands, which later became Hawaii. But it was invented by Madeira Islanders and based heavily on traditional Madeira instruments, which means the heart of the instrument originated in Portugal.
Regardless of where it was invented, or who invented it, it’s no exaggeration to say that the ukulele changed the music world forever. Versatile, easy to learn, and fun, musicians and audiences of all ages can’t get enough of the one-of-a-kind uke!