By Daniel Ho
As boys growing up in Hawaii, we often toted ukuleles to school. We wanted to enjoy music together, but, secretly, our main objective was to impress the girls. During our occasionally fruitful attempts, we all played similar versions of the same few songs. Topping the list were “The Theme from Hawaii Five-O,” “Song for Anna,” and “The Exchange”—that last one was a commercial for a local orange-drink company. I say “similar” because my friends and I learned songs by watching each other’s hands and trying to memorize what we saw.
Like the “Telephone” game we played in the classroom, the message at the end of the line was not always as originally intended. In the absence of musical training, it was difficult to expand our repertoire. Eventually, we tired of plucking the same melodies ad nauseam, and our ukuleles ended up back in their cases, back in our closets. We then dedicated our summers not to surfing, fishing, hiking, or uke playing, but to mastering the fine arcade art of Space Invaders.
But times changed.
Getting in Tune
Over the years, the ukulele became a savvy accessory, and its set list has steadily grown. While its basic shape and design have remained constant, there have been modifications made to materials, bracing, and construction practices. For example, let’s look at China, where the lion’s share of ukes are produced.
Labor prices in China have quadrupled in the past five years, but technology has offset this cost with the advent of CNC (computer numerical control) machines in the manufacturing process. Many tasks once done by hand, such as cutting braces and necks, are perfectly executed in rapid succession by these modern-day robots. While not as charming as Rosie from The Jetsons or Honda’s ASIMO, their precision and consistency has raised expectations of quality and kept the market on its toes.
One fascinating indicator of the evolution of ukulele design is intonation. While a big, beautiful tone is impressive, if it is out of tune, it would be the instrumental equivalent of a tone-deaf singer with a huge operatic voice. Accurate intonation could elevate a $30 laminated sapele ukulele to recording-quality status. Conversely, poor intonation can relegate a Brazilian rosewood ukulele to a beach instrument you don’t mind leaving in your hot car while you surf.
Precise intonation is not easily achieved on a low-tension, short-scale instrument. As I browse the walls of ukuleles in music stores, I notice that this tricky issue is being addressed—enter geared tuners, which don’t slip like the traditionally equipped friction tuners. With ratios of up to 17:1 (17 turns of the handle equal one revolution of the tuning peg), geared tuners allow minute adjustments of string tension to accurately tune open strings.
In recent years, more and more brands are fine-tuning the intonation of fretted notes with compensated saddles, which are shaped to lengthen and shorten individual strings at the bridge (lengthening the string flattens the fretted pitches and shorting the string raises them). It is highly unlikely that you’ll find a compensated saddle on a ukulele with friction tuners, because their 1:1 ratio makes it virtually impossible to tune the open strings, which are the fundamental pitch references.
Refinements like these have inspired musicians to explore the uke’s expanded potential. Now that the ukulele is capable of playing everything from pure unisons to dissonant extended chords, its repertoire blooms in every direction. You can find printed music and recordings in almost every genre. Music supervisors are regularly programming ukulele music in films and TV programs. Commercial agencies recognize the value of the ukulele’s happy vibe when selling products. As arts-education budgets are cut, the relatively inexpensive ukulele is finding its way into elementary school classrooms across the States, as has long been the case in Canada. Instrumentalists from across the musical spectrum have incorporated the ukulele into their sound.
The petite instrument is enjoying entire festivals dedicated to it in Japan, England, the United States, Canada, Australia, Korea, Taiwan, Guam, Singapore, Thailand, and more recently, China. In my travels, I enjoy visiting music stores and chatting up manufacturers and luthiers to learn more about an area’s ukulele scene. The soprano, it turns out, is the most popular model in Japan due to its compact size, but concert ukuleles still sell best worldwide.
In Australia, the low G string is striking a chord. Meanwhile, more than a million ukuleles were sold in the States last year alone. And as enthusiasts and players develop their knowledge and skill, the standards for instrument design and performance must also be upheld.
We are in the midst of a renaissance in ukulele design and repertoire. Like the guitar—which evolved from a Gypsy instrument into a formal classical staple, and then moved forward into steel-string acoustics and electrics—ukulele players and builders nudge each other toward the quintessential end result. The ukulele has come a long way since our days of hallway serenading, and it is exciting to turn the pages of history as they are being written.