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From learning methods to leisure time: the new golden age of the “jumping flea”

In the last few years the ukulele (literally “jumping flea”) has become increasingly popular, being preferred to the classics recorder and melodica in music education, and taking the place of the guitar when singing by the fire on the beach. Why?

There is more the one reason: for instance, the ukulele combines the portability of instruments like the melodica, to the possibility of singing along with your playing, just like on the guitar. Moreover, playing songs from the modern repertoire on the ukulele is easier than on instruments like the recorder, and on the Internet it’s easy to find entire songbooks for this little four-stringed instrument. The ukulele is relatively easy playable by small hands, the price is very affordable, and guitar and bass players can learn the new fingerings and chords without difficulties, using their skills on the new instrument.
With its exotic Hawaiian vibe, the ukulele feels undoubtedly much more lighthearted, cheerful and lively than an austere recorder or a classic melodica!

A brief historical background
Ukulele means “
jumping flea”. This was the name people in Honolulu gave to that little instrument with four strings that Portuguese immigrants played while working in the sugar cane fields. In 1800, the immigrants coming from Madeira used the jumping flea to play Portuguese folk songs, and finally attracted the natives, who started to play that little instrument that seemed to offer a relief from the hard work with its cheerful sound.

The different parts

At a first sight, the ukulele can resemble a small guitar with four strings: some sort of combination of guitar and bass. In fact it is an instrument in itself, with its own distinctive tone, registers, playing techniques, and applications. But from the building point of view, the ukulele shares with the guitar and the bass the main structural elements:

  • Headstock (at the end of the neck, where the tuners are placed)
  • Fingerboard (with frets to play the different notes)
  • Neck (where the player holds the instrument and where the fingerboard is glued to)
  • Body (the soundbox of the instrument)
  • Sound hole (the opening in the soundbox)
  • Nut (a bar made of varying materials that determines the height of the strings at the end of the fingerboard)
  • Bridge (a plate that holds the strings, usually made of wood)
  • Tuners (the keys used to tune the instrument)

The different types of ukulele: how to choose the right one?

‘Which one is the best ukulele for a beginner?’ This is one of the most frequent questions. Let’s start saying that there are 5 types of ukulele, with different dimensions and consequently different registers. Of course, the longer the scale length (that is the distance between the bridge and the nut) the lower is the register of the instrument and this relates also to the type of tuning used. The most common tuning is in C (G-C-E-A), except for the baritone ukulele.





(rarely used)

Less than 12" (30 cm)

About 17" (43 cm)

GCEA (Sol-Do-Mi-La)

(the most common one)

13" (33 cm)

21" (53 cm)

GCEA (Sol-Do-Mi-La)
ADF#B (La-Re-Fa#-Si)

Concert (mezzosoprano)

15" (38 cm)

23" (58 cm)

GCEA (Sol-Do-Mi-La)


17" (43 cm)

26" (66 cm)

GCEA (Sol-Do-Mi-La*)


19" (48 cm)

30" (76 cm)

DGBE (Re-Sol-Si-Mi)

*The note A (La) in the tenor ukulele is transposed an octave down, becoming the lowest note.

  • Sopranino: fallen into disuse, it is the smallest one and it’s very similar to the soprano, but smaller sized
  • Soprano: it is the most common and the smallest one, except for the sopranino, and offers the classic unmistakeable ‘ukulele’ tone. It’s the favourite choice for beginners, with 12 - 14 frets.
  • Concert (mezzosoprano): ideal for rhythmic accompaniment, has a fuller sound. Features 15 - 20 frets
  • Tenor: the best one for solo parts, with a higher string tension and a fuller sound than the concert type. Features more than 15 frets and the A string is tuned an octave lower than the smaller ukuleles
  • Baritone: featuring more than 19 frets, it is the largest among the ukulele family and uses the same tuning of the first four strings of the guitar (D-G-B-E). It loses, for this reason, the distinctive ‘ukulele sound’, but offers a very full tone and it’ easy to play for the guitarists

The strings

The ukulele’s strings are made of different materials, e and the technological research is always offering new solutions to meet the requests of a growing market. As and example, we can mention the transparent nylon strings, the black nylon or the bio-nylon strings, made of biodegradable nylon. For the professionals and musicians requiring superior performances the best choice is the Nylgut (synthetic gut) with its variations or the fluorocarbon strings (also available with different formulas).

The most renowned brands are Aquila (from Italy) for the Nylgut strings and Worth (from Japan) for the fluorocarbon ones, but almost all the guitar and bass string manufacturers today are offering ukulele strings. As always, our advice is to try, in order to calibrate your choice at best for your instrument and personal playing style.

An important final notice: as the ukulele strings are usually rather delicate and wear out easily, you should never use guitar picks, but rather play with your fingers or using felt picks.