History of the Ukulele

From Portugal to Hawaii to Worldwide

The ukulele has traveled quite a journey since 1879 when Portuguese immigrants answered the call Hawaii made for workers needed in the cane fields. These men brought their Portuguese braquinho (often called a machete or machimbo), a five-stringed instrument similar in size to the small soprano ukulele most people are familiar with. (These musicians were the precursors of modern day uke players who never leave home without their ukes!)  In their off hours they played on street corners where they gathered before growing, appreciative crowds of natives, who quickly adopted the instrument; the uke’s cheerful, tinkling sound became very popular.  Seeing the need for adjustments to the instrument so   big-fingered men could more easily play, the Portuguese removed the middle string, replaced the metal strings with cat gut, made a softer, more melodic sound.  Later, Nylon strings became popular, improvements being made today.

Little dreaming the influence they and their instrument would have on history, they accommodated it to the needs of the people, several men becoming accomplished ukulele makers: Manual Nunes and Sons continued to make ukuleles until 1935.  Samuel Kamaka company is still in business today.

So popular was the instrument with the people that its presence arrived at the palace of King Kamehameha and Queen Liliuokalani, who became very accomplished players. They held regular, popular “jam” sessions and concerts as the instrument became more accessible.  (The Queen herself composed, among other familiar songs, the much loved, Aloha Oe.  Some of their original, personal ukes are on display in the palace/museum in Honolulu today!)

The ukulele has had a fascinating history since it was first introduced in the United States at the Panama-Pacific International Exposition held in San Francisco in 1915, when small groups of Hawaiian bands performed in a blossom- bedecked booth, playing Hawaiian music for first time to enchanted listeners.

From its introduction in San Francisco, the uke’s popularity grew in leaps and bounds across the states, eventually taking on the tunes of the Roaring ‘20s; sheet music began to be charted with ukulele chords along with piano chords, produced so it would be easier for ukers to buy and play popular music.  Because of its portable size, the uke became a common instrument in homes, where it joined the popular piano at sing-alongs.  (When the ukulele was taken to groups outside homes where loud bands were too powerful for them to be heard, the small 4 stringed banjo uke was introduced, adding a sharper, more commanding sound to its already familiar appeal.)

Cliff Edwards, Joe Frisco, Roy Smech Richard Kentor -who took his uke on Admiral Bird’s expedition to the North Pole- were all notable American virtuosi of the uke, helping to expand its appeal.  May Senghi Breen, an American woman player/composer learned to play at an early age; organized and promoted interest in the uke, she even composed a Rhapsody for the Ukulele that was performed by Paul Whiteman.

Great Britain had George Formsby, who with his tiny uke entertained over 2 million troops of all nations during WWII, and became the symbol of the spirit of wartime Britain.  Another uke aficionado was George Harrison of the The Beatles, who extolled the virtues of his instrument, carrying it with him to play and compose songs.

The popularity of the ukulele has ebbed and flowed through the years, often being replaced by swing, jazz, and Big Band music, but uke players have quietly persisted in their pursuit of the fun of playing the uke, sometimes abandoning it altogether, but more often returning to their love of it.

There is definitely another resurgence of interest in this instrument – it is now being introduced world wide as a genuine instrument and not a toy (!) - and we locally have the bug.  Over the years there are Ukulele Festivals held almost everywhere, including Auburn!  Auburn’s Third Annual Gold Pan Ukulele Festival will be held August 16, 2015 at the Canyon View Community Center, 471Maidu Drive in Auburn.

There will be workshops and learning at all levels by local notable ukulele experts Saturday starting at 10am interrupted by lunch about midday!  The afternoon brings group playing followed by local club entertainment.  Fee for the day is $30 per person and that includes lunch!

These festivals are great places to meet like-minded players of all levels: beginners, intermediates, or advanced, who gather and have FUN, the main attraction of the ukulele, carrying on the tradition as it was originally introduced by a small band of Portuguese immigrants to Hawaii those many years ago.

The Auburn Ukulele festival has become a yearly event, anticipated by many, attracting performers and attendees from around the world. Please see our website: www.auburnrec.com  for all the information you will need, and to get your registration form for this fun event.  Keep on strummin’!


Auburn’s 9th Annual Ukulele Festival will be held July 31 / August 1, 2020.

The Friday night concert will be at the Auburn State Theater (7pm) and the Saturday workshops will be at the Canyon View Community Center, 471 Maidu Drive in Auburn (9am).  On Saturday evening, all are welcome to a free Jamboree at Recreation Park (5:30ish).


Tickets for Auburn Ukulele Concert and Workshops available here.
The Jamboree is a free event.