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The Uke: A History

Walt Grace Vintage is known for its exceptionally curated collection of vintage cars and guitars—where you can play (or test drive) and purchase the instruments and automobiles that you’ve been dreaming of since you were a kid. The staff that work the gallery floor are all united by a desire to share their passion for vintage with every man, woman, and child that walks through the double doors. 


close-up of gretsch ukulele


So, you may be surprised (we were!) to find out that a nice chunk of sales actually come from a display of compact, four-stringed instruments that greet you almost immediately upon entering the gallery. That’s right, we’re talking about ukuleles! And, we get the appeal: easy to play, light as a feather, and with a veritable rainbow of colors to choose from - not to mention the crazy high-grade, natural wood options for those who don’t want to skimp on quality. It’s not unusual to see people - especially kids - walking around the gallery, strumming on a uke. Hell, you may even catch one of the Gallery Guys doing the same!

With the uke having truly dominated its corner of the instrument market - and seeing how popular they are with our customers - we figured we’d give a little bit of a history lesson as a homage to the little four-string wonder.

The Ukulele is from Hawaii - right?

One of the most common misconceptions regarding the uke is its association with the state of Hawaii. As you’ll find out (if you keep reading), this is not a wholly incorrect association; but if you thought that Hawaiians invented the ukulele, well, you’d be wrong!

The story of the ukulele actually takes us across the Atlantic to Madeira, a small island located off the coast of Portugal. Madeira was a pretty sweet spot to be in its hey-day— two centuries ago! A thriving timber industry and a constant stream of tourists meant that the little island was quite well-off economically. In Madeira, the local four-stringed instrument of choice was called a machête - pronounced ma-CHET - which originated in a northern Portuguese city called Braga. 

Then, disaster struck — well, actually, a bunch of natural disasters struck, as well as famine and poverty, and by the late 1800s, living in Madeira wasn’t exactly in vogue any longer. The native population needed a place to go, and Hawaii — with its bustling sugar trade — became a pretty attractive option for the immigrant Madeirans. 

And that’s where we meet our heroes.

The Three Luthiers

More than 25,000 Madeirans found their way from their homeland to Hawaii, packing their clothes, family heirlooms, and — you guessed it — their machêtes! Among them were three woodworkers from Funchal (Madeiras main port city): Manuel Nunes, Augusto Dias, and Jose do Espirito Santo. Each man boarded the SS Ravenscrag with their families for a one-way, four-month, 12,000-mile trip to Oahu. 

Yikes. And you thought a three-hour flight with some turbulence was bad! 

After fulfilling some work obligations on the Hawaiian Islands, Nunes, Dias, and Santo decided they wanted to pursue their woodworking careers again — so they each opened up their own shops, building guitars and machêtes, doing repairs, and reselling commercially-made instruments. And get this: they were all on the same block (sorta like 48th and Denmark streets, back in the day!)

The King Gets Involved

While Nunes, Dias, and Santo certainly played a huge part in the initial success of the machête in Hawaii, credit must also be given to the reigning monarch at the time (and the last king of Hawaii): King David Kalakaua. A staunch patron of the arts, Kalakaua fell immediately in love with the four-stringed instrument, and saw its arrival as a perfect opportunity to not only integrate his new guests into Hawaiian culture, but to promote that very same culture to his people, whom he felt were falling out of touch with their heritage in the face of their colonizers. King K made it known that the machête was to be recognized as a Hawaiian instrument, and because of him, the instrument sales from our three immigrant luthiers absolutely skyrocketed!

Machête or Ukulele?

“Really, guys, this is all fascinating stuff, but we came here to find out about the UKULELE. Not this machete thing!”

Right, right. Well, that’s probably the least clear part of the whole story. The origin of the name “ukulele” — and actually, who really invented the thing — has been debated for years. 

Regarding the name, there are a couple theories. One posits that Queen Lili'uokalani used the term to mean “a gift that came from afar”, employing a more poetic interpretation of the word “uku” for her translation. Another states that the word “ukulele” had already existed in Hawaii prior to the machête’s arrival; roughly translated to English, it means “jumping flea”, and might have been given to the new iterations of the machête as a reference to the quick, jumpy playing style of the Madeirans. 

In terms of who first invented the ukulele: no one knows for sure. Nunes claimed that he invented the ukulele, but the truth is he, Santo, and Dias were all creating instruments that looked pretty damn similar to the ukuleles of today. 

So… what are the actual differences between a machête and a ukulele? 

Tuning: The machête’s strings are tuned D-G-B-D; a ukulele is tuned G-C-E-A.

Wood: Machêtes typically employ spruce tops and light woods for the body; ukuleles traditionally are made entirely out of koa, which was prized by Hawaiians and used not only for their instruments, but any quality goods made from wood!

Close-up of Kala ukulele

The Ukulele Today

Ukes have had a bit of a choppy relationship with commercial success. Thanks to a ukulele showcase during the Panama Pacific International Exposition in 1915, the ukulele’s popularity soared in mainland America, and saw its production increase tremendously well into the 1920’s. You could even say that the ukulele was a musical star of the Jazz age! 

Post-1930, America’s interest in the four-string wonder started to wane, and despite some small peaks in the late ‘40s and ‘50s, the ukulele wasn’t truly brought back into the mainstream until the ‘90s, when — thanks to a sudden revival of Hawaiian music, as well as the viral power of the internet — the ukulele was able to shed its image as a kitschy, child-like instrument and rise to where we find it today: in the hands of men, women, and children of all ages (and skill levels) who have come to really cherish its sweet sounds and diminutive stature! Heck, you might even have a better chance of scoring (wink, wink), slinging a uke at a party than a Strat or a Les Paul! As Dylan once said… The Times, They Are a-Changin'

October 28, 2020 — Bill Goldstein
Tags: Ukulele