Bring the world together, 4 strings at a time.
Today is the day that you bring out your ukulele, dust it off and play it.
Play it when you’re by yourself.
Play it for your friends.
Take it with you wherever you go.
One of the best things about the ukulele is its size.
- You can easily carry it with you.
- Even a child can hold it and play
- It has only 4 strings, so it’s an easier instrument to learn how to play
In fact, as a Canadian, I learned how to play the ukulele in Grade 6, thanks to the Doane Program.
Here is Grade 6 ukulele prodigy from Taiwan, Feng E, playing Zombie by the Cranberries:
History of the Ukelele
The ukulele isn’t just a small guitar. It is a musical instrument all its own. There are actually 4 sizes of ukulele: soprano (smallest), concert, tenor and baritone (biggest but still smaller than a guitar).
The first ukuleles were from Portugal and called a cavaquinho or machete.
They were brought to Hawaii in the 1800s where King David Kalakaua fell in love with its sound. He asked for it to be played at all his royal gatherings. Soon, all America couldn’t get enough of the Hula Dancers with their ukuleles.
This is how the ukulele got its name: Hawaiian Queen Lili’uokalani said the name meant a “gift” (uku) “from afar” (lele).
The uke is also called the Jumping Flea, which some say is because fingers look like they’re hopping fleas when playing the ukulele, but it could also be attributed to tuning it with the classic “My Dog Has Fleas”.
In 1915 Hawaii sent the first ukulele ensemble to the Panama Pacific International Exposition in San Francisco where it was a smash hit.
Soon bands in Tin Pan Alley (West 28th Street between Fifth and Sixth Avenues in the flower district of Manhattan, New York) were playing the uke.
In the 1920s sound came to the movies, and Roy Smeck – the Wizard of the Strings – brought the ukulele to the world.
In 1947, Mattel’s first successful toy was made with a new substance – plastic – introduced after the war.
The Uke-a-doodle wasn’t a playable ukulele. It was a music box shaped like a uke. When you turned the crank it played the song “Where Oh Where has My Little Dog Gone” using another new invention – the music box – with metal tines that turned to make music. (Music that didn’t sound like a uke.)
But: it planted a seed in the mind of ukulelist Mario Maccaferri that ukuleles could be manufactured in a cheaper material and made available to everyone.
One fateful holiday at the Kenilworth Hotel in Miami, Maccaferri met ukulelist Arthur Godfrey who had a TV show in the 50s. They played together poolside and discussed the possibility of a plastic ukulele.
Maccaferri developed the plastic Islander soprano ukulele – which he promoted by submerging it in an aquarium tank of water to prove it was better than wood.
Godfrey loved the Islander’s tone, so he promoted it on his TV show. They sold millions. $5.95 each.
Hawaiian songs featuring the ukulele were a hit in the 50s and 60s. Famous songs included:
- Christmas Island by the Andrews Sisters with Guy Lombardo & His Royal Canadians
- Mele Kalikimaka by the Andrew Sisters with Bing Crosby
- Blue Hawaii by Elvis Presley
- Free as a Bird by The Beatles, who also sold a plastic ukulele with their pictures on it
Of course, any discussion about the ukulele must include the infamous Tip Toe Through the Tulips with Tiny Tim in 1968.
Fast forward to 2006 when Hawaiian-born ukulele player Jake Shimabukuro performs George Harrison’s While My Guitar Weeps in Strawberry Fields in Central Park and posts it on YouTube.
It skyrockets him to fame – and the ukulele as a musical instrument with him.
He even teaches a MasterClass on how to play the ukulele now: check it out.
Want more? I know I can’t get enough! Just listen:
How to Celebrate Play Your Ukulele Day
The best way to celebrate is to grab a ukulele and start strumming!
Don’t have one? The Kala Learn to Play Ukulele Soprano Starter Kit is highly recommended. It includes a satin mohogany Soprano Ukulele, online lessons, tuner app, quick-start booklet and tote bag.
Need lessons? Learn online for free with Kala’s free Learn to Play. It covers the basics like how to hold and strum the ukulele, the chords, techniques and even videos to show you how to play some songs.
Want to play some famous songs? Check out Ukulele Underground on YouTube. They show you the chords while they play so you can play along.
Another way to celebrate Play Your Ukulele Day is to listen to the many talented ukulelists on YouTube. You have to start with the world-famous Somewhere over the Rainbow by Israel “IZ” Kamakawiwoʻole.
- Plastic Fantastic: How Mario Maccaferri Revolutionized the Uke Scene at Ukelele Magazine
- Those Four Irresistable Strings at The New York Times
- 4 Fun Facts for World Play Your Ukulele Day! at CBC Kids
See all of our daily holidays in February.