Legend attributes it to the nickname of Englishman Edward William Purvis, one of King Kalākaua's officers, because of his small size, fidgety manner, and playing expertise.

Developed in the 1880s, the ukulele was based on several small, guitar-like instruments of Portuguese origin - the machete, cavaquinho, timple, and rajão, introduced to the Hawaiian Islands by Portuguese immigrants from Madeira, the Azores and Cape Verde. The original ukuleles created back in 1879 were strung with strings made from sheep, cattle, or even goat gut.

Three immigrants in particular, Madeiran cabinet makers Manuel Nunes, José do Espírito Santo, and Augusto Dias, are generally credited as the first ukulele makers. Two weeks after they disembarked from the SS Ravenscrag in late August 1879, the Hawaiian Gazette reported that ‘Madeira Islanders recently arrived here, have been delighting the people with nightly street concerts.’

The Ukulele, also simply called a ‘uke’, is a small acoustic stringed instrument. These days, 4 nylon strings are used, and produces sounds similar to a guitar, mandolin, or banjo, produced by plucking and strumming the strings, which in turn vibrate and are amplified by the resonating body. The ukulele is manufactured in a similar way as a full-size guitar – and my husband, who has one, confirms it was easier to learn on as it is small, and only has 4 strings, as opposed to a guitar that has 6.

Special Woods

The first ukuleles were made by hand, a process that was painstakingly slow, and therefore the number of ukuleles in existence was quite low prior to 1910. Eventually, special wood-cutting and shaping machines were created, and the instrument was steadily modified, making it look and sound more like the modern-day ukulele. Manuel Nunes was one of the most important innovators, and also suggested a different tuning pattern to make chord formation easier, and began using wood from the koa tree to produce a lighter, more resonant sound.

The bodies of most ukuleles are primarily made from wood, with woods from all over the world being used, including Hawaiian koa as mentioned above, and others such as maple, walnut, rosewood or myrtle. The type of wood has a significant impact on the sound, tone, and quality. For example, mahogany is a ‘soft’ hardwood and it creates a warm, mellow tone, and is thought by many to be the finest wood for making ukuleles, with excellent aging properties, sounding better as it gets older.

George Formby

British singer and comedian, ‘Cheeky Chappie’ George Formby was a ukulele player in the 30’s and 40’s, though he often played the banjo, a hybrid instrument consisting of an extended ukulele neck with a banjo resonator body. Demand surged in the new century because of its relative simplicity and portability. Two of his most famous renditions (and sauciest at the time) were ‘When I’m Cleaning Windows’ and ‘I’m Leaning on a Lamp-post’, both of which he played on a ukulele.

How to Hold a Ukulele

One of the most appealing things about a ukulele is its compact size, which makes it easy to hold. While there are multiple ukulele sizes available—soprano, tenor, baritone and even bass ukulele - most first-time players start off with a concert ukulele. Before you can launch into playing your ukulele, it's important to learn how to hold it. Most ukulele players use their right hand to strum, while their left-hand functions as the ‘fretting hand’. Even lefties tend to play the ukulele right-handed as left-handed ukes are scarce.

Music Style

The most common style of ukulele playing is strumming, where the player uses their fingers or a pick to strum the strings in a rhythmic pattern. This style is perfect for playing simple chord progressions and catchy melodies, and it's often used in pop, rock, and folk music, so they say, but what do I know – I love music, but can’t play a note on anything, not even a comb and a piece of tissue.


Marilyn writes regularly for The Portugal News, and has lived in the Algarve for some years. A dog-lover, she has lived in Ireland, UK, Bermuda and the Isle of Man. 

Marilyn Sheridan