John Croft – ‘The Ukulele Man’ – looks at the origins of the uke

The ukulele was first named as such on the island of Hawaii in the late 19th century, but it had developed from small Portuguese instruments including the Machete de Rajão, the Machete de Braga, the Cavaquinho and its relative from Madeira called the Braguinha. Whilst these instruments can be traced back to mainland Portugal, the Azores, and especially to the island of Madeira, research has suggested that their ancestry may extend as far back as the Hellenistic period of ancient Greece between 323 BC and 31 BC. 

 A Braguinha with its original wooden case (made on the island of Madeira c.1880)

However, the story of the ukulele as we know it today is usually traced back to the 23rd of August 1879 and the safe arrival in Honolulu harbour of the ship ‘Ravenscrag,’ which was carrying 419 Portuguese settlers to Hawaii from Portugal, the Azores, and Madeira. Even for experienced sailors,` this journey was long and arduous.

Two years prior to the start of work on the Panama Canal (and thirty-five years before its opening), those wanting to journey to Hawaii from Portugal had no option but to sail the four month, fifteen thousand mile journey to Hawaii, using the long and extremely dangerous route around Cape Horn, which involved sailing through some of the most dangerous seas in the world.

Arriving on the ‘Ravenscrag’ that day were five men who were to become associated with the development of the ukulele from the braguinha in Hawaii; Augusto Dias, José do Espirito Santo and Manuel Nunes were all skilled craftsmen who built hand-made musical instruments including the braguinha, whilst Joao Luiz Correa and Joao Fernandes were musicians who could play stringed instruments and sing.

Thankful for their safe arrival in Hawaii, local legend has it that Joao Fernandes borrowed a braguinha from fellow passenger Joao Gomes da Silva and to the delight of locals and other passengers, he began playing Portuguese music on the quayside. By 1884, Manuel Nunes and Augusto Dias had opened their own shops selling ukuleles and by 1888 José do Espirito Santo had done likewise. 

Prior to the ‘Ravenscrag’ arriving in 1879, the first large group of about 120 Portuguese settlers had arrived in Hawaii on board the ‘Priscilla’ on 30th September 1878. As to whether or not any of the passengers had brought a braguinha with them, nobody knows, but if they did it was never recorded. Using their extensive knowledge and skills, as well as the local Hawaiian ‘Kou’ wood and ‘Acacia Koa’ wood (normally referred to as just ‘Koa’), Nunes, Dias and Santos made superb instruments including copies of the Portuguese braguinhas. Kou wood was soft, durable and easily worked, whilst Koa wood was harder, fast growing and easily bent into shapes due to its high sap content.

As time went on and with refinements here and there, the Portuguese braguinha turned into the Hawaiian ukulele. Precisely how the ukulele got its name is not known because there is no reliable written evidence to tell us, and many stories have developed over the years. One story involves an English Army Officer called Edward Purvis who had made his home in Hawaii in 1879. Small in stature he may have been, but he was a superb musician and a magnificent player of the braguinha, and the locals likened the rapid movement of his fingers with his fingers moving nimbly and rapidly up and down the fingerboard to a ‘flea jumping’ or to a ‘flea dancing’, which in native Hawaiian is ‘uku’ (flea) ‘lele’ (to jump or to dance’).

The name ‘ukulele’ quickly changed from not only describing Purvis’s rapid style of playing, but also to the name of the instrument itself. When the instrument became popular at the court of King Kalakaua, the name ‘ukulele’ began to be widely used both in court and throughout the island of Hawaii, and it has been in common usage ever since. 

Another story relates to Hawaii’s only indigenous stringed instrument the Ukeke, a small mouth bow with a tone playing technique similar to that used to play a Jaw’s Harp (sometimes referred to as a Jew’s Harp). The Portuguese Braguinha rapidly became very popular with Hawaiian hula dancers and quickly became known as the ‘Ukekelele’ (or ‘dancing Ukeke’), which was soon shortened to ‘Ukelele’ or ‘Ukulele’.

By 1900 interest in the ukulele had begun to reach the United States, but it was the huge 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition (PPIE), held in San Francisco to celebrate the completion of the Panama Canal as well as to exhibit San Francisco’s recovery from the devastating earthquake of 1906, that was to have the biggest impact upon introducing the ukulele to the world. About seventeen million people visited the exposition and by all accounts the Hawaiian Pavilion was one of the most popular, promoting its products and giving various types of musical shows of Hawaiian music and dancing, included in which were many ukuleles. Their shows were so successful that Hawaiian music and musical instruments became highly fashionable throughout the United States and beyond, and the two instruments that most came to symbolize Hawaiian music were the slide guitar and the ukulele.

As a result, the demand for ukuleles went through the roof. The Martin Guitar Company (C. F. Martin & Co. of Nazareth, Pennsylvania) made just 12 ukuleles in 1915, but only eleven years later in 1926 they produced 14,101 of them! From its origins in Hawaii in the late 19th century, the ukulele became increasingly popular and by the mid- to late-1920’s, sales were booming in the USA and Europe.

Small, light, very portable and often cheap to buy, its popularity grew massively within a relatively short space of time, particularly with the younger generation. The ukulele was a very easy instrument on which to learn to play the basic chords, so almost anyone with an interest in music could be playing away happily and singing songs within a short time of buying their instrument. 

However, as popular as the ukulele had become it had one unavoidable problem, which was that most other instruments produced a naturally louder sound. So, if you wanted to play your ukulele in the company of other instruments it would more than likely be rendered completely inaudible, both to the audience and to the player! Coupled with the fact that microphones, amplification equipment and loudspeakers were all in their developmental stage, there was very little, if anything, that could be done about it. 

Our story now moves to mainland USA in 1916 and to the city of San Francisco, where John A. Bolander ran a small business as a repairer of violins and a bow maker at 52 Second Street. Bolander had been experimenting how to find a way of amplifying the quiet sound of the ukulele in order to make it more audible, and after some experimentation he constructed a small instrument about the same length as a soprano ukulele, but instead of having a small, hollow guitar-shaped body in which the sound was amplified, he had designed a circular body where the sound of the vibrating strings was conducted through a wooden bridge onto a calfskin or goatskin vellum (skin) stretched over a flat, circular piece of metal attached to the internal wall of the ‘pot’ or ‘rim’. This instrument was designed to allow some of the sound to be projected from the back of the instrument through a raised ‘lip’ on the somewhat shortened resonator. Thus, Bolander’s banjo uke was born, and with a number of further modifications over the years it became very popular, combining all the positive attributes of the ukulele as well as making it much more audible, especially when played alongside other instruments. 

It was on June 12th 1916 John Bolander first used the name ‘Bolander’s Banjo Uke’ on a little hybrid instrument that he had invented. His application for a ‘Trade-Mark For Stringed Musical Instruments Resembling A Banjo And Ukulele’ was filed on December 3rd, 1917 and was finally registered to him on June 29th 1920. This trademark contains the earliest reference so far found for the phrase ‘Banjo Uke’ (see below). 

The document above is reproduced with thanks to theUnited States Patent and Trade Mark Office

I have seen photographs of a Bolander banjo uke which has the following stamped onto the bottom of the back of the resonator, ‘Pat. Dec. 5th 1916,’ beneath which is stamped ‘Others Pending’, but I can find no official record of this patent date, so for the time being I have to stick to the verifiable information that has been shown. 

Bolander banjo ukes are very hard to find because it is highly likely that relatively few of them were made, and assuming this to be the case, most of them would probably have been discarded as increasingly better ones came onto the market. They sometimes had a sixteen-fret fingerboard and quite a large circular hole in the middle of the top of the peghead, and they had either a ‘Bolander’ shield-shaped emblem on the peghead or ‘Bolander Banjo Uke’ written on a metal badge on the peghead. Seven small screws attached the shaped resonator to the back of the pot, leaving a raised crescent-shaped opening at the end where the neck is attached. 

On his earliest instruments it proved to be impossible to tighten the vellum sufficiently enough to produce the sound that Bolander wanted, so he experimented with what he called a ‘sound concentrator’ placed just under the skin of the instrument. With a number of other minor improvemements he gradually improved his banjo uke and within a relatively short time he had made considerable progress.

 By about 1927 the market for ukuleles and banjo ukes had grown so massively that as well as C. F. Martin & Co., many other American and European musical instrument manufacturers were producing them, including companies such as Bacon (later to become Bacon & Day), Ludwig, Gibson, Slingerland, Stromberg-Voisinet, Abbott, Windsor, John Grey, George Houghton, Barnes & Mullins, Regal, Harmony, Gretsch, Vega, Paramount (William L. Lange), Clifford Essex, Washburn (Lyon & Healy), National, Weymann, S. S. Stewart and many, many others. 

It was also during the 1920’s that the ukulele had managed to move into mainstream popular music thanks largely to the songs and playing of Clifton Avon Edwards, better known as Cliff Edwards or as ‘Ukulele Ike’. His records usually displayed a blend of amusing songs and virtuoso ukulele playing and were massively popular during the jazz age, selling in their millions. He appeared in ‘Ziegfeld’s Follies’ and George and Ira Gershwin chose him to debut ‘Fascinating Rhythm’ in their Broadway show ‘Lady Be Good’. He wrote and performed memorable songs and his many hits included ‘Paddlin’ Madelin’ Home’ (1925), ‘I Can’t Give You Anything but Love’ (1928), and the classic ‘Singin’ In The Rain’ which he first sang in the film ‘The Hollywood Revue’ of 1929 and which Gene Kelly went on to make famous in the 1952 film version. Cliff Edwards appeared in dozens of the early ‘talkies’ including ‘Gone With The Wind’ in 1939, and in 1940 he played the voice of ‘Jiminy Cricket’ in Walt Disney’s film ‘Pinocchio’, in which his role became so popular and successful that he worked in many other Disney productions over the years, including being the voice of one of the black crows in the Disney film ‘Dumbo’.  

The latter half of the 1930’s brought a talented young Hawaiian ukulele player called Jesse Kalima to the fore. Kalima first demonstrated how a ukulele could be played not just as a rhythm instrument but also for solo work, and he went on to become widely regarded as the premier Hawaiian ukulele player of the 1930’s and 1940’s. In the late 1940’s and 1950’s Arthur Godfrey made a successful transition from radio to the rapidly developing medium of television, often playing a ukulele during his performances, and both he and his ukulele became very popular. 

 The  ‘Holy Grail’ of vintage soprano ukuleles is the C. F. Martin & Co. Style 5K.(The suffix ‘K’ stands for ‘Koa Wood’). The example shown below dates from c.1928

In 1949 Mario Maccaferri introduced the first plastic ukulele, which incorporated a plastic nut, plastic frets and a plastic bridge, and which he named the ‘TV Pal’. This little ukulele retailed at a meagre $5.95 including a tuition book and a pick, and it sounded surprisingly good for its incredibly low price. It went on to sell over nine million units and spread the popularity of the ukulele enormously. 

Next came the six foot one inch tall ‘Tiny Tim’ (born Herbert Buckingham Khaury on April 12th 1932) who in 1968 burst onto the ukulele scene playing his ukulele left-handed and singing in a falsetto voice, helping to revive the ukulele in the eyes and ears of the public.

Khaury learned to play the guitar (which he played right-handed) before learning to play the ukulele (always left-handed), and he became extremely successful with his various appearances on television and with his recordings.

One of his records ‘Tiptoe Through The Tulips’ became a huge hit and he remained a popular figure until his death in the mid 1990’s. 

Meanwhile England had also seen the development of great interest in the ukulele and the banjo uke. In the 1930’s and 1940’s George Formby (George Hoy Booth) became a huge star of Radio, Film, and TV, and the combination of his unusual voice, appealing smile, cheerful disposition, great stage presence and huge patriotism during World War Two, coupled with amusing songs, catchy tunes and an absolutely brilliant playing technique on the banjo uke, all helped to catapult him to stardom, ably assisted by his wife Beryl who became his brilliant, tough and uncompromising manager.

A big influence upon the development of George Formby’s unique style of playing was without doubt the American Cliff Edwards (Ukulele Ike). Formby began by copying certain aspects of Cliff Edwards’s ukulele playing technique before modifying and developing them to produce his own fabulous style of playing. 

William Scott was born in 1923 in Sunderland, where he made his variety debut aged just 13 at the Empire Theatre. He worked for ENSA (Entertainments National Service Association) during World War Two and established himself as a talented and versatile pianist and singer. Performing under the name of Billy ‘Uke’ Scott he became a brilliant player of the traditional wooden ukulele – although he always preferred to play the banjo uke (also favoured by George Formby). A popular radio performer, he appeared in a couple of films in the 1940s and went on to become a big variety star in Britain in the 1950’s.

On the radio Scott always finished his spot by picking up a Martin ukulele and saying, “And now, just to prove that melody can be played on the ukulele…” after which he would launch into a stunning solo arrangement of ‘Lady of Spain’, ‘Keep the Home Fires Burning’ or similar tunes, all with full orchestral backing. 

Whilst Billy ‘Uke’ Scott was undoubtedly a superb player, he never became anywhere near as popular as George Formby. His acting ability was somewhat limited and the few films he made were commonly considered anything from underwhelming to downright poor. However, several things about him should always be remembered. Billy ‘Uke’ Scott always wrote his own songs whilst George Formby paid others to write songs for him – even though his astute wife Beryl saw to it that George Formby’s name usually appeared on the record label and on the song sheets! Secondly, in terms of pure musical technique Billy ‘Uke’ Scott’s playing ability was unquestionably far superior to that of George Formby as it included many different styles of music and included finger picking and melody playing.

George Formby had developed his own very different technique and the rhythms that were produced by his split strokes and roll strokes turned out to be a perfect match for the majority of songs that he recorded as well as for his own stage persona, and this combination together with the amusing lyrics in many of Formby’s songs and the wonderful sound produced by the instruments that he used, proved unbeatable. 

Billy ‘Uke’ Scott definitely lacked George Formby’s stage presence and charisma and his songs were rarely as catchy and far fewer in number than Formby’s, but nevertheless Beryl Formby rightly identified Scott as serious competition to George, and as such he was a huge potential threat to their earnings. She therefore spared no effort in doing everything possible to promote and project her husband’s career and to make life as difficult as possible for Scott. 

The 1960’s saw the start of the gradual decline of variety, and Billy ‘Uke’ Scott changed his career to become a very astute theatrical agent and talent scout. He discovered the talents of Tom O’Connor and he helped to discover and promote the talents and careers of Jimmy Tarbuck and Mike Yarwood. 

In the 1960’s and 1970’s Tessie O’Shea and her Gibson banjo uke playing became popular. Reared in the British music hall tradition she performed on stage as early as the age of six, billed as ‘The Wonder of Wales’. By her teens she was known for her popular BBC Radio broadcasts and was appearing on stages in Britain and South Africa, frequently finishing her act by singing and playing her banjo uke in the style of George Formby. 

From the 1970’s onwards Alan Randall gained much popularity playing the banjo uke. He was a professional jazz musician but he nearly always included a George Formby tribute on the banjo uke as part of his act. Alan was a very nice man with an infectious charm and a strong but delightful personality both on and off stage, and his natural voice was very similar that of George Formby. Musically he was extremely talented, and apart from his skills on the banjo uke he was a superb vibraphone player as well as a wonderful player of the trumpet, the trombone, and the piano. In his youth Alan had also been a fine cricketer and was seen as having the potential to play at county level or even higher. Reaching the time when he had to choose between cricket and music as a professional career he chose the latter, but he always retained a life-long love for cricket. 

Alan was actually born as Alan Randle, but early in his career he arrived at a theatre in which he had been booked to play to find that in all the advertising posters and theatre programmes his name had been miss-spelt as Alan Randall. He decided that for the purpose of obtaining his equity card this spelling of his surname would be very useful, and he also thought that it somehow seemed to work better in print, so from then onwards he decided to use it as his professional name. 

1985 saw the founding of ‘The Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain’ by George Hinchliffe and Kitty Lux. These great musicians and entertainers continue to give concerts at home and abroad and they have won universal acclaim for their performances. Providing first-class shows, they have undoubtedly been a major factor in helping to both increase and spread the popularity of the ukulele over the years. 

Throughout the 20th century the ukulele and the banjo uke were popular instruments frequently used by dozens of comedians and stage artists in their act in order to add variety to their performances.

In Britain, professional entertainers who did so included Tony Hancock, Peter Sellers, Adam Faith, Eric Morecambe, Ernie Wise, Bruce Forsyth and Joe Brown. Joe Brown is a truly great performer, a wonderful professional singer and musician, and a really superb ukulele player. Joe is also one of those rare stage artists whose infectious and charming on-stage and off-stage personalities are exactly the same. He was a great friend of the late George Harrison and both Mary and I once had the genuine pleasure of meeting him. Joe’s performance of ‘I’ll See You In My Dreams’ played on his little C.F. Martin & Co. Style 2 soprano ukulele as the final song in the ‘Concert for George’ at the Royal Albert Hall in London in 2003 was outstanding. Beautifully sung and magnificently played, it was a deeply, deeply moving performance. 

However, there is no doubt in my mind that the massive increase in popularity of the ukulele and the banjo uke from the early 1990’s to the present day was mainly due to three important reasons. The first came in October 1990, when ex-Beatle George Harrison decided to re-kindle his long-held interest in learning to play the banjo uke like George Formby and to acquire some lovely vintage instruments.

As luck would have it, these were processes that I was to become directly involved with right from the start, but you can read more about this in Chapter 13 of my book (starting on page 252). 

The second reason was a huge increase in the supply of cheap instruments in the mid to late 1990’s (mainly from the Far East), which were made to a combination of quality and price the like of which had never been seen before. No longer could such instruments be described as ‘firewood with frets’. Suddenly, pop stars and celebrities old and new, schoolchildren and parents and aunties and uncles were all learning to play the ukulele. Always a very easy instrument on which to learn the basics, it was now cheap to buy, well made and readily available, so its appeal spread rapidly. 

The third and final reason was the dawning of the age of the Internet. People could now begin to communicate quickly and easily all over the world, and they had increasing access to various media through which they could impart or exchange information about instruments, societies and local ukulele groups, which until then had been a much slower and far more difficult thing to do. The rapid advance of digital electronic communication systems brought the development of the ‘Email’, which allowed people to communicate rapidly and to add attachments such as documents, photographs and videos should they so wish. The development of communication media such as ‘YouTube’, ‘Skype’, ‘Facebook’ and ‘Instagram’ have all enhanced this process and all helped to accelerate the flow of communication and information. The continuing rapid development of mobile phones and ‘Smartphones’ have allowed people to access individuals and information and communicate to almost anywhere in the world at any time.

In January 2001 it was my recognition of the potential of the Internet that caused me to set up my web-site, which in its own little way has steadily gone from strength to strength ever since. 

By the year 2000 hugely talented players such as Herb Ohta (Hawaii), James Hill (Canada) and Jake Shimabukuro (Japan) and were coming to the fore all over the world, and into the 21st century great English players like Andy Eastwood and Peter Moss are continuing to make a name for themselves. 

As a result of all these factors and many more, millions more people now play the ukulele and the banjo uke and interest continues to grow amongst the young and the old both at home and abroad, and in the United Kingdom the ukulele has almost universally replaced the recorder as the first choice for school pupils wanting to learn a musical instrument. 

Soon after the rise of popularity in the ukulele came a parallel increase in interest in the banjo uke, but it wasn’t its inventor John Bolander who was to make this instrument widespread, popular and successful.

Whilst George Formby undoubtedly had a huge impact upon the popularity of the banjo uke in the UK from the mid-1930s onwards, the initial improvement, development and promotion of Bolander’s invention had occurred almost twenty years before, and history should undoubtedly award that particular honour to the Hawaiian brothers Alvin and Kelvin Keech, who you can read about in Chapter 4 of my book (starting on page 49). 

Whilst ukulele manufacturers often categorized their instrument sizes (from smallest to largest) as ‘soprano’, ‘concert’, ‘tenor’, and ‘baritone’, there have actually never been universally agreed sizes for such descriptions. These names were only intended to give a ‘rough idea’ of the size of an instrument that had been produced.

Consequently, within any particular category there can be quite a difference in size between one ukulele and the next. Banjo ukes also vary in size but they never adopted the ukulele size nomenclature. Sizes were usually (and helpfully) given using the outside diameter of the ‘pot’ (in inches). Standard diameter banjo uke pots were eight inches or thereabouts, and although some were smaller (down to six inches diameter – or less in some cases), very few banjo ukes were made with a pot that had an outside diameter greater than eight inches.

From John Croft’s Book  ‘All About The Banjo Uke’ (Copyright). Reproduced with the Author’s written permission) Many thanks to John Croft. To buy this book, visit The Ukulele Man

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