What’s a Ukulele and Where Did it Come From?

The ukulele, which was originally created in 19th century Hawaii, is an adaptation of the Portuguese machete – not the weapon, but rather a small guitar-like instrument – which was introduced in Hawaii by Portuguese immigrants. However, it’s also claimed that the ukulele was invented much earlier – dating back as far as the mid-1880s – in Madeira, a small mountainous speck of land in the Atlantic southwest of Portugal.


According to the history, three woodworkers from the struggling port of Madeira packed up their families and took the arduous four-month trip across the ocean to Oahu. It’s said that when the three men – Manuel Nunes, Augusto Dias and Jose do Espirito Santo – docked in Hawaii and were immediately taken by one of their fellow passengers, a musician when he started playing a song on a machete.


Within weeks, the local newspapers were printing stories about a number of Portuguese minstrels that were entertaining locals with strange instruments that were a cross between a guitar and a banjo, with the machete growing in popularity within a very short period of time.


While the locals in Honolulu were enjoying machete music, the three woodworkers were fulfilling their contractual obligations working on a sugar plantation. However, at the end of their contracts, they returned to the capital with the intention of returning to their original craft of woodwork. It didn’t take long for all three men to open their own shops, all boasting their skills at making stringed instruments, guitars and machetes, as well as skill in repairing damaged wooden instruments. Dias even went so far as to offer music lessons.


There’s been much speculation over the years how these three immigrant woodworkers gained the skill to make instruments, but despite their lack of formal training, the quality of the instruments they made was proof enough that these Madeirans knew what they were doing.


Within a decade of the three men arriving in Hawaii, the first ukulele was made. No one really knows which of the three men actually made it first, as all of them were skilled craftsmen who had been making instruments that very closely resembled the humble uke for years.


The First Ukuleles


It’s believed the first ukuleles were hybrid instruments; a mash-up of the machete and the five-string rajao, which also has Portuguese origins. The ukuleles had a petite-sized body, a 17-fret fingerboard and four-string tuning; G-C-E-A.


Ukuleles also differed from the rajao and machete, as they were made almost entirely out of koa, a golden honey-brown wood that Hawaiians traditionally used for making furniture and other quality goods. Despite their diminutive size, these instruments also produced a surprising amount of sound, and were ornately decorated with hand-carved patterns.


While the ukuleles we know and love today are a little more advanced than their earliest counterparts, they still pay homage to their roots. Want to know more about the modern-day version of this much-beloved instrument? Check out our range online, or come and visit us in store!