Ukulele: Getting to know the jumping flea

Posted on March 8, 2017 at 6:00 am

By Erin Dodge

The sounds of the ukulele are bright and bubbly and often described as happy. Ever curious about word origins, I learned that ukulele means “jumping flea” in Hawaiian (read more about that here).

Introduction to Ukulele classes are coming to four of our libraries. Brenda Beaulieu leads this interactive music class and was generous to answer my questions about the ukulele below.

Upcoming classes

Introduction to Ukulele
(Space is limited. Register online here.)

Tuesday, Mar 28, 6:30–7:30pm

Wednesday, Apr 5, 6:30–7:30pm

Wednesday, Apr 12, 6:30–7:30pm

Tuesday, Apr 18, 6:30–7:30pm

Online interview with Brenda Beaulieu

Erin Dodge: Can you share a bit of history about the ukulele, especially its origins and any comparison to the origins of other stringed instruments?

Brenda Beaulieu: The first ukuleles were made in Hawaii by a couple of men from Portugal. They resembled small, guitar-like Portuguese instruments. Early in the 20th century, ukuleles became very popular in the mainland U.S. From there they went international. Wikipedia has a good article to read more. There are many websites. Ukulele magazine is great if you want to read about Ukuleles and players.

ED: Some people may joke about the ukulele as a tiny guitar or a modified mandolin. How similar is it to the guitar and mandolin? What are the differences?

BB: It looks like a little guitar, but the sound is very different—sweet, soft, and whispery. It also usually has four nylon strings, while a standard guitar has six, either nylon or steel, and the mandolin has four pairs of steel strings, so eight total. The inner construction for a ukulele is different. The woods are mostly different. The tunings are different as are the types of music in which they’re used.

ED: A friend of mine has had a hard time learning the guitar because the strings are painful for her fingers. Is it any easier to learn and play the ukulele than the guitar?

BB: Oh, so much easier. I had the same problem. The strings on a uke are nylon, which is softer than steel. Guitars can use nylon strings but have a higher tension, so are harder to press down on the fret board. Fewer strings make it easier, too. And, if you already play guitar, ukulele is easy to pick up.

ED: My daughter purchased a plastic, toy ukulele that was broken when we took it out of the box. Of course, I returned it. What’s a good starter ukulele and what could a beginner expect to pay for one? Can they be rented?

BB: The two larger music stores in Spokane, Hoffman Music and Guitar Center, have good selections of ukuleles. There are many excellent brands such as Lanakai, Kala and Cordoba, to name a few. I would look for one with quality metal tuners instead of plastic, good quality strings, a comfortable, smooth neck and fret board, and the general look of an instrument rather than a toy. You have to be able to tune it and play it and not fight with it. Believe it or not, you can find a playable uke at around $50. I always recommend spending at least $80 for one you won’t want to trade up immediately. You may be able to rent one at Hoffman’s since they already rent band instruments. You would have to ask.

Ukestra in action

ED: Where can someone learn the ukulele around town? Are there videos or books you would recommend?

BB: Spokane has many ukulele teachers. You can ask at a music store, or watch for ads. You can also join a ukulele group such as Ukestra, the group I play in. Uke players love to share and help each other! Any books by Liz and Jim Beloff are really good, especially The Daily Ukulele volumes. YouTube has wonderful videos. Aldrine Guerrero of Ukulele Underground does instructional videos on YouTube. Lots of ukulele groups have their own websites, such as Halifax Ukulele Gang. They have a downloadable book. These are just a start.

ED: Which musicians would you recommend for those interested in listening to ukulele music?

BB: Jake Shimabukuro is inspiring and amazing. Aldrine Guerrero of “Ukulele Underground”, the beloved Israel Kamakawiwo’ole, Danielle Ate the Sandwich of YouTube fame, Sarah Maisel and Craig Chee, and The Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain are just a few. Eddie Vedder has a ukulele album, too!


Brend BeaulieuBrenda Beaulieu and her husband, Steve, are facilitators for the local ukulele group Ukestra. Music has always been a part of Brenda’s life, and she was inspired when she saw the legendary ukulele player, Jake Shimabukuro playing “While My Guitar Gently Weeps.” She has been playing the sweet-sounding instrument ever since.

Erin Dodge

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