Fingerstyle Ukulele

Most students of ukulele enjoy strumming chords and learning accompaniment to songs. This is one of the great strengths of the instrument—it is easy to get started by learning a few chords and strumming patterns then playing basic accompaniment to styles of music from folk to Hawaiian to swing to pop music. Taking the next step and learning fingerstyle playing can be more challenging and requires focused practice and guidance along the way. The rewards are tremendous allowing players to bring out melodies, take solos, add to basic strumming accompaniment, play chord/melody pieces, and a produce a huge array of tonal colors and textures.

The instrument has really evolved in the last 20 years with wonderful compositions and arrangements by virtuoso artists including John King, Benny Chong, Jake Shimabukuro, James Hill, Herb Ohta, Jr., and many others. Byron Yasui composed a stunning concerto for the ukulele that was premiered by the Hawai’i Symphony Orchestra. He along with other gifted composers has extended the scope of what can be played with just four strings.

But looking back at the history of the instrument, the ukulele has always been known for its lively sound and versatility. The Portuguese immigrants who settled in Hawai’i to work the sugar plantations in 1879 including Augusto Dias, Manuel Nunes, and Joao Fernandes were all know for the gifted playing ability and performance flair which led the four string instrument from Portugal called the machete to evolve into the Hawaiian ‘Ukulele or “dancing flea”. Maybe it was named
this for the small size of the instrument but it is likely to have been inspired by the talents of the Portuguese musicians who were well received and called on to entertain often.

The ukulele quickly became a very important part of Hawaiian music filling in a perfect register both strummed and picked to compliment the acoustic guitar and acoustic bass and later along with the steel guitar. It traveled out of the islands to
the World’s Fair in 1893 in Chicago with a Hawaiian ensemble led by the musical prodigy Mekia Kealaka’i then made a lasting impression on American audiences in the 1915 Pan-Pacific Exposition in San Francisco. A huge demand for ukuleles
quickly developed with manufactures including Martin, Gibson, and Harmony starting instrument production. Over four millions instruments were manufactured a year by the mid-1920s. The uplifting spirit of the ukulele and feel-good sounds of Hawaiian music perfectly matched the times in America. It wasn’t long before styles developed and many playing methods and song books were published including great books by Hawaiian musicians Ernest Ka’ai and my relative Kalani Peterson. Ernest Ka’ai is credited with being the first to play complete melodies with chords on the instrument and was considered the authority on the instruments. His first book was on ukulele playing was published in 1906 and he was and active teacher well into the 1940s. Kalani Peterson was know for his expertise at fingerstyle ukulele playing as well as steel guitar and performed for President Taft in 1910, President Harding in 1910, and President Cooldge in 1929. Like many Hawaiian musicians at this time, both Ka’ai and Peterson moved the US mainland to make a living with their music. Ka’ai settled in Miami Florida and Peterson settled in New York City where he was known as “the king of the steel guitarists”. (Honolulu Star- Bulletin, Jan 21 st , 1929).

Great ukulele soloists emerged across the US and abroad in the 1920s and 30s including Roy Smeck, Johnny Marvin, Wendell Hall, and Cliff Edwards (UK). They were all known for showmanship and dazzling technique mixed with uplifting songs and vocals. The popularity of the ukulele faded during World War II but became popular again in the 1950s when marketed to children by many manufacturers. A few great Hawaiian artists including “King” Bennie Nawahi continued recording during this time but it wasn’t until the 1960s that interest in the instrument in Hawai’i grew with great playing by Eddie Kamae, Ohta San, and Kahauanu Lake.

Lyle Ritz also spread the ukulele playing bug again and was the first to record a jazz ukulele album for the Verve label in the late 1950s. He developed a brilliant style of solo playing interpreting lush jazz harmonies and uptempo bebop tunes. The Hawaiian Music Renaissance of the 1970s brought a great revival of interest in cultural practice, music, hula, and language. Great strides were made with ukulele playing in a Hawaiian style by Peter Moon with the group the Sunday Manoa then the Peter Moon Band during this time. This inspired a younger generation of players to explore what was possible on the instrument.

Since this time many great fingerstyle players have expanded the repertoire from Bach interpretations by John King to Beatles and Queen covers by Jake Shimabukuro to Jazz and Brazilian standards by Benny Chong to Bluegrass by James Hill to beautiful Hawaiian arrangements by Herb Ohta, jr and Ledward Kaapana. It is a great time to by learning the instrument. My goal as a teacher is to find ways to make the challenges of learning fingerstyle ukulele be a fun adventure and exciting journey full of the same joy expressed by the first Portuguese settlers and the early Hawaiian musicians they inspired.