Learning fingerstyle ukulele can be both challenging and fruitful. 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 begin by learning a few chords and strumming patterns. Then you can play basic accompaniment to various styles of music from folk to Hawaiian to swing to pop music. Taking the next step and learning fingerstyle playing can be more challenging. It requires focused practice and guidance along the way. But, the rewards are tremendous. It allows you to bring out melodies, take solos, to play chord/melody pieces, and you can produce a huge array of tonal colors and textures.
Evolution of the Ukulele
Before you get started with fingerstyle ukulele, we should cover some of the background and evolution of ukulele over the years. Fingerstyle wasn’t born in one day.
The instrument 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 is possible with just four strings.
History of the Ukulele
From Machete to ‘Ukulele
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 were all known for the gifted playing ability. These included Augusto Dias, Manuel Nunes, and Joao Fernandes who brought performance flair, which led the four-string instrument from Portugal called the machete to evolve into the Hawaiian ‘Ukulele (or “dancing flea”). This name may have been a reference to the small size of the instrument. But more likely is that the talents of the Portuguese musicians who were well received and called on to entertain often provided inspiration for the ukulele’s name.
The ukulele quickly became a very important part of Hawaiian music. It filled in a perfect register both when strummed and picked to compliment the acoustic guitar, acoustic bass, and later the steel guitar. The ukulele 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 it made a lasting impression on American audiences in the 1915 Pan-Pacific Exposition in San Francisco. Due to a huge demand for ukuleles manufacturers like Martin, Gibson, and Harmony started instrument production. By the mid-1920s these and other manufacturers produced over four million instruments. 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. Many credit Ernest Ka’ai with being the first to play complete melodies with chords on the instrument. He was considered the authority on the instrument. He published his first book on ukulele playing in 1906 and he was an active teacher well into the 1940s.
Jeff Peterson performing his arrangement of “Akahi” by Ernest Ka’ai