To understand guitalele history, let’s step back in time and place to Hawaii.
Though the commercialized guitalele is more of a recent instrument, the history of both the guitar and ukulele is older.
As we know, the guitar has a rich history of its own.
The guitar and related stringed, fretted instruments have existed for centuries.
As you may know, guitars are available in different scale lengths and sizes.
In this same vein, the ukulele is similar in size to that of a “quarter-scale” guitar.
Likewise, the guitalele too is a quarter-scale guitar of sorts.
Read on to discover the story of this mini guitar-like instrument known as the guitalele, guitarlele, or guilele.
The Rise of the Original Ukulele
As you probably know, the ukulele originated in Hawaii.
But did you know the instrument has Iberian inspiration?
There are a number of instruments of Portuguese origin that are similar to the ukulele.
They were introduced to the Hawaiian isles by Portuguese immigrants to the area.
These immigrants probably came from around Cape Verde, a Portuguese colony off the west coast of Africa.
When the Portuguese arrived in Hawaii, they brought these many Portuguese instruments with them.
These instruments included the machete, the cavaquinho, and the rajão.
All of these instruments have four strings, except the rajão, which has five.
Originally drawn to Hawaii for its booming sugar crops, these Portuguese immigrants would work all day and play music all night for themselves and the locals.
Within four years of arriving in the Hawaiian Kingdom, three Portuguese immigrants decided to open up woodworking and instrument-making shops in the capital.
Of these three, it is unclear which one was the first to actually make a ukulele.
That said, they all did manufacture, repair, and even teach lessons on their Portuguese instruments.
To arrive at what would become the ukulele, these Portuguese immigrants likely combined the machete with the rajão.
We can guess this because the smaller size of the machete approximately equals the size of the modern ukulele.
And the original tuning of the rajão is DGCEA (which is nearly the modern ukulele tuning of gCEA).
The fifth lowest string on the rajão (D) was dropped and the remaining four were used this instrument of smaller in size known today as the ukulele.
This tuning system of gCEA is referred to as standard tuning on the ukulele.
There is also another different tuning system on a six-string ukulele instead of four, which I will discuss later.
These instruments and ultimately the ukulele attracted the attention of the Hawaiian King Kalākaua who was a serious patron of the arts.
Ukulele History vs Guitalele History
The King himself became a ukulele player and would sing at his own parties and events!
In fact, the royal family’s interest in this instrument is part of the reason for the popularity of the ukulele in Hawaii.
As a result of the royal family’s interest in this instrument, Hawaiian newspapers published a lot of content about this new instrument.
But where did the word “ukulele” come from?
The translation of this word is Hawaiian for “jumping flea.”
Apparently, some of the first ukulele players had a way of playing the instrument all over; jumping from string to string and fret to fret.
So “jumping flea” was probably used in reference to the playing style way the Hawaiians played the instrument.
The Ukulele in Hawaiian Culture
As mentioned above, the ukulele became so prominent in Hawaiian culture partly thanks to King Kalākaua.
His wife, Queen Emma, also loved the arts and learned to play the ukulele.
The King’s sister and successor, who also served as the final monarch of Hawaii was another prominent ukulele player.
In fact, the king’s sister, Queen Lili’uokalani, wrote one of the most sacred Hawaiian songs that uses a ukulele: Aloha’Oe
Check out the song in the following video!
The title of this song translates to “Farewell to Thee”, written sadly as a goodbye by the Queen to her kingdom.
The Queen wrote the song in 1878 as her monarchy crumbled.
It was around that time that the United States began to take possession of the islands, taking down the monarchy.
You may recognize this song from the cartoons like Spongebob, Tom and Jerry, Lilo and Stitch, or its many other appearances in pop culture.
The song has become a staple of Hawaiian culture, with a featured ukulele in it to boot!
Though it captures the sad mood of the Queen as her kingdom fell, it has a simple easy to learn chord structure and a beautiful melody.
The ukulele lives on as a huge part of Hawaiian culture.
From a gift brought by Portuguese people to Hawaii, the Hawaiians really made something special out of the instrument.
The History of the Guitalele
The guitalele is the guitar hybrid that is a cross between a ukulele and a guitar.
The instrument is slightly larger than a ukulele thanks to the six strings it has instead of the four a ukulele has.
The strings used on the instrument are just like a guitar with a capo on the 5th fret: ADGCEa.
This is similar to the ukulele’ standard tuning (gCEA) except the G is low instead of high like the uke’s.
As a result, a lot of the shapes for scales we know on the guitar can also be played on the ukulele.
But the chords largely remain the same, relative to a capo on 5.
The history of the guitalele is very straightforward.
There have been six string ukuleles around since just after the time of Queen Lili’uokalani, but with a different tuning system.
Traditional six string ukuleles keep the same tuning system as a traditional ukulele (GCEA) but double up certain strings.
This six string ukulele system is very close to the tuning system of a guitalele.
The only difference is that there is no D string on a six string ukulele but there is on a guitalele.
Six String Ukulele vs Guitalele
The biggest difference between the two instruments, as I’ve said, is the tuning system.
Since the strings on both instruments are so close, there are only slight differences.
For example, the sound that each instrument could get will obviously be very similar since the only real difference is the D String on the guitalele.
The biggest difference between the two is the way they are played.
Though they use the same chord shapes, these shapes will not play the same chords on each instrument.
The positioning of scales on each instrument will also be very slightly different thanks to the position of each string.
The order of the notes the strings are tuned to make all the difference.
Since they are so similar, many times the chords voicings will be similar.
But the six string ukulele might have a fuller sound to it thanks to the strings that are tuned to a different pitch or octave.
The guitalele tunes just like a guitar with a capo on the fifth fret: ADGCEa.
This preserves the sound of the ukulele while letting the player treat the instrument like a guitar.
Since a six string ukulele tunes GCcEAa, it is just like the top four strings on a guitalele.
The ukulele and the guitalele have paralelled histories.
The most striking difference is the lower end on the guitalele, and the higher end on the six string ukulele.
This, of course, has everything to do with the way the strings tune.
Guitalele history is not as extensive as, for example, the history of the banjitar.
With time, the simple explanation is that players noticed the similarity between the six string uke and the guitar.
Though the history of the ukulele is important and interesting, it does not lead to the guitalele as neatly as the banjo’s history does.
Guitalele history is definitely an important part of the broader ukulele story.
Players noticed the similarity between a guitar (with a capo on 5) and a six string uke.
Eliminating the doubled up strings, they expanded the instrument to tune exactly like a guitar.
This obviously allowed guitar players to pick up the instrument and play it without problem.
It also removed the hassle of having to learn a whole new instrument with a whole new tuning.
This way, it was easy enough for a guitarist to get the tone of a ukulele without having to learn it.
By expanding the strings and eliminating the doubled ones, it also brought more of a lower end to the instrument.
It is still higher than a guitar, but it is also lower than a ukulele thanks to those bass strings.
Whether a guitarist is playing a guitar or a six string ukulele, the chords transpose more or less the same way.
Likewise, a ukulele player transferring over to the guitalele shouldn’t have much of a problem playing it.
This is mainly because the instrument is so similar to the way a ukulele is tuned.
In fact, it is technically closer to ukulele tuning than guitar tuning!
Do you play the guitalele or have more questions about this instrument?
Let me know in the comments!