The ukelele or uke is being rediscovered as an instrument recently, and many great players are showing what can be achieved on a small instrument with inherent limitations. It is closely associated with Hawaii, and often built from koa wood - originally brought there by Portuguese immigrants and sailors, way back when.The uke is similar to the machete, a small instrument found in Madeira, and made in Hawaii from 1879. From Hawaii it spread rapidly via the World Fairs in the USA in the early years of the 20th century.
In the UK George Formby used the banjo uke to accompany many of his double-entendre seaside songs, and it's remained popular in the UK since the 1930s. Even The Beatles were big fans, as you can see on the Beatles Anthology DVD, and George Harrison was a ukelele player on the quiet. The tuning of the uke is G C E A. This is from low to high strings. Although this looks different to the guitar, it is the same relative pitches as the guitar's top 4 strings, meaning that guitar players should be able to transfer chord shapes quite easily. The bottom G needs to be up an octave though. There are three main types of uke, in differing sizes: the smallest one is the soprano, then there is the Concert, finally the tenor. I've just ordered a concert size uke, as it should be close enough to guitar size and probably easier to learn for me.
Uke chord pictures
You can find chord grids for uke chords at www.theuke.com. Transferring from the guitar seems quite easy, though this is a new project for me and I'm only at a basic level now. The D shape is just the same for instance, though with the uke tuning it comes out as a G chord.
Also, try my new hub Ukelele for guitar players, which shows you how to play chords on the uke, and a couple of easy songs.
The chord chart above has some ideas for 12 bar blues (like Houndog, most blues songs) and You Are My Sunshine
I bought a great simple songbook called The Daily Ukelele, which contains a great selection of well known songs, in a very readable format. Also bought Vol 2 of this book, as it is useful for piano and guitar charts as well. Good for jam sessions, working with kids and uke beginners in general.
Music for kids
With the dinky size of the uke, it has got to be worth considering to start children off on a musical experience. It's small enough to take on car journeys for instance, and there is footage on youtube of very young kids playing it well.
I have a guitalele by Yamaha, which is in guitar tuning though a fourth higher. This may be an option if you want the sound of the uke, at least to some extent, but would rather not get used to the different tuning from guitar to uke.
London Uke shop
If you are travelling to London, you might check out the Duke Of Uke, a specialist uke shop in central London. It made the BBC News here recently, as part of an article about the ukelele craze- a craze that might hit the West Country in a decade or so, as we only had our Summer of Love last year.