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.
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.
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.
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.