The taropatch ukulele has been around for about as long as its 4 string cousin. While it hasn’t had the same enduring popularity, more and more people are discovering its unique sound. But how did the taropatch ukulele come about? And how did it get its name? Read on and find out!
What Is A Taropatch?
Taro is a kind of root vegetable, similar to a potato or yam. It is the main ingredient in one of the most important traditional Hawaiian foods, poi. To make poi, taro is pounded and mixed with water to form a paste. Poi is one of the staples of the Hawaiian diet, and is still eaten in large quantities on the islands.
Taro is grown in patches similar to rice paddies, often flooded with water. It grows well in the muddy soil of Hawaii, which is home to some of the rainiest places on Earth. Before American and European companies turned vast swaths of the islands into sugar plantations, taro was the most common crop in Hawaii.
The term “taropatch” started out as a derogatory name for Hawaiian people. Much like “hillbilly” or “redneck,” the idea was that they were simple rural people, a bit rough and dumb. The little string instruments that became popular among the Hawaiians picked up the nickname “taropatch fiddle.” It’s unlikely that they were actually played out in the taropatches, since harvesting taro can be tough work. But the name stuck, and even today is sometimes used to refer to any ukulele or similar instrument.
Development Of The Taropatch Ukulele
The ukulele has always been most popular as a 4 string instrument. But there have also always been plenty of variations on that design. One of the ancestors of the ukulele, the Portuguese rajão, has 5 strings. Other related instruments have as many as 10. One popular variation that stuck was the 8-string ukulele. Tuned like a regular ukulele, GCEA, but with pairs rather than single strings.
Doubling up the strings has a few advantages. More strings means more volume and a fuller sound. Performing before amplification meant musicians needed that extra volume. This is why the 12 string guitar and the mandolin have proven so popular over the years. 8 string ukuleles became especially popular among the musicians who played for hula dancers. Eventually, the 4 string instruments kept the name “ukulele,” while the 8 string variation became known as a “taropatch ukulele” or just a “taropatch.”
Some of the earliest ukulele makers made taropatch ukuleles, including the great Miguel Nunes. Besides having 8 strings, they also featured a larger body than the standard ukulele for even more volume. This became an important part of the taropatch ukulele’s legacy, even after it faded out of popularity.
The Taropatch Ukulele In The 20th Century
The ukulele became hugely popular in the mainland USA during the first few decades of the 20th century. CF Martin even sold more ukuleles than guitars in the 1920s! Martin came out with their own take on the taropatch ukulele in 1916. They produced them for the next decade or so, but the taropatch was never as popular as its cousin. Eventually, it was dropped from production. It did leave a lasting impact in ukulele sizing, however. Up until that point, most 4 string ukuleles were what we now know as “soprano size.” Martin began making 4 string ukuleles with the same size as the 8 string taropatch ukuleles. And voila, the concert size was born!
While it didn’t hit mainstream popularity, the taropatch ukulele found plenty of admirers. One was movie star Buster Keaton, who ordered a custom Martin taropatch in 1924. He played it along with Cliff “Ukulele Ike” Edwards in an extremely fun scene in the 1930 film Doughboys.
How Is The Taropatch Ukulele Tuned?
The basic tuning is the same as the 4 string ukulele, GCEA. But since the strings come in pairs (known as “courses”), there’s room to get creative. The most traditional tuning has the G and C courses tuned in octaves, rather than the exact same note. This opens up the range of the instrument, adding a lower G at the bottom. Another popular tuning is to keep all of the courses in octaves, which makes the instrument sound much like a mandolin. Others have tried all kinds of tunings, including CGDA (“fifths tuning”) or DGBE (“baritone tuning”). With 8 strings to play with, the possibilities are endless!
“8-string” vs “Taropatch Ukulele”
The terms “8-string ukulele” and “taropatch ukulele” are often used interchangeably. However, some people contend that they refer to two different things. Most commonly available 8 string ukuleles today are tenor size, with a larger body and longer scale length than the original taropatch ukuleles. According to that line of thinking, only concert-sized 8-stringers are true taropatches.
If you’re unsure which kind to get, it’s worth noting that tenor-sized 8-string ukuleles are much more common today. You’ll probably have to go either vintage or custom to get an “authentic” taropatch ukulele. Plus, string sets for 8-string tenor-scale instruments are easier to find than for concert-scale ones. Still, some people prefer the sound of the smaller size. This is a little ironic, because the taropatch ukulele’s popularity was due in part to being larger than the standard ukulele.
Also published on Medium.