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STRING TIPS #004:  Linear Tuning on the Baritone Ukulele

This begins a series of letters about Linear Tuning on the Ukulele. With this letter we'll deal with the Baritone body - and then in the next one, we'll deal with the Tenor, and finally the smaller Concert & Soprano bodies together. It's pretty much essential to have an understanding of the Terminology and Tunings pages on our string site for this series - we will use that Terminology, and refer to those Tuning principles often. We're starting with the Baritone, because this is where true Linear Tuning made its first appearance in the Ukulele family.  Unfortunately, it was a not the greatest introduction, and both the Baritone and Linear Tuning in general took a good while to recover.  One famous Ukulele luthier once uttered "I don't build Baritones, I build Ukuleles." It's not hard to understand.  The traditional Baritone tuning is a Linear G.  You'll hear people say it was "designed" for that tuning, and that it was. But with any design, you set your priorities.  With the Baritone Ukulele, top sound was not at the top of the list. That's not to say it was a bad design.  A Fiat 600, for example, is a fine design, as is a Ferrari F12.  Obviously, though both are well executed, each does certain things better than the other - there are very different priorities with those designs. The Baritone Ukulele was expressly a "Little Guitar" design.  It was "Little Guitar" as in "guitar for folks not yet big enough to play the real thing".  "Every boy should have one" was one of the early promotions for the new instrument. Given those parameters, I'd call it a very successful design. To build a "guitar trainer", you would want the Linear G tuning - that way the young student could move right into the same tuning when he could handle six strings.  Of course there was also a 4-string guitar at that time that was often tuned to Linear G - the Tenor Guitar.  Three things going against that instrument as a youth model, however, were that it had a larger (sometimes much larger) body, it had a scale of 23", and just as importantly, it had steel strings.  The body, in other words was too big, the frets too widely spaced, and the strings, too hard on a beginner's fingers. Obviously, the solution was a smaller bodied instrument with a smaller scale, built for classical strings.  Here's where the main problems enters.  This smaller body has a typical resonance of D# (Tuning section - page 2), and thus the Linear G was not a fully resonant tuning.  And there’s another problem typical in construction as well. No design can ever be perfect in all regards, there are always some compromises.  With the parameters of the Baritone design, it's very understandable why the difficulty with sound would be the sort of things you would live with in order to get to the primary goals of your design.  The Fiat 600 won't go 180 mph either. Of course you'll hear people say "I want my Baritone to sound like a Baritone".  Sound is always subjective in the end, so there's no argument for a statement like that.  You'll also hear some beautiful music played on Baritones in the Linear G set-up.  Just remember that with these letters, we're talking about Acoustic sound. There are even people making bass strings for Baritone sized instruments now.  You can get great sound out of either a Bass or a Linear G set-up if you're amped, but that's not what we're discussing here. Don't get me wrong.  We love the Linear G tuning! Maybe more than anyone! Love it so much, in fact, that we built a Tenor Guitar, braced and constructed for classical stringing to accommodate it.  Two different bodies, in fact. With all due modesty, they simply blow away a Baritone Ukulele in that tuning. I say with all modesty, because the most important elements with these instruments are nothing more than a longer scale for better stringing and basic acoustics - in other words, more body volume to accommodate the low 4th note.  That tuning simply needs those two elements for top acoustic performance. From a personal standpoint, if I had to play only one Ukulele, it would likely be a Baritone.  If you like the feel of the 20" scale (I do), then there is no more versatile instrument in the entire Ukulele family, and if you tune it well, it will truly come alive. Of course you can stay in G and move the 4th string up an octave.  That gets you above the body resonance. Cuatro, or low reentrant tuning is ideal in many respects.  With the outside notes dropped an octave, you can get a very rich, very deep sound and not even have to go to wound strings to get there.  But the subject of this series is Linear Tunings, not reentrant.  The obvious solution, then, is to move the linear sequenced notes up in pitch. The most common modern tuning on the Ukulele is the Key of C. With a linear C set-up, your low note is now 2 1/2 steps above the resonance.  That's pretty high, but it's a fully resonant tuning, and not out of the realm of the practical, by any means.  The tone, as you might imagine, will be bright and alive. Whether or not it appeals to you is subjective, but remember, our ears can get used to a certain sound, and sometimes that will mean everything else sounds bad by comparison - and only because it is not what we're used to. One of the most famous Ukulele players used a Linear C set-up on his big instrument.  Well, O.K., I said big instrument because he was not an Ukulele player, and his instrument was the Tenor Guitar. His name was Nick Reynolds - he was one of the Kingston Trio. He didn't tune his guitar to Linear C (that would have been impractical on that scale), but he always played it with a capo - placing it behind either the 5th to the 7th fret, making it, in effect, the world's biggest Ukulele.  Capoing a G tuning at the 5th fret gives you a Linear C and at the 7th, you have a Linear D. That sound was said to be a big part of what made the Kingston Trio famous and put Nick Reynolds in the Tenor Guitar Hall of Fame.  If a tuning that high can be successful on a Tenor Guitar, it can obviously work on a Baritone Ukulele. We'd say, then, that fixed note Linear C tuning not only gives a beautiful light sound on its own, but is the Linear Baritone tuning of choice in an ensemble setting where it does better than any other set-up in "cutting over" the other instruments - like Nick Reynolds used to do. Earlier I mentioned a construction problem with the design of the Baritone.  As with any tuning, the construction of the instrument will have a big part to play in what will sound best.  Since Baritones were designed for heavy stringing, they are also braced for heavy stringing. Some manufacturers carry it to an extreme, because people have been known to buy Baritones, and getting a hold of a standard Ukulele method book, then try to tune them to a fixed C tuning with strings designed for G.  If I built Baritones for the general market, I'd be scared too! As a result, sometimes a C tuning just may not exert enough force on a lot of Baritone construction. It’s one reason that luthier I mentioned earlier would not even call them an ukulele.  The construction and bracing on many of them is really closer to a very sturdily built classical guitar. We build ours as true Ukuleles, but then, we know our customers.  If you find any C tuning at light to normal tension to be a bit weak, then you have three options.  You’ll either need to select the highest safe tension available for C tuning (with us, the Light Medium set), start moving your tuning down to B flat or A, or look for a more Ukulele-like instrument. But what if the light bright sound is just not your cup of tea? What if part of what attracted you to the Baritone in the first place is a desire for a rich deep tone. Well, Linear G may be a bit too deep, but not by much. Your answer would be to go somewhere in between. The resonance, if you remember, is D#. If you move the Linear G tuning up just one step, to the Key of A, your notes are e - a  - c#'- f#'.  Your E note is the lowest, and you are now 1/2 step above the resonance, but still with a deep, rich tone. That is cutting it a little close, and so there could be some issues with harmonics if the body happens to be a little on the small side, but most of the time that will be fine. It is a fully resonant range, and as such will be much clearer.  Compared to Baritone strings, gauges for this tuning - though still on the heavy side - will give better response as well. Of course a solo player can tune strictly by feel and sound, but the tuning names are a very handy point of reference.  Go up a step from A tuning and you are now at B flat. You are now 1 1/2 steps above the resonance - no concerns with harmonics at all. This gives a lighter sound than the A tuning, but still more depth than you would get from C tuning. It's rich, clear, somewhat light, but full. So - is there much to choose from between these two? Here's what I'd look at. If you play standard sheet music and lean toward jazz, a lot of that is written in B flat, as it is the natural tuning for a lot of the horns and reeds. If you are planning on a lot of group play and fixed note tuning, then playing those songs in the key they were written in will sound better and be easier to play. If you've learned with C tuning, and still like or need to use it in fixed tuning sometimes, then the neighborhood of B flat might be the better choice, as you can adjust to fixed notes abs then get back to C with your capo behind the second fret. You still have most of your fretboard to work with - as much fretboard, as a matter of fact, as you would find on most Tenor Ukuleles. With us, B flat stringing on the 20" scale also gives you a wide choice of strings.  You can choose from the various “Medium” sets, that is to say, “Light Medium”, “Medium”, or “Heavy Medium”.  You simply select based on your preference in tension and/or what tension your instrument responds best to.  You can begin to see why we generally recommend the range of B flat in many cases for a Linear Baritone tuning. "It's a natural!"  Bear in mind, however, that A tuning will give the deepest resonant sound.  Many people look for depth in a Baritone, and those will gravitate to this tuning.  If you're strictly a solo player, then a lot of those advantages for B flat don't really matter. If you also sing, then consider what tuning works well with your voice. The A tuning works very well for me. With us, select the Light Heavy Gauge Linear set for tuning to around the Key of A.  That set can also be dropped down to G tuning if you need it on occasion, and still give adequate tension.  If for some reason you need G tuning all the time and the acoustic compromise doesn’t bother you, then the Heavy Gauge set will give better tension when tuning that low. That's it for Linear Baritone Ukulele tuning. Next up is the Tenor Ukulele.
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