THE Southcoast Guide to Tuning & Strings

 

In theory, there are as many ways to tune a four string instrument as there are 4-note combinations.  In this guide, I will speak mainly of two types: tuning in 4ths (4 note intervals), and more briefly, tuning in 5ths (5 note intervals).  Guitars and ukuleles are common instruments usually tuned in 4ths.  Violins, mandolins, and the tenor banjo are common instruments usually tuned in 5ths.  The tenor guitar is an instrument that was originally tuned in 5ths, like the tenor banjo.  Now, both the tenor guitar and tenor banjo are sometimes also tuned in 4ths.

 

When it comes to ukulele tuning, most think that ukes are tuned to one key only: the key of C.  When ukuleles first became popular, they came mainly in one size.  Even then, however, various tunings were popular.  There are now more sizes, and the capabilities of strings are different as well.  As such there are at least five different keys that can be useful, depending on your type of instrument.  

 

What is “scale” ?

The Ukulele has four common scales (the vibrating length of the string - from the nut to the saddle).  From smallest to largest, these are 13”, 15”, 17” and 20”.  (More precisely they are 13 5/8”,  14 3/4”, 17”,  and 20 1/8”).  The Tenor Guitar is commonly built with a scale of 23” and a Classical Guitar is at 650mm - around 25.5”.  The scale length is the most important element when it comes to your choice of strings and tunings.  

 

Also important in your choice of tuning is the body configuration of your instrument.  There have been four standard ukulele body sizes: Soprano, Concert, Tenor & Baritone.  Until recently, these four bodies were paired with the four scales above in the following manner: Soprano body / 13” scale - Concert body / 15” scale - Tenor body / 17”scale, and Baritone body / 20” scale.  This relation of body size to scale length is another key element in choosing the best tuning and string set-up.  Now, however, as with our instruments, some ukuleles are being built with a scale that is at least one step longer than the traditional pairing - a 17”scale with a concert body, for example.  It is important, then, to remember that  the terms “Concert”, “Tenor”, etc. refer to a body size,  and not the neck length. 

 

What are “high re-entrant” & “linear” tunings?

As you hold your instrument, individual strings are numbered 1-4, starting with 1 on the bottom.  Most instruments are tuned in a “linear” form.  Linear means that the notes progress in a linear fashion (usually in 4 or 5 note intervals) from high to low.  The Ukulele is now often tuned in this fashion.  Many ukulele players use the term “low 4th” tuning, or if they play exclusively in the common key of C, they may even say “low G” tuning.  Low 4th tuning gives the same intervals as strings 1-4 on a guitar.  It is sometimes favored by players who like melody playing, as it gives a wider range of notes.

 

The reason for this odd terminology is that traditional ukulele tuning is not linear, but re-entrant; even more specifically “high re-entrant”.  A re-entrant tuning is where one of the notes “re-enters” the linear progression.  With traditional ukulele tuning this is the 4th string.  Strings 1-3 progress in a linear fashion, but the 4th string “re-enters” that progression.  It does so with a 4th string note that is an octave higher than with the linear tuning, and is also higher than the adjacent 3rd string.  Therefore it re-enters the progression with a high note, and for that reason is called a “high re-entrant tuning”.  The high re-entrant tuning gives the traditional ukulele sound, where in a strum, the first and last notes struck are the highest.

 

There is also a low re-entrant tuning.  Since it is played with the same chord shapes as high re-entrant or linear tunings, it can be played by any ukulele player and has a longer history than the ukulele itself (see below).

 

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Following are notes on six keys:

 

The key of E flat was found on “Sopranino” (smaller than soprano) Ukes.  It was also an older option on Soprano Ukuleles, but is not in general use today.

 

The key of  D is the highest now in general use.  It is more popular now in Europe and Canada than in the United States.  It is most often used on standard soprano ukuleles.  As a linear tuning it can be an excellent option for the standard tenor. 

 

The key of C is the tuning most often associated with the ukulele.  It is commonly seen on standard soprano and concert ukes.  It has come to be used on standard tenor ukes as well, although the history of the tenor creation and it’s relatively large body mean that tenor ukuleles are actually most comfortable with lower pitched tunings.  On our long neck instruments C tuning can be a good choice for our Soprano or Concert bodies.  As a linear tuning it is most often used on the standard tenor.  We like it on our Baritone body.

 

There are two keys below the key of C:  B flat & A, that have been lately ignored for some unknown reason.  They are excellent options on any instrument larger than a Soprano body - traditional or long scale.  That icon of the jazz era, Ukulele Ike generally used these two tunings with his solo work.  He played them on a standard 15” scale concert uke to beautiful effect, producing a mellower tone than the sharp sound on a C or D tuned Soprano. He used the prevalent gut string material of the day, and in doing so developed a unique playing style (see further discussion on the “Heavy Gauge Ukulele Strings” page).  

 

The key of B flat is a good tuning for jazz accompaniment.   The Ukulele Handbook recommends it for the standard 17” scale Tenor body. We recommend it for our 17” scale Concert body and for our 20” scale Tenor body.  As a linear tuning, it is a nice choice on our Baritone. 

 

The key of A is a half step lower.  The Ukulele Handbook recommends it as an alternate tuning for the standard 17” scale Tenor body.  It’s a good tuning for guitar accompaniment and produces beautifully resonant tones on a Tenor body.  In high re-entrant form, we like it on our 20” scale Tenor & for a mellower tone on our 17” scale Concert.     

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

  

  

 

  

 

 

 

  

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                 Page 2:  Tunings & Terminology

Great software for tuning in any key.  You can save your own custom tuning as well.  You can  look up chords you happen upon - can also create tab pages for any stringed instrument to 12 strings

© 2008 South Coast Furniture, Inc.

Excellent chord book - the only one that covers all standard tunings.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The general rule is that the shorter the scale, the higher the key you will select for your tuning (and vice versa).  You should find, however, that you have a certain amount of flexibility.  In most cases with a ukulele you have a 2, or possibly 3 key range within which your instrument will be comfortable.  If you take things to extremes you will start to have some problems.  A very low tuning on a small body will overpower it - you will start to have unwanted bass overtone.  A very high tuning on a large body will start to sound a bit weak.  Also note how the recommendations above change when you switch from high re-entrant to linear tunings.  The octave drop on the 4th string lowers the tonal value 1-2 keys from the high re-entrant set-ups.  Therefore you move those tunings to bigger body sizes accordingly.  

 

Don’t think playing in a key other than C will somehow complicate your life. If you play solo, you don’t really need to tune to any key at all.  As long as the strings remain in the proper relation to each other, the finger patterns for your chords remain the same.  The important thing is that you arrive at a place that feels comfortable for your instrument, your strings and your voice. 

 

Remember that tunings are really only reference points so that instruments can play together.  If you do play in a group, and switch from C to another tuning, again your fingering stays the same, but your chords will now have new names.  Learning the new names comes quickly.  The C chord your played in C tuning is a B flat chord in B flat tuning, an A chord in A tuning etc. (reference the link above to the Ukulele Handbook).  

 

Also consider the use of a capo.  While this is not as great an aid with standard instruments, with our long scale models, it can come in very handy.  With short scales, ukulele players have generally had to transpose the chords into another key when an arrangement is difficult to sing.   Sometimes, however, the new arrangement will not sound as well or play as well.  With the capo, you can keep the original finger patterns, and move quickly to a more comfortable pitch.  You can best take advantage of this by selecting the lowest tuning your instrument will be comfortable with - then when you capo up, you are still within a range that will produce resonant tone. (see “Links” page for an excellent capo). 

 

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Finally, here are two more options.  First, you can have a low re-entrant tuning.  This is what is commonly used on the Uke’s Latin Uncle, the Cuatro Venezolano.  Simply take any linear tuning from the table above, and drop the 1st string one octave.  The 1st string now “re-enters” the 2-3-4 progression with a low note, hence you now have a “low re-entrant” form.  Playing this, the first and last notes in your strum are now the lowest notes, instead of the highest, as is typical on traditional high re-entrant ukulele tunings (a sample is on our Tenor/Baritone instrument page).  Because you are dropping two strings an octave over what normal ukulele tuning would be, it is not surprising that this is done with higher tunings - most commonly the key of D.  This gives a darker, more somber feel to the chords, appropriate for the heavy flamenco-style strums of Llanero Latin music.  Any ukulele player can use this tuning, just as you might switch from high re-entrant to linear set-ups.  Fingering remains the same.

 

Second, you can leave the world of tuning in “fourths” altogether.  The traditional tuning for the Tenor Guitar is CGDA, a tuning in “fifths”.  There are other ways to tune in fifths, and there are now even ukulele strings offered in fifths.  This is the easiest tuning for players of the mandolin, violin, and tenor banjo, as those instruments are all tuned in fifths as well.  Since most of our instruments will be played tuned in 4ths, I am not discussing 5ths tuning here, but it is touched on in the Linear Ukulele Strings page and has a more in depth discussion on the  Linear String Set in 5ths page.

          Table of Keys:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Tune online with sound! This great page not only lets you set up to any of the tunings listed here, but 1/2 steps in between and more!

With the key of G, high re-entrant tuning is not that common today, although this was Martin’s original recommendation for the tuning of the Tenor Uke.  The high re-entrant version is one of the recommendations for our Baritone, and it can be an option for standard Baritones as well.

 

The key of G is also the normal tuning for 6 string guitars.  In four string Tenor Guitars, what is sometimes called “Chicago” tuning is a linear G tuning in 4ths - the same notes as strings 1-4 on a six string guitar - and also the common standard Baritone Ukulele tuning.  We recommend this tuning for larger instruments such as our Tenor and Plectrum Guitars.

 

If you want to hear sound samples of most of these tunings on most of the scales, go to the “Instruments” page of our main site (link at bottom of page).  There you will see a listing of our models.  Go to any of these pages and you will find a variety of tuning samples. 

 

 

 

 

 

          4th

          3rd

          2nd

         1st

D high     re-entrant

         a’

          d’

          f#’

         b’

D linear

         a

          d’

          f#’

         b’

C high     re-entrant

         g’

          c’

           e’

         a’

C linear

         g

          c’

           e’

         a’

Bb high    re-entrant

          f’

        b flat

           d’

         g’

Bb linear

         f

       b flat

           d’

         g’

A high     re-entrant

         e’

          a

          c#’

        f#’

A linear

         e

          a

          c#’

        f#’

G high     re-entrant

         d’

          g

           b

         e’

G linear

         d

          g

           b

         e’