Part 2: The Rise of Club Tuning

Club tuning is a term some use for what we usually call tuning to the Key of C.  This could be any form of C tuning: the Ukulele reentrant form (g’ c’ e’ a’), the linear form (g c’ e’ a’), the Cuatro reentrant form (g c’ e’ a), or any other form that gives a C6 chord when strummed open. The reason C tuning has earned the name of Club Tuning is that tuning to the Key of C, in at least one of these forms, can be effectively used on any size Ukulele.  No other key functions quite as well as a “Universal Tuning”.  Ukulele Clubs have become very popular, and most of these are first and foremost about socializing and song.  Pure musicianship is seldom emphasized.  Having everyone tune to the same key means everyone can play along together using the same shapes at the same time.  Club members can all play a common tuning on the Ukulele size that feels most comfortable to each individual.  This puts the focus on enjoying the get-together and off other matters such as the necessity to learn transposition. The Ukulele gives people a quick and easy avenue to making music, and having a good time as a result.  This social camaraderie is much of what makes the instrument so attractive to many of its devotees in the first place.  This has been phenomenal for the popularity of the Ukulele, and for our part, we try to support Club tuning whenever we can.  We’ve designed instruments with Club Tuning in mind, and many of our string sets are oriented to Club Tuning as well.  In fact, we take a bit of pride in making Club Tuning a truly viable option for the first time in two forms on the Baritone Ukulele, so we feel we’ve given the Club scene a substantial contribution. But because of the attraction of the Ukulele for those without a musical background, when a beginning player runs up on a situation that may call for something other than Club Tuning, he or she will often have enormous misgivings.  We often hear things along the lines of, “I’m still just learning how to play in C tuning – at this point, I simply can’t try to learn how to play in another key”.  While in some cases there may be a valid point to that reasoning, usually it turns out that it’s an unfounded fear. Without a background in music, it never occurs to many people that other stringed instrument families, like the Violin family for example, have different tunings for each member of their family.  Those tunings have the same form – that is to say the strings are in the same relation to each other, but the bigger instruments have lower pitched tunings and the smaller instruments have higher tunings.  While this sort of arrangement would obviously complicate an Ukulele Club setting, nonetheless the Violin family players didn’t invent these “graduated tunings” just to make their life more complicated.  They did it to achieve the best sound and the easiest playability.  Without knowledge of the history of the Ukulele, most of today’s players don’t realize that Club Tuning has only recently come into widespread use.  One reason is that practically all sheet music today is written for Club Tuning, as are practically all the recent Method books.  There are a few Baritone Method Books and a spattering of sheet music selections for the Key of G, but as we can testify, many of those players are now switching to Club Tuning.        C tuning has been around from the beginnings of the Ukulele but it was originally used on the bigger-bodied Ukulele ancestor, the Rajao or “Taropatch fiddle”.  For most of the Ukulele’s history, C tuning was actually considered a secondary tuning.  May Singhi Breen was both the person responsible for getting the publishing industry to start putting Ukulele chords on sheet music, and establishing D tuning (a’ d’ f#’ b’ - a step higher than Club tuning) as "Ukulele Standard Tuning". The Ukulele started with the Soprano, and for almost a century, it was the dominant instrument.  For a Soprano, D tuning had a bunch of advantages. First, it's a natural from the standpoint of acoustics. Second, the short scales, moderate tensions and the flexibility of gut and nylon strings allowed Sopranos to be tuned up or down without much problem. Most just tuned where things felt good / sounded good, and that happened to be around D tuning. For those few who played in a band setting, however, starting in D tuning and then tuning up a step to E flat, or down a step to C, gave you a range of tunings ideally suited to all sorts of music, from Folk to Tin Pan Alley to Bluesier Jazz. So everyone was pretty much content with D as the Standard Tuning, and C & E flat as the secondary tunings. Then along came the Tenor Ukulele. It was tuned in a reentrant G, the same key as a 6-string guitar, and everyone ridiculed it as a music industry gimmick. Cliff Edwards (Ukulele Ike) and others moved the tuning up into the intermediate range with reentrant B flat (and maybe reentrant A tuning as well).  It was much more at home in that range, yet still the Tenor languished. I think in a way, you could tie the rise in Club Tuning to the rise of the Tenor Ukulele. At some point, someone figured out that while it was a bit on the high side, you could get by with reentrant C tuning on the Tenor. In other words, it could be tuned like a "real" Ukulele. The Baritone was around by then, and it would now take over the "outsider" role. On the Tenor, the Soprano reentrant E flat tuning was way too high for an instrument that large - even reentrant D tuning was too high. Linear D tuning would have been ideal, but linear tuning wasn't popular then among "real" Ukulele players. So of the three Soprano Ukulele tunings, C tuning began to be looked on as a possibility for a "Universal Tuning", one that could work on Soprano, Concert & Tenor.  And so at that point many people finally began to accept the idea of the Tenor Ukulele as a viable instrument - a true member of the Ukulele fraternity - saving their disdain for the Baritone. The publishing industry always catches on after the fact, but once they realized what was going on, they jumped all over this. It seems to have begun as early as the late 1970s but became more prominent in the ‘80s.  Abandon the "Ukulele Standard"; abandon any sort of secondary tuning: All Ukulele music henceforth in C tuning! It was much simpler for the publishers and so more profitable as well. And the simplistic approach has had its good side too. That approach has been a significant contributor to the latest rise in Ukulele popularity, so you can't say it was all bad. For many, Club tuning will fill all their needs, and there’s no need to look elsewhere.  But it’s not ideal in all situations.  Cutting yourself loose from Club tuning, at least in part, can have tremendous benefits for many Ukulele players.  However, changing, or simply disregarding Club tuning altogether may also cause problems, may require some adjustment, …. or it may not!  One aspect of this series is to help you understand the implications of opening your range of possibilities. You’ll know whether changing a tuning will require any sort of adjustment for you at all, and if so, how to judge whether or not opening things up will be truly beneficial to you or not. We’ll start figuring all that out in Part 3, where we look at the basic concept of tuning and at its mechanics.
May Singhi Breen
Cliff Edwards
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