TUNING YOUR UKULELE

Part 9:  Tuning for Sound (page 1)

There are a lot of things to consider if Sound is your priority when selecting a tuning.  We’ve actually covered a number of those things already in this series.  The form of your tuning makes a big difference, as well as where you customarily play on the neck.  Part 7 dealt with the characteristics of two common forms, and also discusses how they can be made to sound.  Other tuning styles, the Cuatro, Open and others are dealt with in individually archived Tips letters - refer to those letters for discussion and sound examples for those forms.  As we noted, these sorts of choices are often subjective and you’ll be guided in those choices by the type of sound and the style of playing that most appeals to you.   But those areas aren’t the first thing to consider in Tuning for Sound.  For any of those applications to be at their best, the first thing to consider is the range of notes your tuning will have.  There are many who would say that this subject is entirely subjective as well.  If that were entirely true, then any discussion on the topic would be a complete and utter waste of time.  Of course the same could be said for any topic of discussion where someone takes a dogmatic position that everything is subjective.  Our friend, Byron Yasui touched on this when he mentioned, for example, that the rules of inversion were not subjective, but were formulated from long observation of techniques used by the Master Composers to create music pleasing to the human ear.  Now we’re not going to say that like the “Rules of Inversion” there are also “Rules of Ukulele Sound”.  First, the instrument hasn’t been around long enough for there to have been the sort of observations that have been made through the course of Western Music in general.  Second, any sort of “Rules” that may once have started to codify around the Ukulele have now been blasted apart with the advent of amplification.  Still, it’s a topic our customers are often eager to discuss and want to know more about.  To discuss it in any worthwhile fashion, however, we need to create some form of objective reference. To do that, we’ll first limit this discussion to acoustic sound on the traditional wooden bodies.  There really are no legitimate boundaries for what can be done with amplification, so in that case the only discussion that needs to take place is one of preference.  But if the first thing we’re going to do is select a range of notes for an acoustic tuning, then here is where we establish some sort of basic reference.  We won’t call these boundaries “Rules”, because they’re not - they’re broken all the time - but it’s a reference that we think will provide an understanding of how acoustic sound functions.  Then, if you later decide to go outside the ranges we’ll lay out, you’ll know ahead of time what you may encounter.  At that point, what you’ve done won’t be a mystery to you (you won’t think “it must be the strings!”), and since you’ll understand immediately what you’re hearing, you can quickly judge whether a certain sort of tuning suits your ear or not.  So in the end, the final judgement can still be personal and subjective. We’ll set this reference with an historical view of the Ukulele.  As an acoustic instrument it was built lightly to be lively and responsive.  As such, every note rang clearly, from the highest to the deepest.  When the Ukulele was formed, those sorts of parameters were set by luthiers and players with long experience and the sort of knowledge that comes from a long unbroken background of tradition.  The Ukulele and its players today, unfortunately, have nothing like that knowledge and tradition to draw from.  But just like the “Rules of Inversion” were formed after the fact by music conservatories, after the practices had already been established, modern Ukulele players do have one advantage in understanding the traditional acoustic philosophies of their instrument, and that is through the use of modern technology. *************************************************  For every note to ring clearly, every note needs a cavity (the body of your Ukulele) that is large enough to allow it to resonate fully.  We won’t go into the details of that on this page, for it’s another one of the subjects that’s been covered in depth elsewhere on the site.  If you haven’t read some of those discussions, then the one on the Tunings page is the best place to start.  It not only gives a breakdown of the average depth of resonance for every body size, but also shows how to use a chromatic style electronic tuner (See! They are handy tools!) to measure the specific resonance of your own instrument.  Here it is:                                                   southcoastukes.com/ti-tunings   Looking at that page there are some things that aren’t exactly spelled out, but the data makes them clear.  If you follow those traditional guidelines that an Ukulele’s sound is fullest and richest when the lowest note of a tuning is just above the instrument’s resonance, then it’s obvious that different sized instruments will sound best tuned to different pitches.  To get specific, and limiting the analysis to Ukulele reentrant tuning only for the moment, then we see modern C tuning, in it’s Ukulele reentrant form, is “perfectly” at home on a standard Concert, and is not “perfect” anywhere else.  So if sound is truly your priority, then where to tune, based on your instrument’s resonance, should be your first consideration. A couple of the most respected folks in the world of the Ukulele have proposed this very sort of “graduated tuning” system.  Byron Yasui, Professor Emeritus in the Music Department of the University of Hawaii, and Joel Eckhaus, a popular performer as well as a luthier who has made a study of acoustics and built for the late John King have each put forth recommendations that are practically identical, and that match the conclusions anyone would likely draw from the acoustic data on our Tunings page. So selecting a range of notes based on the instrument’s resonance is the first step, selecting a form of tuning is the next, but then there are other factors to consider as well. ************************************************* First is your selection of tension.  We said in the Introduction to this series that various Parts of this work would deal with specific aspects of tuning, and that then examples of combining those techniques would come in the final Part.  But here we need to combine the last Part on “Feel” with this subject, “Sound”, because tension is a very large and very under-appreciated element in achieving good sound.  And so here we’ll reference another on-site discussion on that topic, a Tips letter, archived here:                                                               Sound & Tension As you see from that letter, our whole approach to offering choices in tension is not done simply to give you the best feel, but the best sound as well.  As you also see, the string material itself can sometimes often be nothing more than a secondary factor in achieving good sound, yet when put under higher tension, sustain from some material changes dramatically.  So the “one size fits all” approach to Ukulele stringing that most companies take, as always, is simply a shot in the dark, not only as regards tension but with sound as well.  If you’re just starting out, then any strings that aren’t so loose they buzz or so tight you don’t want to play them will work fine for you.  But if you’re truly looking for the best in sound and feel, there’s only one way to really get there, and that’s to have options, both in material and  tension, and a methodology like we offer that allows you to move from one tension to another until you hit that “sweet spot”.  And we’ll also point out that while the main reason we offer all these tensions is so fixed note players can get the best possible response, those who use Interval Tuning can fine tune things even further. *************************************************  But now - what to do if you find that your instrument seems to respond best at a tension that’s either uncomfortable to you or doesn’t suit your playing style?  Unfortunately the answer to this question is not a pleasant one; the answer is “you need a different instrument”.  If, for example, you either feel most comfortable playing with lighter tension, or you like a lot of colour, vibrato and sustain in your playing, then a more heavily built instrument, one that requires a higher tension for best sound, will not be the best match for you.  It simply won’t respond well to the way you like to play.  On the other hand, if your playing style is more like that used on an acoustic guitar, for example, with low action and high tension, then some lightly built instruments may not be at their best with those tensions – you may be locking up the soundboard and loosing response in the process.  You likely need an instrument with more “guitar-like” construction. So as you see, while we’ve been treating the various aspects of “Tuning Your Ukulele” as separate elements, we’re now starting to bring them together.  Matching the range of notes in your tuning to the volume of your instrument’s body, choosing the form of tuning that appeals to you, then taking into account your playing style, a tension that suits that style and having an instrument whose design and construction responds to those parameters; all those elements need to come together in harmony.  That’s the road you travel to arrive at your own unique sound. At this point, we’ll now discuss some other considerations to keep in mind when looking for a certain “sound”.  While these have less to do with tuning, per se, and more to do with the capabilities of Ukuleles and with string material selection, it seems like this would be a good time to touch on those aspects, even if only briefly.    
Sound - page 2 Sound - page 2