TUNING YOUR UKULELE

Part 11: Tuning for You (page 1) 

In this Part we try to get away from generalizations and get to you.  We’ve spoken about Tuning for the Troubadour (the solo singer/player), Tuning for the Group Player, and for the Solo Instrumentalist.  Maybe one of those categories fits you to a tee.  In that case, this Part has nothing to say to you. But the majority of Players don’t fit neatly into those categories.  They usually overlap the boundaries to a certain degree.  And we would never want to encourage players to stay within those definitions - individual expression in Art is key to its’ enjoyment. And since each Player has his own unique focus, there’s no hope that even a series as comprehensive as this one can cover every person’s situation.  So in this last Part, we’ll give some examples of how to put the separate elements together; how to combine the focus of a Solo Instrumentalist, for one example, with Group Play considerations.  So here is a common situation, and we’ll see how it plays out over a full range of instrument sizes.  Our suggestions are all based on the discussions in the series to this point.  If you have come straight to this page without having read at least a good number of the previous Parts, be forewarned - without a decent base or reference, you won’t understand key elements of what will be said here.  But for those of you who now have a frame of reference, at last, you now get to the “pay-off”.   And while these examples still won’t fit all situations and are may well not be a perfect fit for you, the suggestions we make here should be common enough that you can use them to as a reference on ways to approach your own situation.   ********************************************** Situation:  I play the Ukulele re-entrant form and have just one instrument (or one that is by far my favourite).  I am primarily an instrumental soloist, but am also a member of a group that gets together for fun and socializing.  In group play, we all tune to the Key of C.  I’m interested in getting the best sound out of my instrument for my solo playing.  Still, I don’t want to transpose chords, so I’ll  need to use C tuning to play with the group.   A: I have a standard Soprano.  An Ukulele reentrant C tuning is viable on many standard Sopranos, but since the low note (the 3rd string c’) is typically right at the resonance of the body (see Part 9) some Sopranos will handle the tuning better than others.   C tuning on a Soprano is most popular with those who sing, as the range works well with a lot of voices. But players such as yourself, interested primarily in best instrumental sound and response, often end up somewhere above C tuning with a Soprano.  The stringing won’t have to be as heavy to play with the sort of tension instrumentalists often prefer, and so in using more responsive strings, the sound is generally clearer and better defined; things most instrumentalists value.  If you prefer Electronic Tuning or Fret Tuning with Reference, you could try the pitch at C# up through Eb (see the “Tunings” page).  D tuning, after all, was the Ukulele Standard Tuning for Soprano throughout most of its history (see Part 2).  If you’re using Interval Tuning (see Part 4), or even Fine Tuning (see Part 10), then simply tune to where things sound & feel best.  With a Soprano, “tuning up” does not generally mean you can’t still tune to C.  The small soundboard on these instruments means they don’t require a lot of tension to respond well, and the all plain string sets generally used for this type of tuning have a lot of flexibility.  Unless you have gone to very light strings and moved the tuning way up, or again are using very light strings for a very low tension, then if you have landed somewhere in the range of C# to Eb and have firm to normal tension, you should be able to tune down to Key of C with no problems. Select your strings and set your tension to be ideal for your solo play, of course.  That’s when feel and response are most important.  When you tune down for the group, you may no longer be at optimal pitch and feel, but then again, in the group setting, no one will hear the difference, and a somewhat lower tension for an hour or two of “strum & sing” won’t be a problem either.  Simply tune down the night before your group event to give the strings time to settle in to the new tension.  Adjust again the next morning, and then give them a final tweak just before it’s time to play - you’ll be good to go!    B: I have a longneck Soprano.  The first and strongest impression people will have from a long scale instrument comes from it’s appearance.  It’s obvious at first glance that one aspect these instruments provide is more room on the fretboard.  That is only half the story, however, as they allow significant change in the sound as well. To give an example of what happens with a change in scale, let’s look at any given set of strings.  Take it off one scale and move it to a longer scale and one of two things happen.  First, if you try to maintain the same pitch you had on the shorter scale you’ll increase the tension, or second, if you want to keep tension the same, you’ll have to drop the pitch.  You can easily see this at a glance by looking at the tension ratings for our various Ukulele form string sets.  But the long scale also gives you the opportunity to exercise a third option.  You can maintain both pitch and tension on your longer scale by moving to a lighter gauge string set. Let’s see how this might work to your advantage on a Soprano body.  Let’s say that you like the sound of C tuning, and the body of your Soprano has enough volume to handle that resonance well.  Remember, the Soprano wasn’t designed specifically for C tuning in the beginning, and so especially for instrumental players who like at least a Medium tension, instrumental playing in C tuning on a short-scale standard Soprano generally involves fairly heavy strings.  Put that tuning on the longer scale, however, and lighter gauges still give good tension for instrumental work, will give a brighter, clearer, more defined and more responsive tone (more “Ukulele-like”, some would say) yet continue to provide plenty of drive to produce good volume on the small Soprano soundboard. Some might say that for this particular purpose, for instrumental work in C tuning on a (generous) Soprano-sized body, a long scale is the natural choice, both for the room it provides, and for the more responsive stringing.  If you’re using Interval Tuning or Fine Tuning and have chosen strings that respond well in C tuning, then you’re likely tuned somewhere very close to C tuning for your solo work.  Make whatever minor adjustment you require to put you on 440 pitch as outlined above with the standard Soprano, and you’re set-up for your group play at what should still be a very nice tension.      C: I have a standard Concert.   A lot of folks absolutely love the sound and feel of an Ukulele reentrant C tuning on a Concert.  If any Ukulele could be said to have been built for this tuning, it would be the standard Concert.  Medium Gauges give excellent response and tension, and the body resonance gives a nice amount of “headroom” for the 3rd string c’ note. Still, there is room to tune down a bit, and up a bit as well.   It’s not likely, however, you’d go too far in either direction.  In tuning up for a brighter sound, anything much above the range of a D tuning starts to get into either very high tension or very light stringing.  The latter is not a problem in and of itself, but on some instruments the low tension will reduce the volume as well.  So if you’ve found that tuning up just a bit gives you the sound and feel you like, you’ll have no problems using the procedures discussed above with the Soprano to get back to C tuning for your group play. If you tune down, again, it likely won’t be far.  Concerts vary a good bit in body volume, but you likely run out of resonance around a to b flat.  But in tuning down, you now have two options to get back to C tuning for your group play.  First, you can use the same procedure we outlined for Sopranos in tuning down to C from a higher pitch.  But as an instrumentalist, you may have set a fairly firm tension on your lower pitched tuning.  Tuning up to C may be a bit uncomfortable, even for a short Club event.  Now is when the capo comes into play. If you have used Interval Tuning or Fine Tuning to get to your lower pitch, then simply find where you are, and make a slight adjustment to the closest standard pitch.  This will likely be b to b flat (see the Tunings page).  If you are using Electronic Tuning or Fret Tuning with Reference, then one of those choices is where you probably are already. Now, if you are at b tuning, a capo behind the 1st fret puts you back in C tuning.  If you’re in b flat, a capo behind the second fret does the trick.  Some people find capo use awkward on a fretboard as short as a standard Concert, and it does cut down on the room you’ll have going up the neck.  But this is again a temporary adjustment done just for your occasional Club playing time.  Most of the time “up the neck” doesn’t come into play in those environments.  You play “the Club” with your capo, and then you’re quickly and easily back at the deeper pitch you’ve chosen for your solo work.    D: I have a longneck Concert. If this is your instrument, and you have skipped over the discussion for the longneck Soprano, go back up and see the first two paragraphs (only) - these give an idea of what happens with long- scale designs in general.  Also review the discussion immediately above for insight into the range of resonant pitch for a Concert body.  Now on to the implications for a long scale on that Concert size. If you’ve decided to tune up, you’ve brightened your tone a bit, even on a standard scale.  With a longer scale you’re either increasing tension (and potentially volume) or moving to lighter gauges for a very bright tone.  If you’re staying in the neighbourhood of C tuning, then you can also choose higher tension or a brighter sounding set of lighter gauges.  The lighter gauge approach generally pushes the Concert into more of the quick response associated with a well-tuned Soprano, along with the longer fretboard that many instrumentalists, especially those going “up the neck” will find handy.  Jazz chord solos (see Benny Chong - Part 7), for example, can be very nicely done around C tuning with a long-scale Concert.  You have even more fretboard room to go up the neck than on a standard Tenor. And finally, for those tuning down a bit, the longer scale again provides the ability to keep the stringing lively and responsive at lower pitch through the use of lighter gauge strings.  You get the deeper tone without any undue loss of clarity. If you’ve tuned above or below C tuning, or are slightly off pitch from using Interval Tuning or Fine Tuning, make the same adjustments described above for the standard Concert to get back to C tuning for your group play.  But the other advantage of the long scale, is that if you’ve tuned down and are bringing your pitch back up with a capo, you’ll generally have about as much fretboard left to play with as someone with a standard Concert.    E: I have a standard Tenor. With the Tenor Ukulele, things start to get a bit complicated.  Some of this comes from the fact that in the strictest sense of the term, the Tenor Ukulele is a “design failure” (see Part 2).  With today’s modern string material, however, the Tenor’s original reentrant G tuning is no longer the atrocity it was when the instrument first came out.  With clearer plain material and wound material that doesn’t screech like a banshee, once again the deep range of an Ukulele reentrant tuned Tenor can be said to start with the Key of G.  Of course most people play it in the Key of C, which is at the high end of practicality, but given the proper instrument, you could likely even take things a step higher.  But that is where the second complicating factor comes into play. Tension begins to play a major role with a Tenor sized soundboard.  It’s not that it’s unimportant in the smaller sizes, but it does take more force to properly drive a larger soundboard.  In and of itself, the difference between the typical areas of a Concert and Tenor soundboard is not enough to cause undue concern, but the third factor, which really throws things off is that the bracing often changes between these instruments. Soprano soundboard bracing is typically very minimal.  The practice with Concerts generally follows that road.  But with the Tenor, guitar bracing, generally fan type bracing, becomes the typical construction.  We can speculate as to how this came about. First, there is that original tuning, the reentrant G.  Strings for that deep a tuning on a 17” scale are very heavy, of necessity.  Still, all evidence points to them being offered at relatively low tension, likely to keep them from sounding too dead.  But now couple these heavy strings with the fact that the designs were not being copied from Hawaiian / Portuguese models, but were formulated by American manufacturers like the Martin Guitar Company.  This was the first attempt to build more of a “little guitar” as opposed to a traditional Ukulele, something the mainland builders felt more comfortable with.  The design intent, with reentrant G tuning on an instrument of a size that can just barely accommodate it obviously demonstrates the thought process with this instrument, so then why not bring your mainland guitar construction into that ambience as well? The current complicated situation came about when that original design failed and recent players began to tune the instrument with modern Club Tuning, specifically with the Ukulele form reentrant C.   This is a much higher tuning, and the lighter strings would normally produce much less tension.  But light tension on an instrument constructed for much more force results in a weak sound.  Thus, the popular conception that a longer scale and bigger body are the reason the Tenor requires so much more tension in a reentrant C tuning than a Concert.  However, the sizes of the instruments are not that dramatically different, and though a bit more force would be necessary, the substantial difference in tension necessary to produce adequate volume between most Concerts and Tenors comes mainly from the typical Tenor construction.  To put it simply, most Tenors are over-braced for a normally tensioned set of strings for reentrant C tuning.  When the tuning changed, builders never altered the bracing. It’s become a catch 22 in a way.  Builders are always afraid of going “too light” and having a failure.  They often draw on tradition, and mainland Ukulele tradition in this case shows them an instrument built for another application.  Combine this with the fact that Tenor players are now used to playing at higher tension, many may prefer it, and many would continue with high tension set-ups, and now there is even more reason for builders to avoid a more reasonable bracing system.  But if we look again to a more traditional design, the Cuatro, we see a 4-stringed (not 6-stringed!) instrument that uses more Soprano-like bracing on instruments even larger than a Tenor. We mentioned earlier that it might be possible to go higher than reentrant C tuning on a Tenor size, but that would only work on an instrument with much lighter bracing.  On the typical Tenor, the force required will make it impractical.  For most Tenors, the range of C tuning will be the upper limit in reentrant form. But if you like the size and feel of a Tenor and don’t like that sort of tension, then tuning down is your salvation.  If you tune down just a bit, and have a moderate tension, then look back to the procedure with the Soprano when you need to retune your strings to Key of C.  If you’ve put a firmer tension on your lower tuning, or have moved down substantially, then look back up to the Concert discussion for the capo procedure.  When we mention tuning down, you can, of course go all the way down to reentrant G tuning if you like, but even the modern strings are still heavy, so do this only if you’re looking for a very mellow sound.  The intermediate ranges are where many will find the Tenor shines.   The greatest early player of the instrument, Cliff Edwards, found this range exactly to his liking, tuning mainly to B flat, and sometimes A.  At right is a video of one of his recordings. You may also want the deeper tone to match your vocals.  Cliff obviously did, as he first used this range of pitch on a Concert (tuning higher on a Soprano at the beginning of his career).  Once he moved to the Tenor, however, the longer scale gave him an even clearer sound, and the Tenor became his prefered Ukulele size at that point.  Still, the strings in this recording don’t give the clarity of today’s material.  For more discussion on that, look back to Part 9. Now remember how tension plays an important part in getting good response on typical Tenor bracing.  While simply relaxing a set of Medium Gauges may work on some instruments, on others you’ll need to compensate for that loss of tension by going to a heavier gauge.  This is the whole reasoning behind us offering a series of gauges for Ukulele tuning.  Sometimes you’ll hear remarks, for example, that “I have one Tenor where I tuned down and it was wonderful; I tried it on another and it seemed to go dead”.  The likely explanation is that the second instrument needs more tension.  With our graduated tensions and the charts showing what to expect, you see exactly how to accomplish that.  This sort of selection can keep you from giving up on an instrument that may actually give just what you need.  On the other hand, if you want lower tension and just can’t get decent response in any Key at the tension you prefer, you simply need to move to a smaller sized Ukulele, or try to find a Tenor built lightly enough to give you the response you want at lighter tensions. Finally, for a more complete discussion on the effects of tension, along with a more detailed discussion of how to get the right tension on your instrument, you may want to read through our archived Tips letter on “Sound & Tension”: here  and possibly also our short explanation of the Tuning & Tension charts in another Tips archive: here .    F: I have a longneck Tenor. This a great design both for tuning down with the Ukulele reentrant form, accessing more of the natural depth of the Tenor body, and for playing reentrant C tuning as well.  If this is your instrument, and you have skipped over the discussion for the longneck Soprano, go back up and see the first two paragraphs (only) - these give an idea of what happens with long-scale designs in general.  And these possibilities become a great advantage for many with tuning on a Tenor sized body. To give examples specific to the Tenor, let’s say you are using a set of Medium Gauges and you’re tuning to C (a relatively high tension).  Put those same gauges on a longneck, and depending on the exact scale length, the same tension now puts you in the range of B flat tuning with no loss in clarity.  Tune down on a standard model, and you’d need heavier strings (w/ a mellower sound) if you needed to maintain that tension.  Or to give another example, you might tune a Light Medium Gauge set into the C range and get an even brighter sound than on a standard Tenor - the extra scale length gives you the extra Tension you’d need to drive typical Tenor construction.  If you’ve been wanting to tune to the original Tenor tuning: the Ukulele reentrant G, your strings can now be lighter and more responsive (varying in that regard with scale length).  And finally, with the longer scale, capoing back up to C (depending on where you tune your open strings) can still leave you with as much room (maybe even more) on the fretboard as a standard Tenor player would have.  The fretboard may now be long enough to even allow capo use even for a significant amount of your solo repertoire, in the way that Flamenco players, for example, always use one. And oh, yes, we happen to make what we consider to be the Holy Grail of Tenor Ukuleles, an uncompromised, truly 20” long scale without the heavy soundboard bracing.  There aren’t many like that around, but if you want more detail on that sort of rare bird click here.   
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