Copyright Southcoast Furniture, 2013 Stringuide Philosophy String Sets Materials Terminology Tunings Accessories Tips
New players may wonder a bit at the subject of these two pages.  After all, there is a lot of literature out there these days implying that there’s only one way to tune an Ukulele.  Why in the world would something so simple rise to the level of a topic of discussion? First, Ukuleles have had a number of tunings throughout their history, and selecting the proper tuning for your instrument is vital to getting the best sound.  What we want to do in this section is chart the range of tunings for your reference, and briefly sum up the acoustic principles involved in selecting a tuning.  This brings us to our first caveat - what we’ll discuss here are the principles of acoustic tuning.  What we do, with both our instruments and strings, is geared toward top acoustic sound.  While amplified sound will never have the qualities of acoustic sound to our ears, it does have advantages - one of those being that it lets you ignore the laws of acoustics altogether.  Therefore, if you want to play a tuning that’s not really acoustically appropriate for your Ukulele (or any Ukulele, for that matter), simply amp it - you can give it the sound you want from there. Our second caveat is that if you’re not familiar with standard musical language, you’ll definitely need to first read through our Terminology page to understand what we’ll be writing here. ...................................................................  Before we go to a tuning chart, or to the principles of acoustic sound, let’s deal with the some of the reasons given for not wanting to veer off from C tuning.  First off, many people are just starting to learn to play.  Most of the instruction methods now are written for C tuning.  They don’t want to have to learn to play in another key before they master at least the basics in the key of C. What is sometimes not understood in this situation is that changing the key of your tuning does not change the way you play.  All tunings in 4ths will share the same chord patterns.  When you move your tuning up or down a pitch or two, all the four notes for your strings move up or down together.  That’s why the chord shapes don’t change.  Those shapes will now simply give chords that sound a bit higher if you’ve moved your string pitches up, or lower if you’ve moved them down.  As an example, if you didn’t check your tuning for awhile, it might loosen up - go a little flat.  This wouldn’t prevent you from being able to play; you might even feel your instrument sounds better or is more comfortable to play at that pitch.  The only time it would matter is if you were to then play with someone who’s “in tune”, or maybe play along with an instructional video.  Your playing sounds fine when you played on your own, but now your notes sound a bit off. To illustrate what happens when you change pitch, take a look at the common chord shape to the left.  This is the first chord most people learn, and if you learned in C tuning, then this would be a C chord.   If you moved your tuning up a step, say from C tuning to D, you could still play this chord shape - it’s just that now with strings tuned up a step, the chord name goes up a step as well.  In C tuning that shape was a C chord; in D tuning, it would be a D chord.  If you were to tune down to B flat, then it would be a B flat chord, etc.  Here’s where some players see things as becoming complicated.   If you were tuned down, for instance to B flat, and wanted to play along with someone tuned to C, then when they played their C chord above, to play in harmony, you would now need to play the chord on the right.  If you were tuned to C, that would be a D chord, but since you’ve dropped the pitch of your strings by a step to B flat, then what was once your D chord has now become your new C chord. Moving your chord shape names up and down like this is one form of what is called “transposing”.  This process can indeed be bothersome to a beginning player.  Even a lot of advanced players would prefer to avoid it if possible.  Still, there are compelling reasons to consider different tunings.  First, it’s very possible that transposing is something you’ll never even need to consider.  Second, even if you do need to adjust for ensemble playing, there are simple ways to do it without transposing.  Third, besides sound, there are a couple of other big advantages to be had in using more than one tuning. To explain all this, let’s begin with the estimation that 80 - 90% of all ukulele players are strictly solo players.  In that situation, the names of the chords mean absolutely nothing.  All you need to be concerned with are the shapes.  Take a look at the sheet music page above.  If you simply play those shapes, then you can play a solo version of “Red Robin” no matter what key you are tuned to.  To the left is an excellent method book I’ve had the pleasure to look through recently.  In it the author, Glen Rose, goes through most of the instruction using only chord shapes.  As he says it, in learning to play, the names of the chords can often be more of a distraction than an aid. In the end, he does give the chord shapes names for C tuning, but they could have just as easily been assigned the names of some other tuning.  He’s done other workbooks using G tuning names for the shapes. ................................................... But let’s say you’re not just a solo player.  The people with the greatest fear of stepping outside the world of C tuning are sometimes those who play in Ukulele clubs.  These clubs are excellent venues for learning, socializing, and all around good times.  Everyone tunes to C and everyone plays along together.  Even if this is your situation, you still will likely never have to deal with transposing.  If you’re tuned down, a capo can put you right back up in C tuning, and then you are again playing along using the same chords shapes as everyone else.  Since tuning down is usually done with the larger sized instruments, you’ll still likely have plenty of room left on the fretboard.  As an example, if you were tuned down to B flat, then a capo behind the second fret puts you back in C tuning. If you’re tuned up, then a capo can’t get you back to C, but tuning up is usually done on the smaller instruments, so there are still some adjustments you might be able to make.  If, for example, you like your Soprano best in D tuning, and had fairly good tension on the strings, you could relax them down to C tuning for the time you’re in the club setting.  This sort of thing can work much better with a small ukulele - with the larger ones, relaxing the tension a full step might leave that tension too loose to be enjoyable. Finally, if you have the luxury of owning more than one ukulele, you can simply take the one you like best in C tuning to the club. ................................................... Now let’s return to those two big benefits I mentioned earlier.  The first of these accrues to anyone who sings with their ukulele.  Many of us (ahem) have somewhat less than a 3 octave vocal range.  When you’ve learned and like a particular arrangement, and then find it’s just outside what’s comfortable for your voice, the song is just not fun to play.  You could transpose to another key.  You might be able to get to where you want with a capo.  But again, if you are lucky enough to have a little assortment of instruments, tuned to an assortment of keys, just grab the one where the arrangement fits your voice.  This is a tremendous advantage for a singer.  One of the most famous ukulele players of all time, George Formby always had several instruments in several tunings on stage with him.  He was a great entertainer, but without an operatic voice.  He was almost always a solo entertainer, and in fact, he didn’t read music at all.  Still, he knew that it made no sense for him to tune all his instruments the same way if he wanted to be able to sing his way through his full repertoire.  Finally, in the same way an arrangement may not fit your voice, it may not work well in a band setting.  Now I am not speaking of an ukulele club, but what we typically think of as ensemble playing - a group with a variety of instruments.  In this situation, you usually won’t be able to tell the rest of the band to adjust so you can play your C tuning arrangement.  You’re the one who will generally have to do the adjusting.  Again, you have the options of transposing or the capo, but also again, if you have the luxury of a small group of instruments there’s yet another good reason to tune them differently and bring them along to that group setting (after all, ukuleles are small).   You’ll find that certain arrangements will sometimes simply sound better than some of the transposed versions.  Look at those two chords we illustrated above.  In different tunings, they are both C chords, and yet apart from being at the same pitch, they won’t sound exactly the same.  One has three open strings, one has three fretted strings, and one finishes with a higher note - you’d say it has a different “voicing”.  That doesn’t make one better than the other in any setting, but maybe in a certain arrangement, one gives a sound you prefer over the other.  Now extend that example to the entire group of chords in your arrangement.  In addition, the best arrangements are ones that play easily - in other words without a lot of convoluted movement in the chord changes.  Having instruments available in different tunings means you can just grab the one that lets you play along with your band while using a sweet sounding, smooth playing chord shape progression.   ................................................................... More or less as an aside, here at the end, let’s say you were to “dedicate yourself to another tuning”, so to speak, and wanted music and chord names outside the realm of C tuning.  It’s not as if sheet material doesn’t exist.  Some of the finest Ukulele arrangements come from the “Golden Era” of the early-mid 20th century.  You’ll find material in E flat tuning, B flat tuning, and of course lots & lots  of songs written for D tuning, as that was the standard through most of the Ukulele’s existence.   Even today, you can find a bit of this sort of material.  Victoria Vox, for example, has a recent songbook written in B flat.   And I should also mention that classic, The Ukulele Handbook by Alex Richter.  It’s primarily just a simple chord book, but a very complete one, and covers the tunings of E flat, D, C, B flat, A & G. ................................................... Apart from sound, we’ve pretty well dealt with the “why” at this point.  Now let’s move on to the sound and the “how”.  Next, we’ll chart the full range of tunings, and sum up the acoustic criteria for choosing them.

TUNINGS  (the “Why”)

Tunings Page 2
Click to Enlarge
George Formby
Tunings Page 2 Tunings