BY HEIDI SWEDBERG | FROM THE SUMMER 2020 ISSUE OF UKULELE
You play a ukulele. Clearly you have no problem being a little different. So why not embrace your alternative lifestyle and explore some alternate tunings?! Deviating from your normal tuning can give you inspiration to practice or compose, and may bring an instrument to life. It can be as simple as re-tuning a single string for a specific song or as drastic as dedicating an instrument to a unique sound. Either way, nobody gets hurt—it’s just strings! If you have been bitten by UAS (ukulele acquisition syndrome, the uke player’s occupational hazard), this may be a good excuse to have more than one—or 12—instruments!
ALTERNATE IS STANDARD
The ukulele is unique in many ways, but perhaps the most notable is its tuning. Most familiar string instruments, including piano, are strung with the pitches in order of pitch—highest to lowest. On a guitar, the first string is the highest pitch and each string is successively lower, with the sixth string being the lowest. Standard ukulele tuning is reentrant. The first string is the highest, with the second and third strings successively lower, but the fourth string is high, and tonally reenters the scale between the pitches of the first and second string. It sings the familiar refrain “My dog has fleas” when you strum down the strings, a peculiarity known to flummox guitar players.
What is standard tuning for ukulele? That answer can vary depending on where you live. For this article we will consider g C E A standard tuning (the lowercase g indicates the reentrant note) for concert, tenor, and standard (aka soprano) ukuleles, as it is the most prevalent tuning. Those notes make up a C6 chord, hence this tuning is often called “C tuning.” D G B E, sometimes called “G tuning,” or Chicago tuning, is considered standard for baritones, and mirrors the guitar’s top four strings.
UP AND DOWN: PARALLEL TUNING
Raising or lowering the pitch of all your strings without changing intervals allows you to use familiar chord shapes with a different voicing (and become great at transposing!). If you are from Canada, or love old ukulele sheet music or books, this may not be news. Many vintage songbooks, such as Cliff Edwards’ collections, are tuned f Bb D G, a full step lower, while our friends in the north, like James Hill, tune
A D F# B.
If you are ready to really geek out, consider determining your instrument’s resonant pitch and tuning to accentuate its vibrations. David Hurd’s southcoastukes.com website is a deep rabbit hole, and if you make it out the other side you may find your mind blown and your axe retuned. He suggests tapping an instrument’s body and using a sensitive electronic tuner to find its natural resonance and choose a tuning which places all four notes above that pitch.
If you land on a satisfactory parallel tuning, you can extend the experiment with some alternate tuning add-ons, like low strings or drop tuning.
GO LOW, GO HIGH
Note: when tuning up or down more than a few tones, like switching to a low G, you will need to replace your string with one suited to the task. See the string sidebar below for suggestions.
Low G (4th string dropped one octave)
If you have struggled with reading ukulele
tablature (TAB), it may be because of the peculiarity that is reentrant tuning. This problem is solved by a popular alternate tuning for ukulele—linear tuning—also known as “low G.” With a low G, both TAB and a staff of standard music notation show the highest notes at the top, and lowest at the bottom, just like guitar TAB. Herb Ohta Sr. championed this tuning for playing solo gigs so he could add bass lines, and many players have a low G in their arsenal for just that reason.
Low A (First string dropped one octave)
Switching the first string to one tuned an octave lower is an exciting adventure. If you happen to be a lefty who plays Jimi Hendrix-style (upside-down and backwards) this might give you superpowers, especially when playing fingerstyle.
For this tuning, g c e A, you replace the C and E strings with ones tuned up an octave. According to Jason Arimoto, 20-pound-test green fishing line is the ticket!
Baritone: d G B E
Bari-tuned tenor: d G B E
Nashville/Eddie Freeman Baritone
This is easily the most confusing tuning to wrap your head around: g c E A for baritone, where the E string is the lowest pitch, the C highest. See the string sidebar!
Open tuning refers to tuning an instrument so that when the open (unfretted) strings are strummed they play a specific chord. If you are not changing the pitch more than a note or two, you can easily re-tune for a specific song without changing strings. Open tunings can be useful when playing slide, or in an educational setting, and can be a fun way to noodle around. Combine with high or low tunings to create a unique sound! Here are a handful to try:
Open A: a C# E A
Open A Minor: a C E A
Open C: g C E G (aka “Taro Patch”)
Open C Minor: g C Eb G
Open D: A D F# A
Open D Minor: A D F A
Open E: g# B E B
Open E Minor: g B E B
Open F: f C F A
Open F Minor: f C F G#
C7: g C E Bb
A7: g C# E A
Dominant chord tuning for the mixolydian mode sound that makes slide-blues happy.
Open B Modal: f# B F# B
Drop F: f C E A or F C E A
Akin to the guitar dropped-D tuning, this makes a beautiful jazzy major seventh chord
TURNING YOUR UKE INTO SOMETHING ELSE: ALT STRINGINGS
These changes are the most drastic and create a very different sound on your ukulele—and may require a unique set of strings. They bring a welcome, unique voicing, but you will need to learn some new chord shapes if you are not already proficient on the instrument from which they are borrowed. For someone who plays mandolin, fiddle, or banjo, this may be a great way for you to join the ukulele craze.
Mandolin: g D A E soprano or concert
Mandola: C G D A concert/tenor
Tenor banjo: G D A E or C G D A for tenor or baritone
Plectrum (banjo) tuning: F C E G tenor; C G B D baritone
In this highly useful intermediate lesson book, Ukulele Explorations – Chords and Harmony, Fred Sokolow writes about how to better understand chord progressions and jazzing up your uke; Alec Poletsky explains moveable major and minor chords; Jim Beloff illustrates the step-up key change through one of his own tunes; and Jim D’Ville uses Beatles songs as a gateway to learning extended chords.