How to Tune a Ukulele By Ear


Do you tune your instrument with the aid of an electronic tuner? One of the benefits of using an electronic tuner is you can tune your ukulele to correct pitch in seconds. But at the same time, you are wasting a wonderful ear-training opportunity. 

“Ear training,” you say? Ugh!

Yes, ear training. Two seemingly harmless words that, when put together, conjure up thoughts of other equally undesirable tortures like playing scales and studying music theory. In the rush to play songs on the ukulele, we often overlook the most essential element of playing music—listening.

Electronic tuners tune the eyes, not the ears. While you are looking at your tuner and turning the pegs, bringing the strings up to pitch, your eyes are taking in the bulk of the tuning information. You stare at the tuner, while your ears hang idle on each side of your head. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not a bad idea to use an electronic tuner at first (especially if the ukulele is your first musical instrument) to familiarize your ears with the correct sound of each in-tune string. But once that task is completed, it’s time to start weaning yourself off “tuning by eye” and start tuning by ear. To do this you’ll need an A-440 tuning fork.

When you first attempt to tune with a tuning fork, you may experience uncertainty as to whether your A string is indeed in tune with the tone of the fork. Never fear, there is a little trick you can use to make sure your A string is in perfect tune. It’s called “sympathetic vibration.” Try this: strike the tines of tuning fork on your knee and place the base of the fork on the soundboard of your ukulele, near the bridge. If your A string is in tune with the tuning fork’s pitch, the string will begin to resonate in response to the vibrations emitted by the tuning fork. 

Touch the A string lightly and you’ll feel it vibrating. None of the other three strings will be vibrating because they are not tuned to A. It may seem like magic, but it’s just physics turning sound energy of the resonating fork into mechanical energy of the string.


Tuning With A Tuning Fork

Holding the tuning fork by its base, strike the tines of the fork sharply on your knee and immediately place the base of the tuning fork on the body of the ukulele near the bridge. The vibration of the tuning fork will transfer to the ukulele and an A tone will be emitted. Hum the A tone and put it in your ears and mind. Now pick the A string on your ukulele and bring it into tune with the A tone you are humming. 

Once you have tuned your A string to the tuning fork, find and fret the other A notes on the other three strings and tune those A notes to match the already in-tune A string. In standard G C E A tuning, next tune on the fourth string, the A is at the second fret. On the third string, the A is at the ninth fret, and on the second string, the A is at the fifth fret.

Tuning With A Pitch Pipe

For those more inclined to tune with a wind instrument, the pitch pipe is just your thing. Starting with the fourth string, blow the G note on the pitch pipe to put the sound of the in-tune G note in your head. Hum the G tone to further lodge the sound in your musical mind. Tune the fourth string on your uke down below the in-tune G in your head then tune up to the note. Always tune up to pitch as it tightens the string—if you tune sharp, drop the note down and tune back up until you land at the correct pitch. Using your voice is an important part of tuning by ear regardless of your preferred tuning device. Repeat the procedure with the other three strings.

keyboard showing ukulele string notes for tuning

Tuning with A Piano

Who wants to carry around a piano simply as a tuning aid? Also, most pianos you may encounter are probably not in perfect tune, but if you do meet up with an in-tune piano you can tune your ukulele to it. 

Start at middle C on the piano and tune your third string to that pitch. Next, move up two white keys to E and tune your second string to match. Move up two more white keys and you’ll be able to tune your fourth string to G. Finally, move up to the next white key and tune your first string to A.

So, buy yourself a tuning fork or pitch pipe and practice tuning-by-ear each time you pick up your ukulele. Before long you’ll intimately know the sound of each in-tune string and be able to recognize them on command. After a while, you won’t even need the tuning fork or pitch pipe. All you’ll have to do is think “A” and you’ll hear the tone in your head thus allowing you to tune to yourself. How cool is that?

Music educator Jim D’Ville is on a mission to get ukulele players off the paper and into playing music by ear.