Let’s Learn Some Ukulele Tuning Modes

Hey folks,

So in this series we're going to be examining five ways to improve or otherwise broaden your ukulele playing. These will be tackled thematically, where we'll go into some detail as to how you can experiment with certain things you may not have been aware of. The idea is that you'll gradually add more and more strings to your bow.

First up is the theme of tuning, which can range from an unimportant physical aspect of the instrument, to something you can tinker around with to create new and exciting sounds.

At the risk of sounding somewhat gender-biased, I would argue that with all classically 'male' pursuits, there has always existed a splinter group who are happy to spend time tweaking with things which the majority of others simply accept. Things can be modded, for example, and for everything from cars to computers to music amplification, there exists thriving communities and forums catering for those who are bent on customising and optimising their products. In the music world, this often means people experimenting with the tunings of their instrument. While a good many musicians have happily built careers using just one tuning, respect must be given for those perennially in the pursuit of expanding their sound, even if it means relearning the instrument!

Standard Tuning

The standard tuning of a Ukulele's is GCEA. This is also called the C6 tuning because strumming across all four open strings results in the notes of a C major 6 chord.

This tuning, not only providing a harmonically valid chord when strummed open, lends itself to 'easy chords', allowing a wide range of different chords to be played with minimal fingering, often only a finger or two.

Now in most tunings, the G-string is tuned an octave higher than you might expect, which breaks the normal low-to-high order of ascending string pitches seen with other instruments. This may initially strike guitar players as quite unusual. This is referred to as 'reentrant tuning', and accounts for the bright, peppery tone of the ukulele. The C6 tuning is characterised by having a mellow, 'hawaiian' timbre.

D Tuning

Also called the 'English' tuning. As you would expect from its name, this tuning patterns follows the same pitch ordering as the standard tuning, with the difference of being two frets (or one step) higher. In note form this equates to:

As an overall sound, the D tuning is brighter and sharper. As the strings have the same relationship to one another as in C6, is also equally easy to play. The comparison of both tunings probably comes down to who you're playing with, or what you're playing over. D tuning generally works better for interplay with guitars and mandolins, whereas C6 may be easier to play alongside a piano, due to the pianist's inclination to stay in the key of C.

Baritone

The baritone tuning is found exclusively on baritone ukuleles which are custom designed for the low frequencies. They are bigger than other types of ukulele, allowing for deeper, more bassy resonance and are the type of ukulele which most closely resembles an acoustic guitar. Indeed, although having four strings like a normal ukulele, these are tuned to the highest four strings of a guitar, namely:

Being tuned like a guitar, this opens up a world of possibility for somebody to translate their mastery of the the guitar fretboard onto ukulele. In terms of tonality, the baritone tuning sounds blunter than the C6 or D tuning, but has a soft, paddling tone lying halfway on the spectrum between a ukulele and nylon guitar.

Low G

The low G tuning is identical in pitch to standard tuning, with the critical difference that instead of having a reentrant G-string (see above), this string is now tuned an octave lower. This means the overall sound is more balanced than standard tuning, at the expense of the bright, bell-like reentrant string.

This can be useful for those who are still transitioning from guitar to ukulele, as one no longer needs to be mindful of the high G, which, if hit unintentionally, can sound somewhat jarring. This tuning is also ideal for the rare ukulele solo, as it has the effect of opening up the fretboard so that one can now also use the low G string to solo with, which may otherwise have been difficult to include.