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Understanding Ukulele Tuning

Updated on January 5, 2012

The Ukulele Tuning Debate by UkesterMoe

If you’re a ukulele player that has done any research into the instrument, you have probably come across somewhat of a debate as to what tuning is the “proper” tuning for your little four stringed friend.  Truth is, the answer is a lot more grey than black and white. This article is intended to help you sort out the mystery that is ukulele tuning.

Running Uke
Running Uke

Where to start?: Let's start by identifying some of the different tunings associated with the ukulele.

Most Common Tuning Variations:

C6 - This is by far the most common tuning associated with the ukulele nowadays. Most method books, online resources, and ukulele specific materials such as tuners and strings are keyed into this tuning which is referred to as 'Standard Tuning'. There are two main variations in this tuning:

1) C6 Low G or "linear tuning": This tuning is made up by the ascending pitches of G C E and A, with "G" being the "top" or "string closest to you". When overlaid on a piano keyboard, the C pitch is that of "Middle C" with the G being directly below and the E and A directly above.

2) C6 High G or "re-entrant tuning": This tuning is the one commonly associated with the phrase 'My Dog Has Fleas', although this phrase has nothing to do with the tuning at all. This tuning is composed of the pitches G C E and A, with the C, E and A being the same as the notes in "linear tuning". Where the tuning differs is with the 'G' string. Rather than being the G directly below middle C, the string is instead tuned to the pitch of G above middle C. In other words, an octave above the note in linear tuning.

D6 - Often referred to as 'Traditional Tuning" or "Canadian Tuning". According to many online sources, this tuning is often recommended for soprano sized ukuleles in order to bring out a "sweeter" tone quality. This tuning was very popular during the original ukulele boom of the 1920s. D6 is by far the most widely used tuning within the various school ukulele programs in Canada; it is also extensively used by ukulele icons James Hill and J.Chalmers Doane. The variations within this tuning are:

1) D6 Low A or "linear tuning": Similarly to the "C6 Low G" tuning, this tuning is made up of the ascending pitches of A D F# and B, with a being directly below middle C on a piano keyboard, and D, F#, and B, being directly above. In terms of intervallic distance from the C6 tuning, D6 is a major 2nd higher in pitch.

2) D6 High A or "re-entrant tuning": Similar to what is detailed in the description of "C6 re-entrant tuning", the singular difference between this particular tuning and that of D6 Low A, is the pitch of the "A" string. In this case, the A note is pitched as the A above middle C on a piano keyboard.

Baritone Ukulele Tuning: Specifically for the larger bodied baritone ukulele, this tuning is based on standard guitar tuning. The strings are tuned to D G B and E, with D being the lowest pitch ad E being the highest. Guitar players will recognize this as the highest four strings on a guitar.

Slack Key: Most often used in Hawaiian Slack Key music, this tuning consists of the notes G C E and G. This combination of notes results in an open string C major chord. In this tuning major chords can be simply achieved by placing one finger across all strings.

ukulele god
ukulele god

So what's the problem?

In short, there really shouldn't be any problem. Each person is free to use whatever tuning they desire and delve into the world of ukulele in their chosen manner. Whether you are using C6 re-entrant, D6 Low A, or Baritone tuning, a C chord is a C chord is a C chord. The only difference lies in the position that you place your fingers.

This being said, there are some reasons to use specific tunings.

For the purposes of this article we will focus on the C6 and D6 tunings.

Reasons to use C6:

1) Materials - By far, most of the material available for the ukulele is based on the C6 "Standard" ukulele tuning.

2) Lower Range - The range of this tuning extends to the G below middle C on a piano keyboard. This can be useful in cases where you are playing a song that requires notes below an A under middle C.

3) Singing - Sometimes referred to as "The People's Key", the key of C major is generally comfortable range-wise for Joe Public.

Reasons to use D6:

1) Higher Range - Where C6 tuning has the ability to go lower, D6 has the ability to go higher. A difference of a major 2nd in pitch when traveling up the fretboard can be useful in keys that require higher notes. Generally, the bigger the frets, the easier it is to get clean resonant tones in the upper range of the instrument.

2) Singing for kids - For younger, higher pitched voices, D6 is a more accessible key when it comes to singing. In this tuning, the simplest chords are based in a tonal area that is more in-line with the vocal range of kids.

3) Classroom Ukulele Method - When it comes to using the ukulele as a teaching tool for music literacy, there are simply more resources available in D6 tuning. This being said, more recently authors are now offering classroom method books in both C6 and D6 tunings.

Uke'r Inside
Uke'r Inside

Linear versus Re-entrant tuning:

Each tuning style has its own benefits depending on the style of playing that you are focusing on. The main thing to note is that for beginner ukulele players it is usually suggested that you start with a linear tuning. This is a standard tuning configuration that spans the stringed family of instruments comprising everything from guitars to cellos, to pianos. The reason for this is due to the fact that linear tuning makes the basics of playing such as scales, easier to comprehend. For example, it is easier to understand that a G major scale (in the case of C6 tuning) starts on a G below middle C and ends an octave higher at G above middle C. On a re-entrant ukulele, the G, A, and B notes that start the scale are above middle C and rather than keep going up from there, you drop down to middle C and continue to G from there. In this case you end the scale on the exact pitch you started on. The summation of this thought is that once you understand the basics of musical structure, you can then more successfully move on to more complicated concepts and theories.

Live, Die, Play Ukulele
Live, Die, Play Ukulele

What should I do?

The answer to this question is up to you. In the end, you choice of tuning isn't really going to matter that much. You will still have the ability to jam, pick tunes, strum chords, and have fun with the best of them. Your decision is going to be based on your level of musical knowledge and the availability of resources in your situation. As long as you understand the specifics surrounding your tuning you should be fine in any situation

What are your comments or thoughts on ukulele tuning?

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    • ukestermoegifts profile imageAUTHOR

      ukestermoegifts 

      6 years ago

      @anonymous: It really depends on the keys of your songs. C6 and D6 fingerings are the same, they just have different names. Almost all of your Major7 chords are multiple finger chords in either tuning. As far as Am, it's a one finger chord in C6 (as opposed to 3 in D6), so if that's a common chord for you, go with C6.

    • profile image

      anonymous 

      6 years ago

      I am a music teacher and want to know which tuning would be best for grade 5 and 6 students to learn easy chords - ie 1 finger chords? We will be playing for a concert and I have very little time to teach them and don't know a lot about the ukuleles myself. My songs have a lot of major 7 chords and Am.

    • ukestermoegifts profile imageAUTHOR

      ukestermoegifts 

      6 years ago

      @anonymous: Hi, thanks for reading! Jake uses re-entrant tuning. In fact, a lot of the 'big time' Hawaiian players do. It makes it easier for Bass lines when doing solo playing because you only have to worry about one string in the lower register. The only downside is that it makes "picked" tunes harder to play in some keys because you don't have the same range.

    • profile image

      anonymous 

      6 years ago

      What tuning does Jake use, linear or re-entrant? I tried to tell by watching some of his videos but I'm still not sure. Thanks for your great tutorial on tuning variations.

    • ukestermoegifts profile imageAUTHOR

      ukestermoegifts 

      6 years ago

      @anonymous: The standard tuning for a baritone uke is DGBE similar to a guitar's highest four strings. If you are going to tune your Baritone gCEA I would first make sure to get the right set of strings. (You can get sets of Baritone specific gCEA or GCEA strings from Aquila.) As far as tuning the instrument itself, it would be tuned in the same octave as the soprano. (ukuleles are all tuned in the same octave). You could tune an octave lower but the strings may be quite "floppy" and too low tension.

    • profile image

      anonymous 

      6 years ago

      Is the tuning for a baritone uke strung gCEA an octave lower than the soprano uke?

    • ukestermoegifts profile imageAUTHOR

      ukestermoegifts 

      7 years ago

      @totallyclever: I absolutely agree, there are more resources available in 'C6' tuning. My main point was to show that some of the "sticking issues" are really fairly trivial and that it's not a big deal what tuning you play. As long as you enjoy playing the uke, all is well :) thanks for reading

    • totallyclever profile image

      totallyclever 

      7 years ago

      I play the 'standard' GCEA tuning. As I am self taught to play, there are simply more learning resources available on how to play for that tuning.

      I guess, that once you know how to play, or have a good teacher, then you can play any set of chorded music that you find, but until then, it is harder to learn.

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