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‘Ukulele Chord Shapes
“If you have questions about ukulele chords, Chord Shapes has the answers.” ~ James Hill

Tuning Down A Half-Step

The ‘ukulele is a highly-pitched little beast. Its range sits above many other instruments. This is beautiful and gives it its signature “happy” sound, but when playing solo can leave you feeling a little naked.

It is because of this that I have, within the last year or so, began experimenting with tuning my ‘ukulele down a half step. I believe I ran across this concept when trying to figure out a song in a funny key that needed some open strings. It caught my ear because of the thicker, more dark sound that it gave my instrument.

Well known is the fact that many guitarists throughout time have tuned their instrument a half-step down. Jimi Hendrix and Stevie Ray Vaughn are two of the most famous names, but many, many more lesser-known join their ranks using a Eb-Ab-Db-Gb-Bb-Eb guitar tuning.

The Tuning

On ‘ukulele, this half-step lower tuning becomes F#-B-D#-G#. Simply drop the pitch of each string down to the next note in the chromatic scale.

Learn how to tune your ‘ukulele.

Because of the lower pitch, all of your chord shapes and notes change location. This is great for some keys, but terrible for others. A C chord shape becomes a B. Which is great for playing in B! …But it also means that to play a C chord you must play C# chord shape. This is fantastic for jamming along with your favorite easy song on the radio and challenging yourself with harder chord shapes.

For easier reference I’ll call the F#-B-D#-G# tuning a B6 tuning – just like how standard C6 is G-C-E-A.

Advantages/Disadvantages:

Playing in this lowered tuning is not for everybody and for all situations. But I will do my best here to convince you to at least give it a try.

Feel

A run-of-the-mill set of D’Addario Nyltech tenor strings tuned to G-C-E-A on a 17″ scale create a combined tension of 44.23 pounds (according to their string calculator). Drop that down a half-step to B6 and you end up with 39.40 pounds. Almost 5 pounds of difference in string tension is quite a bit.

This lighter tension makes it feel like you dropped a gauge of strings. For instance, I use Worth CH strings. Tuned to B6 they feel more like I would expect a CT set to feel – the next lightest set of Worth strings. This is easier on your fingers and makes bends jump up to pitch faster and require less pressure while still retaining the feel of thicker strings.

Sound

When playing on your own, this B6 tuning really can open up some richer, deep tones. I find my ‘ukulele resonates more in this tuning as opposed to up the normal half-step in C6. The sound is fatter and seems to me to have more punch. It’s exactly the opposite of what tuning up to the English D6 accentuates on an ‘ukulele.

If you’re playing solo, any chord chart or tab can be played as if you were tuned to G-C-E-A. Don’t even worry about the different tuning. Your ‘ukulele is still tuned to “my dog has fleas.” It’s just that the pitch of it is lower.

If you play with anybody else it’s not as simple to use a different tuning like this. You’ll have to mentally transpose everything you play up a half step to match the pitch everyone else is at. (Assuming you come from a C6 tuning background.) This is a lot of work, but what I do instead of memorizing a completely new fretboard is relate all things to each other as they exist in keys. Once I figure out what key I’m playing in to match concert pitch, it’s simple to visualize all the commonly used chords and scale positions. It doesn’t really matter what the true pitch of the song is if I am familiar with the shapes that I need to play to get a certain sound.

Further Comments

B6 tuning is but one option to try on your ‘ukulele. You might find that another tuning brings out the tones and resonance you want to hear on your own instrument. Let this post be an encouragement to try other tunings and see what your ears like or dislike about them.

The biggest hurdle here is studying the location of notes on the fretboard. If you’ve spent any time learning where they live in standard C6 tuning, any effort you put into studying their location a half-step below might become contradictory. Every mind is different so proceed how you are comfortable.

Don’t Ask Your Doctor…

…if B6 is right for you. Try it – consequences be damned! There’s nothing to break and nothing to lose. Give it a try and let me know what you think.

Meet The Author:

Brad Bordessa

Brad plays 'ukulele on the Big Island of Hawai'i. He writes original music, performs, and hunts unicorns - all with only an 'ukulele.

10 comments… add one
  • Martin Aug 21, 2016, 2:52 pm

    I tuned my tenor to dGBE for a week just for fun. It didn’t sound so much like a uke anymore. I really enjoyed the more relaxed feeling of the strings, compared to gCEA tuning. I hadn’t considered a smaller tuning adjustment, e.g. per your post. As a beginner (7 months on the ukulele) I feel like I’ve just gotten to where the first 5 frets feel “automatic” for my fingers to find the notes with gCEA tuning. But I will try B6 sometime this week, just for fun.

    • Brad Bordessa Aug 21, 2016, 2:56 pm

      Aloha Martin, DGBE on a tenor is quite low! Would love to hear your thoughts on B6 as a compromise.

  • Martin Aug 21, 2016, 4:08 pm

    I’m just a beginner, but will be happy to share my thoughts on B6 after noodling around with it.

    It was dGBE…high d…on my Tenor. Low D string would have been very floppy, I’m sure. I live near Elderly Instruments and they had an Aquila set for dGBE tuning for Tenor. As a beginning picker who mostly picks with thumb with no nail, it was much easier to get a good tone out of the 4th string tuned to E.

  • Martin Aug 22, 2016, 8:48 am

    I tried f# B D# G#. I like it. As a relative beginner, it seems easier to get a clean-sounding tone on the 1st and 2nd strings. The sound coming from the uke feels more full and relaxed…not sure how to explain it exactly.

    However…Everything seems to go sharp as I move toward the 7th fret, but that’s probably just the strings needing a day to adjust to the new tension.

    If I were to go down one more “click” to f-Bb-D-G would I need to change strings?

  • Brad Bordessa Sep 8, 2016, 7:35 am

    Aloha Martin, You shouldn’t need new strings. What might be happening is that the lower tension is creating less resistance for your fingers and they are accidentally pushing the strings out of tune. Try using a lighter touch and see if that helps.

  • Jeff Sep 8, 2016, 12:27 pm

    I’ve heard a number of folks tuning down, mostly for ease of fretting. I’ve recently tuned a Pono baritone uke up 1/2 step to eliminate the floppy 4th string (D). Any thoughts??

    • Brad Bordessa Sep 8, 2016, 5:58 pm

      Just be careful of how much tension you are putting on the instrument. I always try to use lighter strings when tuning up. Or make sure your uke is beefy enough to handle it. But, yeah, baritone tuning is pretty low for the scale length so it totally makes sense!

  • Mark Hogue Sep 11, 2016, 9:04 am

    I got interested in your mention of the Worth CH strings. I went to check them out and found a warning about higher tension (http://www.theukulelesite.com/worth-strings-ch-lg-cf-lg-ch-lghd.html). Neither Worth, nor my ukulele’s manufacturer (Mainland) will advise me on whether these strings are okay for my uke. Do you happen to know how much tension they would require?

    • Brad Bordessa Sep 11, 2016, 4:59 pm

      Aloha Mark,

      They could put that warning on any pack of strings. When you intentionally put tension on a wooden box you are essentially creating a bomb! How much tension can you put on it before it explodes? Nobody knows!

      Mainland makes a decent instrument. I can’t imagine it being a problem. You can use this calculator to get a ballpark idea of the string tensions: http://stringtensionpro.com/. I used to have a spreadsheet from Worth kicking around with all their detailed string specs, but I can’t find it. If it was my uke I wouldn’t hesitate to try them out. And I certainly wouldn’t hesitate tuning to F#-B-D#-G#. Don’t tune it up to English D6.

      Just use your best judgement. If the action on your uke lifts up by a lot – stop. But usually you will break a string before you break the instrument. (All the strings together vs. the instrument is a different story.)

      Peace,

      Brad

  • Kit Sep 13, 2016, 10:57 am

    I have about half of my ukes tuned down a whole step (f Bb D G) – Bb is one of my overall favorite keys, and this tuning has a deep, haunting sound that captivates me. I don’t need different strings; my preference for my sopranos are Martin M600s. Great tutorial – thanks!

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