Tuning your ukulele is the most important part of starting to play music. If the strings aren’t in tune, even if you play “correctly,” it will still sound bad.
To avoid this and create harmonious sounds on your uke, always tune before you play.
“We tune because we care!” is an oft-heard joke among performing musicians.
A standard ukulele is usually tuned: G C E A from the top string (closest to the ceiling) to the bottom string (closest to the floor).
I tell my students who have a hard time remembering this to think of it like, “Goats Can Eat Anything.”
Each string is numbered for easy reference when teaching. The G-string is called the 4th string. The A-string is called the 1st string. The C and E-strings sit respectively between.
This can seem backwards at first so just think of it like the stories in a building. The bottom string has the lowest number, the top string has the highest number.
G - 4 C - 3 E - 2 A - 1
The G-string can either be a “high-g” or a “low-G”.
A high-g is traditional and is tuned to the G above middle C (called “re-entrant”). This makes the strings sound high-low-higher-highest – “my dog has fleas.”
A low-G is a more contemporary sound and is tuned to the G below middle C which keeps the string in an ascending order: low to high (called “linear”).
The interval distances between the strings are: a perfect 4th (G to C), a major 3rd (C to E), and a perfect 4th (E to A).
Ukulele Tuning Methods
There are several different ways you can tune your ukulele. Each has its pros and cons and can be used in different situations.
- Electronic tuner – best for beginners and when you’re in a rush
- Relative tuning – best for honing your ear and doesn’t need any accessories
- Reference tuning – best for a group that tunes by ear or someone without a tuner reference
Learn one that will aid you in everyday playing and become your go-to method for ukulele tuning, but also study the others so you have options and alternatives in case your tuner breaks.
How to Tune Your Ukulele With an Electronic Tuner
The easiest method of tuning your ukulele is to use an electronic tuner. This is the simplest, most sure-fire way to tune for beginners.
There are three types of electronic tuners: clip-on, app/”listening” tuners, and pedal tuners. All work in a similar manner.
A clip-on tuner clamps onto the headstock of your ukulele and “feels” sound vibrations. This allows you to tune in a roomful of noise without any trouble. These are the most popular kind of tuner due to ease of use and practicality.
The alternative is an app on your smartphone device or a dedicated tuner with a microphone. Both work similarly by listening to the pitch (so it can be troublesome to tune if you’re in a loud room). An app can be much more convenient.
A more professional tuning option is a tuner pedal that you plug your ukulele into. This is usually only practical if you are using an amp and have some other pedals. But it’s very accurate and works independent of noise, similar to a clip-on style.
Step 1: Preparing the tuner
To get started, clip the tuner onto your ukulele or plug your uke into it. (If you’re using your phone or a “listening” tuner, place it somewhere close to soundhole so that the microphone can pick up a strong sound.)
The readout style for all electronic tuners is pretty universal. Simply pick a string and the note is displayed on the tuner.
If the needle floats to the left, the displayed note is flat and needs to go higher in pitch (the string needs to be tightened).
If the needle floats to the right, the displayed note is sharp and needs to be lowered (the string needs to be loosened).
If it’s dead center, the string is in tune.
Correct Tuner Settings
Many tuners these days come with lots of options and settings that can be very confusing at first.
Some tuners have guitar, uke, and chromatic modes. The guitar and uke modes limit the display range, only showing those notes in the tuning. This means if your G-string is at an F# note, the tuner shows “G,” which is the closest in pitch.
To me this is confusing, which is why I prefer to set my tuners to the chromatic setting. This way I can see all the notes and always know exactly where I’m at on the spectrum.
The reference pitch is also usually adjustable. Unless you have a really good reason for changing it and know what you’re doing, this should always be set to 440hz.
Tune the G-string
Pluck the G-string (the one closest to the ceiling) and look at the tuner.
If it says “G,” you’re close to the right note and can just adjust the tuning peg and follow the indicator needle up or down until it’s right in the center.
If it says something other than “G,” you have to assess whether the note is higher or lower than G. Every note sits in the middle of a chromatic scale that radiates outwards infinitely. It looks kind of like this (just a small portion of it):
...E - F - F#/Gb - G - G#/Ab - A - A#/Bb...
Your goal is to get the needle centered on the G note, but sometimes if your uke is really off, you’ll have to tune through a number of these other notes before you get to G.
If you see: D, D# or Eb, E, F, F# or Gb, try tuning UP.
If you see: G# or Ab, A, A# or Bb, B, C, try tuning DOWN.
Once you move the string far enough, you’ll see the note name change and the needle jump to the opposite side of where it was. This is because the high pitch of one note is the low pitch of the next note, and vice versa.
This is the hardest part of learning to tune.
Use your judgement and if you think the string might be too tight, tune downwards until you get the note you were looking for. If at this point the string sounds bad and seems extra flabby, you were probably on the right track to begin with and should go back up the octave.
Nothing bad will happen if you detune too much.
Tune the C-string
Tuning the C-string of your ukulele is almost exactly the same as tuning the G. The only difference are the surrounding notes you might encounter. If you’re already on C, great – just follow the needle. But…
If you see: G, Ab or G#, A, A# or Bb, B try tuning UP.
If you see: C# or Db, D, D# or Eb, E, F try tuning DOWN.
Tune the E-string
Again, the E-string is mostly similar, but now you are reaching around the underside of the headstock. So be extra mindful of the direction you are turning the peg.
Instead of E…
If you see: B, C, C# or Db, D, D# or Eb try tuning UP.
If you see: F, F# or Gb, G, G# or Ab, A try tuning DOWN.
Tune the A-string
One more to go! Same exact idea, but now you’re on the last peg.
Instead of A…
If you see: E, F, F# or Gb, G, G# or Ab try tuning UP.
If you see: A# or Gb, B, C, C# or Db try tuning DOWN.
Recheck the tuning
Many times (especially when you’re starting out and going slow) you’ll find that the first strings you tuned have drifted off pitch by the time you finish tuning the last string.
All you need to do is quickly repeat steps 2-5 to bring everything back into tune. If you continue to have trouble with the strings slipping out of tune, check the section on why won’t my uke stay in tune?
That’s it! go forth and play music on your freshly tuned uke!
It may seem painfully slow to tune your ukulele at first, but once you get the hang of it you’ll be tuning much, much faster.
Relative Ukulele Tuning:
The old-school way of tuning (and arguably best) is to pitch the strings relative to each other. You use your ear to match the pitch of one string to the next.
This often yields a sweeter tuning because it will be adjusted to what sounds best to your ears.
A clever person would start by tuning one of his ukulele’s strings to that of his friend’s and then tune out from there.
I recently did a whole live lesson about how to tune by ear:
For additional insight and higher sound quality, listen to my podcast on tuning (S3E12).
Here’s how to tune your ukulele relative to itself. You can approach it several ways, but this is the most common:
Tune everything to your bottom A string. If you are going to use a reference pitch, be sure you tune your A string to it.
1. Hold the 5th fret of the E-string. This should exactly match the sound of the open A-string. Play both E and A-strings simultaneously and adjust the E-string’s tuning peg until it’s the same pitch as the open A string.
With friction tuners, turning the peg clockwise for the top two strings and counter-clockwise for the bottom two strings will tighten the string.
2. Now hold the 4th fret of the C-string. This should exactly match the open E-string. Play both C and E-strings and adjust the pitch of the C-string so that it matches the pitch of the open E-string.
3a. If you have a high-g string:
Hold the 2nd fret of the G-string. This should exactly match the open A-string. Use the ukulele tuning pegs to adjust the pitch of the G-string so that it matches the pitch of the open A-string.
3b. If you tune your ukulele with a low-G string:
Hold the 5th fret of the G-string. This should exactly match the open C-string. Use the tuning pegs to adjust the pitch of the G-string so that it matches the pitch of the open C-string.
The further the two notes are out of tune, the faster and more noticeable the beating sound. If your two notes are perfectly in tune, it goes away.
You can listen for this to get your unison notes very close in pitch, but it takes some practice.
Tricks for fine-tuning by ear
By verifying your tuning several different ways you can get the strings even closer to the proper pitch.
One of my favorites is playing the octave C with the open C-string and 3rd fret, A-string and also the octave G on the G-string and 3rd fret, E-string. If you play high-g your octave G will be a unison, but will serve the same purpose.
Since you are skipping a string you have a chance to get the overall temper in tune better. If you tune to the A-string and work up, any error is reflected in the following string. By cross-checking the tuning in this way you can eliminate the possibility of these long-range, accumulative errors.
Another trick is to play harmonics on the two outside strings on the 5th and 7th frets. By matching these two high pitches you can hear the beating effect discussed above better.
Why Won’t My Ukulele Stay in Tune?
A common problem beginners have when trying to tune their uke is that it simply won’t stay on pitch.
This is frustrating because even though you get the string to the right note, you can’t play any nice-sounding music for very long – or at all – because it quickly goes out of tune.
- Haven’t played it in a while
- Just changed strings
- Just switched environments (temperature or humidity)
Some ukuleles simply stay in tune better than others.
I had a low-budget Hula Ukes ukulele that I had to tune all the time. My Moore Bettah on the other hand rarely goes out of tune. Instrument stability has as much to with it as the strings. If you have a uke that has joints and parts that shift around when the temperature changes, naturally the strings will drift out of tune.
Stock/Incorrectly Installed Strings:
A huge percentage of the time, strings slipping can be attributed to incorrect installation.
On budget ukuleles, strings are almost always installed hastily (time = money). This usually manifests in one of two ways:
- The string doesn’t exert enough friction on itself and actually slides through its hole in the tuning peg.
- The string is wrapped around the tuning peg many more times than it needs to be and extra slack hidden in the winds slowly releases over time.
Unless you are on a very tight budget, I always recommend replacing stock strings ASAP to avoid these problems. You’ll also find that new strings sound better than their counterparts that have been sitting in a warehouse for months or years.
They Need to be Stretched:
New strings or strings that are affected by #2 above often need to have the slack stretched out of them.
Friction tuning pegs that stick straight back from the headstock often loose their grip on the hole they live in. This leads to endless down-tuning that’s caused by the peg actually turning in its hole.
Most friction pegs have a screw on the back that you can tighten with a screwdriver. Adjust this small amounts at a time until the string stops falling flat.
Over-tighten the screw and it will be hard to turn the peg at all!
A popular alternative to traditional friction pegs are Gotoh planetary geared tuners. They preserve the look of the straight-back style, but have a 4:1 ratio for more precise tuning and are less prone to slipping.
Proper Tuning Technique:
The way you approach getting your strings to pitch has a lot to do with how well the uke stays in tune.
You always want to tune up to the desired note.
This prevents unwanted slack from being trapped between the nut and tuning peg. Since a nut slot isn’t a perfectly slippery surface, the tension difference between the reverse side of the string and the side that you play on are rarely equal.
If you tune down to a note, the tension of the long, ringing length of string will be higher than that of the short, unplayed portion. As you play, the weight of your fingers on the frets will even out the tension between both sides of the string, causing it to go flat.
Depending on where you are in the world, there are usually two main ukulele tunings:
Standard (GCEA) and baritone (DGBE).
A tuning can also be named by the chord it is made up of. Since the notes of GCEA make a C6 chord, standard ukulele tuning is often called “C6 tuning.”
Baritone tuning is the same as standard, only it’s tuned down a perfect 4th lower to a G6 chord. This is the same as the bottom four strings of a guitar.
The other main variant is the D6 tuning. This tuning is A D F# B and is a whole step higher than standard. It’s common in England, but also in Canada where D6 is the tuning often taught in schools.
According to D’addario, a standard high-g tenor set tuned to G C E A exerts 49.61 pounds of tension on the ukulele. Changing the tuning up to A D F# B jacks the tension up to 62.62 pounds – a 23% increase.
This is playing with fire in my book so a tool like String Tension Pro is invaluable for figuring out safe tensions across different tunings and scale lengths.
Alternate Ukulele Tunings
An open-C slack-key tuning is really the only variation that has any kind of following. It’s nice because a straight barre across the fretboard becomes a major chord. This makes it easy to play certain Hawaiian style runs with.
You can tune any ukulele to slack key without changing strings. Simply lower the pitch of the A-string a whole step down to G.
Half Step Down
I’ve been playing solo a lot recently and usually fell like my sound is thin when playing in standard tuning. It IS just a uke and a voice, after all.
So I began looking around for alternative ways to sound “bigger.” It occurred to me that many of the great guitarists tune down a half step to Eb. On an ukulele it’s a B6 tuning: F# B D# G#.
The moment I tried this on ukulele I knew I was on to something. The sound was fatter and had a nice deep ring to it. It really brought out a dark vibe in my ukulele that I really liked the sound of. And it sounded more ballsy on its own.
Octave-Down on a Baritone
Just out of curiosity I put the bass strings from a heavy classical guitar set on my baritone ukulele and tuned it to low-GCEA, but an octave lower than standard pitch. The results were interesting, as you can hear for yourself:
Tuning Ukuleles With Additional Strings
When an ukulele has more than 4 strings things can get confusing really fast.
For more on ukuleles with doubled courses like 5, 6, and 8-string ukes, check out my in-depth tuning guide specifically for those tunings.
Guitalele: low-A – low-D – low-G – C – E – A. Tuned like guitar with a capo on the 5th fret.