Learning the ins-and-outs of ‘ukulele tuning is one of the most important things to work on when you’re beginning ‘ukulele. When you are not in tune, the notes you play have no relation to the music and sound bad.
The ‘ukulele is usually tuned:
I tell my students who have a hard time remembering this to think of it like, “Goats Can Eat Anything.”
The G can either be a “high-g” or a “low-G”. A high-g is traditional and is tuned to the G above middle C. A low-G is a more contemporary sound and is tuned to the G below middle C.
The interval distances 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. 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.
Relative ‘Ukulele Tuning:
When you “tune relative” is means you are tuning the strings to each other. Tuning relative is fine if you are playing by yourself, but if you try to jam with your friend, you might find that your “my dog has fleas” will be higher (sharp) or lower (flat) than his/her “my dog has fleas”. You could, however, tune one of your ‘ukulele’s strings to your friend’s and then tune out from there.
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.
- Hold the 5th fret of the 2nd (E) string. This is an A note. Play this note and the open 1st (A) string. Use the E-string ‘ukulele tuning peg on the headstock to adjust the pitch of the E string so that it matches the pitch of the open A string.
- Now hold the 4th fret of the 3rd (C) string. This is an E note. Play this note and the open 2nd (E) string. Use the machine heads (tuning peg) to adjust the pitch of the C string so that it matches the pitch of the open E string.
If you have a high-g string as the top (4th) string:
- Hold the 2nd fret of the 4th (G) string. This is an A note. Play this note and the open 1st (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.
If you tune your ‘ukulele with a low-G string:
- Hold the 5th fret of the 4th (G) string. This is an C note. Play this note and the open 3rd (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.
For the visual people out there, here is a tuning chart (the dot on string shows what fret to hold, the arrow shows what string to adjust the fretted note to): Tuning Chart
When you play two of the same notes simultaneously (like the 5th fret, E string to an open-A) and they are a bit out of tune, there is a “beating” sound that happens. This beating sound is like a pulse. It’s kind of hard to hear. 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 use this to get your unison notes very close in pitch this way, but it takes some practice.
Using A Clip-On Tuner:
The second method is for ‘ukulele tuning is to use an electronic clip-on tuner. This is the simplest assisted way to tune your ‘ukulele. Because a clip-on tuner “feels” the vibrations, you can tune in a roomful of noise without any trouble.
Use a chromatic tuner or its chromatic setting.
1. Turn the tuner on and clip it to your ‘ukulele’s headstock.
2. Play an open string. The tuner displays the pitch of the note you are sounding.
3. If the indicator is to the left of center, the pitch of the string is flat and needs to come up (higher), if it is to the right of center, the note is sharp and needs to come down (lower). When the indicator is centered, the string is in tune.
I use a Planet Waves NS Mini. It’s amazingly small and accurate. My ‘ukulele is never parted from it and it runs forever on a single battery.
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The standard tuning reference is an A note at 440hz (the A above middle C). On many tuners you can change this number up or down. That’s bad if you unintentionally alter your reference pitch. If your tuner is set to A=444hz you will be out of tune when you play with someone who tunes to A=440hz. So keep it at 440 unless everybody changes their reference pitch.
Apps And “Listening” Tuners
There’s an app for that. There are actually many ‘ukulele tuning apps. I used Cleartune ($3.99) for a long time on my iOS devices, but recently found a simpler option that would be more suitable for beginners called insTuner (free). If you need more options and want to play around with tuning temperament or “sweetened” tunings, go for Cleartune. If you’ve never used a tuner before and want visual cues on which direction to take your notes, check out insTuner.
The other option here is a standalone tuner like the Korg CA-40. This is what comes with many beginner ‘ukulele packages. It features a virtual needle and a little microphone to hear your uke.
Both apps and the standalone tuners follow the same principles to guide you into pitch. You pick a string and the note is displayed. If the needle floats to the left, the note is flat and need to go higher in pitch. If the needle floats to the right the note is sharp and needs to be lowered.
Tuning Your ‘Ukulele to a Piano or Pitch Pipe:
If you have a piano or pitch pipe, you can tune to that. Match the notes on the piano or pitch pipe with the notes of the ‘ukulele by ear. Online Pitch Pipe
‘Ukulele Tuning Tips:
With geared tuners, turning the knob clockwise will loosen the string. Turning counter-clockwise will tighten it. With friction tuners, turning the peg clockwise for the top two strings and counter-clockwise for the bottom two strings will tighten the string.
Tune up to the desired pitch. It’s always better to scoop up into the note that to tune down to it. If you tune down to a note there is a lot of slack trapped between the peg and the nut. Tuning up means this slack will never exist. No slack means less chances of a string going flat as you play.
Don’t hang your hand on the tuning peg when you are checking the pitch. It can push the strings out of tune. So pick the string, decide what adjustment you need to make, turn the peg, and then take your hand away.
If you start turning the tuning pegs and nothing seems to happen or the strings loosen when they should get tighter, you probably have the strings threaded on wrong or you’re tuning the wrong peg. If you just got your ukulele from the factory and haven’t had time to change strings this is not your fault – the stock strings on low budget ‘ukuleles are almost always put on wrong. To stop the slipping you should get some new strings and read “changing ‘ukulele strings.”
Compared to a guitar, there aren’t many ‘ukulele tunings that have been explored. The common ones are discussed here.
- The generally accepted standard tuning for the ‘ukulele is GCEA.
Most ‘ukuleles are tuned with a high-G string (re-entrant), but tuning with a low-G string (linear) is a fast growing alternative. An ‘ukulele tuned with the low-G string has a nice, even sound when strummed. It also offers five bass notes that you can’t reach using a high-G string. Low-G string users and abusers: Herb Ohta Jr., Brittni Paiva, and James Hill.
Most common alternative tunings:
- Slack key: low-GCEG
- Baritone: low-DGBE
- English tuning: ADF#B or low-ADF#B (same concept as a low-G string).
You might hear some confusing names for tunings in your music travels. The “Alto” or “C6” tuning is standard GCEA. “Soprano” or “D6” is the English tuning. A “G6” tuning is baritone. Despite these variations, soprano, concert, and tenor sizes are all usually tuned the same: GCEA. Baritone is the only one that is different most of the time (DGBE), but I have met several people who tune their baritone up to standard pitch. I don’t know what size strings they were using, so be extremely cautious and do your homework before trying it out or you might end up pulling your instrument in half.
Tuning Down a half-Step
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 B 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.
When an ‘ukulele has more than 4 strings things can get confusing really fast. All are tuned with all or some of the strings doubled (the two doubled strings are called a “course”), except the Koaloha D-VI.
- 6 string: G > high-C > C > E > low-A > A
- 8 string: G > low-G > high C > C > E > E > A > A (E and A strings are unison)
Koaloha D-VI (like guitar w/capo on the 5th fret): low-A > low-D > low-G > C > E > A