Six-string ukuleles (also called a liliʻu) have a big, beautiful, iconic sound. They can achieve a more full, jangle-y tone than a standard uke because of their additional strings and strange tuning.
But for all the benefits, one of the biggest drawbacks of these instruments is understanding the tuning. More strings take more time to tune and, for a beginner, even knowing WHAT note to tune each string to is a real challenge.
This guide on 6-string ukulele tuning will help you make sure you’ve got it right.
Liliʻu vs. Guitalele
A liliʻu and a guitalele both have six strings, but their layout is different. This guide is for liliʻu-style 6-string ukes.
The liliʻu (traditional 6-string ukulele) is tuned like a normal ukulele, but has two doubled strings, called a “course” (more below).
The guitalele has six evenly spaced strings (no courses) that use an ADGCEA tuning. This is a tuning exactly like a guitar capoed on the 5th fret that goes from low to high.
What is a “Course”?
Something unique to the 6-string ukulele (and 8- and 5-string variants) are strings paired together. A “course” is when two strings share a tight spacing and are played together as one. A course is tuned either to the same pitch or an octave apart.
The hardest thing to comprehend about courses is how they are played. A course counts as one string. All that’s different from a four string uke is that there are two strings you need to hold down instead of one.
For instance, if I want to play a C chord on an 8-string ukulele, I still need to press down the 3rd fret of the A-string. But since the A-string is tuned in a course, I have to actually press down both the bottom strings that make up the double course.
Since courses are considered the same string, they aren’t meant to be played separately. If you are supposed to pluck the C-string, you pick both the C-strings in the doubled course. This extra string is what creates a big sound.
Tuning a 6-String
There are several variants of the liliʻu tuning. However, all feature a double course on the C and A-strings.
The traditional Liliʻu tuning uses a high-g tuning with octave pairs on the C and A-string courses.
The C course is tuned high-C (the C above the pitch of an A-string) and standard middle C as on a normal uke. Usually, the high-C is closer to the ceiling.
All together it would be:
g cC E Aa (high strings shown with lower-case letters).
Other variations are: low-G, unison C course, and unison A course, or some combination of the three.
If you have a liliʻu, look at the nut slots. One side of each course should be obviously larger than the other. This wider slot is where the low string should go.
Unless you have a really good reason to do otherwise, I would definitely arrange the strings as the nut slot on your 6-string dictates. If you try and create a custom string orientation, you’re not guaranteed to have the strings sit in the nut properly. This can make the uke harder to play and requires a setup to fix.
The 6-string ukulele – also known as the “liliʻu” – was pioneered by Sam Kamaka Jr. in 1959 to commemorate the Statehood of Hawaiʻi and our Queen, Liliʻuokalani.
It’s a bold sounding tenor uke that’s great for rhythm playing and is well known for its use accompanying hula ʻauana. Here’s a real clean example by Pomaika‘i Keawe rocking the six-string with an ace backup band.