Tuning Your ʻUkulele a Half-Step Down: F#-B-D#-G#

The ʻukulele is a highly-pitched little beast. But what if you tune your uke a half-step down to F# B D# G#?

It can yield you a thicker, warmer tone. The half-step lower tuning also lightens the tension of the strings.

For the past year or two I’ve been using this trick on my main ʻukulele. 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.

It’s pretty well known that many guitarists tune 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 Half-Step Down ʻUkulele Tuning

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

Learn how to tune your ʻukulele.

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 of F#-B-D#-G#:

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 the D’Addario string calculator). Drop that down a half-step to B6 and you end up with 39.40 pounds. That’s almost 5 pounds of difference in string tension! 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 ʻukulele 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 ʻukulele.

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 ʻukulele is still tuned to “my dog has fleas.” It’s just that the pitch of it is lower.

Here’s a video comparison that points out some of the highlights:

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.

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 in relation to the root. 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 ʻukulele. 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.

By Brad Bordessa

I’m an ‘ukulele artist from Honoka’a, Hawai’i, where I run this site from a little plantation house in the jungle. I’ve taught workshops internationally, made Herb Ohta Jr. laugh until he cried, and once borrowed a uke to jam with HAPA onstage in my boardshorts. More about me

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