S2E11 – Low-G VS High-g Tuning

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Exploring the differences between re-entrant and linear tuning.

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Edited for clarity.

Aloha welcome to the Live Ukulele Podcast. My name’s Brad Bordessa. Thank you for tuning in. In this episode, I’m going to talk about high-g and low-G tuning. People often wonder what is best, what is the difference? How could I possibly choose? And I want to talk about some of the mindset behind these different tunings and also the reasons you would choose one or the other. And also if I think you should try and have one ukulele for one tuning, one ukulele for another tuning, that kind of thing. I’ll see what I can share from my place on the low-G hill.

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So when you tune an ukulele G, C, E, A, the C, E, A parts are pretty much locked in place. If you’re going to play in standard tuning, that is where you’re going to keep them. But the G-string has an octave variation that’s very common. And so you’ll hear people say that, oh, I play with a low-G string or I play with a high-g string. And the difference between these is one octave. One is the G below middle C, and one is the G above middle C. High-G is the more traditional vintage tuning that the ukulele sort of came into existence using. And it starts actually with a high note and then drops down to the C and then returns high for the strings closest to the floor. This is known as a re-entrant tuning.

It’s that signature “my dog has fleas” sound, but it’s actually kind of uncommon in the musical world because it has that high note and then it drops low and then it goes high again. The banjo is kind of the only other instrument in the mainstream that has a tuning along those lines. Whereas linear tuning or low-G tuning, because it puts the G below middle C, it actually starts low and goes high all the way across the strings and all the way across the instrument.

As you can hear, I’m playing on two different ukuleles for those demonstrations and actually two different sizes. So the high-g is actually on a soprano, which sort of adds to the thin vintage sort of plinky ukulele sound. And the low-G is on a tenor. So it’s going to be a little bit more warm and round. But all we’re worried about is the difference between the first string that I pluck.

So the difference between the two pitches of the possible high-g or low-G is an octave. So on one ukulele you have the low-G, and if you were to take that up, an octave you’d end up with high-g. It would sound like… Because of the way the string is tuned – and since it’s an octave from one note to the next – you almost always need to change the string types that are on your ukulele to go from low-G to high-g or high-g to low-G. Just the physics of strings, the diameters have to change significantly to achieve those different notes. So if you have a high-g on your ukulele and you want to switch to low-G you’ve got to go out and buy a specific low-G string, which are pretty easy to find these days. I imagine you can go on like theukulelesite.com – which is Hawaiʻi Music Supply – and buy just a single low-G string. And probably the same for high-g strings. Though high-g strings are a little bit less rare, you’re more likely to see them included in an ukulele set, just from default. If you were to buy just like a generic off the shelf set of ukulele strings, it probably comes for high-g instead of low-G. The low G is usually a special set or an add on.

And when you do this most ukuleles – especially lower budget ukuleles – they come from the factory with a high-g setup. And this means they’re strung with a high-g and the nut slot is filed for the diameter of the high-g string. If you were to take off that high-g string and put a low-G string on, most low-G strings are a larger diameter than the high-g. Sometimes there are wound variants that aren’t quite as thick, but even the wound variant for low-G is still going to be a little bit bigger than most high-g strings. And so because of this, the low-G if you put it on a high-g set up ukulele might not even fit down into the nuts slot. So this is where choosing to move from high-g to low-G can be a little bit of a commitment because usually you have to file the nut slot a bit to make it fit down into place and to be an appropriate height off the fretboard.

Okay. If you’re going from low-G to high-g though, the high-g is going to easily fit in the low-G nut slot. And for the most part, having a wider nut slot, isn’t usually a problem and the string won’t move around in the nut. In my experience. I haven’t heard of anybody needing to get a new nut or to refill the nut, so that it’s tighter around the high-g string. Usually it just kind of works out of the box. You can just add a high-g to a low-G ukulele. But that’s not to say that an ukulele is designed or built necessarily for one or the other. You can put a high-g on any ukulele. You can put it low-G on any ukulele. For the most part. High-gs definitely work across a broader range of instrument sizes. Whereas low-G… Because of the diameter of the string and the scale length and the resonance of the ukulele’s body. …When you get down to like a soprano size, the low-G becomes a little bit boomy and unmanageable. And you can put one on a soprano, but it doesn’t always turn out the best depending on the instrument. You can do it though. Ohta-San has been playing with a low-G on a soprano for as long as… I’m not sure if he’s always done that, or if he transitioned at some point, but at least all the recordings I’ve heard and every time I’ve seen him play, he’s always playing with a low-G on a soprano. And of course he makes it sound fabulous. So there’s not really anything saying you can’t put either of these strings on any ukulele.

So high-g or low-G is not just an arbitrary choice. There is a method to the madness and each one has specific pros and cons and attributes that you should consider. If you’re just starting out, use whatever your ukulele came with. Don’t try and worry about any of this stuff. Because you just need to play and practice and just get the basic mechanics down. It’s not something to be thinking about if you’re just starting. Because a lot of folks, especially when they’re starting, they do a lot of strumming and chords and really the high-g or the low-G makes less of a difference when you’re strumming chords. Because you’re playing all the strings together, the ukulele is making kind of the biggest sound it can make. It’s not super noticeable that one string is changed by an octave. But if you’re a little bit more advanced and you start doing some picking, that is where the low-G or the high-h have different attributes and benefits, which I’ll talk about here.

You should note if you’re listening that I, Brad, am solely a low-G player. The only time I play with a high-g is if I intentionally need to like, demonstrate something on high-g for a student or for a video I’m making, or if I just want to screw around with it. It’s really not my wheelhouse. And the reason for that is because I kind of grew up idolizing Herb Ohta, Jr. and his disciples, so to speak. And they all played with low-G. And so just right off the bat, I was hearing that sound and I was trying to emulate that sound, and it really helps to have a low-G to be able to do that. So I switched to low-G early on in my playing because that’s what I wanted to achieve. So that’s my background is low-G-only pretty much. That said, I don’t think low-G is necessarily better for everybody, but that is sort of where I’m coming from, just as a disclosure.

But let’s talk about high-g. Because it’s the traditional ukulele sound, it seems like maybe the best place to start. High-g has that signature focused plinky ukulele sound. It is characterized like that and it sounds like that because the range of the ukulele is reduced. When you’re playing with a high-g your lowest note is middle C on the C string. And it goes up to the 12th fret or the 15th fret, or however many frets your ukulele has, which is only two octaves. That’s all you get. If your ukulele even goes up to the 15th fret. So it’d be a two octave range.

Because of how the high-g sits pitch-wise, chords – when you play them – all the notes in the chords are going to be closer together. Because there’s this limited octave range. You just don’t span as much ground. And so this keeps things tight and very focused. Which is why James Hill talks about liking re-entrant high-g tuning – or high-a tuning in his case, if he’s playing in Canadian tuning – he likes that better for jazz because it puts the notes closer together and it’s a little bit more sophisticated sounding when you’re playing jazz voicings. And if you’ve ever heard James Hill play jazz, you know, that it really just sounds awesome because that’s… Because it’s him, but just having that tighter sound, it’s more focused and it’s more appropriate for jazz, but it’s because the chords that you hold when you hold down all four strings they’re are going to be tighter and there’s a little more focus to them.

The high-g also has the benefit of being closer to the middle of the ukulele’s scale range than the low-G would be. And because of this, it allows you to play off of the high-g in a way to play scales. And this is known as Campanella style, which a lot of people seek out to try and emulate. John King, the late John King was a fabulous Campanella style player. And the majority of his pieces, at least the ones I’ve seen on YouTube, he would play in this style where he toggles back and forth between the different strings to play scales… The scales are in order, but the string patterns switch around so that you can have each string ringing for longer. So for instance, if I was to play like a C major scale and add a little bit of a Campanella flare to it – mind you, this is not my wheelhouse – but it allows me to have a little bit more open sound because I can play several of the scale notes simultaneously and they can ring over each other. Or if I wanted to be fancy, I could play other scale notes onto the G as well to kind of continue the ringing sound so that when I get from the G-string to the, A-string for my G and A notes in the scale, instead of playing the B note on the, A-string and covering up that A note that I just played, I can let that A note ring by playing the B note on the high-g string on the fourth fret.

It’s a really lovely harp kind of sound because a harp has all the pitches of the scale laid out in order, and you get one string per pitch, to my understanding. You can kind of recreate that on the ukulele by letting two pitches ring at the same time. So that’s the Campanella style, and that is easiest to do on a high-g because that high-g note is right next to the A-string. You can toggle back and forth between those strings to create scale patterns where the notes of the scale are in order or the notes of the melody are in order but you’re switching strings.

The low-G on the other hand is kind of the more contemporary counterpart to the high-g. I’m not sure exactly when this came into being… I imagine Ohta-San was one of the first people to kind of pioneer this style, though I’m not sure he was. He’s the first notable person I can think of who was using a low-G string specifically. But what it does is it gives you five extra notes below middle C that you do not get on high-g. If I was to play down from middle C, those five notes are not insignificant. And some people will wonder why you need those extra five notes. And if you don’t have a reason, you don’t really need them. But if you do have a reason, then they are incredibly valuable. But this linear tuning, the low-G tuning, it’s kind of more balanced. It’s more open. It’s a little bit more deep because you have a lower note instead of the notes being packed into a tighter space, like with the high-g, with the low-G it’s a little bit more spread out when you play chords. A lot of times the notes that you play will expand beyond the edges of an octave. So the first note – or the lowest note – in a chord will be more than an octave away from the highest note in a chord. And this creates a big open sound, but it can be a little bit woofy, some people who maybe like hygiene a little bit better would notice or complain about.

But where I feel the low-G really excels is its ability for lead playing. And I hate to say like guitar style, because it’s not really guitar style. It’s still very ukulele, at least from my background and the way I’ve learned to play it. I’ve always just played it as n ukulele, but it allows you to play melodies in a more orderly fashion and with a little bit more elbow room for going into those lower places where the guitar goes. And if you’re trying to learn from guitar music, which a lot of intermediate or advanced people will be trying to do is, you know, figure out how to play “Europa” or “Samba Pa Ti” or any other iconic guitar song. You know, “Stairway to Heaven,” whatever. It’s going to be easiest to do this on a low-G ukulele because you have those few extra notes. And because that linear tuning mimics the tuning of the guitar, the four bottom strings of the guitar, if you were to barre a guitar across the fifth fret, the four bottom strings would be G, C, E, A with low G tuning.

So because of this, you kind of get an overlap of sounds. And some people will say that low-G isn’t traditional – which it’s not. Sure. But that it sounds like, “oh, it just sounds like a small guitar.” Take that as you will. I don’t think that’s necessarily the case. It all depends on how you play it and how you use it. You know, Uncle Ledward Kaapana plays low-G ukulele because it allows him to have that little bit of a alternating bass on the ukulele with that low-G string. Does he sound like he’s playing a little guitar? No. He sounds like he’s playing super awesome ukulele in a slack style. But on the same token, Troy Fernandez plays, again, in a sort of a very signature, Hawaiian style on the ukulele and he plays with a high-g. And he does a lot of the same tricks that Uncle Led would use, except he just plays it on a high-g. So instead of a alternating bass line, with the high-g, you get more of like a pedal tone effect.

So if I was to play something like “Guava Jam” on low-G – the way I’m used to playing it – and then on high-g, which Troy kind of first pioneered when he did his arrangement of the Sunday Manoa instrumental, he was playing it on high-g. It kind of has that bouncing back and forth Campanella sound, which is that ringing harp-like effect. If I play it on low-G, it won’t sound like that it’s going to be more boomy and round.

Those aren’t necessarily great examples of “Guava Jam,” but it gives you a little bit of an idea how the low-G and the high-g affect the overall tone of the instrument. Again, remember those are two different sized ukuleles. So the high-g is on a soprano, which just by nature sounds a little bit smaller and more plinky. Whereas the low-G is on a tenor, which sounds bigger and a little bit more guitar-like. To make it more of a fair comparison, I’ve got the soprano now tuned with its high-g down to low-G. It doesn’t necessarily represent low-G as well as it could because this size string is not meant to be tuned to this low. But at least you’ll be able to hear the difference on the same ukulele. And I’m going to play through a chord change once with the high-g tuned down to low-G and then once just with the normal high-g and hopefully you can hear the difference in the pitch instead of the characteristic tone of the different sizes. You can hear how it’s really super flabby.

And so while that takes the size out of the equation, it’s still not a very good comparison because you can hear how when I tune the high-g string down to a low-G, it really loses a lot of volume and both kind of sound out of tune because when you try and drop a string that far, it tries to return to where it was. And then again, when I tuned up, it was trying to go flat because that’s where it was used to being from the moment before. Either way, hopefully it’s a helpful illustration. The best way to do this would be to switch strings on the same instrument, to get it back to back. I don’t really feel like doing that. And I think that the bottom line with these string comparisons is that you really should have a reason for choosing one or the other if you’re thinking about making the switch.

If you are a happy player with whatever is on your ukulele and what you’ve been using and you don’t feel like you need anything else, great. That’s perfect. Don’t change. Just keep doing what you’re doing. Keep practicing, keep playing, keep enjoying. The only real reason to make a switch is if you’re looking for something new that you don’t think the current string can give you. And hopefully I’ve given you enough examples and thoughts in this podcast that you’ll have a pretty good idea whether one or the other is going to achieve that for you. Because a lot of times what I notice folks doing is they do things just because they can. They try something different because they can. And that’s fine if you, you know, if you’ve got the time to go down that rabbit hole. But if you’re just happy playing and doing what you’re doing, don’t let anybody convince you that, “oh, you should try low-G” or “oh, you should really try high-g.” Because if you don’t know how it’s going to affect your music, it’s probably not going to affect your music that much. And it’s just one more thing to think about and concern yourself with that detracts from just playing and practicing.

So to wrap it up and try and keep this kind of concise, high-g is the old school way of tuning the ukulele. It has a tighter, more focused sound. It can be really helpful for playing the Campanella style or for capturing a vintage vibe. Whereas the low-G is a little bit more contemporary. It has a more round, linear, flat sound. It’s probably better for playing single note lead stuff, or maybe also like solo arrangements where you are leaning on those harmony notes that are lower than the melody note. That’s something I didn’t discuss earlier, but that is also something that is a benefit of the low G is when you’re playing a solo, fingerstyle kind of arrangement, you’re trying to play the melody, but also the chords at the same time. And when you have a lower string to fall back on, you can play the melody down onto the E or the C-strings and still have a harmony note below that melody. And that’s a very useful thing because otherwise with the high-g, you either have to transpose up higher to get that melody off of the C and the E-strings, or you have to kind of fudge it or just have the melody by itself without any harmony. So in that sense, you have a little bit more range to work with when using the low-G.

But it absolutely 100% comes down to personal preference. There’s not one size fits all. There’s not one is better than the other. Most folks choose one that they like best, and they kind of play it and learn it. Because going between high-g and low-G is quite a big mindset shift. It’s the same notes. It’s the same tuning, but because the octave jumps one way or the other, a lot of things that you already know – especially when you’re playing leads, not so much with chords, doesn’t affect chords quite as much, but with leads, if you’re out of place where you’re playing leads – things are going to move around and it’s not going to be where you expect it is when you go to play it on the G-string. So it takes some practice. It’s not just something to casually jump between for lead work. I don’t think. That said, if you get to a point where you’re, you know, crazy competent, then I have seen people where they switch between ukuleles and they have one that’s tuned high-g, one that’s tuned low G and they each have a specific purpose. But for most folks, just pick the one you like the sound of. Pick the one that kind of suits what you’re trying to achieve, and, you know, learn to play on that tuning and learn to maximize it for its best effect.

We could really get nerdy about lots of different examples and technical considerations, but for the majority of people, that should be a sufficient amount of information. And I’m not thinking of any other real main points that I think need to be made about low-G/high-g tuning compromises. So we’ll leave it there.

Thanks for tuning in. Be sure to subscribe on your favorite podcasting service. Leave a review if you’re so inclined. Those help make things look good when there’s lots of reviews stars. Hopefully you liked it enough to leave a five star review. If not, let me know what you didn’t like. Yeah. Constructive criticism. Anyways, the podcast is published on the first and third Saturdays of every month. Be sure to check out liveukulele.com for more ukulele content, and I’ll catch you in the next episode. Aloha.