Converting Tabs to YOUR ‘Ukulele Tuning

With the sheer amount of ‘ukulele resources available there are bound to be some materials that you’d like to use, but can’t due to their intended tuning.

This cuts both ways as low-G tabs exclude high-g ‘ukulele players and high-g tabs exclude low-G uke players. And, what about those 6-stringed guitar tabs for your favorite song?

Learn the difference between high and low-G.

close up of ukulele strings

It’s frustrating, but not the end of the world. Let me share with you some tricks I’ve picked up along the way for converting tabs.

This is a nit-picky sort of task probably best suited for intermediate or advanced players. If you’re a beginner it might be more trouble than it’s worth. It’s quite possible you’ll have an easier time figuring out a song by ear.

Converting Guitar Tabs to ‘Ukulele

Guitar has been a big deal a lot longer than ‘ukulele has. Which means there are millions more guitar tabs floating around the interwebs.

Especially if you like playing rock music, or some other similarly guitar-centric genre, there probably aren’t many uke tabs available yet. (Or at least many good ones that do the song justice.) So it’s natural to try and use guitar tabs as a jumping off point.

There are a lot of ways to attempt converting a guitar tab to ‘ukulele.

Rearrange

Since the ‘ukulele is tuned the same as a guitar capoed on the 5th fret, any number on the tab higher than 5 can be used straight on ‘ukulele. Just subtract 5 from whatever the number is. For instance, if the guitar part looks like this:

E |-5-8-8-7-----------|
B |---------8-8-------|
G |-------------7-5-4-|
D |-------------------|
A |-------------------|
E |-------------------|

You could play it on ‘ukulele like this:

A |-0-3-3-2-----------|
E |---------3-3-------|
C |-------------2-0-X-|
G |-------------------|

The “X” is lower than 5 so it can’t be converted in this way. Since it is just a B note, you could play it on the 4th fret of a low-G string.

This is infinitely more useful on tabs that stay in a high range and is kind of useless for ones that don’t.

Find the Lowest Note

The guitar’s range is an octave and a bit lower than the ‘ukulele. This means you’re usually struck right off the bat with a note or two you just don’t have on your uke.

You can combat these low notes one of two ways:

  1. Hop them up an octave.
  2. Transpose.
  3. Retune/Use a baritone.

Moving the note up to the next octave will often get you out of trouble. Sometimes you need to move up two octaves. This is fairly easy, but throws the part out of order. Sometimes this works, sometimes not.

This is especially useful for a low note in a chord. If you’re working on converting a riff or solo, it’s less likely to be successful.

I dig this approach for the simple fact that you can listen to the recording and figure things out by ear as well. If you’re stuck staring at the tab too long, just trying to pick some of the notes out by listening can be a great help.

When you transpose you can keep everything in order and just shift the notes up until the lowest one fits on your fretboard. Depending on the span of the part, this can put you playing very high.

It’s one thing to play a couple notes up above the 10th fret on the A-string, but as soon as you’re playing a significant chunk up there, it can be inconvenient or just sound silly.

At that point I’ll use my judgement to either suck it up or toss the song and move on with life. More often than not, I can’t find a way to play the song in a satisfying way. Granted, I’m picky, but you should definitely be willing to give it up as a bad job or you might just be beating your head against a wall.

The biggest concern I have when converting a guitar part is how high it sits on my instrument. It’s no big deal to play a chugging electric guitar part on the uke. Guys like Uke Hunt do it all the time. But, in my opinion, playing Cochise an octave and a half above Tom Morello’s riff is a BIG compromise and doesn’t sound very cool. Buy a guitar.

By tuning the instrument down by a half-step or two you gain a couple notes on the low end. This could be helpful for playing a low note that is almost in the uke’s range. You can get the same fingering by transposing the tab up. What might be more useful is just tuning down the lowest string.

If you have a baritone ‘ukulele you can get more of the notes from the tab in its range. But a baritone also means you can play the bottom four guitar strings as written.

OR you can play the tab as written on a standard GCEA-tuned uke. You won’t match concert pitch, but it will probably arrange better than anything else and you only have to deal with moving the low notes.

There are automatic converters around that use some sort of formula to switch the tabs. Like this one from Ukulele Tabs: guitar to uke tab converter. I’d be pretty surprised if it works any kind of decent, but it might be worth a try if you’re trying to figure out something simple.

Converting High-g Tabs for Low-G Uke

High-g is a funny tuning in the instrument world. It allows you to play some pretty cool stuff, but is often quite hard to reproduce in other tunings. This is why you don’t really hear anybody playing campanella style on a low-G tuned uke.

But you always can play a high-g part on a low-G uke. The notes are there. It doesn’t necessarily work going the other way.

Since everything you play on a high-g string is an octave above a low-G string, you usually have to move the notes onto the E or A-string to play them at the correct pitch.

Anything already played on other strings remains unchanged.

For instance, this on high-g:

A |-0---3-|
E |-------|
C |-------|
g |---0---|

Would be played like this on low-G:

A |-0---3-|
E |---3---|
C |-------|
G |-------|

Keeping a flow going when making these changes can be quite a challenge, but just remember that the note holds a place in the rhythm no matter where it’s played!

If you’re playing a chord in high-g tuning, you can usually get away with fretting the same exact shape on low-G. You’ll lose the way closely-voiced notes rub against each other, harmonically, but it will sound similar.

A more advanced workaround to the tuning problem is to fret everything as shown in the tab. Then you chime every note on the G-string as an artificial harmonic. This can be a simple alternative if there aren’t many notes on the G-string, but can be a balancing act if there are a bunch.

Converting Low-G Tabs for High-g Uke

As a low-G only ‘ukulele player, I don’t feel I’m the most qualified person to give advice here. A real high-g-er would probably have some better ideas.

You can always use the “lowest note” method from the guitar tab section above. The only difference is that when transposing the most you’ll ever have to transpose is up a perfect 4th. This means you probably won’t have many – or any – unreasonably high notes.

Here’s a silly thought: you could play all notes as artificial harmonics – excluding the G-string. This would make everything on the low-G tab sound an octave up.

Common threads between high and low-G:

Any notes in the music that might be considered “filler” can probably be left unchanged (drone notes, chord arpeggios). Your main concern is getting the melody shifted appropriately. Anything else can usually be flown under the radar by playing them in a dynamically mindful way (i.e. softer).

Playing a tab as it’s written in the opposite tuning will result in notes on the G-string that are offset by an octave. This isn’t the end of the world. They sound out of order, but will still be the “right” notes. If it’s an entire phrase that’s shifted it might sound better than not.

As with anything in music, use your judgement to decide how to proceed with any tab conversion. There are no set rules. My ideas might be more work than they’re worth.

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