The Different Ways to Tune a Ukulele

Ukulele tunings have changed over time, and plenty of variety still exists, with different players using different tunings for their ukuleles. The note a string plays (known as its pitch) depends on three things, two of which you set before starting to play to select the tuning:

  • How tight the string is: The tighter the string, the higher the note, and the looser the string, the lower the note.

  • How thick the string is: The thinner the string, the higher the note.

  • How long the string is: The shorter the string, the higher the note. You take advantage of varying the string length when you start playing: holding down a string against the fretboard makes it shorter and, therefore, higher in pitch.

Ukulele tunings are identified starting with the string at the top (nearest your head when holding the uke) and moving downwards to the bottom string, farthest away and nearest the floor. Keep in mind that the ukulele’s strings are ‘inside out’ in that the two thinnest, highest-pitched strings are the outside strings (and are very close in pitch) and the fattest, lowest-pitched strings are the two inside ones. (Most string instruments arrange their strings from fattest at the top — nearest to the player’s head — to thinnest at the bottom.)

When you’ve got a handle on the common gCEA tuning, you can experiment with less-orthodox tunings. Playing certain songs can be easier in a different tuning, and some tunings offer notes and inversions that aren’t accessible in gCEA tuning. Also, if you’re playing with other ukers, having a different tuning gives you greater variety in the sound, making the music more interesting to listen to.

The most common ukulele tuning: gCEA

Although the groups of letters that identify types of ukulele tuning may look complicated, they simply indicate the pitch to which each string is tuned. For example, gCEA tuning means that the string nearest to you (the fourth string) is tuned to a high g note (when writing about uke tuning, lower-case indicates a high g as opposed to a lower-sounding G-string). The next string down (the third string) is tuned to C, the second to E and the first string (farthest away from you) is tuned to A.

The gCEA tuning.
The gCEA tuning.

This method of tuning, with the high notes as the two outside strings of the instrument, is known as re-entrant tuning. When you’re indicating re-entrant tuning, use a lower-case ‘g’ to make clear that you’re using this tuning.

The gCEA tuning is the most popular ukulele tuning nowadays. Using this tuning makes learning to play the uke much easier because you can readily find chord charts and notation for gCEA tuning. And because it’s so common, you can communicate with other ukulele players clearly.

This tuning also makes playing in the key of C very easy, which is useful because C is the most commonly used key.

Tuning your ukulele to aDF#B

aDF#B tuning was very popular in the 1920s and 1930s. If you find any old sheet music with ukulele chord diagrams, you may well see this tuning, in which each string is tuned two frets higher than gCEA. Therefore, the chord shapes you use for this tuning are the same as gCEA but the chord sounds higher.

An advantage of this tuning is that it is easier to play chords that are common on the guitar – most notably E – allowing you to play along with guitar songs with less hassle. It can also make your ukulele sound brighter.

If you buy a set of strings with aDF#B on them, don’t panic. Very little difference exists between these strings and those used for gCEA, and either type of strings can be used for either tuning.

Using a low-G tuning for your ukulele

In a low-G tuning, you replace the high, thin g-string by a low, fat G-string. All the other notes stay the same, so its tuning is GCEA. The chords you play are exactly the same as gCEA (high-G tuning) but give you quite a different sound to the traditional ukulele tuning.

If you want to try this tuning, you need to buy a low-G set of strings. If you try to tune down a standard string, it becomes too floppy to play.

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