The Ukulele: A Guide for Guitarists – Tuning

By | March 5, 2015

Here’s part three of a series I’m writing – a compendium of ukulele information with the migrating guitarist in mind. Read the previous installment: Ukulele Sizes

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Guitarists trying to make sense of the ukulele may be thrown off by the reentrant tuning. Reentrant tuning is when the strings on an instrument are not ordered from lowest to highest, as they are on the guitar and bass. That confusion is compounded by the fact that ukuleles may be tuned several different ways, depending on the ukulele size, era and even location.

First, for clarity, lets get our string terminology straight. Somewhat confusingly, the “first” string of a guitar is the high E (the bottom string when held). The sixth string is the low E. So when I say the first string of a ukulele, I mean the one closest to the floor when you’re playing it, and the fourth string is the tone closest to your head. Yes, this is confusing.

Standard Tuning – GCEA

The most common tuning by far is G4-C4-E4-A4, also referred to as GCEA,  “C6” (for the chord these notes form) or “high G” (for the first string). This tuning is standard for soprano, concert and tenor ukuleles. These notes are equivalent to the D, G, B and E strings of a guitar at the 5th fret, but with the lowest note (G3) one octave higher. To put this more simply, here’s a mapping of notes on the guitar to the open strings of a ukulele tuned to GCEA:

Scientific Note – Ukulele String – Guitar string and fret
G4 – Fourth – First string, 3rd fret
C4 – Third – Third string, 5th fret (also Middle C on the piano)
E4 – Second – Second string, 5th fret
A4 – First – First string, 5th fret

What this means, of course, is that you can play any chord fingerings that utilize the first four strings of the guitar and they’ll be the same chord but a fifth higher. So a D chord on a guitar (XX0232) is a G chord on a ukulele (0232). The higher G string makes things sound a bit different – like a ukulele! – but this doesn’t change the chord.

Low G Tuning

The second most common ukulele tuning is the same as GCEA but using G3 on the 4th string instead of G4. This tuning is exactly the same as the first four strings of the guitar at the fifth fret. Players use this tuning when they want a deeper tone. Most finger style tabs – but certainly not all – are arranged for “high G”, so you need to add “low G” to your searches to find tabs specifically arranged for this tuning.

If you’re trying to play the ukulele just like a small guitar, this tuning works well. But if you’re trying to play the ukulele like a ukulele, I usually suggest at least starting out with the standard high G tuning because there are so many more resources out there for it.

Baritone Tuning – DGBE

Baritones, the largest of the four ukulele sizes, are commonly tuned D3-G3-B3-E4. These notes map directly to the first four open strings of a guitar. For this reason, many guitarists favor baritone ukuleles.

If you want the baritone volume, tone and size but don’t want to be in a different key than all the other ukuleles in a group, you can buy GCEA strings specially made for the baritone scale length.

Old Timey and Canada Tuning – ADF#B

Back in the tin pan alley days, soprano and concert ukes were commonly tuned A4-D4-F#4-B4. This is two frets higher than the standard GCEA tuning of today, and gives the ukulele a slightly more “high strung” sound. This is also the standard tuning still used in Canadian school systems that teach the ukulele to all students – much like we teach the recorder to most kids in the US.

Stay tuned for the next post in this series: Chords

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