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How to tune a ukulele

How to tune a ukulele

The number one thing for a great sounding ukulele is not the construction materials, strings, or technique; it’s being in tune.  If your ukulele is out of tune, it will sound bad – FACT! So, knowing how to tune a ukulele is essential.

It doesn’t matter if you have a high-end or budget ukulele, it will need tuning regularly.  It is true that high-end ukuleles tend to hold their tune for longer, but why take the risk?  An expensive uke will sound like a cheap uke if it’s out of tune.

The good news is that tuning is a simple process.

In this post we will cover:

    • The notes of each string
    • How to tune a string
    • Using an electric tuner
    • Relative tuning
    • Tune to another instrument
    • Common alternative tunings
    • Can’t keep your ukulele in tune?

OK, let’s get started…

The notes of each string

No matter which tuning option you use, there is one key piece of information needed – which notes do you want each string to be?

The most common ukulele sizes are soprano, concert and tenor.  The standard tuning for each of these models is the same.

  • 4th String – G
  • 3rd String – C
  • 2nd String – E
  • 1st String – A

A tenor has two common variations, High-G or Low-G.  In both versions, the notes are the same, but the 4th string of the Low-G variation is an octave lower.

The baritone ukulele is tuned differently to the other common ukulele sizes.  The notes are:

  • 4th String – D
  • 3rd String – G
  • 2nd String – B
  • 1st String – E

These are the same notes as the top 4 strings of a guitar.

There are a variety of acceptable tunings for ukuleles: standard tuning, baritone tuning, bass tuning, slack-key tuning, Canadian tuning (to name a few). So make sure you know which notes you are tuning to.

How to tune a string

The number one rule for tuning any stringed instrument is:

Always tune up to the desired pitch, never tune down

This may seem like a silly rule, but it does help to stay in tune for longer.

Start by de-tuning the string slightly.

If the note is flat, turn the tuning peg away from you:

    • counter-clockwise for the tuning pegs on top of the headstock, usually 3rd and 4th strings
    • counter for tuning pegs below the headstock, usually 1st and 2nd strings

The pitch should increase, keep turning the tuning peg until the string is in tune.

If the note is sharp (higher than the required pitch), detune the string until it is flat (lower than the required pitch).  Then tune-up to the required pitch.  Remember… always tune up.

OK, so we know which pitches we need to tune to, and how to tune, we can now start tuning.

Use an electric tuner

An electric tuner is the quickest, easiest and most accurate way to tune a ukulele.  Tuning by ear is a skill which can be developed over time, but I recommend beginners use an electric tuner.

If you need a tuner, the KLIQ Uber Tuner is a good option:

KLIQ UberTuner

Check best price

The most important aspects of an electric tuner are accuracy and ease of use – this is what makes the KLIQ Uber Tuner such a great option.  Clip-ons of this style also have the advantage of being able to pick up the vibrations coming through the instrument, which is great if you’re trying to tune in a noisy environment.

Whichever model you get, make sure it can be used with a ukulele or classified as a chromatic tuner (chromatic means it can be used with any instrument as it can tune to any note).

Tuner apps are also available for iOS and Android, check the reviews and comments from other users to ensure it will provide what you need.

Relative tuning

If you are playing on your own, it is not essential for the strings to be perfectly in tune to sound good.  But all the strings need to be in tune with each other, which is known as “Relative tuning”.

Reentrant tuning

The reentrant tuning found on the Standard and High-G tuning for soprano, concert and tenor is slightly more complicated than linear tuning, but it’s nothing we can’t handle.

The following tuning method uses the 4th string as the starting note.

Tune the open 1st string to the 2nd fret of the 4th string

Reentrant tuning 1st string

 

Tune the 5th fret of the 2nd string to the open 1st string

Reentrant tuning 2nd string

 

Tune the 4th fret of the 3rd string to the open 2nd string

Reentrant tuning 3rd string

 

While the baritone ukulele with a high-D has a lower starting pitch, the same pattern of frets and strings can be applied.  Rather than tuning to G, C, E, A, the notes will be D, G, B, E.

Linear tuning

Tunings for tenor Low-G and standard baritone ukes use a linear tuning.  This means the notes of the open string are tuned in order.  The lowest note is on the 4th string, the 3rd string is higher, the 2nd string is higher still and the 1st string is the highest.  Linear tuning is slightly easier to understand.

The following tuning method uses the 4th string as the starting note.

Tune the open 3rd string to the 5th fret of the 4th string

Low tuning 3rd string

 

Tune the open 2nd string to the 4th fret of the 3rd string

Low tuning 2nd string

 

Tune the open 1st string to the 5th fret of the 2nd string

Low tuning 1st string

These tuning intervals are the same as on a guitar.

Tuning by ear in this way will take some time to perfect.  It is worth practicing this skill, as you never know when you might be without an electric tuner.  As you practice, use an electric tuner to help identify how close you are to the target pitch.  After a while, you won’t need an electric tuner as your ear will be able to tune with pretty good accuracy.

Tune to another instrument

You can also use a piano, or another instrument to tune a ukulele.

The notes shown on the piano keyboard below relate to the strings of the ukulele.  Play the note on the piano, then try to match it by ear with the equivalent string on your ukulele.

Soprano, Concert, Tenor

Standard tuning

Standard tuning (High-G) tune to piano

Tenor Low-G tuning

Standard tuning (Low-G) tune to piano

Baritone

Standard baritone tuning (Low-D)

Baritone (Low-D) tune to piano

Baritone High-D tuning

Baritone (High-D) tune to piano

Tuning to another instrument, whether it be a Piano or something else, will also take a bit of practice.

Common alternative tunings

So far we’ve looked at Standard, Low-G and Baritone tunings.  But there some other common tunings to be aware of.

English tuning

English tuning, also known a “D tuning” is one tone (two frets) higher than standard tuning.

  • 4th String – A
  • 3rd String – D
  • 2nd String – F#
  • 1st String – B

As each string is one tone higher, the intervals are the same.  Meaning we can use the reentrant relative tuning method from above.

Canadian tuning

Canadian tuning is similar to English tuning, but the 4th string is tuned an octave lower.

  • 4th String – A (Low-A)
  • 3rd String – D
  • 2nd String – F#
  • 1st String – B

For relative tuning, use the linear method from above.

Can’t keep your ukulele in tune?

Ukuleles require regular tuning.  If you are struggling to tune your ukulele, there are a few things which could be causing problems:

  • Old strings – if the strings are old, they can go out of tune quickly.
  • New strings – new strings need to be stretched and played-in for a while before they will hold in tune.
  • Low-quality strings – lower price instruments tend to come with low-quality strings. Even just changing the strings could make a big difference.  Better quality strings tend to hold their tune and create better tone.
  • Low-quality ukulele – unfortunately, cheap ukuleles suffer most with tuning issues. A ukulele has as a short string length, making the accuracy of the construction process all the more critical.  Try changing the strings first – see if that makes a difference.

In conclusion

Now that you know how to tune a ukulele, you’ve got no excuses.  Tuning is important.  Tune before you play and tune regularly.  Whichever method you choose, I don’t mind, but be in tune!