How to tune a ukulele?

If you are reading this you are probably new to the world of Ukulele. In case you are new to ukuleles, or if the ukulele is your first instrument (if you already played an instrument, you’ll probably already know this… or not!) you ought to know that it is very important to tune your instrument before playing. Actually, it’s important to know when it’s out of tune, especially because:

  • You ear will get used to the sound of some chords, and to how there are related to one another.
  • The instrument and the strings are designed to operate under a certain tension. A low tension can lead to issues of strings screeching on the frets. An excessive tension may cause the strings to break, or worse (bridges out, or less usual, cambered neck)
  • When you get to play with someone else, he/she will be glad your instrument is properly tuned.

In order to tune your instrument properly, you need to know that you will need an “external source” such as another instrument (a piano, a guitar…), a tuning fork, a pitch pipe… anyway, a device that produces an actual note, which will serve as our base to tune in. Another way of tuning is using an electronic tuner (some are especially made for ukulele, but you can use a guitar tuner), which will help us get a fast and accurate tuning. With time, you may manage to tune without an external source, but it requires a lot of practice and an incredible ear that not all of us have.

Standard tuning

Let’s clarify things first. Tuning consists in having each string produce a note of a specific octave (to make sure there’s no misunderstanding, not all C notes sound the same on a piano, some are higher than others, though they are all Cs) through adjusting its tension using the tuners. Standard tuning on a ukulele is in C, its notes being G, C, E and A (from string 4 to 1). What’s peculiar about this tuning is that it’s re-entrant, unlike a linear tuning, its notes don’t follow an order from low to high (as for example, in a guitar, a violin or a piano). To make sure there’s no misunderstanding here, the G note from the fourth string is higher than the notes C and E from the third and second strings, and just a pitch lower than the first string which is an A. We will usually see it written as gCEA, to stress the difference of tuning in Low G.

Are we really going to tune or what? We’re getting there. I’m going to explain to you 2 methods for tuning, from least to most convenient, though I have to admit that the first one, the most inconvenient and inaccurate one (as it uses an external source that “we trust”, besides our hearing accuracy…), is the one that will best train your ear.

Tuning with reference notes

As I already told you, this method is the least convenient, the least accurate and the most difficult one, but it will help train your ear. As its name implies, we are going to tune our ukulele “based” on a note produced by another instrument or device. We’ll use this base not to tune a specific string, and from there, we’ll be able to tune the rest, according to this one. This method also has different procedures, depending on which note we use as a base. Let’s get started.

Let’s say for example that we have a guitar around, and that it’s tuned indeed, so we can use the first string (E note) to tune it in unison (so that they sound exactly the same) with the second string of our uke. As a piece of advice, (to apply every time we tune), we should always leave the note tuned with the string being tightened. If, for any reason, we go beyond, we’d rather not stretch until it’s tuned, but stretch below the correct pitch, and tighten again (without going beyond this time). This way, the string remains more stable.

Once our second string is tuned, we can tune the rest. We proceed pressing the second string on the fifth fret, and we proceed to tune the first string (an A note), now we’ll proceed to tune the third string. In order to do so, we press the third string on the fourth fret, and it must sound in unison with the second one (an E note). Finally, we are going to tune the fourth string. Following the same method, the fourth string must sound like the second string on the third fret. And we are done, we have tune our ukulele from a reference note.

Following the same method, we can use any other external source as a reference. For example, we can use a pitch pipe for guitar, and proceed applying the same system we saw previously. We tune from the first E string. There are pitch pipes especially for ukulele, but they are quite hard to find. Same thing goes for tuning forks. It’s hard to find a tuning fork that is not tuned in A-440. In addition, the A note produced by this tuning fork is not in the same octave as our A on the ukulele, which makes it more complicated. I wouldn’t recommend using it unless you are experienced.

These systems, in which we take references from the instrument itself, create a number of accuracy issues due to manufacturing imperfections, issues inherent to string instruments with frets, the pressure we put on the strings, and so on.Even if it’s a slight imprecision, we drag this error from a string to another and make it worse.

That’s why it is recommended, if possible, to use a system that uses a reference for each string. If we have an internet connection, we can use an online tuner. We choose the tuning, in this case “standard”, and we can select the reference to tune each string by the sound it produces.

If we have a smartphone, there are various iOS and Android apps available to tune ukuleles using the system described previously.

If we have a piano at hand, then it’s our lucky day. We can tune the four strings using 4 piano keys as references:

Notes Piano / ukulele

Notes on the ukulele compared to piano

Make sure you use the appropriate C key, because if you don’t you will tune one or more octaves lower, or even worse, trying to tune an octave higher (which you won’t manage without breaking the strings).

Tuning with an electronic tuner

An electronic tuner is a device that captures the frequency issued by a sound source (in this case, our uke) and assesses which note it is.

Guitar tuner by Korg

Our job is simply to make the tension of the strings vary until the tuner tells us that this is the right note. Normally, this is indicated by a needle or led lights. There are tuners on which we have to select the note we want to tune, but most them have an automatic option that will tell us which note we are on.
If you don’t have an electronic tuner, no worry; you can use this excellent online Ukulele Tuner, or even install an app for your mobile phone. There are multiple free apps available on the market, like Pocket Ukulele Tuner on Android.

If you want to experiment alternate tunings, please go to the section about alternate tunings.

Featured image by Shaylor (CC BY-SA 2.0 – original)

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