Learning a new instrument is full of challenges, but one of the first and most essential to get right is tuning.
With an out-of-tune instrument, learning your favorite songs is going to be virtually impossible, and even if you do manage to learn them correctly, they aren’t going to sound right.
Stringed instruments require tuning, usually via tuning pegs at the top of the instrument, on the headstock.
The tuning pegs all correspond to one of the four strings of a ukulele.
Effectively, you are tightening or loosening the string until the pitch is correct.
Imagine an elastic band twanging as you pluck it whilst pulling it taught.
When it comes to using the tuning pegs, do so cautiously.
Loosening the string too far can lead it to come away from the ukulele altogether, tightening it too much can cause it to snap.
“Good Chefs Eat A Lot” – Quirks of the Ukulele
Ukuleles are one of the more unusual instruments to tune in many respects.
While the actual method of tuning is the same as instruments such as guitars, the pitch of the strings is unusual.
On a standard soprano ukulele, the ukulele tuning notes are g-C-E-A.
Many players use an acronym to remember this, with “good chefs eat a lot” being a great way to keep it stuck in your mind.
The string nearest the players eye is the G.
What is unusual about this is the fact that the G note is higher in pitch than the C.
Guitars, and some other types of ukulele, tend to be tuned in a way which means the strings get higher in pitch as they go up (away from the eyeline).
The g-C-E-A means that you start higher, before dropping down to a C, then back up in pitch to the E and A.
To fully understand this, listening to a correctly tuned soprano ukulele is essential.
This is especially true if you are an absolute beginner.
Another important thing to remember is that the string closest to the player’s eyes is not the first string, even though it appears to be so.
If you hear someone referring to the first string, they mean the string at the bottom of the instrument as you are playing it.
The string at the top is, in fact, the fourth string.
Tuning By Ear
If you are wondering how to tune a ukulele by ear, then you should know that this is the most difficult way of doing it.
However, it is also a very useful skill for any musician, especially if you like to play your instrument out and about when you may not have a tuner with you.
Tuning by ear is simply the art of matching the pitch of your ukulele to the pitch of an in tune ukulele.
There are lots of videos on YouTube or even browser based ukulele tuners which will allow you to hear the correct sound of each of the strings.
Once you have established a way of listening to the correctly pitched strings one at a time, you need to match the pitch of your strings.
This is tone by plucking the string repeatedly whilst turning the tuning peg slowly.
As you hear the tone shifting you should hear if it is getting closer or further away from the tone of the tuned string.
Having both playing at the same time is the easiest way to do this, but you can also hum along to the correctly tuned string to get it in your head before you tune.
Assuming you are tuning via a recording, or another ukulele, when your string is close to the pitch needed it will start to warble and the ‘resonant’ frequencies will be audible.
Tweaking until the two sound as close to perfectly alike is the goal to ensure you are tuned.
This process then needs to be repeated for all four corresponding strings.
Relative Tuning and Tuning From a Piano
There are always ways to get your Uke in tune!
If you’re wondering how to tune a ukulele without a tuner at all, you simply need a starting point to get the pitch correct.
If you have access to a piano or keyboard, this can be used to tune your ukulele with ease.
The third string (remember this is the string second closest to your eye) is the same pitch as middle C on a piano.
Middle C is seen as a convenient middle point on a piano, and it can often be marked on keyboards.
If you are still stumped, there are convenient guides to help you find middle C.
Your starting point is to match the pitch of middle C and your third string.
For many beginners, this can prove a little more challenging than doing so with a tuner or another ukulele, this is because the tone will be slightly different due to the nature of the two instruments.
Like most tuning methods, a little practice is needed to get this right, and for your brain to get used to matching the pitches up perfectly.
If you want to continue the tuning method using the piano, the fourth string needs to correspond with the sound of the G above middle C, the third is the same as middle C, the second is the E above middle C and the first (bottom) string is the same as the A above middle C.
Relative Ukulele Tuning
Relative tuning is the art of tuning the ukulele to itself.
This is another thing that can sound confusing if you haven’t done it before, but fortunately it isn’t too daunting once you get the hang of it.
Once you have one string in tune, you can tune the other strings.
This is because we know the pitches which are relevant to one another.
For instance, the E string fretted at fret five should provide you with the note A, and therefore a sound exactly the same as the A string when played open.
By matching the incorrectly tuned string to the tone of the correctly tuned when fretted in the correct place, you can ensure they are in tune.
This video shows how to do so in some detail:
This isn’t always the most convenient or accurate way, especially for beginners.
However, if you have one string which has fallen out of tune, it can be a quick way to tune on the fly when practicing or performing.
Using a Tuner
Ukulele tuners are by far the most convenient way to tune for beginners, and are definitely the most accurate.
This is certainly true until you have trained your ears a little.
Knowing how to tune a ukulele with a tuner will vary depending on which model of tuner you have, but there are some similarities and constants which most models tend to have.
The steps for using a tuner will usually be as follows:
Clip the tuner on or leave it close to the soundhole of your Uke.
Ensure it is on the ukulele mode if using a tuner with multiple modes.
It may even have ukulele options for being tuned to C or D.
Look for modes such as ‘Ukulele’ or ‘U’ or even ‘UC’ standing for ukulele C.
Refer to your manual if you get stuck.
Pluck one string and turn the tuning pegs to tune.
The ukulele will usually pick up automatically which note you are tuning to, or it may have a setting for this.
If it does not pick up the pitch automatically, you may need to alter the pitch until it is close enough to know which string you are working with.
This will display on your tuner.
Wait for the tuner to indicate the pitch is correct for this string.
This may be done with a dial, which will sit in the center when you are in the correct tune.
Some tuners will be red when out of tune and flash green when you are in the correct tune.
Repeat these steps for the rest of your strings until the ukulele is perfectly in tune.
Many people already have a guitar tuner sitting around, and these are more common than ukulele tuners.
If you are wondering how to tune a ukulele with a guitar tuner, then it can be done, but you need to understand the capabilities of your tuner.
Most tuners will have an option for either different tunings or different instruments.
A guitar tuner which doesn’t allow you to change these can be more of a challenge.
To utilize a guitar tuner for ukulele tuning, the best method is to tune the G string, E string or the A string (these will be on the guitar tuner) and use relative tuning to work out the rest, ensuring the ukulele is in tune with itself.
It is rare that a stringed instrument has just one tuning.
Guitars can be tuned in many different ways, and ukuleles are the same.
However, the standard tuning we have mentioned in this article is extremely popular.
Types of Ukulele and Their Tunings
Tenor, Soprano and Concert
The tuning of g-C-E-A is the most common tuning for tenor, soprano and concert ukuleles.
Contrary to what you may have thought, the different tonal qualities come from the size and resonance of the different ukulele bodies.
Some alternative tunings include “low G”.
This basically means that the G is tuned to the G before middle C instead of after it.
It doesn’t affect the way of playing the instrument, merely the depth and range of the strings.
This will be written G-C-E-A (the small ‘G’ signifies that it is higher in pitch).
A baritone ukulele is tuned lower like the bottom four strings of a guitar: D-G-B-E.
Some think that this instrument shouldn’t be classed as a ukulele due to its tuning.
There are some out there who tune this in the same way as a tenor, soprano or concert uke, but generally the guitar (or bass guitar) style tuning is the most popular.
Tuning can be a little bit difficult when you first get started with any instrument, but it won’t take long for it to become second nature.
Which of the ukulele tuning methods you use will depend on your own personal preference and equipment, but knowing how to tune will ensure the best possible sound for your practice and performances.