Tuning is huge. When out of tune, even a little, it’s noticeable and it sounds bad. I’ve seen uke players/singers, that were actually very talented, look way more amateur than they should just because their uke was just a little out of tune.
The topic of tuning may seem a bit basic for a post but.. 1 – New people pick up the uke every day and they might need a little help getting it all figured out, and 2 – tuning relates to a lot of things and it can be more complex than you might think.
New strings (and therefore new ukes) take time to settle in, stretch out, and stay in tune for a while. If you just got a new uke, tune early and tune often. Tune before you start playing then tune in between each song. Tune when the sun comes up, tune when it rains, tune when you change rooms, tune when it feels right and doesn’t it just always feel right. In fact…. I’m tuning right now. It’s easy and the more you do it the more practice you get doing it. Sometimes I try kind of stretching new strings in hopes they’ll settle in faster. I pull them away from the fret board roughly, I pinch a string in each hand and pull them in different directions. I don’t have any solid data as to whether this helps or not and it might be kind of scary for a new uke player so feel free to not try it but I thought it was worth mentioning.
It is a wonderful time for tuning. Clip ons rock! Tuners used to be relatively large swingy needle thingies or pedals requiring cords but now they have small tuners that clip on your uke and fit in your case. I use Snark clip on tuners. You can usually find them for less than ten bucks on Amazon and they work great. I have a SN-5 and an SN-8. The Snarks come in different models and they talk about how they work for specific instruments but really as long as they sense notes at half steps they’ll work for ukes. I can verify for sure that at least the SN-5 and the SN-8 models work fine for uke for standard tuning and tuning up and down.
The standard uke tuning, from top to bottom, is – G, C, E, A. So just clip your tuner on and tune away. It’s best to tune up to the note so, if you find you’re sharp, tune down past the note, so you’re flat, then tune back up to the note. The tuners tend to be a little bouncy so I find it best to separate the checking and the changing. When close to the note, I pluck the string and let the tuner kind of stabilize and find it’s place. I consider this the note of the string. Then I turn the peg a little (ignoring what is displayed on the tuner while doing it), then I leave the peg alone and check the note again. If you do both at the same time the tuner can bounce around and it can be hard to get an accurate reading.
There is a chance that your tuner could be telling you your string is at the correct note but you have a string that is actually a full octave out of tune. This is pretty extreme but I’ve seen it happen. So, if you get all tuned up to G, C, E and A on your tuner and something still sounds funky… play the strings one at a time and if one sounds extremely high or low, re-tune that string up or down an octave. For example, go from G to G. You can also find another uke or a tuning video or something else to compare to, to get your uke close.
Less Standard Tuning
Tuning up and down can really fine tune your singing, make it easier and better. My voice is pretty low but I find that I think it sounds better in the upper part of my range so I try to find songs where the vocals are there. Often, most of the vocal melody of these songs are just right but there will be a couple notes that are high enough to be a struggle for me. These are the times when tuning down helps. It’s not a huge difference but sometimes it’s just enough to make a song work for me vocally. Like I say, my voice is pretty low so I tune down often. I’m usually tuned down a half step but occasionally I’ll even tune down a whole step. Changing your tuning up or down does change the overall sound of the song a little too. This is rarely an issue for me but if that’s a significant negative for you, you may have to figure out something else or let that song go.
So… to tune down you just clip your tuner on and tune to the note a half step or whole step (or whatever) below the standard note. There are 12 notes or pitches on a ukulele. Each fret is a half step so if you start on your C string and play each fret in sequence you’ll be playing the notes in this diagram.
As you can see most whole notes, like from C to D have a half step in between them like C#/Db (C sharp and D Flat are different ways of saying the same note) but some don’t. F is one half step up from E and C is one half step up from B.
So to tune down a half step, just find the note to the left (one half step) of the standard note and tune to it. So G, C, E, A becomes F#, B, D#, G#.
So to tune down a whole step, just find the note 2 spots to the left (2 half steps, one whole step) of the standard note and tune to it. So G, C, E, A becomes F, A#, D, G. Just take the concept in the video above a half step farther.
Also, the tuners show each half step so you could just tune to standard tuning then tune down to the next note the tuner shows you, whatever that is. I think it’s good to know the theory behind what’s going on too.
Tuning up is WAY more complicated. A picture is worth a thousand words.
All joking aside, I don’t really tune up much so I would probably just use a capo for the rare occasions when I do. If you have a situation where you actually want to tune the strings of your uke up… follow the instructions above in reverse.
In A Pinch – Tunerless Tuning
Technically… when playing by yourself, it doesn’t really matter if your G string is perfect straight up green dot G pitch. As long as the strings are in tune relative to each other you can play and sound fine. So if you’re at the beach, forgot your tuner, no phone reception, living in a cave, here’s what you do. Assuming your G string isn’t extremely far from correct (if it is, tune it to your best guess by ear or start with another string) pluck your G string open and your E string at the 3rd fret, these notes should be the same, if they’re not, tune one of them until they are. Then pluck the C string at the 4th fret and the E string open. These notes should be the same, tune the C string if they’re not. Then pluck the E string at the 5th fret and the A string open. These notes should be the same, tune the A string if they’re not.
Now you should be good to play. Of course if you’re playing with others you’ll have to make sure you’re in tune with them too.
Check Your Intonation
And lastly… Tuners can be used to test for an issue that’s fairly common lower cost/quality ukes. These ukes can be made with the string height that is too high at the nut. Having the strings high prevents string buzzing caused by other low quality build issues. Having the strings too high will cause intonation issues but those are less noticeable than buzzing so uke makers are covering their bases and picking the less noticeable of 2 evils.
Intonation issues are when the open string is tuned correctly but the fretted string isn’t precisely a half step (at the fist fret) up in pitch. As you can imagine, this will cause all kinds of problems. You’ll be tuned correctly but all your chords will sound out of tune.
To test this with a tuner: tune the open string correctly then gently fret it at the first fret, the pitch should be a half step higher. For example: the C string is at C on the tuner and the C string first fret should be C# on the tuner. Repeat for the other strings. If needed, use the diagram above to find what the notes should be a half step up from the open string notes. If you find the fretted note to be noticeably (extremely) off… there is an issue. The nut height issue is correctable but that’s a topic for another post.
So if your uke seems in tune by the tuner but sounds a little off when you play chords try checking the intonation.