Have You Tried Alternate Tunings for Ukulele?

Just a quick note today to share an interesting technique you might want to try out, regarding alternate tunings for ukulele.

(This is from Brad Bordessa's Live ‘Ukulele site, here.)

Brad talks about tuning your ukulele DOWN half a step, so your strings become  F#-B-D#-G#.

You know me, I love the great old 1920s songs, and I've actually seen this tuning on some old sheet music, so it's not a way-out suggestion.

(Check below for some ways to handle these alternate tunings for ukulele–without having to actually re-tune your uke…)

On the other hand…

If you're curious about different tunings, it's much more common to tune UP, to A-D-F#-B.

People say it adds a brighter, punchier sound to the uke. I keep one of my two banjoleles tuned this way, and I think it does add a little zip.

Brad's article has a lot of smart advice and logic on what happens when you change tunings, so definitely worth a few minutes of your time.

Got an opinion?

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How to play from sheet music that shows alternate tunings for ukulele:

Now what to do if you're dying to learn a song from some old sheet music, but the sheet music shows an oddball alternate tuning?

It can be confusing. For example, they show a chord diagram that you know as C — but on the sheet music it's labelled D.

Here are some choices:

  1. Re-tune your uke. Now when you make the shown shape, it will feel like a C, but, as shown on the page, you'll be making a D (because you're tuned up a step). Downside: it can make your brain hurt.
  2. Ignore the chord diagrams, and just go by the chord names. Downside: you have to know the chord shapes already.
  3. Ignore the chord names, and just go by the diagrams. This is probably the easiest solution. Downside: you won't be playing in the key of the written song–this only matters if you're playing along with another musician who's reading the music (or if you're trying to read melody notes along with the chords).

Some “standard” alternate tunings for ukulele

Of course, any tuning is possible for ukulele, but if you get too way out, you'll have to figure out all the chord shapes on your own. If you stick to some of the tried-and-true options, you can always get help.

Here are a few not uncommon alternate tunings, from the blog at AudioJungle:

Re-entrant D-tuning
This tuning was once more popular than standard C. Everything is raised an entire step. A, D, F#, B. This is a good one to playing around with…especially if you’re playing a piece of music that contains that pesky E chord.

Low G tuning
This style of tuning is becoming more and more popular amongst players. It takes the idea of standard C tuning, but drops the G an octave from a high G to a low G. G, C, E, A. Comes in really handy if you are playing a piece that needs those extra low notes or if you are simply looking for a bigger sound. To tune to this, you need an actual set of strings with a low G like Aquilas.

Danno's note: in my classes, I get a lot of questions about low G tuning. People seem to think it will allow for lots of extra notes and a big booming sound.

Just remember: it's a ukulele! You'll never get a big booming sound (and that's not a bad thing). Furthermore, how often are you playing single notes? If not a lot, then the extra few notes low G provides are incidental.

I like my ukulele to sound like a ukulele, and that generally means I prefer high G.

Slack Key tuning
Mostly used in slack key playing, but can be very useful in a lot situations. The idea is based off the re-entrant C-tuning, with the high A being tuned down to match your high G. G, C, E, G. If you strum the strings with this tuning you’ll be playing a C chord…..moving up the fretboard and barring all strings on each fret, you’ll be playing the next major chord (1st fret barred = C# major, 2nd fret barred = D major, etc.).

This slack key tuning is great for playing Keith Richards style. It's the sound of Start Me Up, Brown Sugar, and many other Rolling Stones songs.

Slide Ukulele tuning
Want to go into the brave new world of slide ukulele? Try G, C, E, Bb tuning. This creates a C7 chord when strummed open and makes for some very fun and bluesy slide ukulele playing.

(Of course, you'll need a slide! Try this one for about five bucks, and go to town).

Hope that helps!

your pal,
Danno

What to read next:

PS: Looks like a lot of folks are getting to this article while looking for the basics of how to tune a ukulele. Jump over to this article to learn four techniques of tuning up, with or without an electronic tuner.