The Art of Tuning The Ukulele Part #1

This is an article about Tuning The Ukulele To D6, C6 and Bb Major 6th

As the ukulele revival moves forward, I have long felt that a basic review of some of the standard ukulele tunings would benefit many of my readers.

While history notes that the Portuguese often tuned their instruments in C tuning. by the mid-1920's D tuning had become the standard and my own sheet music collection, supports this claim with published pieces dating back as early as 1917.

Most scores of the day, in D tuning would include the tuning notes and chord diagrams, placed above their respective lyrics, for the general public's self-accompaniment.

Advertising for the sheet music industry, makes it clear that ukuleles were not only big business but also a primary vehicle for the masses to strum along with the hit parade.

My pal Dan Scanlan has a nice posting about the Ukulele's Evolution and its related tunings circa 2004, which might be a nice supplement to this blog post. 

Dan cites May Singhi Breen as one of the main proponents to popularize D Tuning and this is the first i have heard of this claim. I want to know more! I am not sure i would credit
her entirely. But none-the-less, she was in fact a very important link in the first wave
ukulele revival.

Thus, in the early days of the ukulele's rise towards popularity, it was primarily tuned: A-D-F#-B, otherwise known as The D Major 6th tuning.  In other words, when you strum the strings open, it rings out as a D Major 6th Chord.

For those of you used to using C Tuning (G-C-E-A), what this means, is that every chord shape you know, goes up one whole step from C to D. 

Thus your C chord shape becomes a D, F becomes a G, G becomes an A and so on, and so on.

This tuning really sparkles on the soprano and concert size ukuleles and was the primary catalyst for strumming in the heyday of the Hawaiian, Vaudeville and Broadway Era.

Today, many players like James Hill, Aaron Keim, Bob Brozman (the late), Del Rey and many others regularly use the D tuning and prefer its "brighter sound" to that of C tuning. Things really seem to pop when you play them in D tuning, especially if you are used to C tuning.

A good way to ease into D Tuning, if you aren't already used to it, is  to keep one of your ukuleles in C and one in D. That way you can mess around with both and not feel bound by the act of having to re-tune all the time. (Is there anyone who doesn't own more than one ukulele? Duh!) 

Remember, some night find it easier 
To simply apply a capo. which helps 
You change the key without having to retune.

 So, if you are in C tuning and you capo at the 2nd fret and you  play a C chord,  it is now D. G is A and F is G. Etc, Etc

On a personal note, players like myself, John Nicholson, The Canotes, Aaron Keim,
Ken Middleton and many other traditional players prefer the D Tuning when
playing fiddle tunes on the ukulele. Since most fiddlers prefer to play in D, G and A,
you'll want to maximize use of the open strings and positions which D tuning can offer.

For Fiddle Tunes in the key of G, i might use C Tuning so i can access the high G string and play claw-hammer off the G chord shapes. So you see, there is a method to this
madness and every good player, learns to utilize many different tunings, so they have
them at their disposal when arranging a new piece of music.  Trial and error is the
best teacher for this sort of thing and exploration breeds innovation, as you come
to see what works and what doesn't with this regard.

The Ukulele Hall of Fame offers this free public domain chart of the D Tuning chord
forms and you'll also find the C tuned chord link as well, both available for download.

As a reference, you might find it helpful to follow this link to see a nice D Tuning Chord Chart:  

Other links for D Tuned Chord Charts include:
Ukulele Boogaloo's:

Chord Creation Software:

Lastly, i highly recommend that all of you smart phone users, download a Ukulele Chord
Finder App for your smart phone. It makes things really handy and convenient when you
are on the go and need to look up a chord shape on the fly.

Here are a few you can check out:

Chord Apps:
Ukulele Companion:
Uke Master:

The Canadians tune their ukuleles to D Tuning and it is a part of their national grade
school curriculum for music education. This has its roots in Chalmer's Doane, whose
own legacy is rooted in the influence of Roy Smeck and the romantic influence of
vaudeville ukulele style and tunings, most of which gravitated towards D tuning.

Today, my mainland compatriots are locked into C tuning, my books and most of the
ukulele histeria is printed in C tuning and since about the 1950's it has come to
proliferate amongst American and U.K players.

C Tuning offers a sweet, lilting sound, not quite as bright or brash as D
Tuning, and this too has its pluses and minuses.

C Tuning, allows the strings to relax a bit and as a result of the minimal string tension,
strumming is mellow and easy on the fingers. C Tuning supports the voice well and makes
for a good home key to support the voice.

C tuning is: G-C-E-A

Another Tuning that i like to use is called: Bb or Bb Major 6th tuning, which is: F-Bb-D-G

I love this tuning, as a performer i might want to utilize various chords positions and their
related keys to better suit my voice in an arrangement. By having a C, D and Bb tuned
ukulele handy, i can make those kind of choices as to which chord shapes compliment my arrangement and voice the best.

If you are happy strumming in C, no need to change, but you might have fun messing
around with some of these. Instrumentalists would do well to explore the possibilities
that these tunings offer when arranging highly melodic pieces.

Bonus Tuning:  For those of you wanting to explore either fiddle tunes or slide on
the ukulele, you might consider simply trying G-C-E-G. Its great for playing glass or
ceramic slide with the ukulele's nylon strings or for coaxing a banjo friendly tuning out
of the ukulele when playing claw-hammer ukulele.

I hope your dog has fleas!

Lil Rev 

PS: If you are totally new to tuning the ukulele, here are a couple of helpful sites & videos:

                               Why Tune 6 strings, when you can tune just 4?


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