Make a baritenor ukulele

By “baritenor” I mean a tenor-size ukulele that rather sounds like a baritone. Why do this? Because you can always get the standard uke sound from a baritone by simply putting a capo in the 5th fret, and you get two ukes for the price of one. Ideal for traveling, except that baritones are a bit too large to stuff in a suitcase. The solution? Tune a smaller uke like a baritone, or close to it. I’ve found that a tenor uke works well as a starting point, with good results. The baritenor set, plus a couple wound strings for the basses, should also work well to make a good-sounding guitalele with standard tuning.

So I got myself a cheap Kasch MUH-509 tenor ukulele from eBay for about $29, shipping included from the US. It is made of laminated sapele wood, which looks and sounds similar to mahogany, and has a nice plastic binding on top and bottom. Strings are some sort of Chinese nylgut. Intonation was horrible out of the box (at least, mine was) because the bridge was glued some 4 mm closer to the neck than it should have been, but a thin wood dowel (actually, a piece of bamboo skewer) stuffed behind the saddle has pretty much eliminated the problem (see the picture), at the expense of a rather high action.

The trick is to change the strings so the tuning is DGBE rather than the original GCEA. It turns out the only thing you need is a couple strings, which you can get from a low-G tenor uke set. Here’s what you do:

  1. Remove the original 1st string and store away since it won’t be used anymore; ditto for the 4th string (I’m assuming it’s a high-G).
  2. Take the 2nd string and put it in 1st position.
  3. Take the 3rd string and put it in 2nd position.
  4. Take the low-G (likely wound) string from the extra set and put it in 3rd position.
  5. Take the fat 3rd string from the extra set and put it in 4th position.
  6. Tune the strings to DGBE (high D). This will give strings 1 and 3 the same tension as in the original low-G tenor tuning, while 2nd will have a 10% less tension than before, and 4th will end up with 20% more tension than as a C string, but it can take it quite well because it’s a fat string.

The result sounds a lot like a baritone uke (high 4th rather than low 4th, though) and is in the same key, but is also some 5 inches shorter so there’s a better chance it will fit inside a suitcase. Scale length is around 17 inches, which reduces to about 13 inches when you put a capo on the 5th fret, in soprano uke range and still quite playable. Doing the process on a concert uke would have made the capoed version too short for comfort, hence the choice of a tenor as a starting point.

Does it sound good? You be the judge. Here I have two samples of C-F-E7-A7-D7-G7-C (two strums each), the first in open tuning, the second with a capo on the 5th fret, which brings the instrument back to its original tuning.

As a matter of fact, a “guitalele” or 1/4 size guitar is also the size of a tenor ukulele, except that it has six strings rather than four. You can get it with guitar-like (EA)DGBE tuning, or one fourth up (AD)GCEA like a low-G tenor uke. People, however, tend to dislike the lower guitalele tuning, which they term “muddy” or “loose.” I checked some guitaleles on my last trip to the Guitar Center, and I tend to agree. This is the reason: perhaps to be as much as possible like a classical guitar, guitaleles often have nylon strings. Now, nylon is a less dense material than nylgut, so that for a given pitch nylon strings end up having less tension than nylgut strings. The result with DGBE tuning feels very loose and sloppy indeed. To be sure, there are guitalele nylgut strings that you can buy (Aquila brand), but they are for the higher ADGCEA tuning. If you want to make a good-sounding EADGBE guitalele, you may want to use the baritenor set described here, adding a couple wound strings for the basses.

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