The four 4-string close harmony tunings

One of the appealing qualities of the ukulele is that it sounds “sweet” to many people. Perhaps this is why it became so popular in Hawaii, from where it spread to the rest of the world. Musicologists explain that this perceived “sweetness” is the result of close harmony, made possible by the 4th string typically being tuned one octave higher than it would be normally. In this post, I delve into other re-entrant tunings (some already known, others not so much) that can be applied to a ukulele or similar, with sound samples. Perhaps there’ll be some that appeal to you.

When speaking of re-entrant tunings, where one or more strings are tuned to a different octave than the one in a linear low to high sequence, it becomes necessary to indicate the octave as well as the pitch name for each string. Thus, the standard ukulele tuning, used in the soprano, concert, and tenor sizes, and which is typically referred to as gCEA (4th to 1st, the smallcase g indicating the re-entrant aspect), will be denoted instead as G4-C4-E4-A4. Remember that, confusingly, octaves begin with C (I didn’t invent this convention), so in this case the 3rd string C4 is the lowest pitch and G4 is one fifth higher; the highest is A4 in the 1st string. A baritone ukulele would be tuned as D3-G3-B3-E4, which is linear, with the lowest string being the 4th and the highest the 1st. There’s a huge collection of tunings for many instruments in this Wikipedia article.

In this article of mine, I explained how a baritone ukulele can be re-strung so its sound resembles that of a Venezuelan cuatro. The resulting “cuatrolele” tuning is re-entrant on the 1st string (lower than normal) rather than the 4th. In this other article, I took a soprano ukulele, switched 1st with 2nd strings, 3rd with 4th, and ended up with a similar low-1st re-entrant tuning as the cuatrolele, only one fifth higher. I’ve used this trick recently for building some double-necked “duoleles,” where one neck is re-entrant on the 4th string and the other on the 1st, resulting in two very different keys from the same set of strings. Maybe I’ll write an article about them soon…

The “sweetness” of the standard ukulele tuning, as mentioned in the first paragraph, comes from close harmony. When all the strings are tuned within a narrow interval, they end up being close to each other in pitch even when fretted. The result is akin to what you get with human voices (say, baritone, tenor, alto, and soprano), which cannot be very different in pitch for physiological reasons, at least compared to an artificial instrument like the piano. The term “close harmony” is most used when the interval between the lowest and the highest pitch is less than an octave, or 12 semitones. Thus, the strings in a standard ukulele open tuning range from C4 to A4, which is 9 semitones. Interestingly, when you switch strings to get the low-1st “cuatro” tuning mentioned in the preceding paragraph, this leads to D4 to B4, which is also 9 semitones. This is why both alternatives are comparable in “sweetness” though they sound quite different.

Nine semitones between the highest and the lowest pitch sound very close indeed, but there is still a GCEA set with an even closer range, this is G3-C4-E3-A3, where the lowest pitch is E3 and the highest is C4, for a total interval of only 8 semitones. I call it, rather improperly, “barbershop” tuning because it sounds to me like a barbershop quartet. There is yet another close tuning in GCEA, with a high G and a low A (double re-entrant, therefore), that has some popularity in Hawaii and, in fact, was named after Queen Lili’u, an important early patron of ukulele music. The Lili’u tuning has an interval between its low 1st and its high 4th of 10 semitones. And that’s it; leaving octave shifts out, there are only four different close harmony tunings for a given key, depending on which string of the GCEA set (for C6 key) is the lowest (or highest).

But of course, all this is for open strings, what about when playing actual chords? The table below gives you the distance, in semitones, between the lowest and the highest pitch when playing the most important 1st position chords in the key of C, plus the open chord, for the four close-harmony ukulele tunings mentioned in this article:

chordstandard (highest is A)cuatro (highest is E)barbershop (highest is C)Lili’u (highest is G)

So it looks like the closest intervals tend to happen with the “barbershop” tuning, followed by the standard and the “cuatro” tuning, with Lili’u tuning coming in last in terms of closeness. Does “barbershop” sound “sweeter” than the other tunings? You be the judge. Below are four samples of an instrument playing this chord sequence, each time doing a chord twice: C – E7 – A7 – D7 – G7  – F – Bb – G – C. It was made with a MIDI-based setup as described in this article, which allowed the tuning of each “string” to be changed individually. The overall feeling of “highness” will be different as well since some strings change by an octave from one tuning to another. The way I arranged them, the highest is the standard tuning, then Lili’u, where the 1st string is lowered one octave, then the “cuatro” tuning, where the 4th string is lowered an octave as well, and the lowest is “barbershop” tuning, where the 2nd string is also lowered an octave, in addition to the other two. If now I lowered the 3rd string by one octave, I’d end up back at standard tuning, only one whole octave lower.





One thought to “The four 4-string close harmony tunings”

  1. Very interesting article. I’m intrigued by the Lili’u tuning as it seems to provide a compromise between high- and low-G standard tuning in terms of the closeness of first-position chords. Crucially, unlike with low-G standard tuning, none of the first-position chords span more than an octave, which means none of the chord tones are skipped. I suspect this is key to the distinctive “sweet” sound of re-entrant ukuleles that you lose to some extent with linear tuning. It also gives you a few notes below middle C for a fuller sound than high-G standard tuning.

    However, there’s one possible issue that occurs to me – since the first string is now the lowest and the fourth string the highest, won’t upstrokes sound like downstrokes and vice versa? Is this something you noticed while trying it out? I’ve heard this is an issue that left-handers have in standard tuning if they try to play left-handed with reversed chord shapes rather than reversed strings. Perhaps Lili’u tuning could be a good solution for left-handers happy to play with reversed chord shapes?

    Perhaps reversing both the strings and the chord shapes could be a good solution for right-handers who want to give Lili’u tuning a try without having to reverse their up- and downstrokes? Obviously it would take some practice to get used to reversed chord shapes, but none of the common first-position chord shapes seem intrinsically more difficult when reversed, and some of them even seem easier for beginners. For example, if you play Dmaj with your middle, ring and little fingers like I do, then changing between Gmaj and Dmaj would no longer require any wrist movement. The same is true for changing between Gmaj and Emin, which you could now play with your fingers ergonomically almost parallel to the strings without having to swing your wrist round to the right (for a right-hander).

    The resulting A3-E4-C4-G4 tuning (from fourth string to first) would be a fifths tuning with one major third re-entrant drop. Are there any other instruments with similar tunings?

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