How “high” is your ukulele?

Well-known fact: the standard-tuned ukulele is pitched higher than a guitar. In fact, one of the ways you can get a ukulele of sorts from a guitar is by putting a capo on the 5th fret (and avoiding strings 5 and 6). But did you know that there are other ukulele tunings, some of which are higher, while others are lower? In this article, I try to put some order in this mess, coming along the way with a number that might help you decide how to tune your ukulele.

In this article, I talked about the four mathematically possible “close” tunings for a ukulele, where the strings differ by less than an octave from lowest (in pitch) to highest. If the overall tuning is an open C6, then all tunings contain the notes G, C, E, and A in strings 4th to 1st, respectively, but in each the lowest of the set is a different string, with the others being pitched as close as possible above it. These are the tunings: barbershop (low E), cuatro (low G), Lili’u (low A), and standard (low C). But then, if you go up one more, we are again in barbershop tuning, only an octave higher than the other barbershop tuning.

So, it is interesting to come up with a number to designate the overall pitch of the instrument. Here is my proposal: assign 0 to the linear “low G” ukulele tuning, and add one every time a string is replaced with a thinner one pitched exactly one octave higher, or subtract one if what we do is replace a string with another that is pitched one octave lower. For instance, if the linear “low G” tuning is 0, then the standard “high G” tuning will be +1, because to go from low G to high G tunings you just raise the 4th string by one octave, leaving all other strings the same.

This system allows for tunings different from C6. If we take a baritone ukulele, which typically has a linear G6 tuning, then each string is exactly one fourth below its C6 counterpart. Now, one fourth is 5 semitones, so a baritone uke has its strings pitched a total of 4 x 5 = 20 semitones lower than a “low G” tenor. If lowering a single string by one octave (12 semitones total) is like -1 in my scale, then the standard baritone should be a -2.3 in my scale, which is best to round off to -2, for convenience. In general, going from C6 to G6, will lower the pitch number by 2 (or raise it by 2, if going up rather than down). In the following table, I classify a bunch of tunings (I’ve got ukuleles pitched at every one of these), from lower to higher:

+1std. uke tuning in Ccuatrolele in G
0linear “low G” in CLili’u in Cbarbershop in G
-1cuatrolele in Cstd. baritenor in G
-2std. baritone in GLili’u in Gbarbershop in C

I have not added lower tunings because they sound muddy to my ears (I’ve tried them), and neither have I added higher tunings because to me they sound too shrill and toy-like. I’ve bolded the tunings in common use today, but you can see there are more than twice as many alternative tunings that also sound terrific, and can be derived from the common tunings by changing a couple strings. Most are lower than the standard uke tuning, so they tend to sound more mellow, even melancholic. While they tend to have the same overall “pitch” sort of feeling as the tunings with the same number, each has its own unique feel.

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