Make a c-guitar

Or you can call it a cigatar, if you like, because we’re starting from a cigar box guitar, pictured at left. The point of this article is how to change its tuning so it can be played exactly like a ukulele, without having to buy new strings. This also works for a G6 baritone to C6 standard tuning conversion, if you have a baritone ukulele.

In this other article, I described a way to get a soprano ukulele to play in the same key as a baritone (or a guitar), by just switching 1st with 2nd strings, and 3rd with 4th, plus a slight re-tuning of two strings. The result is a kind of “cuatrolele” (as described in this other article, starting from a baritone), with a low 1st string instead of a high 4th. This works pretty well because the re-entrant 4th string, when switched with the 3rd, ends up producing a linear pitch progression. Likewise, if the original tuning has a low 1st, like the Venezuelan cuatro, then switching the 1st and 2nd strings linearizes that part of the scale, with the lower strings ending up in standard ukulele re-entrant tuning. But what if the original string tuning is linear rather than re-entrant?

Let’s work it out. Say the original tuning is a linear “open G6” DGBE (4th to 1st), like a baritone ukulele or the high four strings of a guitar, then switching 1st with 2nd, and 3rd with 4th produces a double re-entrant gDeB, with a drop going from 4th to 3rd, a big rise going from 3rd to 2nd, and another drop going from 2nd to 1st. This can be retuned easily to gCeA by lowering the pitch of 1st and 3rd strings by two semitones, resulting in an open C6 tuning (G3 C3 E4 A3) that can be strummed with standard ukulele chord shapes. It sounds pretty good for strumming, as you may be able to judge from the sound samples below, although the wild pitch changes between strings likely will mess up any attempt at playing melody.

But if this isn’t enough, there is this YouTube video by Aaron Minnick, where he demonstrates the exact same thing by playing, of all things, a fairly recent cover of Petzold’s “Minuet in G major.” One of the comments on that video tries to explain why it works so well by saying, “Having the 2nd string (e) up an octave sounds excellent, and yes it does a fine job of solving that muddy 3rd in the bass problem. I play trombone, and when music is written in the lower range the voicings are more open, saving tertian harmonies for the upper range of the instrument.” Indeed, you can easily find other YouTube videos where people have tried to create a low “octave ukulele” gCEA (high G) or even GCEA (linear) tuning, only to give up right away because it doesn’t sound good. Some of those videos are linked in this article on octave ukuleles.

Incidentally, this is not the only double-reentrant tuning that a ukulele can have. There is a tuning called Lili’u (after the last Queen of Hawaii, in the picture), where the 4th string is raised an octave and the 1st lowered an octave, resulting in G4 C4 E4 A3, which is the c-guitar tuning with 3rd and 4th strings raised an octave. You can get the similar D4 G3 B3 E3 tuning (one fourth down) by starting from a baritone uke, switching 1st and 4th strings, and re-tuning those strings.

There’s some funky math at work here. Essentially, switching 1st and 4th (plus a slight re-tuning) keeps the instrument in the same key, but switching the pairs 1st and 2nd, 3rd and 4th sends the instrument to the “opposite” end of the scale (adjacent step, on the circle of fifths). You can also combine the two kinds of string switching:

  • If you do first a pairwise switch, then switching 1st and 4th doesn’t change anything because those strings end up quite close to each other after the pairwise switch.
  • If on the other hand you do the Lili’u-style switch first, and then do the pairwise switch, you end up with a G3 C4 E3 A3 tuning (starting from a baritone, plus slight re-tuning). It has a similar quality to the tuning I talked about earlier, but with the open-string interval covered being smaller: E3 to C4, which is an augmented fifth or 8 semitones, versus C3 to E4, which is an octave plus a major third or 16 semitones. The resulting close harmony gives it a barbershop-like feel that can work quite well for certain songs.

Here are a few sound samples with the following 1st position chords being played twice: G-B7-E7-A7-D7-G7-C-F-D-G:

First the c-guitar tuning (open C6, metal strings):

And now the Lili’U tuning (open G6):

As a comparison, this is what the instrument sounded like before any string switches (open G6):

And here’s a regular baritone uke (nylon strings) with the barbershop-like close harmony tuning:

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