Ukulele Tuning: How to Tune an Ukulele

Posted on August 25, 2021

Whether you’re a complete beginner or a world-class pro, if you play the ukulele, there’s one skill you should absolutely know. That is, of course, tuning a ukulele. Knowing how to tune your ukulele not only allows you to get familiar with the instrument, but most importantly, it guarantees that your ukulele also sounds good every time you play.

If you’ve tried playing an out-of-tune ukulele — or any other stringed instrument for that matter — you’ll know how painful and unpleasant it can sound. As you progress and learn to play, you’ll also know when the instrument is in tune just by listening to how the strings sound. Before that though, a tuner or some other point of reference can be helpful in checking whether or not your ukulele is in tune.

To get you started with your ukulele playing, we’ll show you how to tune your ukulele and some different methods to do so. We’ll also introduce some alternate tunings, in addition to the most common ukulele tuning, the standard G-C-E-A tuning.

Check out the video above for a walkthrough on how to tune your ukulele. You can read more about ukulele tunings below.

What are the strings of a ukulele?

Before we look at the standard ukulele tuning, we’ll have to get familiar with the strings of a ukulele and their names. Luckily there are only four of them, so they’re easy to remember.

The strings of a ukulele are, starting from the one closest to you when holding the instrument: G-C-E-A. Ukulele strings can also be referred to with a number from 1 to 4. In this case, the G string is referred to as the fourth string, the C string as the third string, and so forth.

Note that, unlike the strings of a guitar, ukulele strings don’t go from thickest to thinnest. Instead,
the second string, or the C string, is the thickest one. This is because of the way a ukulele is normally tuned.

The ukulele tuning mechanism

Before tuning your ukulele, you should get familiar with the different parts of a ukulele that are needed to get the instrument in tune.

  • Headstock. First, there’s the headstock to which all other parts of the tuning mechanism are connected. The headstock is the topmost part of a ukulele and starts where the neck and fretboard end.
  • Tuning pegs. Tuning pegs are the tiny knobs that you rotate to tune an individual ukulele string. Therefore, there’s a tuning peg for each string of the instrument. These are also known as tuning heads, tuning knobs, or simply tuners.
  • Machine heads. Although both are often referred to as tuners, the tuning pegs and machine heads are two different parts with their own purpose. Whereas the tuning pegs are used to control the tuning, machine heads are the part that is attached to the ukulele headstock.
  • Frets and fretboard. Frets are small metal bars that divide the fretboard into sections. They make navigating the fretboard much easier — for example, when forming chord shapes. The frets also help tune your ukulele in case you’re doing it by ear.

Standard ukulele tuning

Let’s look at the standard ukulele tuning. Before proceeding further, it’s good to note that there are different types of ukuleles and ukulele sizes. Here are the most common ukulele tunings for different ukulele sizes:

  • Soprano ukulele: G-C-E-A
  • Concert ukulele: G-C-E-A
  • Tenor ukulele: G-C-E-A
  • Baritone ukulele: D-G-B-E
  • Bass ukulele: E-A-D-G

The tuning you’ll be using depends on the type of ukulele you have. However, soprano ukuleles are the most common ones, so we’ll be focusing on the standard ukulele tuning for a soprano ukulele.

What is a reentrant tuning?

One useful concept to understand is reentrant (or re-entrant) tuning. For example, the standard tuning for soprano, concert, and tenor ukuleles is a reentrant tuning. So how does a reentrant tuning differ from the standard tunings used with a guitar or bass, for instance? With the so-called linear tuning, the strings are ordered from the lowest pitch to the highest. Consider, for example, the standard guitar tuning (E-A-D-G-B-E).

In a reentrant tuning, the strings don’t follow a linear pattern. If the ukulele used linear tuning, the fourth string would be lowest in pitch, and the other strings would get progressively higher. Instead, in the standard ukulele tuning, the fourth string is actually higher than the third string. This exception that breaks the linear tuning is known as a re-entry. Other stringed instruments that use a reentrant tuning include the banjo and cuatro, a Venezuelan guitar-like instrument.

The reentrant tuning — also known as the high G tuning — is the most common one, making it also the most popular ukulele tuning. Because a reentrant tuning doesn’t go from lowest to highest in a linear manner, the reentrant tuning of a ukulele might seem odd to many who are familiar with other instruments, such as the guitar and bass.

How to tune a ukulele

Now you know how the different types of ukuleles differ from each other and that the ukulele is a bit different from other common stringed instruments because of its reentrant tuning. Next, we’ll look at how to get your ukulele in tune.

Ukulele tuner

One way to tune your ukulele is with an electronic tuner. There are different kinds of electronic tuner devices, and you can buy one from a music store or an online retailer. These devices work simply by listening to the pitch of your ukulele and telling whether the string is flat (too low) or sharp (too high). Many electronic tuners have a clip-on mechanism that can be used to attach the tuner to the headstock of your ukulele.

Sounds handy, but there’s a catch. These devices can cost a pretty penny – at least if you want good quality. Opting for a cheap electronic ukulele tuner may not be a good option either. Cheaper electronic tuners for the ukulele — or other stringed instruments for that matter — may not be entirely reliable and consistent.

Luckily for those who don’t want to spend money to get their ukulele in tune, there are free alternatives for an expensive ukulele tuning device. Some ukulele tuners fit right in your pocket as you can download them right to your mobile device, such as a smartphone.

For example, the GuitarTuna tuner app can be downloaded on your iOS or Android device for free. In addition to the standard G-C-E-A tuning for most ukuleles, GuitarTuna also includes a wide selection of alternate uke tunings as well as tuning options for other instruments.

Chromatic tuner

A chromatic tuner can be used to tune many different instruments, including the ukulele. Whereas a regular guitar or ukulele tuner can be used to tune a specific string, chromatic tuners allow tuning to all 12 pitches or notes. This makes chromatic tuners more versatile than regular ukulele or guitar tuners and especially helpful when tuning to anything other than the standard tuning. This is why Yousician helps you get your ukulele tuned using a chromatic tuner, supporting all 12 pitches needed even for alternative tunings. And it works for other musical instruments than just the ukulele, such as the guitar and bass.

Tuning with a piano

You can also use some other instrument as a reference point to get the right note. A good option is a piano. To use a piano to tune your ukulele, simply pluck one of the ukulele strings, and then play the corresponding note on a piano.

Here’s how to tune a ukulele to the standard ukulele tuning by using a piano as your reference instrument. Start by tuning the G string. Play the G note on a piano and adjust the tuning peg until it matches the pitch of the piano key. Remember to tune up towards the desired pitch, rather than down from a higher pitch. Keep doing this until both your ukulele and piano sound the same.

Then repeat the process for each string by playing a corresponding key on a piano. You can use some other instrument as well, such as a guitar to get the right tune. However, unlike with ukulele tuner apps or tuner devices, you’ll rely on your own ear when using some other instrument for tuning.

Tuning by ear (or relative tuning)

One way to get your ukulele in tune is by listening to how a string sounds compared to the others. This is known as relative tuning. When tuning a ukulele using relative tuning, make sure that the string you start with is tuned as accurately as possible. You don’t want to use the wrong pitch as a reference point for the other strings.

Here’s one way to tune your ukulele by ear:

  1. Start by getting the A string in tune. If you can, use a piano or some other reference point to make sure the pitch is correct. If you’re playing just by yourself for fun, it’s not a big deal if the tuning is just a bit off.
  2. Move on to the E string and use the tuned A string as a reference. Pluck the open A string and the fifth fret of the E string. Adjust the E string until it sounds just like the open A string while playing on the fifth fret.
  3. Once both A and E are in tune, start tuning the C string. Repeat what you did with the two first strings but this time play the open E string and the fourth fret of the C string. Adjust the C string until it sounds the same as the E string.
  4. Finally, tune the G string. This time you can use the open A string again as a reference point. Play the second fret of the G string together with the open A string and adjust the G string until both are in the same pitch.

Once all the strings are in tune, strum them at the same time and they should ring nicely together. Now you’re ready to play!

Alternate ukulele tunings

In addition to the standard GCEA reentrant tuning, there are a number of other non-standard tunings for the ukulele, also known as alternate tunings. Here are a few common ones.

Low G tuning

One non-reentrant (or linear) uke tuning is the low G tuning. Although the low G tuning is also in GCEA, the fourth string is tuned an octave lower. Note that it’s recommended to get a specialized thicker G string when tuning to the low G tuning.

D tuning (A-D-F#-B)

This alternate tuning used to be perhaps the most common one to tune your uke to. However, today it’s one of the more common alternate uke tunings. How the D tuning differs from the standard uke tuning is that it has been tuned up a whole step. If you tune the fourth string down you’ll get the so-called “Canadian tuning”.

Slack key (G-C-E-G)

The slack key tuning is a Hawaiian-style uke tuning that differs only slightly from the standard uke tuning. To get your ukulele tuned in the slack key tuning just drop the A string to G. And there you have it. Your ukulele is now in the slack key tuning and you’re ready to play with the Hawaiian slack key style.

Tune your ukulele and learn to play with Yousician

To ensure that your ukulele is always sounding as it should, make sure to check the tuning always before playing. Once you get the hang of tuning your ukulele it’ll become a quick routine and something you’ll do every time when you pick up a ukulele to play.

The easiest way to get your ukulele in tune and learn how to play is with Yousician. Try Yousician for free and start learning chords, fingerpicking, and much more on the ukulele. You can try Yousician for free! Download the app now for your iOS and Android mobile device or your computer and start learning your favorite songs on the ukulele.

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