Or why I like 4 strings better than 6.
There are a lot of reasons folks choose to play ukulele instead of (or in addition to) guitar. The main reason I picked up ukulele is that I wanted a “lower impact” stringed instrument that would be easier on my aging wrists and fingers than the guitars I played in my youth and had to give up due to RSI (repetitive stress injury) issues.
But I soon learned another major benefit to ukes: there is a huge variety of sounds and feels to be had with different scale lengths and string sets. And because ukes are relatively small and inexpensive compared to guitars, you can own and try a greater variety without breaking the bank or building an addition onto the house. Finally (and this is the real key for me), you can get this variety without learning multiple fretboard layouts. How is this possible?
First of all, I am not talking about “alternate tunings” per se. The guitar world has experimented with tunings like DADGAD, open D, open E, all fourths, slack key, etc. Artists like Nick Drake, Michael Hedges, Stanley Jordan, and others have made these systems work for them and I love to listen to those guys. But I don’t want to work that hard.
What I’m talking about are all the variations on the GCEA tuning “system”. Take the standard G4-C4-E4-A4 tuning (“high g” or reentrant C tuning) as the starting point. The first variation is to drop the G string down an octave (with a different string of course) to G3-C4-E4-A4 (“low g” or linear C tuning). You don’t have to learn new chord shapes or note names for fret positions. But it will sound different when you play the chords and notes you already know.
The next variation is to take either of those tunings and tune all the strings up or down by the same number of semitones. This is much like using a capo except than you can go down and you can go further up than a capo is practically useful (and you can still use a capo for more options). Depending on the scale length and string set, you can easily go from D3-G3-B3-E4 (linear G) on a baritone uke up a full octave to D4-G4-B4-E5 on a soprano uke.
How can you play all those different tunings without your head exploding? Easy. Always play as if you’re playing a C tuning. Think “in C”. Orchestral instruments do this all the time. It’s called a transposing instrument. Bb trumpeters, Eb clarinetists, and F horn players all think in C and write their music accordingly. If you look at a play-along book from Jamey Aebersold or Hal Leonard that’s why the charts for different instruments are all written in different keys, and yet they all come out sounding in the same “concert pitch”. That’s the magic of the transposing instrument.
Now, if you’re playing with others and your uke is in a “weird” tuning, you will have to transpose your written music (just like the play-along books do) to sound in the same concert pitch as everybody else. But when you play, you’re still “thinking in C”. And that is a heck of a lot easier than learning 24 names for every chord shape and fretboard note!
But wait, there’s more! The standard “low g”/”high g” tunings move the 4th string by an octave. Can you move other strings by an octave? Of course you can. There are obviously many different combinations possible here if you’re willing to find the right string for it. I don’t know how many have been tried but there are at least two that have worked well enough to be made commercially available:
- Cuatro – start with a standard linear tuning and drop the first string down an octave. So instead of a G3-C4-E4-A4 low G tuning, cuatro C tuning would be G3-C4-E4-A3. This is sometimes called “low reentrant”.
- Lili’u – start with a standard reentrant tuning and drop the first string down an octave. So instead of a G4-C4-E4-A4 high G tuning, lili’u C tuning would be G4-C4-E4-A3. This is sometimes called “double reentrant”.
If you’re interested in getting into this, the Southcoast web site is a wealth of information.
But it’s easy to get started. Here’s a no-risk proposition. If you have a tenor, the next time you change strings, don’t tune all the way up to GCEA. Stop at EAC#F# and see if you like the sound and feel. You might think the strings are too floppy. If so, tune on up to FBbDG (my usual favorite) and see if you like this better. If not, go on up to GCEA and try some different strings next time. 🙂 If you have a soprano uke, *before* you change the strings, tune the old strings up to ADF#B and see if you like it. If you do, tune the new strings the same way, but if it’s too tight, just put the new strings in GCEA and try some different strings next time. 🙂 (Note the principal here of starting low and tuning up. You don’t want to tune up to a higher tension and then back off as the strings less some elasticity and won’t work as well.)
Or you can use the Southcoast site to select a string set for the desired tuning, tension, and scale length you’re interested in trying.
And that’s just the overview. In future posts, we’ll look at some specific tunings and string sets I’ve tried and why I like them (or don’t) for particular instruments.