In Think in C, I explained how you can tune a uke to any key you want. So why would you choose any particular key? It usually comes down to feel and sound. And when it comes to 17″ scale tenor ukulele, I’ve found Bb reentrant to be my sweet spot.
Feel: most tenor string sets are designed to be high tension. Within reason, this gives more volume, “power”, and sustain. But it also makes the strings harder to press to the fretboard. For that reason, I prefer a lower string tension. Generally any standard tenor string set can be tuned down from C to Bb and still have plenty of tension left for good response.
Sound: I also find the sound to be more pleasant at Bb than C. A little mo’ mellow. But not mushy or muted at all. And that’s great for a lot of the music I like to play.
There are also other benefits to the Bb tuning:
It’s great for jazz as lots of charts and fake books are available for Bb melody instruments like trumpet and tenor saxophone.
If you need to play in C (e.g. playing in a group or to a C chart), you can capo at the second fret and you’re there.
You also have access to a pretty cool capo trick. If you capo at the first fret, it’s like you’re doing a “negative” capo. Huh? Let’s take an example. Say you’re playing with a guitarist who wants to play in the key of E – not the easiest key to play in on a uke. You think to yourself: “hmm, if I could play in the key of F and put my capo at the minus one fret, that would be like playing in the key of E and my task would be a lot simpler.” Of course ukes don’t have a “minus one” fret; the nut is the zero fret and you can’t put a capo on your headstock – just doesn’t work. BUT, we just said C tuning is when your capo is at the second fret. So that’s kind of like your new zero fret. And if you move it back one, now you’re at “minus one” and you’re there.
If that last paragraph completely blew your mind, don’t worry about it. Just try it. It works. The point is that having the uke tuned to Bb gives you a lot more options to play in a “friendly” key using the capo at the first or second fret or au naturale.
So there ya go. Think in C, but play in Bb.