One of the first things you need to learn when you’re taking ukulele lessons is how to tune a ukulele. After all, if you want your instrument to sound good, you have to keep it in tune! No matter where you are in your lessons, ukulele teacher Willy M. is here to help. Here’s everything you need to know about how to tune a ukulele…
This month we’re going to provide a step-by-step guide on how to tune a ukulele. Tuning an instrument can be a very difficult thing for beginners, but with this guide, you will become a master at tuning your ukulele.
In this article, you will learn how to tune a ukulele to standard tuning; how to tune various types of ukuleles including tenor, soprano, and even bass ukuleles. You will learn how to tune a ukulele by ear and to itself, and you’ll also learn about tuners and tuning apps.
If you’re looking for something specific, you can jump around to what you’re looking for here:
- Ukulele Standard Tuning
- How to Tune a Ukulele With a Piano
- How to Tune a Ukulele With a Chromatic Tuner
- How to Tune a Ukulele by Ear
- How to Tune Different Types of Ukuleles
- Alternate Tunings
- Ukulele Tuning Apps
How to Tune a Ukulele for Beginners
If you know nothing about tuning a stringed instrument, I want you to check out this video on how to tune a guitar from world famous guitarist and songwriter James Taylor. This video covers a lot of details about tuning in general, and will help you when you apply the same principles to tuning the ukulele.
The ukulele is typically tuned to the notes G, C, E, and A, but this has really only become “standard” since the advent of the internet. Before the internet, you might find people who would teach you to tune to A, D, F#, B or even fiddle tunings like A, D, A, D or G, D, G, D or A, D, E, A or even G C D G.
Today, most of the books and videos you will find use G4, C4, E4, A4 as the standard ukulele tuning. The fours behind the letters represent the octave that you will find on the piano.
So if you happen to have a keyboard or a piano, C4 is known as middle C. If you tune your ukulele to match middle C, then the E above middle C, and the A above middle C, and then tune the first string to the G above middle C, you will be in what is known as standard ukulele tuning.
Here’s a good illustration of how to tune a ukulele with a piano from The Uke website.
So what do you do if you don’t have a piano? Well, you will need to get yourself a chromatic tuner. I use a Korg chromatic tuner, and I love it! I have tried a lot of other tuners, but the Korg is my favorite.
You can purchase several brands of tuners for a reasonable price at places like Musician’s Friend and Sweetwater. You will find that there are different types of tuners, and not all tuners are chromatic. Which leads us to our next topic, what exactly does chromatic mean?
If a tuner is chromatic, it enables you to tune to all of the notes. Guitar tuners are not chromatic. They’re calibrated to only pick up the notes that are used on the guitar in standard tuning. Which means they can tune E, A, D, G, B and E, but it’s hard to tune to C or F# or Bb, or any of the remaining notes that aren’t covered by a regular guitar tuner.
For this reasons, I advise all of my students (of any instrument really) to buy chromatic tuners instead of standard guitar tuners.
If you get a used or vintage ukulele, you probably won’t have a tuner, but instead you might get some really old books or brochures and something called a pitch pipe. A pitch pipe is a neat mini harmonica that plays one note at a time when you blow into it. In some cases, you may have a pitch pipe that wasn’t designed for your instrument, so you have to know how to tune one string to the pitch pipe, and the other strings to the first string.
This can be a bit of a challenge, but I’m going to walk you through it. First, you need a reference note. Typically your reference note is middle C. When you blow on the pitch pipe, or play the note on the piano, you hear middle C. Then, you must twist the tuner on your ukulele until it matches. If you twist counter clockwise on the first two strings, you will tighten the string, and make it go up in pitch. So if you start on B, and twist counter-clockwise, you will be somewhere between B and C. If you keep twisting, you will finally get to C. But don’t twist too far, or you will overshoot C and end up on C# or somewhere between C and C#.
Likewise, if you twist clockwise, you will go down in pitch. So if you are on B again, and you twist clockwise, you will end up on Bb, or somewhere between B and Bb.
So when you match middle C on your pitch pipe to middle C on your ukulele, you’re ready to start tuning your ukulele to the notes on the fretboard on the C string. Now think about it for a minute: You have your ukulele tuned to middle C, and now you need to get an E sound, so you can try to tune the next string to that E. If you count up from C, you will eventually get to the E. The first fret is C#, the second fret up from there is D. Then the third fret is D#, and then finally the fourth fret is the E you’re looking for.
So if you hold down the fourth fret, you will hear an E that you can tune the next string to. Now remember, when you get to tuning that E string, you’re on the opposite side of the neck, so twist in the opposite direction than you did before. Twisting clockwise will tighten the string and make it go up in pitch. Twisting counter-clockwise makes the string loosen or go down in pitch.
Now that you have your E, count up until you find the G (which is before the A string) and tune it. The first fret on the E string will be F, the second fret F#, and the third will be the G.
Once you get the G string tuned (which seems like you’re going forward and backward on the ukulele, but that’s OK), count up to the A note. The first fret is G# and the second fret is A. Now you can tune to that pitch, and you’ll be all in tune.
A final note on tuning: Once you think you get your instrument in tune, your strings will probably have stretched a bit. Sometimes, depending on your strings, the humidity, the types of tuners you have, and the type of wood your ukulele is made of, your ukulele will not be in tune immediately after you tune it. So you have to go back through the whole process two or three times to fine tune your ukulele. Once you’ve done this, you’re ready to play!
Now you might have one of several types of ukuleles. They’re not all the same. Here is a chart that covers the various types of ukuleles and the notes of their standard tuning.
I’m kind of an alternate tuning freak. I think I only have one instrument in standard tuning! You can create some fun alternate tunings by tuning each string up or down two steps. I find that if you try tuning more than two steps, you will break strings. So if standard tuning is G, C, E, A, then try tuning the G to a G# or an A, and make chords out of the open tuning. What goes with G#? The E chord would work. So you could tune your C down to a B, leave the E alone, and keep the A or tune it to a G# as well. You could try Open C tuning and tune your top A down to a G. Or try C7 tuning, and tune the A to a Bb.
There are so many different types of tunings that you can try. If you find an alternate tuning you like, let us know so we can try it, too!
There are a lot of good tuning apps out there: here are a few I recommend checking out:
Free Chromatic Tuner
This free app works for both standard tuning and alternate tuning. You can download Free Chromatic Tuner from the iTunes app store.
Tuner lite turns your smartphone into a chromatic tuner and pitch pipe.
Fine Chromatic Tuner
Fine Chromatic Tuner uses the built-in mic on your phone to help you get your uke in tune.
You can download Chord! for both iPhone and Android. There’s a free and paid version, and the app allows you to find multiple tunings for lots of different stringed instruments, as well as chords, scales, and other useful information.
Now you know several ways to get your uke in tune. Ukulele tuning may seem difficult at first, but find the method that works for you and keep practicing! And remember, you can always tune a ukulele, but you can’t tune a fish!
Have you learned any cool tricks that help you tune your ukulele? Share them with us in the comments below!