5ths TUNING ON THE UKULELES

Ukuleles & Guitars are part of the group of instruments that can be said to be tuned in 4ths.  That is

to say, with the notes of a linear tuning in 4-step intervals.  But there are other large old families of

stringed instruments that have been tuned in 5ths, or 5-step intervals.  The most famous of these are

the Violin family and the Mandolin family.  Closer to the Ukuleles, both the Tenor Banjo and Tenor

Guitar are primarily tuned in 5ths. 

The early 5ths family instruments, like practically all early stringed instruments, were strung in gut,

and had a totally different sonority than the instruments you hear in these families today.  The

characteristics of gut gave the lower notes an almost gummy sound, but they were paired with very

bright clear high notes.  It provided a stark contrast in tone between the highs and lows, and that

contrast was used to great advantage  by the early players.  With time, however, steel strings took

over.  They provided much clearer low notes, and modern players have looked for this greater

uniformity of tone.

Ukuleles, of course, are not constructed for the tension of steel strings.  The lighter bracing requires

lower tension, and careful attention to the body resonance to produce anything close to the same clarity of tone

that the steel strung instruments give.

We’ve worked over the years to produce a traditional linear 5ths set for Ukuleles, and have come to the

conclusion this set-up simply doesn’t give adequate performance.  5ths tunings have a wider range than a

tuning in 4ths, approaching the range of notes for a 6-string guitar.  Classical strings are at a disadvantage when

it comes to covering a wide range.  They are are thicker, and therefore noisier under hand than steel strings on

the low notes, and also not nearly as clear.  On the other end, the higher notes require very thin material.  These

strings are subject to breakage even with the strength of steel.  With classical string material, breakage on the

high note string is much worse.

We found one set of gauges with classical strings that managed a decent compromise.  The low note strings

were not too unpleasantly thick and the high note strings not too, too thin.  Unfortunately, since those are the

only practical gauges from a playability standpoint, they have to be placed on an Ukulele without regard to

resonance, and that is the fatal flaw - the notes produced are always in too low a range to give clear sound for

the deep notes on the lightly braced, small bodied Ukuleles. 

The solution is one that dates back to the early Greeks, and one that

Ukulele players are familiar with - reentrant tuning.  Reentrant tunings

group the notes closer together - in other words, cut down the wide range

of a linear 5ths tuning.  It’s just what is needed to produce both good

sound and playability with classical strings in 5ths.  We drew on two

reentrant styles found in the Ukuleles closest 5ths tuned relatives, and

have finally come up with 5ths tuning sets for the Ukulele that don’t just

“get by”, but that are drop dead gorgeous - nice enough to make a

standard tuned Ukulele player stop and take notice.

From the Tenor Banjo comes a tuning known among those players as

“High C”.   The standard tuning on a Tenor Banjo is  c  g  d’  a’ .  In “High

C” tuning, this becomes  c’  g  d’  a’.  (Note: if you are unfamiliar with

standard notation, see our “Terminology” page - linked belowJust as with the

common Ukulele reentrant tuning, the 4th string goes up an octave.  As

we do this with more than just the traditional Tenor Banjo tuning, instead

of calling this a “High C” tuning, as the 4th string goes up an octave, we’ll

use the term “High 4”.

From the Tenor Guitar comes another form of reentrant tuning developed in the

early 20th century by the guitarist Eddie Freeman.  While he became famous later

in life for his work on the classical guitar, he is still probably better known for

what he did early in his career when the 4-string Tenor Guitar was his instrument. 

He worked with the legendary Selmer Guitar company in France to produce one

of their most famous instruments, the Eddie Freeman Special Tenor Guitar.   It

had a bit heavier bracing than the standard Selmer Tenor, and was tuned with a

set-up created by Eddie to turn the standard linear Tenor Guitar 5ths tuning - a

tuning with a very light, melodic feel - into an instrument that could serve as a

deep rhythm instrument for the big bands that were then gaining prominence. 

The Tenor Guitar had come from the Tenor Banjo, and had the same tuning.  It

was designed to give Tenor Banjo players a guitar they could play without having

to deal with six strings and new chord patterns.  For a deep rhythm sound,

obviously Eddie needed to go in the opposite direction from “High C” , and he found a set-up perfect for that -

one where the second string becomes the reentrant note.  It drops an octave, and then the 1st string moves up 5

steps from there.  The result was that instead of the standard tuning of  c  g  d’  a’, the Eddie Freeman Special

tuning, or “EFS” tuning, as we will say, became c  g  d  a .

This was a wonderful tuning, serving it’s purpose perfectly.  The main problem was that Eddie was a little bit

late.  Had he come up with this 10 or 20 years earlier, the 6-string guitar might never have gained the almost

total preeminence it has today in popular music.  By the time the  Eddie Freeman Specials hit the marketplace,

most band players had already given up on 5ths tuning as a rhythm set-up.  They had bitten the bullet and gone

to 6 strings in 4ths. 

That standard EFS tuning, with its deep c note and the other strings grouped on the low

end of the spectrum gives a sound that is much different on a steel strung Tenor Guitar

than when it is moved up and placed on an Ukulele.  The tuning is higher, of course, to fit the

acoustics of the smaller body.  Thus, it takes on a lighter, lyrical sound, but at the same time, an EFS Ukulele

tuning retains the fullness and depth of the original.  It is one of the most beautiful sounds we have heard on

the Ukulele. 

 

Horace Weston
© Copyright Southcoast Furniture, 2013
Eddie Freeman
John Lawlor playing the original EFS tuning on a steel strung Tenor Guitar
Tim Allan picking a high 4th set-up  
For a number of years we offered 5th Tuning Sets for the Ukulele.  We regretfully decided that not enough interest exists among those who tune in 5ths to play the Ukulele in the Reentrant set-ups it requires.  This page remains as a reference for those who may wish to try this on their own.  Please understand that we do not make custom sets, and to repeat, these strings are no longer available.