LINEAR TUNING ON THE TENOR UKULELE

This is the second of our letters about Linear Tuning on the Ukulele. Previously, we discussed the Baritone. With this letter we'll deal with the Tenor body - then in the next one, we'll finish with the smaller Concert & Soprano bodies. It's a good idea to have an understanding of the Terminology and Tunings pages on our string site - we will use that Terminology, and refer to those Tuning principles often. We mentioned in the last letter that the parameters of an instrument's design are important to understand, and how the Baritone was created as a "Little Guitar". It was not the 1st Ukulele design with those goals, however. That distinction belongs to the Tenor Ukulele. Like the Baritone, the Tenor Ukulele was also designed for "Guitar Tuning", although not a linear tuning, but reentrant G.  Compared to the Ukuleles of that time, it was like night and day. The sound was much deeper, much mellower, not nearly as responsive overall, and featured a wound 3rd string. It was a colossal failure, and almost universally ridiculed as an example of mainland marketing at it's worst. As with the Baritone later, it was not considered worthy of the name "Ukulele". That era, more than any other, was notorious for blatantly commercial offerings from the music industry. Chicago companies like Regal, who while they were capable of fine work, were also looking constantly for every gimmick they could come up with for new sales. Ever hear of the "Octophone" (Eight Instruments in One!)? A lot of these gimmick designs were actually very intriguing (I wouldn't mind having an Octophone myself, just for fun), but in that sort of environment it's easy to see how an ukulele that was so different from anything that had come before - an ukulele for guitar tuning - could be easily consigned to the "gimmick" category. At any rate, the Tenor Ukulele languished for decades - some playing it in it's original tuning, but with a gradual shift toward the brighter reentrant C tuning. Finally, the idea of a linear C tuning began to take hold. Slowly at first, and more rapidly in recent times, the Tenor began to pick up popularity. It's notable that the low note in the linear C tuning is a g  note, the same g note that is the low note in the original reentrant G tuning. As the other notes in linear C are higher, however, that set-up overall has a brighter flavour. Now, the linear C set-up is almost as popular on the Tenor Ukulele as any of the reentrant forms. But since the Tenor was not actually designed for this tuning, sometimes there can be problems.  Linear C tuning on a standard Tenor is what we refer to as "Tuning at the Resonance". The discussion of that problem is on our Tunings page and uses the Tenor in Linear C as one of two examples for when it most commonly becomes a concern. You'll see that the other Linear Tuning mentioned on that page for the Tenor - in the part "Tuning above the Resonance" - is Linear D. We consider these to be the two viable linear tunings for the Tenor. The potential acoustic problems with C tuning, as mentioned there, are only potential problems. If they don't apply to your instrument, then the other thing to consider in the selection of a linear tuning for your Tenor is sound. And there's more to it than just what pitch pleases your ear or suits your voice. In the previous letter, we didn't discuss string selection at all. Most people who play a Baritone are comfortable with using wound strings, so we kept the discussion simply to the appropriate tunings themselves. In the case of the Tenor, however, this is not the case. There are a lot of Ukulele players who will do anything to avoid using wound strings, and as they are often needed for the deeper linear set-ups, this now becomes more of a consideration. The two common fixed pitch linear tunings for the Tenor Ukulele, C & D, are "at the crossroads" when it comes to string selection, and present a choice in sound which, for some, will have a large influence on the choice of their tuning. Linear C on the Tenor Ukulele requires strings in the range of a Medium gauge.  Using plain strings will mean playing at the lower end of the spectrum in tension and having a very soft sound from your bass notes.  But you can go towards the other end of the spectrum in two ways: moving up your tension or moving up your pitch.  Let’s talk first about moving up your pitch. By moving the pitch up a bit you have the option of an all plain set-up with firmer tensions and clearer bass notes.  A single wound set of Light Gauges is now a possibility as well. This is Craig Turner, one of our customers, playing his Lichty Tenor Ukulele using our LL- NW set.  Ukulele virtuoso James Hill, by the way, also tunes to this key (reentrant D as well), and of course it is the most commonly found tuning in traditional Ukulele sheet music. https://www.box.com/s/62477073d01fc5c0bbe6 But don’t forget about interval tuning (tuning without reference).  Light Medium Gauges, for example give very firm tension in D tuning and relaxed tension in C tuning.  Tune them where they feel right/sound right and chances are you end up in between - in what will be a very sweet spot for a lot of instruments.   And if on occasion you need a fixed note tuning, you’ll be able to go up to D or down to C depending on your preference.  That’s one big advantage you have with our sets; more even tension from string to string makes this sort of movement much more workable.  Just bear in mind that the difference in sound between the two will be dramatic.  The NW (no wound) option is the heaviest set of plain strings we offer, and will definitely be warm.  When tuning up, however, you will actually brighten the 4th string a bit.  By comparison, our WB (single wound) sets will be quite a bit brighter. But if it’s important to you to always tune to fixed notes in the Key of C, then start with those same Light Medium Gauges.  You have a choice between an all plain or a single wound set-up.  In fixed note C tuning, Light Mediums could be a bit low in terms of pure performance; especially the way many Tenors are braced today.  Yet if a relaxed feel is important and/or you have a lightly built instrument, these gauges could be perfect.    Once you go to Medium Gauges, everything changes.  We had firm tension in D tuning, even with those lighter gauges, because of the higher pitch.  In C tuning, we can have it by going up to Medium or Heavy Medium Gauges.  The all plain option goes away, simply because plain strings as heavy as the 4th string would be sound more like a rubber band than a musical instrument string.  The single wound option goes away in favour of double wound (4th & 3rd) because the greater thickness and warmer tone of a plain 3rd string would provide poor transition from the wound 4th and an imbalanced tone overall.  So there you have it.  The string types that give good performance for linear tunings on a Tenor give very different types of sound, and their performance is very much tied to what pitch they are tuned to.  We don't favour any particular one, but if you prefer more of a "guitar flavour" to your sound, then the obvious choice would be the Medium or Heavy Medium  Gauges in a linear C tuning. That 50/50 set-up is what you have with most guitar sets, and so in C tuning, your double wound set-up definitely gives you some of that feeling, along with the deeper pitch. The lighter sets might be said to give a more “Ukulele sound” but bear in mind the difference in tone between the NW and WB materials. That's it for the Linear Tuning on the Tenor. Next up will be the small bodies - the Concert & Soprano - combined in one letter.