TUNING BELOW THE RESONANCE - page 1

This is a topic that you’ll see mentioned in a lot of the Tips letters.  But while there’s some depth in some of those letters, we feel the topic is so poorly understood in general that it deserves it’s own dedicated letter.  So what do we mean by “Tuning Below the Resonance” in the first place?  First, every enclosed wooden instrument body has a resonance; a note that it sounds to when tapped.  Strings tuned above that note can ring out clearly.  Strings tuned below that note are not fully represented; they are what we call “choked notes”.  For more on average points of resonance for the typical Ukuleles and how to determine your own instruments resonance, see the information here: Tunings Traditionally, the Ukulele has been tuned with all four strings above the resonance.  The 6 string guitar, in contrast, has one of its strings tuned below the resonance of its body (the 6th string), but that is just one out of six strings, not one out of four.  Ukulele players, having fewer strings, have in the past wanted all those strings to ring out without compromise. The one exception is the Baritone Ukulele, an instrument many did not even accept as an Ukulele at all for years.  In it’s customary tuning, the 4th string is typically just below its body’s resonance; only a half step (see link above).  But in the last decade, there are players now literally looking to turn the Ukulele into a small guitar or even a mandolin in the sense that they try to use the deepest notes and widest possible range of notes on these small instruments.  This has led to a lot of “Tuning below the Resonance”.  There are challenges with this sort of thing that should not be overlooked; not if you want a musical instrument that plays to its potential.  It would be easy to explain the difficulties in “Tuning Below Resonance” if it could be done strictly in terms of acoustics. But playing style is also of great importance.  In addition, tuning outside an instruments natural range means it’s also likely you’ll also run into problems with stringing.   *************************** The most common examples of this phenomenon, and the ones we’ll focus on here, are with the aforementioned traditional Baritone tuning, Linear C tuning on the Concert Ukulele, Linear C tuning on the Soprano Ukulele and as an aside, any sort of Linear 5ths tuning as well.  The latter occurs simply because 5ths spacing (with 5 note intervals) requires a wider range of notes than the “tuning in 4ths” (4 note intervals) generally used on Ukuleles.  The practical result of 5ths tuning with classical strings (not steel) is that if you select a tuning where the 1st string is not so thin it will constantly break, then the 4th string ends up below the resonance.  While we’ll not be discussing 5ths tunings as we progress, for more on 5ths tunings (and a way to string around that problem) see this letter: 5ths Tuning on the Ukuleles  Also there’s not much need to bring Tenor Ukuleles into this discussion.  Most of them have enough depth of resonance to handle a Linear C tuning and that’s as deep as they’re commonly tuned.  But with anything lower than that or with a 5ths tuning, then what we’ll discuss would apply to a Tenor in those unusual cases as well. So to proceed, in Tuning Below the Resonance there are degrees of “choking” to consider.  We mentioned the Baritone has it’s 4th string just a half step below the typical body resonance.  A Concert Ukulele in Linear C is a bit worse, with it’s 4th string a full note below typical resonance; a Soprano in Linear C is the worst of all, with it’s 4th string being a full 4 steps below typical Soprano resonance.  The further below the body resonance with any particular note, the more “choked” it is, so the lack of full representation on the 4th string increases with each of these examples above. Now when we say “worse” or “worst”, we mean that in the sense of full, clear acoustic sound.  But we do not mean to imply these tunings are “worse” than the more traditional “above resonance” tunings.  That is a subjective judgement based on personal preference in sound and playing style.  Clarity is simply not paramount to some.  However through our history, it is apparent from the questions we receive that people simply do not have adequate information on what this sort of approach entails.  Since we sell strings, the common assumption is that if one of these tunings somehow doesn’t sound quite right, a better set of strings can fix the matter.  But strings simply can’t fix everything.  If you decide to take on one of these tunings, we mentioned that you will face certain challenges.  This letter is not here to discourage you from taking those challenges on in every circumstance, just to alert you as to the nature of the challenges and also to suggest some ways to, in large part, get around them.   *************************** But before beginning a discussion of those challenges and how to potentially manage them, as a point of future reference, listen to the typical range of the “above resonance” notes of the modern Ukulele.  This is a reentrant C tuned Ukulele played by the great Peter Moon.  We say it’s the “modern” sound, because throughout most of it’s history, the most popular Ukulele was overwhelmingly the Soprano, commonly tuned a step up from this in D tuning; as such, it was a much more assertive instrument.  But here’s Peter with the “modern” sound:          Note: this is a long scale Concert body with a wound 3rd string; the greater clarity from the wound 3rd and higher overall clarity from the longer scale are well suited to an “up the neck” playing style like Peter demonstrates here.   *************************** Now to return to what happens when moving away from this traditional “above resonance” stringing; to say the notes are “choked” or not fully represented may explain the root of the challenges, but other important factors at work on your acoustics as well.  So we’ll start by discussing why Tuning Below the Resonance so strongly affects the Ukulele in particular from the standpoint of acoustics.  You may see comments online such as “A Violin is about the size of a Soprano Ukulele and it is tuned in 5ths below its resonance!”, “Same thing with a Mandolin!”, and of course “But, but, but… Ohta-san!” (if this last reference seems confusing, we’ll explain it shortly). Those are indeed examples of successful tuning below the resonance, however they all employ methods to get around the acoustic problems that the typical Ukulele player doesn’t use.  These arguments simply don’t taking into account all the variables in how sound is actually produced on a stringed instrument.  So let’s take a deeper look for a second at the generation of sound.  You begin with your strings, of course; they are excited in some form, and their vibration creates sound.  But strings alone don’t produce enough power to allow a true musical performance; they need to be amplified in some form.  And the form of amplification also gives them a character and tone they would not posses on their own. The reason the Ukulele is so strongly affected by tuning below the resonance is that its small size, coupled with the way it is strung and customarily played makes it much more dependent on its body for amplification than any of the other examples we just mentioned.  First, classical strings, while providing more warmth and colour than steel, do not have nearly as much power on their own.  And the Ukulele is most often played with the fleshy parts of the fingers; a style which produces the lowest string volume of any way to bring sound from your strings.  None of the examples of “below resonance” tunings above use the strings or playing technique typical on the Ukulele.  All, in some form, employ a method that produces a more powerful sound from the strings themselves.  This lessens dependency on the body as the primary producer of sound, and in doing so, lessens or eliminates the “choking” of the lowest notes.  So let’s see how it’s done.  We’ll start with “Ohta-san”. ***************************  To those who find that name unfamiliar, it refers to an Ukulele player named Herb Ohta, Sr. (he has a son who is an Ukulele player as well).  He was one of the most popular Ukulele players of the late 20th century and his 1973 rendition of “Song for Anna” was at that time the biggest selling ukulele recording in history.  He spoke fluent Japanese and served there as an interpreter during his service in the U.S. military.  The name “Ohta-san” is a sign of respect, and as popular as he has been in the U.S., he has had 3 times as many albums released in Japan.  His frequent touring there is in large part responsible for the instruments present day mammoth popularity in Asia, and in large part because of him, the Ukulele maintained popularity in Japan during times when the U.S. lost interest.  This later recording of Hawaii shows his off his sweet melodic style: But notice the clarity of sound, notice the absence of wind noise, and finally notice the electric chord coming out of his Ukulele.  It is not acoustic sound you’re hearing, but electronically amplified sound.  And what does that mean?  Aren’t a lot of Ukuleles played that way?  Don’t they still sound a lot like they do without electronics?  Well, in some cases they do and in some cases they don’t.  It all depends on the electronic set-up.  With Ukuleles tuned above the body resonance, there’s no need to alter the sound profile unless you’re looking for something different to begin with.  But electronic amplification can take acoustics out of the sound equation entirely.  All you have to think of for an illustration is any solid body Ukulele or guitar.  Obviously they produce very little sound without electric power, and once they are plugged in, there is a huge range of sound they are then capable of.  In the case of something like a Soprano Ukulele, the impact comes from what we just said about the sound being freed from the limits of acoustics.  With the sound now coming through a pick-up and into the amplifier, the 4th string is no longer choked by body acoustics.  This means that an amplified Linear C tuned Soprano Ukulele will always be markedly different in character than the same set-up on an acoustic instrument.  I suppose you could find a way to electronically choke down the 4th string again if you wanted to try to mimic a more authentic acoustic sound, but I don’t see why anyone would ever want to do that. We searched for examples of Ohta’s acoustic playing to provide a contrast.  Bear in mind that even “unplugged” recordings can be better or worse than what you’d hear in person, depending on the quality of the equipment, the engineers and whether or not the sound is mixed, and to what extent.  Still, these recordings can often give a useful approximation of true acoustic sound.  We were only able to come up with two acoustic videos at all.  One is on the next page.  The video below was recorded on a beach in Japan, although the sound quality is a lot better than you might expect from such an environment.  You will hear Ohta start to play at the 1:30 mark, play a good bit of the video solo, and then be joined at the end by the guitarists. Ohta’s playing is wonderful as always, however the difference in sound from the “Hawaii” video above is evident as the 4th string sounds at times muted, at times dominant and with a much more metallic character than the other strings.  But notice one other thing.  This is not a Soprano Ukulele, but a Concert.  And not even a standard concert, but an early version of an instrument now made by Kamaka and named in honour of the fellow who inspired it and participated in its design: the “Ohta-san” model Ukulele.  The design aimed to make Linear C playing easier on an acoustic instrument, so the scale is longer and the bell shaped body gives it a deeper resonance than a standard Concert would have.  These instruments are still not fully resonant for a Linear C tuning, but they now move into the territory of the Baritone Ukulele in Linear G tuning, so the open 4th string is now only slightly choked.  That means some of the difference you hear in this recording is also due to the difficulties with stringing; something we’ll discuss on the next page with acoustic playing, but again, something that electronics can even out. So electronic amplification is the easiest way to get clear balanced sound from these sorts of tunings.  If you have an acoustic instrument, simply install a pick-up and start experimenting with your electronics until you get whatever sound you like best.  But what if electronic music isn’t what you’re really interested in?  Lets now look at some ways that deal with these issues on acoustic instruments.     *************************** The first example of successful below resonance tuning we mentioned above was the Violin.  The Violin takes on the issue of note clarity by getting tremendous power out of the strings themselves.  And this is primarily because of the use of a bow.  The difference in how the sound is generated is so stark that its why bowed instruments are in a completely different class than the fretted instrument group that the Ukulele is a part of.  Listen to this video of quartet of Violin family instruments: In this video one of the Violins is being plucked while the other is bowed.  You immediately hear the difference in volume.  But the other thing you may pick up on is that the plucked notes don’t sound that bad.  In spite of the fact they are not getting “freed up” from the acoustics of their soundbox by the power of the bow, there is a clarity evident that seems markedly better than what is heard on the acoustic Ohta- san video. That comes largely from the string material itself.  There is a much wider variety of string material available for classical instruments than for guitar family instruments, and it is more sophisticated in its construction (and as a result, often much more costly) as well.  Violins were once strung with gut, as all older stringed instruments once were, and those strings, as well as synthetic strings that give some of the same soft warm sound can still be obtained today.  However the vast majority of Violinists now use various formulations of metal wound on a metal core, especially for the deep note strings.  The closest things to these in the guitar family would be steel strings.  They simply produce more power and deep note clarity than classicals, so once again, the importance of the soundbox as an amplifier is diminished. *************************** This brings us to our next example of below resonance tuning, the Mandolin.  As with the Violin, the Mandolin was originally tuned with gut, but unless you see someone with an historical recreation instrument, today they are always strung with steel, and the modern instrument is built with those strings in mind.  Every string material has a tension at which it performs best, and for steel, best performance comes at a higher tension than with classicals, and the strings have much less flexibility as well.  This, then, yields different construction for the Mandolin family compared to classical guitar family instruments.  Using a tailpiece reduces stress on the top, and the top is relatively thick and it can even be arched, yielding a stronger soundboard.  Together with the reduced pull from the tailpiece / floating bridge design this construction allows for a high tension steel string sound, where once again, more clarity on the low notes comes from the use of steel and more power comes from the strings, again reducing the need for the soundbox to produce clarity and volume. There is no reason not to string the Mandolin as a double course steel strung Linear C instrument.  One of the instruments strengths is the ability to span the range of a linear 5ths tuning, but if you’re coming from the background of tuning in 4ths, then go ahead with that approach.  Steel strings are available in graduated gauges from a lot of sources and are dirt cheap.  The gauges required for a high tension, double course, unison Linear C set-up would be entirely appropriate.  And if you want to stick to 4 strings?  Then look south to Brazil; look to the Cavaquinho.  It’s an instrument that comes from the same Portuguese root as the Ukulele, but over time has become an instrument that is now strung with steel strings.  The customary tunings are higher than a Linear C, but with a body around the size of a Concert Ukulele, the use of steel strings will give it more clarity on the 4th string and better balance overall than classicals on the Concert can give.  Again, gauges to do this with steel are available and appropriate.  The nut is generally somewhat narrower than on Ukuleles, but then again the strings will be thinner as well. *************************** At this point let’s take a look at a solution that we’re really surprised isn’t more common.  It’s one that like the amplifier, eliminates the acoustic problems altogether, but doesn’t require any electronics.  This would be the Banjolele or Banjo Uke, specifically the open back form.  This works simply because the body is not enclosed, therefore the depth of resonance is greatly increased.  The modern forms of synthetic heads also produce more volume than a wooden top.  So how how you hold it will have an effect; try not to cover all of the back of the pot with your body. As mentioned, surprisingly we could find no video example of a Linear C tuning on a Banjolele, so instead we’ll use the following video as an analogy.  The video shows a Cello Banjo in “Low G” tuning.  But the term “Low G” does not imply the same thing it does with the Ukulele (the reason such inexact terminology is such a poor way of describing tunings in the first place).  The most common Banjo tuning is g’ d g b d’.  The four principal strings are the same as the traditional Baritone Ukulele with the 1st string dropped a note, or put another way, the original Ukulele / Machete tuning (d’ g’ b’ d”) but an octave down.  “Low G” for Banjo players means the 4th string is dropped from a d string to a G string!  So you have a “G” note three times in 3 different octaves, the “large octave” the “small octave” and the “one-line octave”:  g’ G g b d’.  Obviously a two octave range isn’t practical with classical material, so this Banjo is strung with steel.  But the real take away from listening to this video is how low a 4th string note this is, even on an instrument of this size.  For reference it’s a step down from a guitar 5th string.  It’s a very clear note in this video, and so the analogy is that the small octave 4th string “G” note of Linear C tuning (the middle of the three “G” octaves of this Banjo tuning) with classicals on a Banjolele will also yield much more clarity on the low note than you’d have with an enclosed wooden body.        *************************** And here’s yet another avenue to approach a 4th string below the resonance.  Make your “4th course” a double course; in other words take a look at a rather neglected instrument, the 5-string Ukulele.  With every sort of stringing arrangement, you first consider how the ears “hear” the notes being played.  With an octave 4th, the higher octave is what naturally dominates what you hear.  The low octave is heard as background depth.  Thus, if it is a bit below resonance, the lack of clarity doesn’t stand out like when it’s on its own.  And when strummed in first position chords, the ear will hear it as a reentrant tuning; the inversions will give your chords the same balanced sound that 4-string reentrant tuning gives. The legendary Moe Keale was the fellow that popularized this sort of instrument.  It gives the advantages just mentioned and learning to play melody with the double 4th course doesn’t take long.   Here’s a sound sample from an accomplished Australian player called Bosko on a fine  instrument made by his countryman Allen McFarlen: Note: from what we can see here, this instrument appears to have a slightly longer than normal scale, with 13 frets to the body.  The stringing appears to be all plain strings, something we would not generally recommend.  While the longer than standard Concert scale likely improves the clarity and/or tension a bit on the plain 4th string, putting a plain 4th next to a plain string an octave higher results in such a difference in diameter that given their usual proximity on the saddle, makes accurate intonation practically impossible.  On this instrument, that issue may have been addressed by the wider than normal spacing on the 4th course octaves.  But while the short scale of this instrument presents a challenge in stringing, still, wound strings are preferable as the low string in an octave pair; the diameters of that pair will be similar, and accurate intonation is a simpler matter. *************************** We’ll briefly mention another instrument with more than 4 strings.  Not an Ukulele in the strict sense, the Guilele (or if you like the funny sounding stretched-out name: “Guitarlele”) is more of a travel guitar.  In Liner tuning it is way below the resonance of it’s typical Tenor Ukulele sized body; it is still way below if you give it a typical Baritone body.  In either case, three (half!) of its six strings are below resonance, so the intent with this design was obviously not acoustic performance.  It seems all models come with built- in pick-ups, which then makes it a perfectly viable amplified instrument in addition to it’s “travel/practice” function for guitarists.  We did come up with a way to string these instruments for lively and responsive acoustic playing while still keeping a form of “guitar tuning”.  For more on that, see this previous letter:   The EFS & Kiku Guilele String Sets *************************** But - what if you don’t want to play using electronics, you don’t want to learn the Violin, you prefer classicals to steel, you prefer the sound of a wooden body to a drum bodied Banjo and you want to stick to four strings.  Are there other approaches you can take to “Tuning Below the Resonance” on acoustic wood bodied Ukuleles?  We have a few that work nicely on the next page.
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Brazilian Cavaquinho
Moe Keale w/ Cuatro style 5-string