We come at the whole issue of tuning primarily from a background of lutherie, and so while there are other factors to consider when selecting a tuning, on this page the perspective will be strictly on acoustic sound. Simply stated, strings and tunings are not something that you can separate from the instrument itself. They all have to work together to be truly be“in harmony”.In referencing specific fixed note tunings on this page, we are also assuming those are needed in the first place. Solo players need no fixed notes, but can still gain useful knowledge here using the various tunings listed below as references, or “jumping off points” in getting their desired sound. The concept of what we call “graduated tunings” exists in every instrument family except the Ukulele family. Higher tunings go on smaller instruments, deeper tunings on bigger ones. You see it with the Violin family, the Mandolin family, with Woodwinds & Reeds, with Brass - you see it everywhere but with us. In our Terminology page and in some of the String Tips we’ve discussed some of why this has happened, so we won’t go into it again here. We’ll just say that the concept of universal tuning for instruments of different sizes violates the laws of acoustics and is incapable of producing the best possible acoustic sound. We feel there is no reason for the Ukulele to have to be compromised...........................................In selecting tunings for best sound, all you have to have in hand is a very basic understanding of the properties of resonance and how they pertain to your instrument. Resonance is something practically any object possesses, and it’s qualities are not at all difficult to illustrate. If you’ve ever seen someone play a set of bells, it is immediately obvious. The little bells resonate at a higher pitch than the big bells. The same thing happens with the body cavities of the different sizes of the Ukulele.One of the great modern researchers in the field of acoustics in lutherie also happens to be one of the great contemporary Ukulele Luthiers, David “Kawika” Hurd. He has written a landmark book, “Left-Brain Lutherie”, that not only provides fundamental research into the acoustics of Ukuleles, but is used for reference by luthiers of all persuasions. The following calculations of ukulele resonances comes from David’s work, and for handy reference, we’ll also repeat the chart from the Terminology page for standard pitch notation. Soprano Ukulele Resonance: c’Concert Ukulele Resonance: aTenor Ukulele Resonance:gBaritone Ukulele Resonance: d#Still, it’s important to remember that these are general guidelines, based on Kawika’s own instruments. You may well wish to measure the resonance of your own. Here’s an easy way to go about it.Simply take a sock and put it between the strings and the fretboard. This will eliminate vibrations from the strings. Now hold your Ukulele with two fingers under the headstock and tap it at the bridge (all sides must be free to vibrate). The note you’ll hear is the resonance of your instruments body. There’s an I-phone app from Strobosoft (it’s primary function is as a tuner) that will pick up the note. Others have sometimeshad success using other forms of standard electronic tuners. Now let’s add a tuning chart - a full octave range of possibilities for the full range of Ukuleles:
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And so lets tie it all together. It is important to note that, when selecting a tuning you’ll be relating thelowest noteof a tuning(not the key!!)to the resonance of an Ukulele body.Tuning below the ResonanceThis is the easiest scenario to explain. Notes below the body resonance can’t resonate fully. Go back to our bell example. Imagine the Liberty Bell, first inside a Cathedral, and then inside your bedroom. Think it might resonate a little better in the cathedral? While maybe a little hand bell in the bedroom would be just fine?There are instruments that do have notes slightly below their body resonance. The 6th string (only) of a guitar, and the 4th string (only) of a violin are two examples. But as the first has 2 extra strings and much more power than an ukulele, a guitar can afford to have the lowest of it’s 6 strings muffled a bit. In the case of the violin, the screeching, overpowering sound of a bowed instrument is something that luthiers fight to keep under control, not struggle to increase. No problem with a little temperance on the lowest of the violin strings either.It’s not that you can’t have a note below the resonance of an ukulele and still enjoy playing it, but this discussion is about achieving the best possible sound, and there are so many wonderful options on the chart above, that there’s no reason to waste your time with this avenue if acoustic sound is a priority. Tuning at the ResonanceThis is potentially worse than tuning below the resonance, and yet with the ukulele, it’s done a lot. It also causes a lot of problems, but the key is that it only has the potential for that.Here’s what may happen. When the resonant frequency of the body exactly matches a note being played you can get what are called “wolf notes”. A more technical term would be an “artificial overtone”. It can be a terrible problem with bowed instruments. There, the volumes are loud to begin with, and the term “wolf note” comes from those folks. The howling harmonics can literally drive you out of the room.It also happens with Ukuleles, though with their lesser volume, it’s nowhere near as severe. In ukuleles it’s usually described as a “boom”. David Hurd (always the scientist) called it “thunkiness”. So for examples of the sort of problems that can occur with a note at the resonance, let’s look at two common, yet often problematic situations.Look first at what happens with C tuning: high reentrant form on a Soprano, and linear form on a Tenor. In the first case, the lowest note of the reentrant tuning is c’. The resonance of a Soprano body is also typically c’. In the second case, the lowest note of the linear tuning is g. The resonance of a Tenor body is also typically g. With both instruments, it’s easy to find references to a “booming” c’ or g note. Usually the problem is attributed to poor string selection, and especially in the case of a badly balanced, single wound linear set-up for the Tenor, strings can be a contributor. The root problem, however, is that, common as they are, these tunings are simply not ideal for many of these instruments.But remember, we mentioned above that this is only a potential problem. Not all Sopranos and Tenors turn out to have problems when tuned to these set-ups. And as also mentioned above, it’s best to test your own instrument, since varying construction and woods mean varying depths of resonance. To elaborate, at this point I’d like to credit another of our finest Ukulele luthiers, Dave Means. He is also a master in acoustics, and from him, we get definition on something called “the Q factor”. Using Hurdian terminology, I might also call this the “fudge” factor. What this boils down to is that there are ways to “fudge”, or “build around” harmonic problems. One element Dave mentions as being significant in this, for example, is the flexibility of the back. In point of fact, a soundbox that’s a bit more flexible in any of its structure will allow a deeper resonance. The lesson here is that if you really want to set your pitch at tunings close to the typical body resonances, it can be done. Yet it will be more or less successful depending on the particular instrument. A luthier who understands acoustics and how to adjust his construction can give you an instrument that will handle those notes just fine, and you’ll have a fully resonant tuning, free from “wolfiness”. With a production instrument, you may also be fine, but it’s more a roll of the dice.Tuning above the ResonanceHere ya go, baby!! Here’s the sweet spot. Tuning above the resonance gives you 4 fully resonant notes, and avoids any problem with harmonics altogether. From a subjective point of view, it also seems to us more in step with the traditional “light & lively” character of the ukulele as well. These tunings are not simply more resonant, they’re more responsive as well.The question in this situation becomes “how much above?” The first thought might be that the ideal would be to go just barely above the resonance. That way you access the full volume of the body, giving it its deepest resonant tones. Looking again at those two examples above, David Hurd has suggested D tuning as the ideal linear set-up for the Tenor Ukulele. With Sopranos, before the emphasis on a universal tuning, high reentrant D was the traditional set-up throughout most of the Sopranos’ existence. In both these instances, the low notes of these tunings are a full step above the resonances shown above. That’s noteworthy, because David gives very specific body sizes for those resonances, and with the variations in body design, it would not be at all remarkable to see a 1/2 step variance in the resonance. A full step above those numbers, then, is a great place to start. You can, however, go on up a bit from there. 2 - 3 steps above can still give an adequate depth of tone. Above that, you start to run into problems. The Tenor Ukulele, for example, when tuned to reentrant C, is 3 steps above the resonance. The Baritone Ukulele in Linear C, is 2 1/2 steps up. A lot of people enjoy those tunings; they give a nice bright tone, and it’s always better to “tune up” in regards to resonance than to “tune down”.Go above 3 steps, however, and it’s no longer just a question of your range of notes. Now appropriate strings enter in to the equation (as they usually do when you try to “stretch the limits”). It’s a generalization to some degree, but with the typical scales of a stringed instrument you’ll find that when tuning too high, either your tensions become too tight for good playability and performance, or your string gauges are so light that you don’t exert enough force on the soundboard for the instrument to respond well. ..........................................At this point, we’d just like to say again that we’re not trying to tell anyone how they have to tune or play their instrument. If you are enjoying some sort of arrangement outside the parameters we’ve just outlined, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that. Music is about enjoyment, after all.However these pages, this whole “Guide to Tuning & Strings”, for that matter, are about achieving the best in sound quality for your instrument. We worked hard to put together an assortment of strings that constitutes the widest selection, in terms of tone and tension, that you’ll encounter anywhere. If we were then to ignore acoustics, in our eyes, it would make the whole effort useless. You can have the best quality strings, with a wonderful tone and balance, but if your tuning doesn’t mesh with the acoustics of your instrument, none of that matters. We’ve wasted our time.So while optimal sound may not be a prerequisite for having fun with the Ukulele, remember that for many players, bringing out the best in their instrument gives an immense satisfaction. Obviously, these are the people we’re providing strings for. We’ve tried first to show how it really isn’t that difficult a proposition to tune well to begin with, and then, put together a “Guide” on how to take advantage of what are actually a staggering amount of possibilities for fully resonant tunings.For us, then, and I’m sure for a great many of you, there’s nothin’ like findin’ that sweet spot, baby!
For more information on Ukulele construction, body resonance, string tension and a host of other information on the Ukulele, you may be interested in visiting the site of David “Kawika” Hurd. We are very grateful for his work, and have made use of his body resonance calculations on this page.click photo on the left for: Ukuleles by Kawika: a thoughtful website