Ukuleles are probably the most varied, in terms of form and design, of any commonly played musical instrument today. They come in 4 standard sizes, those sizes have alternate scale lengths, and they come with 4, 5, 6 (in two arrangements), 8 and some might say, even 10 strings (Tiple). There are two predominant tuning forms, but there are a number of other arrangements that are common as well. On top of all that, it’s not unusual to find some people tuning their Ukuleles in forms borrowed from other instruments. Mix all that together and it’s not hard to see the why the Ukulele requires so much more variety when it comes to stringing.We feel this is one of the Ukulele’s strengths; its flexibility allows it to adapt itself to many different tastes. There is one major problem with all this variety, however. There’s no widespread use of any sort of terminology that can cover all the instrument’s tuning possibilities.It’s not that this terminology doesn’t exist. It’s not that it’s difficult to use. But unfortunately, Ukulele players tend to borrow conventions from other instruments that make little or no sense when applied to the Ukulele. First, no other common stringed instrument in North America has a reentrant form for its primary tunings. Borrowing notation from guitar or banjo convention justdoesn’twork for reentrant notation. Guitar notation is generally all written in uppercase letters – but guitar tuning is overwhelmingly linear. Thus, guitar players rightly assume that EADGBE goes from low to high. Banjo convention writes a tuning such as gDGBD, with a small case letter at the beginning, followed by uppercase. The logic here is that the g note, the short drone string – is higher than all the other notes. In fact it’s a full octave above the 3rd string G note.None of that reasoning works when you apply it to an Ukulele reentrant tuning. The most common of all Ukulele tunings today is the traditional reentrant form in Key of C, yet Ukulele players have no consistency in writing even their most common tuning. There is a sizeable number who sorta, kinda follow Banjo convention and write it gCEA. Of course that’s illogical on the face of it, in that the 1st string, the A string in uppercase, is indicated to be lower than the 4th string, the g string in lower case. Though it’s not the norm, you can actually string up that way – with the 1st string an octave lower than is customary. We have a set with that sort of arrangement for the Key of G.Other people take the view that since all the notes are in the same octave, the reentrant form should be GCEA. Or they use all uppercase simply because the reentrant form is more common, so in their mind all uppercase should indicate the common form. While there’s a tortured form of logic in all these approaches, there are also fatal consequences from the illogical compromises as well.If you write the reentrant form with all upper case, how do you write the linear form (“low G” in Key of C)? If you write the reentrant form in Banjo style, there’s no way to write the common 6-string tuning. In that set-up, there are 2 octave 1st strings, and one of them actually is an octave down. If you’ve used A for the normal stringing of reentrant form, how do you show an A string that’s an octave lower?In short, neither common practice makes sense, and we’ve learned from long, bitter experience that as soon as you assume one meaning, it will turn out that a person really has something else in mind. It’s been said that these conventions should only be limited to the two most common forms. After all, “What do I care about those weird multi-course Ukuleles and people who don’t tune like me? I know what I mean (even if no one else is really sure)!” But even limiting these tortured conventions to the most basic of set-ups still leaves us no universal system. More importantly, there’s no reason to limit yourself like that in the first place.There are a number of systems to write notes. The two most common are so simple, there’s no reason not to use them. The one used most widely around the world is usually just called “Standard Notation”. Sometimes you’ll see it referred to as “Helmholtz Notation”, from the name of its author. We’ve posted this chart on site in a couple of places. Of course it does require some knowledge of the standard clef to be able to read it. Part of the attraction of the Ukulele is that you don’t have to know that sort of thing to play it. So now we’ll show how you can easily write in standard notation without even knowledge of the clef. The common Ukulele tuning today is the Key of C. Whether you use a linear or reentrant form, in C tuning your 3rd string is always the same note, a C note. It also happens to be Middle C, but even that’s not important. That note, in standard notation, is written in small case with an apostrophe, hence: c’. Everyone knows their alphabet, and with musical notes you start with A, end with G and then start over. That’s 8 notes - an octave. Octaves in Standard Notation and most other systems as well, don’t begin with an A, however. They begin and end with a C note. So, with c’ as the 3rd string of your Ukulele (assuming C tuning), every note above that for an octave is also written in small case with an apostrophe. FYI, it’s called the one-line octave. When you get to the next C you add a “line”, or on your keyboard, change the apostrophe to a quotation mark. The next (two line) octave is therefore like this: c”. For notes below your 3rdstring C note, you simply drop the apostrophe. It becomes a simple lowercase note. So everything below c’ is written in simple lowercase all the way down an octave to the c note (this is the “small” octave). The octave below that (the large octave) is written in simple uppercasedown to the C note.Let’s see how much more logical everything now becomes. First, the common Ukulele reentrant tuning in Key of C would be: g’ c’ e’ a’. All the notes are as high or higher than the 3rd string (c’ note), yet none are an octave or more above c’, so all are written small case with the apostrophe.Next, a linear tuning in Key of C would be g c’ e’ a’. The g (in this case what is often called “low g”), is a lower note than the 3rd string c’ note, but not more than an octave lower, so it remains in lowercase, but the apostrophe is eliminated. When you change keys, just remember that everything is still done in reference to a C note. Therefore, for example, in the Key of G, the Ukulele reentrant form would be d’ g b e’ (two notes are above c’ and two notes are below) while the linear form would be d g b e’ (only one note above c’).Not only do we now have some clarity now in writing common tunings, but look what happens when we move to other forms. Look, for example, at the traditional tuning for a 6-string Ukulele. In standard notation you write: g’ c’c” e’ aa’. Not only is there no doubt about what you mean, it’s not even something you can even do atall with one of the “conventions”. The 6-string Ukulele and its Lili’u tuning were developed by Sam Kamaka Jr. and named for one of the legends of both Hawaiian culture and the Ukulele as well, Queen Lili’uokalani! Do we really want to write tunings in a way that excludes some of these peoples work from the Ukulele Ohana? And this is only one example of scores of tunings that the “conventions” are totally inadequate to handle.The Hawaiian tradition, seen especially with Slack Key tuning, is to have a multitude of ways to tune. The sad thing about the Slack Key tradition is that not only were those tunings not written out, they were guarded as important secrets. As a result, the great majority of those wonderful tunings have been lost forever. We think it’s important for the Ukulele to also have that sort of tradition, but not to guard the tunings - to share them. So standard notation can give us a simple avenue to accomplish great things! If you want a “cheat sheet”, so to speak, the chart below, with basic set-ups for an octave range, is reprinted from our “Tunings” page:But as you see when you look at it, a whole octave range of tunings is almost entirely notated as either simple lower case or lower case with an apostrophe. Only the high notes of the higher tunings get the quotation mark, so here’s the only question you have to ask yourself 98% of the time: “Is this note my 3rd string note - or higher?” (assuming C tuning). If so, use lower case and the apostrophe. If it’s lower than your 3rd string, just use lower case alone- no apostrophe. Now how simple is that? With only a little practice, this all becomes so easy you’ll be astounded you never used it before. Now you can write standard tunings in a way that makes sense, and in a way that leaves no doubt as to your meaning. The same simple method now also allows you to write 6-string tunings, 8-string tunings – any tuning for that matter. It’s uncomplicated, clear, and now you can express yourself with no limitations. A good tool is one that’s easy to use and gets the job done. A bad tool is one that limits what you can accomplish with it.And there’s an added bonus for the Ukulele community. There’s always been a stereotype of the Ukulele player as a rube, a fool, or worse. And of course it is true that the Ukulele appeals to many people with no musical background because it’s relatively easy to play. Wouldn’t it be nice if more of the Ukulele community started to write tunings in standard notation? It’s certainly easier than learning to play the Ukulele itself, even if you’re not using any formal system in your learning process. And now we’re the ones who go “by the book”, and we’re also the ones who use a plethora of tunings and forms for our bigger variety of instruments. And then you get to ask: “So, who really is the “rube”, Guitar Guy?!”
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the Kamaka Brothers: Fred Jr. & Sam Jr. w/ portrait of Sam Sr.