So you have a brand new ukulele? Light and portable, it’s a fun instrument that you can take and play anywhere; on the beach, in the car, or in your apartment. But before you try learning your first songs, you must know how to tune your ukulele. If you play a ukulele that isn’t in tune, it doesn’t matter how well you play; it’ll sound awful! So here is how to tune a ukulele.
How Ukulele Tuning Keys Work
Ukuleles have four strings, which are usually nylon material. Each string has a different thickness or diameter, so they produce a different musical note when struck. The strings are attached to the guitar in two places, the headstock, and the bridge. The headstock is the “top” of the ukulele where the tuning keys are. We will tell you how to use them right away.
The bridge is on the body of the ukulele, near the soundhole. At the bridge, the strings fasten to the instrument with pegs. Or the strings are tied by winding around themself and then through a loop at the end. However, today it’s the headstock that’s going to command our attention.
There are two types of ukulele headstocks. A regular headstock has tuning pegs, nickel, or brass pegs that stick out of the headstock. The other type is a slotted headstock, where the string runs through a vertical bar or tube that runs through the headstock, much like a classical guitar.
The string runs through a hole in the peg or the tube and then holds fast as you wind the string around it. Either way, you’ll tune your ukulele using the tuning keys, which stick out of the back and sides of the headstock.
A tuning key stretches and loosens your strings, depending on which way you turn it. Turning your tuning peg counter-clockwise will stretch the string, reducing its diameter and raising its pitch (make it sound like a higher note). Alternatively, turning the tuning key clockwise will loosen the tension in the string, increasing its diameter and making the sound lower.
Electric Tuners for Ukulele
The easiest way to tune your ukulele is with an electronic tuner. These have become popular with modern musicians who play stringed instruments because they’re cheap, quick, and easy to use. A single electronic tuner can tune a violin, a guitar, a bass guitar, and a ukulele. You just have to select the correct setting, usually a “U” for the ukulele.
Attach the electronic tuner to your ukulele headstock. The tuner works by sensing the vibrations that travel through the wood of your instrument. When on the ukulele setting, the electronic tuner will automatically be looking for these notes: G, C, E, A. The G is the string that is closest to your nose. The A is the string that is closest to the floor.
Using the tuning pegs, play each string. The electronic tuner will instinctively know what string you are playing and show you if you are flat (too low) or sharp (too high). Turn the tuning keys counterclockwise or clockwise until the tuner either “beeps” or turns color (sometimes red to green). That means your string is in tune.
By the way, there are many apps for your smartphone now that can help get your instrument in tune.
Relative Tuning for Ukulele
In the olden days (like the early 1990s), before the advent of cheap electronic tuners, ukulele players had to tune their instruments manually. Manual tuning is an excellent skill to know because you never know when the battery in your electronic tuner will die or if your tuner will fall off the headstock and under the porch!
A good explanation on standard tuning is available on our How to Tune a Guitar Blog. Although it’s a different instrument, the concept of standard tuning is the same for the ukulele. You tune your ukulele to itself, using one string as a base to tune the three others. It means it’s not that accurate, so you’ll sound good playing solo, but you may not be in tune with your friends.
If you play the first string (the string closest to your nose), that note is an A. Likewise, if you put your finger between the fourth and fifth frets of the following string (the E string), the note produced is also an A. See where we’re going with this? So adjust the second string with your tuning pegs so that the two strings have identical notes: both are A.
Now to the next string, the C. Place your finger on this third string between the third and fourth frets. That note is an E. So adjust this string until the note matches the open E string above it.
When it comes to the G string or the string closest to the floor, place your finger between the first and second frets on the fretboard. That note is an A. An A should match the open first string. So tune up or down until they match. Music to your ears!
How to Tune a Ukulele Video
It’s certainly not rocket science, and tuning a ukulele doesn’t have to be a chore. That’s why we love this simple tutorial on how to tune a ukulele from Bernadette Teaches Music, which teaches you how to tune a ukulele using a clip-on electronic tuner.
Open Tuning for Ukulele
So we’ve shown you the traditional method of tuning a ukulele, with the A – E – C – G. This is the tuning that the vast majority of ukulele songs are written in. But really, you can have fun with open tunings. Tune your ukulele so that it sounds like a cool chord, then you can play any song you like by playing all the strings at the same time, moving up and down the fretboard. There are no rules! Some of the greatest musicians have composed and played some classic tunes with open and alternate tunings.
Staying in Tune
When you put on new strings, they will go out of tune quickly as they stretch. You’ll need to tune often before the strings settle. Humidity levels will also cause the wood to expand and contract, thereby putting your ukulele out of tune. So don’t put on a new set of strings if you plan to play in public that day, and make sure you keep your ukulele away from changes in temperature and humidity.
How to Tune a Ukulele: Final Verse
So now that your ukulele is in tune, it’s time to play! There are dozens of songs for the first-time ukulele player that are fun to play and sing. Just remember that whenever you pick up your ukulele, tune it up first, either with an electric tuner or with your ear, using the methods above. You’ll sound like a professional every time you “tiptoe through the tulips.”