If there are common worries I see from beginners of the ukulele, it's a fear of playing in different keys or of transposing chords and melodies on the fly. It usually shows up in a downright fear of playing baritone ukulele in G tuning and wanting to tune it in C, but it equally applies to all sorts of tunings and transpositions.
What on earth are you on about Barry? Well, what I mean is, if you find that in your regular tuning (For sake of discussion, let's assume that is GCEA tuning here) that most of the songs you like playing and singing along to are either a bit too high or low for your voice, why not just tweak the ukulele tuning a tiny bit to get closer to your natural register? The more traditional and musical way of doing this is to the bit that worries people. That is, to either transpose the chord or melody progression itself into a key that suits you whilst leaving the ukulele in standard tuning at the nut, or tuning the ukulele to another obvious key and then working out how the chord shapes now play different chords and adjusting your knowledge. I suppose a third way is to use a Capo, but I am not talking about any of those things here. I'm talking about adjusting the open tuning a little to suit, but still then playing the same chord shapes...
You see, so long as you keep the ukulele in 'relative' tuning (ie, relative to the GCEA sequence in standard tuning), it actually may not matter a jot if you don't play in the key of C. Bear with me here! Let's say for example that you find that most songs you sing to accompany your ukulele when tuned to C are just a slight touch too high for your natural vocal range. Have you considered dropping all your strings by half a step or even a whole step (or, for that matter, any fraction of a step without going to far)? By doing that you lower the whole ukulele tuning to something else entirely (in the case of a half step, down to to B tuning (F#, B, D#, G#), but you then don't actually worry about the name of the tuning you are in at all... You just play the same chord shapes you know and the whole song will be a touch lower.
No, you will not actually be making the same chord sounds as they would be on a C tuned ukulele, a C chord for example will become a B if the uke is tuned down a half step, but it may actually not matter in practice. The ukulele will still be in tune with itself. Now, let's deal with the qualifications to that statement. This will probably only be a viable option if you are playing solo. If you retune in this way and continue playing the same chord shapes (and, therefore, new chords), if you play with other ukers (or indeed other musicians full stop), they won't thank you if you don't know what key you are in. To play in tune with you, they will need to know that key, and then either re-tune themselves, or transpose their own chords. Without them doing that you will be out of tune with each other. So, no, this probably isn't helpful for players who perform with others. BUT if you only ever play solo, practice solo, or even perform solo, it actually doesn't matter what relative tuning you are in as long as it stays relative. By doing this, you are still playing 'relatively' in tune, but more importantly in tune with your own vocals but at a more comfortable key.
This can work the other way too of course, if you find that most songs feel just a touch too low, you could tune your ukulele up half a step from GCEA. That would go to G#, C#, F, B, but again, as it's relative, it doesnt actually matter what the actual key name is if you are only accompanying yourself.
It's a simple trick that I think shows, partly, why the concept of transposing a ukulele is actually not all that mysterious, and in some cases, doesn't actually matter. It may sound like a 'cheat' or a 'fast track' and regular Got A Ukulele readers will know that I am not a fan of those things. But it actually isn't. I'm writing about this because it's actually a very important lesson in understanding the relationship between relative string tunings and chord shapes. In fact, by playing around with this, you will probably start to listen to the instrument more and get a greater appreciation for why the chord shapes do what they do. So you may have thought this was another typical 'the ukulele is easy, let's cheat' subject, but actually it demonstrates something at the very core of how standard tunings work. And flowing from this of course is the concept of tuning the ukulele to itself. It's part of the same idea.
You see, you may have been in a situation where you are on your own and your tuner has failed or died. What do you tune the ukulele to? Grab your phone? Let's just say that is dead too. In fact, let's imagine the desert island scenario... Well, actually, if you are playing on your own, it doesn't really matter too much if you are perfectly bang on C tuning or not... Why would it? Nobody else is playing along. What matters is the ukulele is in tune with itself. And, by knowing the relationship between the strings in standard ukulele tuning, so long as you tune the ukulele strings to EACH OTHER in that same relationship, it will still play in a pleasing way using the very same chord shapes you already know. Sure, you may not actually be in C, or you may not even be in a recognisable named key, but the instrument will be in tune with itself. Hold a G chord shape, and you will get a chord. It may not be a G chord, but it will be a relative chord. At the end of the day a chord is just a group of notes played together. Change to an F chord shape and that new chord will be correct to itself in the same way the G shape was. And because the ukulele is relatively in tune with itself, chord progressions and melodies will still work as you move through a song. It just wont be in the original key is all. And without other musicians to worry about, that shouldn't matter. In fact this is a classic trick for people who travel on business with ukuleles - it does not matter if you have a tuner if you are not playing with other people. Just get close and tune the ukulele relative to ITSELF. I actually wrote a short piece on this topic which explains how to tune the strings to themselves here... Just bear in mind that this still works even if you don't have any starter reference pitch. Just tune one string to sort of where you think it is right (or even the right sort of tension) and tune the others to that. If you get the relative tuning right between the strings, then chord shapes and progressions will still work relative to each other.
I could go further on this topic, such as explaining that there are some fans of ukulele who like to deliberately tune slightly out like this as they believe certain individual ukuleles suit certain tunings better than others. It's a concept that makes sense, particularly when you bear in mind that the ukulele was not actually designed solely to be tuned in GCEA tuning at all. But I'm really writing this to try to get you to think a bit more about WHY key tunings do what they do and why it's really not that crazy to think about alternatives. You may now see that the main key alternatives that keep the same relative tuning are all connected. And that applies whether you re-tune to a fixed key or just a random key. The shapes will still work.
I still think that beginners should explore the concept of transposing and understanding tuning key changes in more detail as it is immensely more useful, but I hope this is something to bear in mind that might assist you. In other words, it's all about relative tuning!
© Barry Maz