Playing a Ukulele In Tune With Itself

23 Feb 2017

Playing a Ukulele In Tune With Itself

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.

relative ukulele tunings

Now, as much as I think the issue of retuning your ukulele to a different relative key tuning is acutally simple, (and have written a guide to show just how simple it is), I do recognise that some people are put off by the whole concept. This got me thinking about a really simple tip that may assist players worrying about keys. Did you realise you can adjust the tuning of the ukulele to suit your voice but not actually worry about what key you are in? In other words, you can play the ukulele in tune with you and itself and be happy with that? No theory, not transposing, no working out new chords. And not necessarily in a regular key either.

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, Bb, but again, as it's relative, it doesn't 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!


  1. I have a tenor with a special set of Fremont strings tuned to A6 tuning, one step up from standard baritone. (The strings are less floppy at that tension.) I just need to remember that I'm in that tuning when I'm playing with my trio and as Barry says, it's not a problem when I'm performing solo.

  2. Thanks Ben - yeah, I do it all the time to tweak the string feel and the tone. So many beginners get too hung up that it MUST be perfectly in C tuning...

  3. This is very interesting Baz. I'm about to take delivery of a Rob Collins taropatch after seeing the great Phil Doleman demonstrating his on you tube - In it he states that he has tuned it down a tone "and it sounds great". you have given me confidence to try the same!

  4. Good post and I'd be pretty certain that many people are unaware of anything beyond GCEA. I've been experimenting lately and have settled on a mix of C, D & Bb tunings across my ukes. I particularly like Bb for arpeggio chord picking - nice and mellow. I play with a guitarist and play quite a few songs in D & E so use a capo as well as those tunings. It's a very interesting subject in it's own right but I guess the bottom line for me is flexibly.

    I have a friend who tunes according to size of ukes - Sopranos in D, Concerts in C and Tenors in Bb.

  5. I've tuned sopranos to D (common in parts of the world) and Eb. For tenors I've tried Bb before and I've tried all kinds of things with the baritone, including one I keep in gCeA (with both the g and e re-entrant). However, most of the time I do play in C, because I'm working with my ukulele ensemble and don't desire the extra mind math of playing in a different tuning than they are.

    Another argument for using a different tuning is the voicing of various chord shapes. I don't really care to play in some keys with a C-tuned ukulele, not for the difficulty, but because the root chord shapes don't lend themselves to a feeling of 'completeness' upon arriving at the home base / tonic chord. Ab is such a key for me.

    Also, take Db, some keys are really fatiguing to play every chord in a barre form, especially when it is so close to the nut.

    Besides all the practical implications, tuning in different keys is a great excuse to buy more ukuleles! :-)

  6. Makes perfect sense! I do it all the time. But then I'm a soloist(nobody will play with me *)I keep three ukes to three tunings! *exception: at Strummers meets

  7. I have to say that I disagree Baz. You state "this probably isn't helpful for players who perform with others". All beginners will be in a group, or if not, should be. This is difficult for a beginner, who has more concerns like "what the heck is C#dim7" to digest. That's not to say that an understanding of transposition isn't something that should be introduced to a group: it should.

    I also believe that the capo has a place. I know it reduces the already-limited fretboard length of the instrument, but it's a very quick way of trying out a song in a different key. Transposing on the fly is a pretty advanced skill in my book.

    What I think your message here is: players are too reliant on electronic tuners. A lot of us grew up with tuning forks and broke many a string on the way.

  8. I'm not entirely sure what you are disagreeing with? The concept of adjusting tuning to suit? Countless numbers of professionals do this. It takes no more knowledge than being able to turn a tuning peg a bit. And a capo doesn't help if you want to take the ukulele down in pitch

  9. I disagree that this is beginner's material. Sure, pros do it (those do it, educated folk in rows do it, let's.. sorry, lost it for a moment) but they've played a bit. Uke beginners, often of a certain age, need to have simplicity.
    As of a certain age myself, I'll also say that I have a baritone in GCEA. Tried it in DGBE and sounds nice, but I found myself getting lost further up the fretboard. Might be a personal thing but I need to concentrate on one tuning and play it properly.

  10. But this is about an absolute beginner introduction to the core concepts behind transposing. Many beginners are put off by the concept, but by playing around with relative tunings and not worrying yet about transposing still means the ukulele is playable and progressions recognisable. Start to understand that, and it's just a first step that may then encourage looking at transposing. This ISN'T about transposing, or even worrying about transposing. It's a much simpler first step. If beginners start to appreciate the relationship between strings, it then makes the step to transposing much more logical

  11. Stevie Ray and Hendrix both tuned a half step down. Whatever works for the player, right?!


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