Wednesday, January 1, 2020

Tuning the ukulele

Tuning the ukulele:

For those familiar with tuning instruments, you can match pitch to a piano, tune it to itself by intervals, or whatever your preferred method is. For absolute beginners, you will want to either buy a hand-held tuner, use a web-based tuner, or use a mobile device tuner app. This web-based tuner is what I recommend.

The first thing to know about the ukulele is that the strings are out of order. For anyone familiar with a stringed instrument such as guitar, violin, cello, harp, lute, piano, this is going to seem really strange. It is correct though; the strings are not in order from lowest to highest like you expect. This graphic (originally from, which I edited to correct some errors) does a nice job explaining where the strings lie on the staff and on the piano. 

These directions assume you are using this web-based tuner.

To tune the ukulele, start with the G string. Pluck it and see what pitch the app says it is. It will say a letter and number, such as A3 or C4. The pitches go from low to high using the musical alphabet (CDEFGABC), and the numbers tell you what octave it is in. The pitches in order will be C3 D3 E3 F3 G3 A3 B3    C4 D4 E4 F4 G4 A4 B4    C5 D5  etc. There will also be flat/sharp pitches in between some of them. Middle C is C4. When you pluck the string, it will most likely be flat (below the correct pitch), so turn the tuning peg in the direction that makes the string tighter. The app will go up in pitch. Keep turning until it says G4. The arrows on either side of the pitch are for fine-tuning it so it is exactly in tune (green). If it's too high (sharp), loosen the string. Do the same for the C string. Pluck it, see what pitch it says, turn it until you get C4. Do the same for E and A.

Once you have each string in tune, go through and check them all again, as they may throw each other off while tuning. If the ukulele and/or strings are new, tug each string firmly at the soundhole to stretch it until the pitch is a good bit lower, then tune it again. You'll want to tune it every 10 minutes or so while you play around with it. After you've gotten the strings stretched out a bit, it will then stay in tune most of the time and you will only need to make minor adjustments.

Another option is to go to a local music store and ask someone there to tune it. If they are not busy and especially if you purchase an accessory or book to show some courtesy, they will usually be happy to do this for you.

Please try very hard to come to group classes with the ukulele in tune, and the strings stretched/broken in so that they stay in tune. In online group courses, I do not check tuning as there is nothing I can do about it without spending many minutes walking the student through how to tune the instrument. I permit students with untuned instruments to stay, though their learning is negatively impacted since the instrument sounds wrong despite them doing everything correctly. In my in-person classes, I may quickly tune the instrument if necessary, but cannot keep retuning if the strings have not been properly stretched. In online private lessons, I will check tuning, and I will use the student's lesson time as needed to walk the student through tuning the instrument.

If tuning proves difficult, a fellow Outschool teacher is offering live tuning walkthroughs by appointment for $5.

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