Originally published June 8, 2011
G C E A is the tuning for tenor, concert, and soprano ukuleles. Baritones are tuned D G B E.
Those are the string names if you’re counting from fourth string (the highest off the ground) to first string (the closest to the ground).
I recommend getting an electronic tuner. Tuning by ear is a great skill and developing your ear will help you tremendously in the long run, but at the beginning, it’s more important to get your uke sounding good, fast.
Using an Electronic Tuner
My favorites are the small electronic tuners that clip on to your headstock. They’re portable and they don’t get distracted by loud noises in the room.
Here’s how it works: you clip the tuner on to your headstock, turn it on, and pluck a string. The device picks up the string’s vibration through the body and tells you what note you’re playing, and whether it’s perfectly in tune or not. Usually there’s a little needle that swings left when you’re too low or right when you’re too high. You’ll turn your tuning peg to adjust until the needle points straight up.
Quick footnote #1: make sure the note name displayed matches the target note for that string. G for 4th string. C for 3rd string, E for 2nd string, A for 1st string. It’s possible to get perfectly in tune…to the wrong note!
Quick footnote #2: also make sure you’re turning the tuning peg for the correct string. It doesn’t help your G string if you turn the peg for the C string.
Tuning by Ear
Also known as “relative tuning,” this technique involves fretting a note on one string, and comparing it to the open string next door, then adjusting the tuning pegs so they match. You should seriously get an electronic tuner, it’s a lot easier for a beginner.
Still with me? Ok, let’s do it…
We’ll start with 4th string, the one farthest off the ground. Let’s assume this string is in tune, and use it as our reference for 3rd string. Whenever you turn a tuning peg, remember to TURN IT SLOWLY. A little bit makes a big difference.
1. Play 4th string open. Now play 3rd string with your finger on 7th fret. Compare the two notes. Adjust the 3rd string until they sound like the same note. Now we’ll use 3rd string as the reference to tune 2nd string.
2. Fret 3rd string on the 4th fret, and compare it to the open 2nd string. Adjust 2nd string until they’re in tune. Now we’ll use 2nd string as the reference to tune the 1st string.
3. Fret 2nd string on the 5th fret, and then play 1st string open. Adjust 1st string until both notes sound the same.
What to Listen For
When you compare the fretted note and the open string, listen for a “wah-wah-wah” sound. That beating / pulsing sound is the difference in frequency between the two notes.
As they get closer to being in tune, that pulsing sound should slow down until you don’t hear it anymore. If you’re turning the peg the wrong way, the beat will speed up.
You can also ask yourself, does the string I’m tuning sound “higher” or “lower” than the reference string? If it’s too high, you need to loosen the peg. If it’s too low, you want to tighten it.