Find the tuning that's right for you with this guide to ukulele tunings.
Making Sense of Ukulele Tunings

There's more than one way to tune a ukulele. To choose the right tuning for you and/or your class you'll have to answer two questions, and we're going to help you do it. The two questions are:

  1. D6 or C6 tuning?
  2. Low 4th string or high 4th string?
 
Question #1: D6 or C6 Tuning? Top ^

"D6" and "C6" tuning are short-hand names for the two most popular ways to tune the ukulele (it's like a ukulele version of the "Mac vs. PC" debate).

The strings in D6 tuning are, from 4th to 1st: a, d, f#, b (a D6 chord). Historically, D6 tuning tended to be the more popular tuning in Europe, Canada and the Eastern U. S. A. The strings in C6 tuning are, from 4th to 1st: g, c, e, a (a C6 chord). Historically, C6 tuning tended to be the more popular tuning in Hawaii, Japan and the Western U. S. A.

If this were a simple issue, it would have been resolved a long time ago. The fact is, there are pros and cons to both tunings. D6 is brighter, louder, and has the same "easy" keys as guitar, fiddle and mandolin. C6 is more "Hawaiian," has a more mellow sound and has the same "easy" keys as a piano.

Ukulele historian Jim Tranquada puts the C6 vs. D6 debate in context:

"This is an old and seemingly never-ending argument. While the pioneering methods of Kaai (1906) and Rollinson (1909) both use C tuning, a sampling of the methods that follow give a sense of the unresolved nature of the debate: Kealakai (1914), D tuning; Bailey (1914), C tuning; Kia (1914), D tuning; Kamiki (1916), D tuning; Guckert (1917), C tuning; Stumpf (1917), D tuning."

While D6 tuning (a, d, f#, b) emerged as the more popular tuning during the tin pan alley era, these days C6 tuning has gained great popularity. C6 tuning is by far the most popular tuning found on the internet and in recently-published ukulele method/sheet music books.

The Spring 2010 issue of Ukulele Yes! is largely devoted to the ukulele tuning debate:

Ask the ukulele players/teachers in your area which tuning they use and why. It's nice to be "on the same page" as the other players in your neighbourhood, so talking with like-minded people in your area may help you to make a decision about which tuning to use.

 
 

 
Question #2: Low 4th string or high 4th string? Top ^

The fourth string of the ukulele (the string closest to your face as you're playing) is often tuned an octave higher than you might expect (hence the familiar "my dog has fleas" tuning). In the classroom context, however, the authors strongly recommend the use of "low 4th string" tuning, where the 4th string is replaced with a thicker string and tuned down an octave.

Why?

  1. It extends the melodic range of the ukulele. More range = more repertoire = more fun.
  2. It clarifies the structure of chords and scales, i.e. it's a better tool for teaching music.
  3. It's better for ensemble playing: some students can play melody while others play (lower) accompaniment parts.

Keep in mind:

  1. Converting a ukulele to "low 4th string" tuning is a reversible procedure.
  2. 100% of the lessons in the James Hill Ukulele Method are compatible with both high AND low 4th tuning (i.e. a student with "high-4th-string" tuning will never have to "sit out”). However, the student with a low fourth string will have access to more material.

"High 4th string" tuning (a.k.a "re-entrant" tuning) has a delightful sound and you should encourage your students to explore it, particularly once they've mastered skills and repertoire at the Book 2 or 3 level. At the outset, however, a ukulele with a low 4th string is a better way to explore the fundamentals of music.

The big question is this: is your primary goal to teach ukulele or to teach music? If you're working with at-risk youth and/or in a music therapy / jam session context, high-4th tuning may well be the best option (if for no other reason than it's more "forgiving" for the beginner). However, If your goal is to teach transferrable musicianship skills (e.g. ear training, note reading, improvisation, ensemble skills, music theory, etc.) and you're using the ukulele as a springboard to other instruments, we highly recommend low 4th tuning (which brand/thickness to use? Click here for answers).

So, the purpose of your ukulele program will largely determine your answer to Question #2.

 
 

 
Whatever You Decide, We Have a Book For You.

Which tuning is better? It depends who you ask. But we can tell you this: for the past 40 years, Canadian schools have used the "low 4th string" D6 tuning for classroom ukulele because:

  • D6 tuning has a brighter sound and greater projection,
  • a ukulele tuned to D6 has the same "easy" keys as the guitar (D, G, and A).
  • the advantages of "low 4th string" tuning in educational settings are undeniable

In the end, the decision is yours and should be based on a) the needs of your students and b) your own purpose for teaching/learning ukulele. Ukulele in the Classroom books and CDs are available in both D6 tuning and C6 tuning. Click on your choice of tuning to start your order:

Please feel free to contact us for further assistance.

 
 

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Quick Links
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"The Great Canadian Tuning Debate" by Jamyang Lodto (Ukulele Yes! Vol. 9, No. 1)

The best "starter" uke

Ukulele cases

Recommended reading for teachers

 
 


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