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I am a guitar player and trying to figure out how a Ukelele is tuned. From what I understand, the Concert, Tenor and Soprano Ukeleles are tuned G4, C4, E4 and A4. So the lowest string is actually higher pitch than the second string. Can anyone explain why this is? Wouldn't it make more sense to have G3, C4, E4 and A4... especially for people who are used to other stringed instruments?

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The tuning you mentioned in your question is the standard tuning. There are many string instruments that have octave displaced tunings, called re-entrant tuning, including the banjo (5 string), Cuban tres and even the 12 string guitar.

In the case of the ukulele this gives the ability to play its characteristic close chord voicings not normally available on a string instrument tuned in 4ths or 5ths. For example the open ukulele is a C6 chord with the G and A a 2nd apart. Guitar chords work because the notes are the same as the first 4 strings of a guitar up a fourth.

This is not etched in stone though, tenor and soprano ukuleles can alternately be tuned with a low G as an option and the baritone uke is tuned like the top 4 strings of a guitar.

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  • Seen my comment..? Confused? I am! – Tim Jun 15 at 17:34
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    Just a correction - the mandolin does not have reentrant tuning. A mandolin is always tuned as a violin, and a defining characteristic of the mandolin as an instrument is that the pairs of strings in each course are always unison. 12-string mandolins do exist, and generally they have the extra string in each course in unison again. Occasionally they do have the extra string tuned an octave down in all 4 courses, but it would be a stretch to call this reentrant tuning; and it certainly is not true of the vast (99+%) majority of mandolins which have 8 strings with 4 courses of unison pairs. – Graham Jun 16 at 9:00
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    @JohnBelzaguy No worries. The rest of it is fine - I just wanted to correct that one thing. It's not quite true on a 12-string guitar, but that's a bit more subtle so it's close enough. – Graham Jun 16 at 18:16
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    @Graham as far as the 12 string goes, how about we call it half true since the octave G goes both up and down to the unison B, sound good? – John Belzaguy Jun 16 at 21:16
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    @JohnBelzaguy Sounds fair. :) The most unusual reentrant tuning I've met BTW is the Chapman Stick, which is essentially two sets of non-reentrant-tuning strings starting from opposite sides of the fretboard to be played with both hands. A great instrument in the hands of a good player, but a bit strange! – Graham Jun 16 at 22:20
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I think it's a characteristic of the instrument that many of its basic major and minor chords - contain a duplicate note. For example its simplest G major chord (which is the same shape as a guitarist's D major chord) has two G4's in it. Any tiny tuning discrepancy between the open and stopped G4's will give the chord an interesting/charming/irritating quality that is part of its character. But maybe I'm a little mistrustful of the ukelele's ability to be in tune!

Also, btw, I don't think such a low-tuned ukelele string would sound great, but maybe they could produce a thicker(?) one that would work.

Incidentally, you do know that they can be tuned a few notes higher or lower, don't you? Sheet music often has (or used to have) an instruction at the beginning: "Tune ukelele A D F# B" for example.

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  • Interesting, but why in this order specifically ? They could've put the G4 on the bottom of the instrument instead of on the top. – 021 Jun 15 at 15:59
  • But no instrument I can think of has neighbouring strings tuned a tone apart. I can't imagine what the fingering would be like. – Old Brixtonian Jun 15 at 16:09
  • @OldBrixtonian The Huapanguera Guitar has the last two orders tuned a tone part. Drop-D tuning also has that feature, no? – Von Huffman Jun 15 at 21:59
  • @Von Huffman Drop-D tuning just lowers the low E-string a tone. None of the strings are tuned a tone apart. As for the Huapanguera guitar, my probing and thorough research into the instrument (I Googled it a minute ago) reveals that it can indeed have such a tuning! – Old Brixtonian Jun 15 at 23:14

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