How to Tune a Ukulele

pedagogy corner Mar 21, 2023

By James Hill

So you wake up in the morning, you pick up your ukulele but it sounds terrible. It's time to tune!

These days, by far the most common way to tune is with an electronic tuner.  Just clip one of these to your headstock, turn it on and pluck the first string, A. It's easy to remember that A is the first string because it's also the first letter in the alphabet.

Keep plucking as you tune so you can see and hear the changes you're making.  In this case, I was hoping to see the letter A but what shows up is the letter A followed by a hashtag or number sign.  That's means A-sharp.  Not quite the note I was hoping for!  So I keep plucking and I start turning the peg.  If it goes further through the alphabet (to B or C), I know I'm going the wrong way!  I turn the other way; remember, I want to arrive at A.  This tuner even goes green to show that I've arrived at the right note.  One quick tip: it's always a good idea to tune up to a note rather than down.  So to finish this string, I'll loosen it slightly and bring it back up to pitch.  That keeps good tension in the string so it'll stay in tune longer.

Keep plucking as you tune so you can see and hear the changes you're making.

And that's it!  I just repeat this process with the other strings.  E is next.  Then C.  And finally, G.  To finish off, brush lightly across all the strings.  If it sounds pleasant then you're good to go!  If it still sounds a bit wonky, go back to square one and tune again.  Don't forget to turn off your tuner to save the battery.

Just in case you do forget to turn off your tuner or you run out of battery, there's always the old-fashioned tuning fork.  A tuning fork works even when the power's out!  Here's how you use it.  You strike it, then you hold it against the bridge.  You use that as your reference pitch because that will give you the A note.  If your A string sounds like the tuning-fork pitch then you're in the ballpark and you just tune the rest of the strings using A as your reference point. 

You can do this by plucking two neighbouring strings and making sure they sound good together. The interval (the "musical distance") between the first two strings is called a fourth. Don't worry if you don't know what that means, all I'm saying is that when you play E then A it should sound like the beginning of "Here Comes the Bride"! If it doesn't, you need to change the pitch of that E string.  The interval between the middle two strings is called a third. When you play C then E it should sound like the first two notes of "When the Saints Go Marching In."  To finish off, tune the 3rd and 4th strings. Play C, then G. If it sounds like the beginning of "Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star" then you're in tune!

This is a way of tuning that doesn't rely on an electronic tuner. It's a bit old-fashioned but it always works!

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James Hill is award-winning musician and renowned teacher. He is the founder of and the author of many popular ukulele books including Booster Uke, Ukulele Jazz and The Ukulele Way. This lesson comes from Ready, Steady, UKULELE!, a comprehensive online video course for absolute-beginners that costs just $1. Learn more ▶

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