Teaching Alternate Tunings

pedagogy corner Apr 13, 2021


Everyone’s talking about alternate tunings on ukulele. But can we bring them into the classroom to use with our students? You bet!

Alternate tunings are a hot topic these days. James got us excited in mid-2020 when he shared his cool BEBE tuning and made the case for jumping into the alternate tuning universe. There’s a lot to be said for exploring different musical ideas and concepts! 

The idea of changing a tuning that we’ve grown accustomed to can feel intimidating though, especially as a teacher if you haven’t tried it out before. Don’t worry, we’ve got you covered. Let’s take a look at some of the reasons why alternate tunings can be beneficial for your students and how you can bring them to your classroom.

(Pssst... If you're a beginner ukulele student and you're feeling out of your depth, head over to our online ukulele lessons to get started!


What are the benefits?


At the most basic level, you can make some tougher chords more accessible when you employ a different tuning of your strings. For example, by simply tuning string number one (A*) down two half-steps, or one whole tone, your resulting tuning would be GCEG, or a C major chord on open strings. To move this major chord around, you simply barre across all four strings anywhere on the fretboard and ta-da: more major chords!

The idea of changing a tuning that we’ve grown accustomed to can feel intimidating.

Cool new sounds

By altering the tuning and using the same fretting hand shapes you already know, some really interesting chords can be created. What a great opportunity to explore creativity and expression!

Related Reading: Baritone Ukulele Tuning

Fretboard and theory knowledge

When you dive in more deeply to understand the notes you’re playing in various tunings and chord shapes, you begin to get to know where notes fall on your fretboard and how they move if you change the string tuning. You’ll also be able to discuss chord structures: what chords are created if we move one or two notes? Perfect for your more advanced students who want to sink their teeth into something more complex.


Do I simply turn my tuning pegs? How does this work?

Yes and no. Of course, it really is just about turning those tuning pegs. However, there are a few things to be mindful of, including not moving too far from the original tuning of your individual strings. Your ukulele strings can stretch a little but if you push them too far away from their original tuning, you might pop a string. So as a general rule, try not to move more than two frets (two semi-tones/one whole tone) away from your original tuning note for each string.

We suggest the same general rule applies in the other direction when tuning down in pitch though you can certainly test this out. But once you’ve gone down in pitch, your string will get a bit floppier and that lack of tension can mean a less pleasant sound and feel. 

As a general rule, try not to move more than two frets away from your original tuning.

Let them touch the tuning pegs? 

Does the idea of having students suddenly getting their hands all over the tuning pegs give you the willies? These activities are, of course, meant for your older or more advanced students. You can give electronic tuners a role to play, too. Even these older students love using electronic tuners and they can test out their ability to get the tuner to match pitch by watching that tuner arrow float around. The ability for students to self-check + teachers not racing around as much to check tuning precision = sigh of relief.  


What can I do with my students?

Here are a few activities you can consider:

Listen up!

As teacher, play your ukulele tuning one string at a time with students listening and then identifying each string name as you pluck. Then change the tuning of one of the strings and repeat the exercise. Can your students tell which string changed? Can they identify the new note it has been tuned to? 

Peg Movers

Have students alter just one string by one note on their ukuleles and then explore the sound it makes. Can they name the new chord they’ve created? What if they change one more string by just one note? As noted earlier, when you create an open tuning that results in a chord you want (like a major or dominant 7th, for example), you can then practice barring and sliding up and down the fretboard. A perfect opportunity to explore the blues with a 7th chord open tuning (GCEBb)! 

Single-Handed Blues

This fun activity from the Ukulele Funbook (by our very own Zsolt Schäfer) gives your students the chance to play the blues using just one hand … with the right alternate tuning! As an aside, the Funbook is a really super resource if you’re looking for student activities and can be purchased in the Uketropolis Shop.

Rockstar Slide

Some songs lend themselves to those bluesy slides using either full or partial barres when strings are tuned just right. A great example is in the song Rosie Darling Rosie from Ukulele in the Classroom Level 2. You’ve got the perfect opportunity to let your students practice their blues slides in the instrumental section of this piece. Have students tune their E string (string 2) up a half step to F (tuning then becomes GCFA). Partial barre the first three strings on the second fret and move between that position and open strings. Throw in a pencil as a slide instead of using fingers to barre and now you’re really rockin’!

There is a lot of fun to be had with tunings. Don’t be afraid to dive in and explore! As always, we’d love to hear how you’ve been working with alternate tunings. Drop a comment in the Uketropolis Community.

*Note: This article references altering from C6 original tuning. You can apply the same principles to other tunings including D6 (a, d, f#, b) and baritone (d, g, b, e).

Cynthia Kinnunen is a music educator from Guelph, Ontario and is part of Team Uketropolis.

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