A post in the forum at UKFolkies made me look at videos on youtube for instructions suitable for beginners. Yes, there are plenty there, using both electronic tuners and tuning by ear. Unfortunately though, the ones I trawled through always missed one or two relevant points. So here is my take on the subject…
First, get yourself an electronic tuner. They cost between £10 and £20 in the UK and are an invaluable aid to tuning any stringed instrument, not just the Ukulele or Uke as it is known. They range from simple units with either a microphone pickup or a vibratory pickup, some have both methods incorporated. If you are likely to be tuning up in a noisy environment, the vibratory pickup is preferable as they ignore surrounding noises.
Now read the instruction book! Even if it is only a little leaflet written in pigeon english, find out how to change the settings on it. Some, as mentioned, will have different pickup modes, some may have a metronome mode etc, so it is important to make sure you know what the display is telling you. Most also have an adjustable tone which will be factory set to A=440. This is the International ‘Concert’ pitch for the A note above middle C. More about it in a future article.
Now, and only now, grab your Uke. I’m going to assume that it is brand new and only just come out of the box, as this is a beginner’s tutorial. You will find that, if you strum across the strings, it sound horrible. (Unless, of course you bought it at a reputable dealers who has set it up properly for you) It sounds this way as the strings are incorrectly tightened and almost certainly too loose, done to save strain on the instrument during transit from the far eastern factory where it was built!
At the end of the neck you will find some ‘Tuning Pegs’. These may be traditional ‘peg’ style that have the adjustment knobs on the back of the headstock, or they may poke out the side like you see on most guitars. It is by turning these knobs that you will change the tension in the strings and thereby the tuning of the Uke. Clip the electronic tuner to the headstock and position it so that you can see the screen clearly while you are plucking the individual strings and ensure you have it turned on.
Now pluck a string. It doesn’t matter at this point which one, but it would be normal to start with the uppermost string and work downwards through the strings. A standard Ukulele, be it a Soprano, a Concert or a Tenor sized Uke are tuned to gCEA, known as ‘High G’ tuning. (Be aware that the tuner will almost certainly show all capital letters) Start turning the adjustment knob at the same time as plucking the string and you will see the display on the tuner changing. Adjust the string until you get it close to the G note. Don’t worry at this stage about getting it perfect, as it will change as you tighten the other strings. Go through this process for each of the four strings.
(By the way, the strings are on there in the right order. The factory hasn’t got them wrong. The string nearest to your chin is meant to be thinner than the ones immediately below it! 😉 )
Now, as your Uke is new, and the strings are made of nylon, they are going to stretch, so take each string in turn and pull it straight up from the fretboard/soundhole by two or three inches! It won’t hurt the strings or the instrument, but it will help to ‘bed in’ the strings.
Now you can go through the process above again, plucking and adjusting each string until you get it in tune. This time you need to be as accurate as possible in getting each note right and you will probably have to go through the process a couple of times to get all the four notes right at the same time. Once complete, you can now strum across all the stings for a much nicer sound!
The Uke will go out of tune fairly quickly when it is new, but if you play it regularly (Three times daily, Ukulele) you will find that after about a week it will start to settle down and keep in tune for long periods of time, especially if it stays in the same atmosphere.
The stretching process outlined above should only need to be carried out once or maybe twice when the Uke is new. After that the tuning process leaves that bit out and you will find the adjustments become just little tweaks to keep your new pride and joy spot on.