Time to talk about ukulele and baritone tuning. Did you just get your first baritone ukulele? Congratulations! You have just opened up a whole new world of fantastic musical possibilities on the ukulele! The baritone ukulele is a wonderful instrument for both beginner and advanced ukulele players, and can sometimes be a stepping stone toward playing the guitar.
According to some sources, the baritone ukulele was invented in the 1950s by radio personality Arthur Godfrey, while at the same time master luthier Herk Favilla was also developing a four-string guitar to help simplify learning for beginner players. These two artists contributed to the development of the wonderful deep tone of the baritone ukulele that we all know and love!
Ukulele and Baritone tuning
How to Tune the Ukulele
The ukulele that most of us started playing when we were beginners is tuned to re-entrant GCEA. This is the tuning that was most likely used when the Portuguese immigrants brought their four-stringed machete instruments to Hawaii in 1879. The fourth string (G) is tuned a fifth higher than the third-string (C), followed by the E and A strings.
Some players like to have that fourth G string tuned a fourth below the third C string for a more linear tuning. This is referred to as having a “low G” tuning. Linear tuning of the GCEA ukulele also allows you to play music written for the baritone ukulele, just in a different key.
How to Tune the Baritone Ukulele
Before you start to play your baritone ukulele, you should know something about the way that it’s tuned. As stated earlier, the baritone ukulele was designed to be like a four-string guitar. This means that most baritone ukuleles are tuned to DGBE. A six-string guitar is tuned to EADGBE, so if you drop those first two strings (the E and the A), you’re left with the four strings of the baritone ukulele!
To tune the baritone ukulele, start by tuning the fourth (top) string to D, then the third string to a fourth above that (G), then the second string to a third above that (B), and finally the first string to a fourth above that (E).
Using a Tuner to Tune Your Baritone Ukulele
If you use an electronic tuner to tune your baritone ukulele, you might notice that it looks as if it doesn’t work the same as with a GCEA ukulele. The reason for this is that some electronic tuners have specific settings for ukuleles and guitars, and that tuner won’t recognize the tuning of your baritone ukulele as a ukulele at all!
To tune your baritone ukulele with an electronic tuner, make sure that it’s set to the guitar setting. This way, the tuner will recognize those four strings of your baritone ukulele the same way it would recognize the top four strings of a guitar.
Learning how to tune by ear (ear training) is another great way to tune your baritone ukulele. Once you recognize the pitch of the fourth D string, you can simply tune the other strings in a linear fashion by recognizing the intervals between strings. (4 – 3 – 4)
Tuning Your Baritone Ukulele as A Sound Meditation
I’m going to share my method for tuning my baritone ukulele (or any ukulele, for that matter!) because I like to use the process as a meditation to help me slow down before I begin to play.
- Turn on your tuner and if it’s a clip-on tuner, attach it to the headstock of your baritone ukulele.
- Take a deep breath and let it out before you pluck the fourth (top) string of your ukulele and let it ring out while you watch the tuner. You can use this moment to calm your mind and your thoughts.
- Let the string ring out until you can’t detect the sound anymore before you make any adjustments to the string. Allow your mind to get quiet while you listen carefully as the sound fades.
- When turning the tuning peg, make tiny increments to reach the desired tuning.
- Never tune a string down – always go low, and then tune the string up to the desired pitch.
- Once you have the string tuned to the desired pitch, stop, take a deep breath and let it out, and move on to the third string.
- Repeat for all the strings.
Using your ukulele tuning as meditation and taking your time to tune your baritone ukulele might help you feel more relaxed before you start your practice session, too!
Alternative Ways to Tune the Baritone Ukulele
Recently, there have been some baritone ukulele players who have started tuning their strings to a GCEA, the same way they tune their re-entrant ukuleles! These baritone ukuleles have a lovely, deep, rich tone even with the re-entrant GCEA tuning because of their larger size. You can also experiment with tuning your ukulele to a re-entrant DGBE by tuning the D string a fifth higher than the G string. This will give you that lovely re-entrant tuning and capabilities, but in a lower key than the GCEA tuning.
Fun With Chord Shapes on the Baritone Ukulele
Because the baritone ukulele is tuned a fifth higher than the re-entrant GCEA ukulele, the chord shapes have different names. One of the things I see ukulele players saying all the time is that they are afraid to learn how to play the baritone ukulele because they don’t want to learn new chord shapes.
I have great news for them and all the other new baritone ukulele players: you don’t have to learn new chord shapes to play the baritone ukulele! All you have to do is learn the chord names on the baritone ukulele – the shapes are the same! Once you know the basics of baritone chord shapes vs. re-entrant ukulele chord shapes, it’s easy to transpose in your head!
Example: we all know how to play the C major chord on the ukulele, right? It’s the third fret of the first string. Easy peasy. On the baritone ukulele, the third fret of the first string is the G major chord. It’s the same exact shape, just a fourth lower than on the re-entrant ukulele.
To expand on that, this means that the C7 chord on the re-entrant ukulele is the same shape as the G7 chord on the baritone! (See where I’m going with this?)
And even better news: if you’ve ever thought about learning to play the guitar, the names of the chord shapes on the baritone ukulele are the same as they are on the 6-string guitar! Of course, there are two other strings added in on the 6-string guitar, so you might have to expand your mind a bit to learn the full chord shapes. But once you know the basics of playing chords on the baritone ukulele, you have a solid foundation for learning the chord names and shapes on the 6-string guitar.
A Word About Ukulele Strings
Now that we’ve talked about all the different ways to tune your baritone ukulele, we need to have a word about ukulele strings. Not all ukulele strings are created equally when it comes to the ukulele vs. baritone ukulele.
A baritone ukulele compared to a tenor ukulele has a larger body and a longer neck, and therefore the strings for a baritone ukulele need to be longer so they can handle the tension of that larger body. I would advise against using tenor ukulele strings on a baritone because the higher tension means that they’re more likely to break.
Many string sets for the baritone ukulele include a combination of both nylon (sometimes called nylgut) strings and wound metal strings. These wound metal strings help give the baritone ukulele its characteristic deep, mellow tone.
However, if you want to experiment with some of these alternative tunings for the baritone ukulele that I mentioned earlier in this article, there are some places where you can purchase specialty sets of ukulele strings for the baritone ukulele in these alternate tunings. Check with your local luthier or with the experts at Uke Like the Pros to learn more about ukulele strings for your instruments!
And of course, if you want to learn more about baritone ukulele technique, make sure you check out all the fabulous courses for baritone ukulele on Uke Like the Pros! You’ll find a wealth of knowledge and fun songs to play on your baritone ukulele!