View Full Version : Tunings for the Standard Tenor Ukulele

05-14-2011, 04:13 AM
We have always gotten a lot of questions concerning tuning for the Standard Tenor Ukulele. Although all the questions are dealt with on our website, it’s done in a rather piecemeal fashion. The reason for this is that our Tenor Ukulele isn’t a standard model – rather more of a Baritenor – one that is built very light and optimized for high reentrant tunings.

I recently received a question on this subject again. A good answer in this instance is not really a short one, and as I was writing a reply, I decided to go ahead with a full blown response – one that I could then post for everyone. So here is where we’ll deal with Standard Tenor Ukulele tuning head on.

Remember that the original Tenor design was not for tunings it is used with today. The idea was to have a bigger instrument with a guitar based tuning – a high reentrant G. For a good while the Tenor was ridiculed as another “gimmick instrument”, by the serious ukulele players of the day.

People loved the Tenor, however, and it never faded into obscurity or oblivion like others of its ilk: the Tiple and Octaphone. The comfortable size and ease of play made people determined to find a way to make it work. It was probably not surprising that the popular tuning shifted to the key of C. After all, what we now call a Concert Ukulele originally had the Tenor Ukulele name, and the key of C is a perfect fit for the Concert.

C tuning, first as reentrant, but now also in linear (low 4th) form, has proven to be much more popular on the Tenor than the original design, and you no longer hear the ridicule. Just the same, we have always felt that a little more fine tuning was in order for the instrument to reach its full potential. Here, then, is the question and response:

I have an *********** tenor uke. Seems like several people have had a hard time making this uke sound good using a variety of strings. Recently someone on UU suggested I lower it a half or a full step, so I lowered tuning a whole step. Difference was amazing. They suggested that this uke required strings that "vibrate" more. I have the factory strings and it sounds crap with standard reentrant tuning. I want to tune it to low g and had wanted all unwound strings. Figured if I give you this info, you may have other recommendations re: your strings>


Hello ****,

First, congratulations! You discovered something we have soapboxed about for quite awhile - mainly that a high re-entrant C tuning is not the best fit for a standard Tenor Ukulele. Two reasons: first, the strings have to be at too high a tension for best sound. Without the high tension, the thinner normal tension gauges don't exert enough force to drive a big Tenor soundboard. Second, the notes of the tuning itself are too high to fill the volume of a Tenor body. What you did was relax the tension (better response & vibrato) and lower the tonal values (to a range that better fills the bigger body).

You dropped to a B tuning - our recommendations range from C to A, with the best average combination of string gauge and tension at B flat; pretty much where you are right now.

Our key of C recommendation is for a high tension set-up. This is not all bad - your notes die quicker and your string height can be set a bit lower. The high range of the notes for C tuning on that big body, however, also means that this set-up will be at its best when amplified. This will suit some peoples' taste and playing style perfectly, but optimal acoustic sound requires a lower key. The Ukulele Handbook goes a half step lower than we do with their recommendation: key of A (used most often in Europe).

I know a lot of wonderful music has been made with Tenors in high re-entrant C tuning, but a gifted player can make a wire strung between broom handles sound magnificent (and of course most performers on this instrument are heard with amplification). You have found what, for most people, will be a better way.

We've never been a fan of linear (or low 4th) C tuning with unwound strings on your 17" standard Tenor scale either, but for a different reason. Dropping the 4th an octave gives the Tenor body a full enough sound (that low G note is actually on the borderline of too deep), but we have never found an unwound 4th that gives decent response in that situation. Either you make them thick enough for comfortable tension and the sound is dead, or you make them a bit thinner to give decent sound, but now they're too floppy.

We make an unwound low 4th set - our "Linear Ukulele Strings". We have a bunch of happy customers who use these on their Baritones for C tuning. If you use them on the shorter Tenor scale, however, you will need to tune up a step to D. This gives you a 4th string that is both thin enough for good sound, and also has a nice workable tension. Remember that when you drop your 4th string an octave, it is best with ukuleles to move up to a bigger body: 1-2 sizes. That D tuning which is used most often on Sopranos in its high reentrant form therefore will give an excellent range of notes for the Tenor body with a low 4th.

That key was the original tuning (high re-entrant) for the standard ukulele, and most of the old sheet music is written for that key. I don't know why more people don't play a Tenor like this (James Hill does).

If you want to play in a linear key of C, we feel to get decent response you'll need wound strings. We make some very nice sets. They do not come with a single wound 4th. There is simply no way to balance that single wound arrangement. The wound 4th always sounds like a duck out of water, and the 4-3 transition is horrible.

For key of C on the standard Tenor scale, with us, look for G650s. Those sets give key of G on a guitar (650mm) scale, and will give key of C on your 17" scale. All feature two wound strings - a more expensive arrangement, but one that eliminates the imbalance of that single wound set-up.

We have had a set with two polished round wound basses for a little while now (G650 round wounds). They don't squeak as much as standard wound strings, and ours are a lot more durable as well. We also just introduced two flat wound G650 linear sets. With the flat wounds you have the first truly "noiseless" wound strings for an instrument with classical construction - the sound is also very restrained for a wound string. Details for all these in the "string section":


So there you have it: our three favorite options for acoustic Standard Tenor Ukulele tuning.

1) High Re-entrant Tuning in B flat range. In other words, stay more or less where you are. This B flat range with high re-entrant tuning is where the standard Tenor shines as a traditional ukulele. Use the strings you have now for key of B, or with us you would use a Medium gauge set for B flat (Heavy gauge for A). I don't know why more people don't play a Tenor like this (Victoria Vox does: B flat).

2) Linear Tuning in D - no wound strings.

3) Linear Tuning in C - with 2 wound strings.

Your choice should be determined first by what makes your instrument come alive. With Tenors the construction can vary quite a bit, but unlike with ours, they are almost always built heavier than the smaller sizes. The heavier the construction, the more string you'll need to drive it. More and more, Tenors are being built like standard Baritones, in other words very heavy.

This is or is not a bad thing depending on what kind of sound you are looking for. If the more "guitar-like" sound appeals to you, then this is perfect. Option 3 is what you want to begin with, and the heavy build is well suited to that kind of set-up.

At the other end of the spectrum, the normal tension, high reentrant set-up works best with lighter construction, and with the predominance of high tension and wound string set-ups, this is not always easy to find.

Hope that helps and thanks for the inquiry,


mm stan
05-14-2011, 07:35 AM
Aloha Dirk,
Nice answer...I play my tenors in that range....also like to add that I tune my ukes to how they sound...if it's bright, I drop tune it or the other way around..
I also noticed when you drop tune your strings...the strings vibrate more and increase substain from the lower tension..allowing me to have fuller notes from the expansion and
slowing down the tempo to get more sweeter sound....while still keeping my uke in the my dog has flea range....string to string range.. reintrant is fine on some ukes for me
but not all....depends on the particular uke...some ukes can really sound brash to me whatever strings I use.. Only way to attain a good tuning to me is by ear, and listen
for the pitch...and go from there...in whatever octave you're in that works for the particular uke..