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Thread: A few questions for uke scholars

  1. #1
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    Default A few questions for uke scholars

    Why did typical uke tuning change from D6 to C6? We're concert ukes ever commonly tuned in D6 or was it just sopranos? Did the switch happen gradually or suddenly? Thanks!

  2. #2
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    I asked the when/why question here a long time ago - you might find some of the responses interesting. I never did get a single definitive answer! There's a separate discussion here as well.

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    According to John King (in his article "A New History of the Origins and Development of the 'Ukulele, 1838-1915" from 2003), the earliest ukulele teaching book (Ernest Ka'ai, 1910/1915) used C6. In the years following, various authors of method books altered between C6 and D6, but it seems that C6 (gCEA) is the traditional, perhaps the original tuning. So now that we're back to C6, one could say that D6 was a temporary exception only, possibly brought on by the desire for unamplified volume in entertainment places, though Dirk of Southcoast Ukuleles makes compelling arguments that D6 is better suited for small soprano bodies.

    As for concerts, those were originally called tenors, and I believe there were various tunings for those. Cliff Edwards, who allegedly preferred that size, favored the Bb tuning (fBbDG), and it is used in some of his books. Noteworthy is probably that people used gut strings back then, which aren't quite like fluorocarbon strings, so some things that worked back then, may not work so well now, and vice versa. Bb on a concert is probably pretty floppy unless you get custom strings for it (it's kind of floppy on a tenor scale already, with Worth Browns anyway).

    All of this may have been covered by the links above too. Didn't check them, so I apologize if I repeated the same information.

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    Thanks Janeray and Mivo, This is helpful. What I mostly got from Janeray's links is that the tuning change is as much a regional variation as it is one over time. Mivo's historical info is helpful too. I experimented some with D6 tuning on one of my soprano's and it did sound great. It would be tempting to keep it that way but transposing on the fly is beyond my pay grade. Interesting stuff. I suppose that since the uke is something of a hobbyist instrument (no offense intended), history and lore become intertwined and indistinguishable.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Mivo View Post
    So now that we're back to C6

    ...

    All of this may have been covered by the links above too. Didn't check them, so I apologize if I repeated the same information.
    Good summary of both discussions, Mivo! One thing though - when I first suggested that C6 was what was used now, I got quite a few responses from people in Canada and elsewhere who stated that D6 was alive and well and in the majority. That was a few years back though... now I'm wondering if it still holds true.

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    Here in Germany, there are still a fair number of teaching books that are for D6, too. Modern books, not just reprints. This past autumn, my landlady signed up for a ukulele course hosted by a music store (she ended up cancelling due to her husband's ill health) and she was told to bring a D6 tuned instrument. In one German D6 book that I accidentally bought, the author referred to C6 as a US-centric tuning that, due to the internet, is becoming the international tuning (first you gave us burgers, then C6!). In light of the John King info above, this is probably factually wrong and C6 really is likely the original tuning.

    There is a lot of information on Dirk's site: http://www.southcoastukes.com/tunings.htm To me (as someone who doesn't really know much about physics or acoustics), his take on tuning vs. body size makes sense. My soprano didn't sound better in D6, but my tenor was greatly enhanced by Bb6.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Mivo View Post
    In light of the John King info above, this is probably factually wrong and C6 really is likely the original tuning.
    That's what I tend to think as well. For what it's worth, I'm pretty sure that when I was a kid and my dad, a product of the 1920s, taught me a little bit of uke, it was C6 tuning - the only thing I could remember when I picked up the uke again in my 40s was the first-position C chord!

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    I thought Dirk's site: http://www.southcoastukes.com/tunings.htm made all kinds of sense. I grew up way out in the country long, long ago. We didn't have what all you children (aged smiley face here ) regard as "standards." There was almost certainly a pitch pipe laying around, but after a day or a week, a person's guitar / banjo / uke(?) was going to drift this way and that, more than likely downward. At times there might have been a piano or an accordion, but generally when family or neighbors met to play, there weren't any fixed-pitch instruments, so pitch drifted around. It didn't matter what the uke book declared as instrument pitch. You played the chord shapes and the music went to the "key" that weather / age of strings / indifference led it to.

    I'm trying to say that it used to be quite a bit more relative than it is now. That said, the history of orchestral music includes pushing the pitch up. The orchestra sounds "brighter" and the harps, violins, harpsichords / pianos sound louder. This has to be true of the ukulele as well. "D" is going to be louder and "brighter" than "C" or "Bb." Brighter, because all the lower strings on a little Ukulele are "foreshortened." The higher the pitch, the less foreshortened.

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    I had a lot of old music sheets from the 20s/30s, (they used to belong to my brothers father in law), & it was for ukes tuned A-D-F#-B, so I think tastes changed & then went back again to G-C-E-A.
    Trying to do justice to various musical instruments.

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    D6-tuning is probably the one most used here in Sweden and most books and musics sheets are adapted for it. This is contrary to the US I believe where the C6 tuning is in vast majority, no?
    Last edited by cml; 02-29-2016 at 09:54 AM. Reason: context
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