Relative tuning - Reentrant soprano


Well-known member
Jul 25, 2022
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Canton, GA
Please forgive the silly, pedestrian nature of this question:
If, for whatever reason, I need to tune up my reentrant soprano and don’t have an electronic tuner or pitch pipe on hand, or just hear the need to fine tune after relying on a tuner, does it make any difference whether I:
(A) Start with the C string, and tune the other 3 strings in relation to it;
(B) Start with the G & tune the other 3 in relation?
I'd start with the C but that's just me. I have no whys or wherefores other than I can get pretty close to C typically when I try by ear.
I generally do likewise, just wondering if there is some compelling reason / basis for starting with G. On 5-string banjo, I always started with D (the wound 4th string).
I lucked out and got a whole box (12) of Kratt uke pipes years ago, on a clearance table. I only wanted 3, but these 12 were half price. I never dreamed I'd need more than 3. Anyhow, I went through them with a Korg tuner, and sorted out the good "A"s. I now have good ones in my 7 cases. So by default I final tune AECG. The Korg and two Wittner "A" forks are in my "Uke Stuff" tool box.

None of the Kratts are exactly right, but close. Somehow most of the "A"s are good. The "C"s are off the worst.
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I always start with G, and then in my head, I think: SO-DO-MI-LA. If you start from the A string, the LA to MI interval is harder to hear to tune that initial interval between A and E
Tuning by ear using intervals other than unisons and octaves will inherently lead to errors, because the intervals that we think are "right" (by the harmonic series) differ a little from the intervals that are actually correct for 12-TET, the tuning system that underlies the fretboard.

Come to that, even tuning by octaves is error-prone because our hearing of true octaves is slightly wrong (though don't ask me the reason for this—I've forgotten). So when I can be bothered, rather than compare pitches at an octave, I'll play an octave harmonic of the lower pitch, allowing me to compare unisons instead.

In theory, you should use as your reference the string which is most likely to have drifted the least. Usually, string pitches will drift downward (toward less tension), however, certain weather changes may cause a tuning to rise. Also, generally speaking, older strings will be more pitch-stable than more recently installed ones, thicker strings are more stable than thinner ones, and wound strings are (I believe) more stable than nylon (etc.) ones—make of all that what you will.

Ultimately, I don't think it matters which string you use as a reference, as long as by the end of it you've got a consistent tuning. But I choose a string that, if I can tell, sounds slightly sharper than the others, since it is likely to have drifted the least from the "true" tuning. If I'm wrong, I'll be up-tuning slightly, but since tunings mostly drift down, that would act as a corrective to the overall trend.

I also mainly tune "at" the fifth fret rather than at the nut—more accurate tuning, and over a wider range of the neck—but that's fodder for another discussion.
With no tuning aids available, you only need one note to get a reference point to tune to, and one old school method, in a pinch, was the dialtone from a landline telephone. In US, I believe it was the A note. Once you have that reference, just tune the other 3 strings to that. Faiiing that option, just pick one string and tune to that one. As long as the strings are tuned to each other, not too floppy, and sounding good, it doesn't matter if you're tuned to standard C tuning, if only playing by yourself. My ukes often go slightly flat between sessions, but I sometimes get lazy, ignore the nearby tuner, and just tune to the C string. It's all relative! 😀
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