No other instrument sounds quite like the ukulele, whether it’s a lovely Hawaiian tune or some raucous jazzy strumming. The unique arrangement of the strings gives you close harmony chords and harp-like tones you won’t find on most fretted instruments.
But before you can get the ukulele’s captivating sound, you first need to know how to tune the instrument. And to do that, you’ll need to be familiar with the four strings of the ukulele and its names.
In this article, we’ll walk you through the ukulele strings, how to read them, and the tunings you can use to get its captivating sound.
What are the names of the strings on a ukulele?
You can name the four ukulele strings according to the note that the open strings play. Open strings are the notes played if you pick a chord without holding down the string on any fret, making it “open”. It’s typical to refer to each string by the note it plays on the open string.
The standard ukulele tuning is gCEA. It is the most popular tuning nowadays, and it applies to soprano, concert, and tenor ukuleles.
Here, you can identify the ukulele string names with a standard tuning as:
4: g 3: C 2: E 1: A
How to read the strings
On a ukulele, you read your strings by looking down from top to bottom. Begin at the top (nearest your head when holding the ukulele) and work your way down to the bottom string, which is the furthest away and closest to the floor.
In gCEA tuning, the string closest to you (known as the fourth string) is tuned to a high g note (when writing about ukulele tuning, lower-case indicates a high g as opposed to a lower sounding G-string). The following string down is tuned to C, the second to E, and the first (furthest away from you) is tuned to A.
What is the order of ukulele strings?
You have probably noticed the numbers on the ukulele strings. The order of the ukulele strings is determined by numbering them from 1 to 4.
The 1st string, usually an A string, is the one closest to the ground. It is then followed by the succeeding strings 2, 3, and 4. As the string gets closer to you, it also goes up in numbers. Therefore, E, C, and G are strings 2, 3, and 4, respectively.
Here’s a quick guide:
String 1: the string closest to the ground String 2: the second string from the ground String 3: the third string up from the ground String 4: the string nearest the ceiling
Why is it important to know the ukulele string names and numbers?
Most times, using numbers instead of note names can be beneficial. Specifically, knowing both ways to label the strings can help you:
To easily follow ukulele resources
There are ukulele teachers that prefer one naming standard over the other. This can be true for music tutors or even online resources for ukulele. In that case, look for websites that will use both labels so you can learn better as a beginner.
To know the string numbers for other ukulele tunings
As you already know, the gCEA tuning is the standard, but there are various alternative tunings out there.
By using ukulele numbers, you don’t have to change anything about how you label the strings. For other tunings aside from gCEA, the notes of the strings will vary, but their numbers will stay the same.
String 1, usually A string, will always be the one closest to the ground. But if the tuning changes, A string might easily become a B note! That said, memorizing the string numbers will make more sense as you play more.
Alternative Ukulele Tunings
You can use many other various tunings aside from the conventional gCEA. It might even be beneficial in some situations. For instance, some songs may be simpler to play in a different tuning. Some tunings may also have notes and inversions that are not available in the standard gCEA.
Also, if you’re playing with other ukulele players, having diverse tunings provides you additional sound variety, making the music more exciting to listen to.
Here are some other ukulele tunings you can use:
Many ukulele players choose to tune the g-string down an octave. In this tuning, a low, fat G-string replaces the high, thin G-string.
4: G 3: C 2: E 1: A
Aside from the replaced g-string, all the other notes remain the same. But because it cut the brighter g note out, the ukulele sound becomes mellower and has a more bass tune.
Note: If you wish to experiment with this tuning, you’ll need a low-G set of strings. Merely tuning down the standard string will make the ukulele sound too floppy to play.
In the 1920s and 1930s, this tuning was highly popular. You will probably find this type of tuning in old sheet music with ukulele chord diagrams.
Here, each string is tuned two frets higher than the standard gCEA. You can use the same chord shapes as the gCEA tuning, but the tune will sound brighter and sweeter when played.
4: a 3: D 2: F# 1: B
This tuning has the advantage of making it easier to play common guitar chords, most notably E, allowing you to play along with guitar tunes with less effort.
Note: Don’t be alarmed if you buy a set of strings that says aDF♯B on them. These strings have very little to no difference from those used for gCEA. You can use either type of string for either tuning.
Baritone Ukulele Tuning (DGBE)
The baritone ukulele is unique from the other three types of the ukulele. It’s bigger and tuned differently with a lower pitch. As a result, you must use a whole different set of chords and notes. You will find the baritone ukulele to be tuned in:
4: D 3: G 2: B 1: E
The baritone is usually tuned the same as a guitar’s top four strings and a fourth lower than the more typical gCEA tuning. Unlike other ukuleles with standard tuning, the baritone is tuned low to high.
We hope you now understand the names and numbers assigned to each ukulele string. This knowledge will help you in properly tuning your ukulele to the correct notes. You should also now be able to discuss these with other ukulele players and use the same terms that they do.
Eduardo Perez is a multi-instrumentalist with over 20 years of experience playing instruments such as piano, guitar, ukulele, and bass. Having arranged songs and produced music in a recording studio, he has a wealth of knowledge to share about analyzing songs, composing, and producing. Currently pursuing a Bachelor of Arts degree in Interdisciplinary Musical Studies at Berklee College School of Music. Featured on Entrepreneur.com. Subscribe to his YouTube channel, or follow him on Instagram.