BY DANIEL WARD | FROM THE SUMMER 2020 ISSUE OF UKULELE
Does the idea of an alternate universe that involves twisting your tuning pegs up and down to unknown pitches scare you? The first time I heard about alternate tunings, I wondered what I could possibly gain by changing my standard tuning and diving into territory where I didn’t even know what notes I would be playing. I felt I could barely keep up with my instrument tuned the normal way, and I wasn’t too keen about having brand-new fingerings for everything, either.
Well, here’s the deal: Sometimes it’s important to just try stuff and let go of your normal routines. In this case, I found it was actually really fun to be in a place where I had no idea what I was doing. Some tunings turn everything upside down, so you have to start with fresh fingerings and ideas; others maintain the same intervallic relationships between the strings, allowing you to stick with familiar patterns. And then there are some tunings that change just a string or two, so customary fingerings can be used on the unaltered strings.
The best thing about alternate tunings (for a comprehensive look at a bunch of them, see page 50 of the Summer 2020 issue) is that the instrument rewards you with fresh sounds that will delight your ears and inspire your musical soul. Your first experience with nonstandard tunings should be fun, sound good, and not include painful squinting with lots of head-scratching. So in this introductory lesson, I will show you three little pieces in different tunings, all written so they can be learned quickly and easily but also sound great. Along the way, I’ll share a few details that make playing in any alternate tuning easier.
When you change the pitch of any string, it will naturally stretch back towards where it was before. Nylon strings are especially prone to this behavior, but they will cooperate if you pull lightly up on them with your thumb and index finger above the soundhole. I also push down with the thumb and up with the index to flex the string between them as I pull on the length of the string. This will help the string adjust more quickly to the new pitch. Work the tuners and pull the string in between each tuning until it settles. You’ll need to do the same to get it back to the original tuning as well.
Since some or all of the pitches can be altered, paying close attention to the tablature is the best way to get the music under your fingers. The actual notes that are sounding will be written in the score, but the frets you are used to will not be the same. If a string is tuned down, you’ll have to fret higher for the same note in the standard tuning, and vice versa. For example, a composition in parallel baritone reentrant tuning—the notes all a perfect fourth lower than a standard-tuned ukulele—could easily be played g C E A on a soprano, concert or tenor by just following the tablature.
“Daydream,” in dropped F (f C E A), is a nice and easy way to get used to alternate tuning without changing strings. Just lower your fourth string a whole step, to F from G, creating an Fmaj7 chord. As shown in Example 1, the open fourth string functions primarily as a drone, with the other three strings remaining in standard tuning. Ringing open harmonies are mixed with melodies, thirds, and some arpeggio work, too. Though this is written in a type of reentrant tuning, it will sound fine with a low F in linear tuning.
“River Tune” (Example 2) is based on an open-sounding tuning (g D D g) that uses only two notes and will work easily with your regular set of strings. From standard reentrant tuning, lower string 1 a whole step, from A to G, to ring in unison with the open fourth string. Also, lower string 2 to D and raise string 3 to D. In other words, the outer strings should now be G and the inner ones D. This is a great tuning to just let go and explore with. It’s easy to find shapes that ring in very interesting ways without working too hard. “River Tune” has a folksy minor sound and is done just with strumming and a little passage work at the very end, along with 12th-fret natural harmonics for the last chord. The melody stays mostly on the first string and includes some harmony on the second pass.
In my book Melodic Meditations for Ukulele, I have a simple chord-melody piece called “Yia Yia’s Lullaby” in standard reentrant tuning. But it sounds really rich and full in the baritone reentrant tuning, as shown in the excerpt in Example 3. (In the video I play the full piece.) While this is perfect for trying out a new sound without having to learn new fingerings, it will require different strings and a tenor ukulele. Baritone reentrant tuning is outlined in this issue and string sets are available from Craig Chee and Sarah Maisel’s artist-curated GHS series. The gauges are .032 (string 1), .040 (2), .028 (3), and .032 (4). “Yia Yia’s Lullaby” will also work nicely on a linear-tuned baritone if you have one.
I’d like to encourage you to experiment with more alternate tunings, and to be as open as you can to new musical ideas and styles. Music works much like the learning of foreign languages: the more you explore, the easier it gets to digest information and enjoy. Having more than one ukulele is obviously a big plus here. If you’re going to change the pitch of the strings, it will be easier to leave two or more instruments in a tuning of your choice, so pull out your old ukes that have been sitting around or consider adding a couple to your family!