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GretschTech: Ukulele Tuning

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Gretsch Roots Collection G9110-SM Concert Deluxe ukulele.

The Gretsch Roots collection includes several ukulele models of varying sizes and styles. Given the resurgence of the instrument’s popularity in recent years, many who acquire a ukulele for the first time often find themselves wondering how to tune it.

Of several ways to tune ukuleles, the most common standard tuning is gCEA. The third-string C equals middle C on a piano, and that lowercase G indicates that this is a reentrant tuning in which the strings are not tuned in an ascending (or descending) order of pitches. That first G is actually not the G pitched below the second-string C by a perfect fourth; it’s actually one octave higher than that, which makes it fall between the pitches of the third-string E and fourth-string A. This non-linear kind of tuning arrangement is partially responsible for the distinctively lilting tone of the instrument.

Of the four common ukulele sizes, three of them—soprano, concert and tenor (smallest to largest)—frequently use the reentrant gCEA tuning. The fourth and largest, the baritone ukulele—typically uses the non-reentrant version of this tuning, GCEA, in which the first-string G is tuned a perfect fourth below the second-string C.

Having said that, soprano, concert and tenor ukuleles less often can and do use non-reentrant tunings such as the GCEA arrangement just described.

Simply tuning a uke as you would the top four strings of a guitar presents a non-standard baritone-style tuning of DGBE (low to high). While this is clearly quite different than the standard gCEA uke tuning, note that applying a capo to the fifth fret of a guitar in standard tuning does yield a non-reentrant GCEA tuning.

A popular alternate ukulele tuning—especially for tenor and baritone models—is aDF#B (and its non-reentrant version, ADF#B), which is one whole step higher than standard ukulele tuning. Other alternate uke tunings include FBbDG, EbAbCF and EAC#F#.

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GretschTech: Reentrant Tuning

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The Gretsch Roots Collection G9100 "Soprano Standard" model is typical of ukuleles that use reentrant tuning.

Most ukuleles and five-string banjos, including many of those found in the Gretsch Roots Collection, use a form of tuning called reentrant tuning. Fair bet that you’re unfamiliar with the term, but you’re probably familiar with the concept if you play those instruments.

On a stringed instrument with reentrant tuning, the strings are not tuned in an ascending or descending order of pitches. That is, they’re not tuned in a succession of pitches that is strictly low to high or high to low (like, for example, most guitars). In reentrant tuning, there are one or more strings tuned to a pitch that breaks an otherwise linear order of pitches.

Take the ukulele, for example. Of the several ways to tune ukes of various sizes, a common tuning widely regarded as standard is gCEA.

See that lowercase g in front of the uppercase C, E and A? That’s not a typo. Rather, it indicates that this is a reentrant tuning in which that first string is not the G below the second string (C) by a perfect fourth, but a G tuned one octave higher than that, so that its pitch falls between that of the third string (E) and the fourth string (A).

This reentrant tuning is a standard tuning commonly used on tenor, concert and soprano ukuleles. Non-reentrant tuning can also be used for ukes, and indeed baritone ukuleles are often tuned DGBE in non-reentrant fashion (low to high, like the four highest strings of a guitar).

Most reentrant tunings only have one break in the order of string pitches; this break is called a reentry. The gCEA uke tuning described above illustrates this—the single reentry is the G that falls between the third (E) and fourth (A) strings.

Five-string banjos are another good example of reentrant tuning. Again, there is only a single reentry. The fifth string on these banjos is five frets shorter than the other four and is tuned higher than them, thus creating a reentrant tuning. Four-string banjos don’t have this shorter string and hence typically use non-reentrant tuning.

The most common five-string banjo tuning is gDGBD, an open-G tuning in which that first lowercase G represents the high shorter string, which is tuned an octave above the third-string G. Other five-string banjo tunings include aEAC#E, gCGCD, aDADE, gDGCD and aEADE, all of which are reentrant.

Other stringed instruments that typically use reentrant tuning include baroque and tenor guitars, the sitar, most lutes, the cuatro (a small Latin American guitar-like instrument), the Mexican vihuela (a small, deep-bodied rhythm guitar often used in mariachi groups), the charango (a tiny Andean member of the lute family) and the Ainu tonkori of northern Japan. The standard E9 tuning on a pedal steel guitar is reentrant; the instrument’s standard C6 tuning is not.

What about 12-string guitars—would that be an example of reentrant tuning? Actually, normal tuning on a 12-string guitar is generally not considered reentrant, as the matching octave strings for the standard G, D, A and low E strings are considered secondary rather than reentrant.

The Gretsch Roots Collection G9400 Broadkaster Deluxe 5-String Resonator model is typical of five-string banjos that use reentrant tuning.

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