Alternate tunings occur when the open strings of the guitar are tuned to notes different from the standard tuning. Guitarists use alternate tunings all the time so why not use them on the ukulele! I use several different tunings and like to name them according to the moods, or images, they evoke.
The Rain Tuning
My first exploration into alternate tunings was in The Falling Rain composed in 2016 and published by Les Productions d’Oz in 2019. That piece was influenced by one of my favourite guitar pieces – Koyunbaba by Carlo Domeniconi. Here’s the first movement of Koyunbaba.
The strings of the guitar are retuned to C# G# C# G# C# E so the open strings sound a C# minor chord. It’s a very evocative tuning and inspired me to try altering the open strings of the ukulele. Using re-entrant, or high g tuning, I decided lower the 1st and 2nd strings by a semitone. The result is g C Eb Ab or a C minor flat 6 chord. The Falling Rain was chosen for the finals of the Joyce Dixey Composition Competition at the University of Surrey in 2018. The score is available here
The Deaf Tuning
I use this tuning for a tremolo piece called Nabu’s Message. It is the third movement of a three movement suite for ukulele called Mercurius. Mercurius is the Latin name for the Roman god Mercury. (I also like how the name embodies the word curious.) Mercury is the messenger of the gods. Known for his cunning, speed and eloquence Mercury is also trickster. In Greek mythology Mercury is known as Hermes. He is the god of the underworld. The second movement is called Return from the Underworld. The third movement, Nabu’s Message, alludes to the planet Mercury. In Babylonian mythology the god Nabu was associated with this planet. Nabu was the patron of scribes, literacy and wisdom. He rode through the cosmos on a winged dragon called Sirrush. In composing Nabu’s Message I encoded his message in the tuning: f D E A. These notes also occur as a repeated theme throughout the piece to spell D E A F. Turning a deaf ear to the problems of the world will lead humanity to death. So, yes, there is a bit of a pun going on with deaf and death! Nabu’s Message is intended as a warning, or plea. There is still time to heal ourselves and our planet but only if we listen. This work is due for publication in late 2020.
The Raven Tuning
I often like to tune my five string tenor ukulele down 1/2 a step to gb/Gb B Eb Ab. The Gs are a double course with both high g and low G strings. I find this tuning particularly pleasing when playing renaissance guitar music. Here’s a sample of a piece by Adrian Le Roy.
I also used this tuning for a work called A Conspiracy of Ravens which is based on the English ballad The Three Ravens originally published in 1611 in the collection Melismata compiled by Thomas Ravenscroft. The third part of A Conspiracy of Ravens is called Black Raven. For this part the 2nd string is tuned down a further semitone to D resulting in gb/Gb B D Ab, or The Black Raven Tuning. Purchase the score here
The Bush Tuning
For this tuning I lower the 4th string a tone from g to f, or f C E A. It creates a beautiful F major 7 open tuning. I use this tuning for a piece called Whistlepipe Gully: Wattle, Wagtail and Waterfall which is based on a walk in the Australian bush.
When using alternate tunings it’s easiest to play from the score using the tab which shows you the positions of the fingerboard. I do recommend experimenting as alternate tunings really extend the tonal possibilities of the instrument and are really fun! Just be careful you don’t over-tune a string.