Alternate Tunings

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.



7 responses to “Alternate Tunings

  1. Hi Sam, When I have a minute, I do fancy trying alternate tunings so will get the ones mentioned above. with this lockdown thing , one would think that there would be loads of time to spare….. it hasn’t quite worked out like that.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Hi Sam , just downloaded both pieces, I think they will keep me busy for quite some time. They look great. Have a few ukuleles so will be able to assign each piece to the different tunings.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Have started on The Falling Rain , I reckon it will take me forever to master, but loving the challenge.


  4. Hi Sam. Could you help please. I purchase a five string tenor a few weeks ago and it arrived this last week. It is a no name brand and was very reasonable and sounded ok. However the high g has snapped and I have spent ages trying to find who sells them. I have tried to find the website again without success. 404 error comes up. I guess it’s my fault for buying cheap , but couldn’t afford to have one specially made.


  5. Sorry if this gets posted twice, my WordPress login was having issues.

    Hi Sam.

    Great site. You probably know this already, but just in case, we should, as always probably, look to the Hawaiians for inspiration. They do use alternate tunings, see the second song here.

    Obviously an entirely different style of music, but at least it’s out there using alternate tunings.

    Liked by 1 person

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