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Standard tuning for most stringed instruments ascends from the lowest pitch to the highest pitch in order. Yet some stringed instruments, like the ukulele and five-string banjo, use reentrant tuning.



What Is Reentrant Tuning?

Reentrant tuning is a tuning technique wherein strings are not ordered from the lowest pitch to the highest pitch. Instead, these instruments have a different order of open string pitches, such that the strings don't necessarily go from lowest to highest.

What Instruments Use Reentrant Tuning?

Many instruments use reentrant tuning in their standard tuning. These include five-string banjo, most ukuleles, baroque guitar, sitar, charango, Mexican vihuela, and Venezuelan cuatro. The tenor guitar (a four-string guitar) uses reentrant tuning frequently but not exclusively.

What Is the Purpose of Reentrant Tuning?

Reentrant tuning can produce many pleasing aural effects in the hands of a skilled player. On a five-string banjo, players traditionally tune the fifth string to the root of the song (in a high octave) and leave it open as a drone note while they fret the other strings to play chords and melodies. On both a lap steel and a pedal steel guitar, players frequently use reentrant tuning to tune their instruments to a certain chord (C6 tuning, C9 tuning, and open G tuning are all popular); this makes it easier for players (particularly lap steel players) to manipulate the metal bar and produce the instruments’ idiomatic sound.

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How to Use Reentrant Tuning on a Ukulele

Most ukulele tunings use reentrant tuning. Standard ukulele tuning is G-C-E-A tuning (sometimes called C tuning), which creates the sound of a C6 chord. The reason this is a reentrant tuning is that the G string (the fourth string) is tuned higher than the C string (the third string).

  1. Concert and soprano ukulele: Most ukulele songs feature the concert ukulele, which is voiced in the alto register; the most common tuning for concert ukulele strings is G4-C4-E4-A4, with C4 a lower pitch than G4. This produces a closed voicing, where the distance between the lowest-pitched open string and the highest-pitched open string is a major sixth. Contrast this to a guitar in standard tuning, where the difference between the lowest pitch open string and highest pitch open string is two full octaves. The soprano ukulele also uses this G-C-E-A tuning.
  2. Tenor ukulele: High G tuning for the tenor ukulele uses reentrant tuning, but the tenor ukulele also has a low G tuning, where the pitches do appear in linear order (G3-C4-E4-A4). Tenor ukulele players may switch back and forth between both these tunings, keeping a ukulele tuner clipped to their instrument's headstock.
  3. Baritone ukulele: Reentrant tuning is not common for baritone ukulele, which typically uses a D-G-B-E tuning where the pitch of each string is higher than the one before it. In this case, the low string is tuned to D3, the second string is G3, the third string is B3, and the top string is E4. An alternate tuning for baritone ukulele, though, uses high-D reentrant tuning—D4-G3-B3-E4—with the D string tuned up an octave higher.

Clip-on electronic tuners or smartphone tuning apps can make it easy to tune your instrument to a common ukulele tuning.