UKULELE MUSINGS 2020, No. 13–28 March: “More Than Four Strings is Just Showing Off,” or is it?

Right now I am sure that a lot of you self-sequestered strummers have tired of crosswords, picture puzzles, and on-line streaming–to say nothing of striving to master that elusive “Island Strum.” So, I thought I might follow up with some similarly mind-tangling intricacies about our favorite little musical instrument.

Several of you fellow ukers have asked me about various types of ukuleles, particularly with questions about those with more than four strings. So, this musing–updated from three or four years ago–is for you bored ukulele nerds out there!

Guitars can have four, six, or twelve strings; mandolins and mandolinettos eight; banjos four or five; dulcimers and balalaikas three; and OMG lutes!

Ukuleles have only four.  Or do they?

Sure, having MORE strings (or longer, like a Pete Seeger-style banjo) allows playing more notes up and down the scale,

but the tonal “magic” of PAIRED strings has been known and employed effectively by luthiers and musicians for centuries.  This is because two strings tuned to the same pitch (or an octave apart) and plucked at the same time often give a slightly more vibrant and sustained tone than a single string played by itself—a simple fact of physics. 

That’s because two strings—even if carefully tuned—are rarely at EXACTLY the same pitch.  Even if it is a couple of mini-wavers off, this ever so slight difference can result in a more resonant and sustained tone as well as vibrato.  Listen to a mandolin or twelve-string guitar to hear the effect.

Tap or click on the next image to here some serious eight-string ukulele playing.

Ukuleles have not been left out of the game in this regard and five-, six-, and eight-string models are readily available today.  A paired string is usually referred to as a “course” and a multi-string uke will be set up with four courses, or pairs, of strings.  This means that the fingering patterns are the same as for a four-string configuration.  You are simply pressing two strings down with one finger at one time—not too tricky once you get the hang of it.

Since this is a posting about ukuleles, we’ll leave it to other folks to discuss their favorite instruments.  Also, we will only focus on today’s so-called standard tunings.  For tenor and smaller-scale ukes this would be the good old “my-dog-has-fleas” tuning, often noted as “g-C-E-A” for the usual “high-g” or so-called “re-entrant” tuning, and “G-C-E-A,” for an octave lower G, so-called “low-G” tuning.  

Ninety-nine percent of the ukes sold today, and most on-line and printed tutorials, start out with re-entrant tuning and most ukulele strummers stick with that standard and feel no need to change. This combination has a tonal magic that has made the so-called “ukulele sound” famous.  If you do a lot of finger-picking or chord melody playing, however, the extra range offered by the low G comes in handy.  Also, if you are really dexterous, or use a pick, you can pluck either the high g or the low G on a multi-stringer.

For five-, six-, or eight-string ukes the tuning codes “Gg-C-E-A,” “Gg-C-E-AA,” and “Gg-Cc-EE-AA” are used.  Obviously, these ukes will have additional tuners on the peghead, and an appropriately modified nut and bridge to accommodate the extra strings. 

For an eight-string baritone uke, just pitch the strings down a fourth—“Dd-Gg-BB-EE” and so forth.  Confused?  Try not to think about it too much and let your hands and fingers try some of the multi-stringers when you can.

Now, to get REALLY confused, try one of the ukulele cousins: the Tiple—ten steel strings tuned “Gg-cCc-eEe-AA.” 

Or the Taropatch Fiddle—eight nylon strings tuned “gG-cC-EE-AA.” 

Or the Mandolinetto with eight steel strings tuned like a mandolin “GG-DD-AA-EE” or like a ukulele “GG-CC-EE-AA.” 

How about a five-string banjo uke? Actually a “piccolo banjo” from the 1920s.

Or the Guitalele—six nylon strings tuned “A-D-G-C-E-A.” 

Or a harp-ukulele.

And then there’s the Octophone the eight steel strings that can be tuned eight different ways! Go figure. 

Whew!  Too much bourbon on the front porch . . .

Anyway, one of the most popular tiple and ukulele performers of the day was Wendell Hall–the “Old Redhead.”

Tap or click on the image below to hear what was one of the most popular recordings of its day–believe it or not!

Here’s a more updated tune played on a 1949 Martin tiple. Click or tap on the next image to listen in.

Incidentally, the early pronunciation was “TEE-play.” Today, most folks call it a “TIP-ul.” Your choice!

To further complicate things, there are folks who want to play a standard uke and a baritone or multi-string without reaching for a second instrument.  The so-called “double neck” uke is the ingenious solution—one body, two necks. 

Check this out. Tap or click on the next image.

Listen to one of our favorite tunes on a harp-ukulele. Tap or click on the next image.

Of course, some folks can get carried away with this!

So, if you want to have some fun, show off with some multi- or paired-string ukes. 

Oh, yes. If you have WAY more strings than four, here’s what can be done with them!

Remember: “You can never have too many ukuleles (or strings)!” Take care, be well, and–above all–, STAY TUNED/Stay Tuned/stay tuned/stay tuned . . .

Author: NohoBanjo of Northampton and, now, Easthampton, Mass.

Hi friends, neighbors, and fellow strummers. These “musings” are based on my interest and study of Banjo and Ukulele history, lore, and music. My goal is to both educate and enlighten by sharing what I have learned within a broad musical and historical context—with honesty and, at times, a bit of humor. Needless to say, your thoughts and comments are, as always, welcome.

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