The baritone ukulele, born out of the collision of two contrasting worlds – ukulele and guitar – is a versatile instrument.
Simplicity is its superpower, creating playing opportunities and applications that are as vast as your imagination. Any genre and any style, the baritone uke can play it.
Ask someone “what makes a ukulele a ukulele?” and you’ll get a diverse stream of passionate answers. Ask what makes a baritone a baritone and I think you’ll find that the response is much more cut and dried. So…
What is a Baritone Ukulele?
A baritone ukulele has two main characteristics:
1. Four Strings Tuned DGBE
Like a normal ukulele, a baritone has only four strings. It also uses a similarly wide string spacing that makes it easy to play.
These strings are usually tuned DGBE. This is the same as the bottom four strings of a guitar. Unlike a standard uke, baritone’s have traditionally been strung with a linear tuning – low-D.
The Difference Between High and Low D
On a guitar, the strings ascend from lowest pitch to highest pitch. Most baritones tuned DGBE do the same.
However, tuning the D-string up an octave so that it becomes the second highest string is becoming ever more popular. (You need a thinner string to do this, otherwise it will break.)
This is often done to improve the resonance of the instrument. Because of the relatively short scale length of a baritone (a guitar that uses the same tuning has about a 5” longer scale), the low-D string can’t physically ring as richly as it should. The workaround is to change this pitch entirely to the next highest octave.
When you have the strings “out of order” with a high-d (usually notated: dGBE), the tuning is called “re-entrant.”
When the strings are tuned in order (notated: DGBE), low to high, it’s called “linear.”
In the big picture, using a linear or re-entrant tuning doesn’t make much of a difference for study because the note names come out the same no matter what. All chord diagrams and lessons are universal for this reason.
Songs and tabs that show notes on the D-string, however, can get convoluted with linear and re-entrant.
My approach is to omit the 4th string whenever possible so that tabs are accessible to as many baritone ‘ukulele players as possible.
2. A Longer Baritone Scale
The scale length is the ringing distance of the strings. On a baritone this can fall anywhere between 18-23”. Older ukes use shorter scales, but the modern standard is a little over 20”. There are some models that are even bigger, like Pono’s “Nui” series that push into the tenor guitar range of 23”.
Any one of these scales makes the baritone the largest ukulele size. For comparison, a tenor ukulele is normally a 17” scale.
Do I need to have big hands to play baritone?
Short answer: no.
Since the neck of a baritone is longer, the fret spacing is also wider. This makes for much more room to hold chords. It also makes larger stretches necessary.
That said, hand size is a silly way to size an instrument since even tiny people play bass guitar and big, giant guys play tiny soprano ukes with no problems.
However, it can be a consideration if you’re struggling on one side of the spectrum or another.
If you have large hands that don’t want to fit onto a standard ukulele fretboard, a baritone can give you more room. On the other hand, if you are getting worn down by hand stretches on a smaller size, moving up to baritone might not be your best bet.
The large body size of the baritone is what draws many people to the instrument. It has a rich, warm sound similar to that of a classical guitar.
Because of the large resonating areas on a baritone ukulele’s body and the comparatively low tuning, it completely loses the signature plinky sound of the ukulele. This depth of sound makes it popular for solo playing and for those seeking a sonic compromise.
Who Plays Baritone Uke?
Many people who play baritone are ex-guitarists who want a more portable package to play their songs on. Many ‘ukulele players have also found a home with this low tuning. A rare few even started on the instrument and continue to play solely on baritone.
Here are a few popular baritone ukulele artists and the instruments they play.
Benny Chong is a mad jazz cat based out of Honolulu, HI. He used to play with Don Ho, but has since switch to the baritone to help him execute amazing jazz arrangements that utilize large chord stretches (he often plays them with his thumb on the fretboard!). He plays a Ko’olau baritone.
James Hill has taken to playing baritone ukulele in the past few years to compliment his singer-songwriter folk rock. He often tunes it B E B E to get huge-sounding power chords. because of the low sound he’s able to riff and play in a heavier style than a normal ‘ukulele would allow. He plays a Ko’olau solidbody baritone along with standard Mya-Moe bari models.
Eddie Kamae was a legend in Hawaiian music. As a young man he pioneered many styles on the soprano ukulele, later in life shifting his attention to the baritone. This low sound became his signature playing with the Sons of Hawaii.
Jason Mraz, famous for I’m Yours, often brings out a baritone when he wants to get away from guitar.
For more inspiration, check out this Youtube playlist I put together of great baritone ukulele songs.
While we’re at it, let’s talk about some written conventions that make learning to play the instrument easier.
- String Numbers – The strings of a baritone are counted 1-2-3-4, starting with the bottom string that is closest to the floor. The highest-sounding string (the 1st, E-string) is closest to the floor. The lowest-sounding string (the 4th, D-string) is closest to the ceiling. The G, 3rd and B, 2nd strings sit between, respectively. If you ever get confused, just think of riding an elevator starting from the first floor up to the fourth.
- Higher/Lower and Up/Down – Many of my students get confused with spatial positioning lingo when talking about where to play certain things. Higher means to go up in pitch. This is either done by moving towards the bridge with your fretting hand or by changing to a higher-pitched string. Lower is the opposite and means to descend in pitch by moving towards the nut of shifting to lower strings. Up and down are basically the same, but usually refer more to your position on the fretboard – up is towards the bridge, down is towards the nut.
The most common variable to the above “What Makes a Baritone?” is the instrument’s tuning.
Alternate tunings provide different textures from the usual form of tuning. They allow you to play sounds that would otherwise be unattainable.
Because the baritone is already a little more unconventional than a normal uke, it seems to be a widely-accepted platform for musical experimentation.
The most common baritone tuning variant is bringing DGBE up to the pitch of a standard uke: GCEA. Since this is two and a half steps, you’ll definitely want a different set of strings to try this one. Look for lighter strings as detailed here for baritone strings.
Other common alternate tunings are:
- DGBD (Slack key baritone, this is the same as the bottom four strings of taropatch open G tuning.)
- DGAD (a four-string variation of DADGAD, used by Jimmy Page of Led Zeppelin in famous songs such as Kashmir)
- GDAE (mandolin tuning – requires different strings)
- Octave-down-GCEA (an extra-flabby variation on standard uke tuning that provides an exceptionally low sound.)
Since each tuning deserves its own massive set of learning materials, this site will focus on the standard baritone tuning – DGBE.