Get To Know Your Ukulele - It's Designed For It! | GOT A UKULELE - Learn Ukulele, beginners tips and reviews

25 Oct 2015

Get To Know Your Ukulele - It's Designed For It!

One subject that you will see mentioned a lot is that of ukulele 'setup'. This means the adjustment of certain parts of the ukulele to adjust playability and tuning accuracy. In the main most people go no further on the point than 'leaving that to the dealer' and may never adjust anything on their instrument again. Why not?

ukulele bridge

Some time ago I put this video together on YouTube talking about adjusting action / intonation on the ukulele but thought I would expand on that on the blog. And why? Well because I think with many many people they still seem afraid to adjust anything. A fear that they may break something at best or that the universe will end at worst.. But, it's designed to be adjusted!

In the simplest sense I have seen beginners stress about changing strings on their ukulele and even in a couple of cases taking them in to stores to have the shop do it for them. I find that quite incredible because the reality is that changing strings on a ukulele is super simple. Sure, it's a job none of us really enjoy, but complicated it is not. I always that strings are like tyres / tires on a car. If you own a car you SHOULD know how to change a wheel in case you get a flat. Tyres are designed to be changed and they don't last forever. It's the same with strings - they wear and break. They will need changing. Sadly there is no magic ukulele fairy out there who can do these while you sleep (although the way some people get evangelical about the uke, you would think there would be...). It's something that I would encourage all ukulele beginners to do quite early on in their ownership of the uke. Sure, you may get it wrong first time, so just whip them off and start again! Go too far and snap one? Then get another set. Strings are not expensive (well unless you think that $15 for a ukulele is expensive and then strings would represent a big chunk of that... but lets not go there...). The thing is, you WILL be changing strings at some point. You WILL snap a string at some point. Do you really want to be in a situation, perhaps half way through a busk / gig / club night and have to change strings having never done it before? Surely far better to have done it once or twice before in the calm of your own home. Here is my take on changing ukulele strings.

But it goes beyond strings too. The next most adjustable part of the ukulele is the bridge saddle. Now unless you have something exotic with a fixed moulded bridge, the little white strip in your bridge is designed to be removable and adjusted. This can adjust a range of things and is something that is MEANT to be looked at. Adjusting your action can change the playability of the ukulele (the feel on the fretting fingers) but also the projection and response. The saddle changes the action of the ukulele over most of the fretboard and reducing a high action can often deal with intonation issues (the accuracy of the fretted notes up and down the neck). Last but not least, removing a saddle allows the fitting of an under saddle pickup, and fitting one of those WILL require you to lower the saddle to compensate for the height the pickup is adding. For me, an acceptable action would be one that sees the strings at about 3mm above the crown of the 12th fret but this can vary and it really is personal preference. Much higher though and the mathematics of the neck to string angle throws the tuning out on some of the frets. Adjusting a saddle downwards is simply a case of removing it and sanding the base down keeping it perfectly flat. No need to touch the top edge at all. Go too far and you can get buzzing or loss of projection and tone, but you can shim it back up with card or a sliver of wood veneer.  If you go slowly replacing and checking the height every so often you should not have that problem. Try it - measure your action height at the 12th and if its way higher - why not give it a go!

Fret edges sharp? Get a file to them! Whilst I mention fret edges in all my reviews, and a ukulele sent by a dealer with sharp edges is unacceptable, what people don't realise is that humidity, environmental factors and time can affect fret edges through the slight shrinkage of the fingerboard. It's perfectly normal to have a ukulele that was nice and smooth on the neck suddenly develop sharp edges. Do you really want to pay someone to smooth them off when its just a short job with a small file? Again, just go easy and if you are concerned about the finish, masking tape is your friend!

This leaves the nut which is a more difficult one to deal with as it requires some special filing equipment to take high nut slots down. The trouble with the nut is that it is not quite that simple. It's about taking them down AND leaving the correct break point at which the string runs off in tension down the neck. Get that wrong and you can throw out intonation as well. And of course, if you go too low its a much bigger job to take them back up. For me, I check nut height by holding a string at the third fret and seeing that the string should then only just kiss the top of the first fret. If you have loads of daylight when you do that, you have a high nut and likely to have intonation issues at the lower frets. Be very careful though in taking them down and use the right tools for the job. That said, I'd encourage you to try if you are confident.

But this isn't meant to be a 'how to guide'. It's here to make the point that getting to know your instrument, and getting used to adjusting things is a normal part of instrument ownership. Not only can such adjustments improve the performance of a ukulele they get you totally in touch with the instrument and give you a better understanding of how the ukulele actually works. At the end of the day a ukulele relies on some accuracy in mathematical measuring to make it play the way it supposed to. It's one of the curses of cheap ukuleles as things like whilst action can be adjusted and often improve such ukuleles, things like mis placed bridges and frets can prove fatal in a pursuit of accurate tuning. But learning to see how these things work will help you recognise whether you do have a major problem or not, and in most cases give you the skills to improve tuning issues. (How many times have I read of beginners saying 'yeah it was cheap and it goes out of tune up the neck, but I will live with it'? Why live with it??

Of course I am also not saying that certain build flaws are acceptable just because you can fix them yourself. I remain if the view that ukuleles should be sourced from good dealers who will give things like the frets and saddle a once over before shipping, but you are permitted to have a fettle yourself.  If you are not happy it is your right to send it back. Nor am I  saying that you should all be talented luthiers willing to take ukuleles to pieces (although I am sure some of you would have that in you if you put your minds to it). It's just that I think players need some encouragement to try things out with their instruments. If you go carefully and read guides / watch example videos, so long as you don't go crazy it's unlikely you will do anything fatal.

I actually find it quite sad when I read that people are afraid to meddle with anything on the uke. It's really not all that hard and will get you in touch with the instrument. No dealer can give you the perfect setup that you find the most comfortable as we all have different preferences. I have owned a LOT of ukuleles and have adjusted the bridge of most of them since they arrived. That is not to say the dealers got it wrong (they don't because I choose good dealers who send things within acceptable limits) but I find that the fine tuning is down to me!  And at risk of repeating myself - these things are SUPPOSED to be adjusted.


  1. Great blog post, Barry. With your encouragement, I started with my cheapest uke for practice, and went from there. Now, of course we are building our own, so all that learning came in handy.

  2. Great example of what can be done Shelley!

  3. Once again, beautifully written, Barry. I showed it to Fred and he was very pleased. It's amazing the number of uke/guitar players who contact him just to change the strings! I go over string changing in my second class, and Fred's actually come up with a rather large manipulative to show how to do it! I admit I bring Fred to my very first class with Beginners and he looks over each uke, does any minor adjustments, etc. but it's as you said - if you own a car you should be able to check the oil and fluids and change a tire. If you play an instrument you should be able to do basic repairs and upkeep. Thanks for the article - I'll pass it on to my students.

  4. I had the E string snap twice at the nut on a new uke and a fellow musician - a longtime guitar player - gave me some invaluable advice. He reckoned the nut slot was either not smoothly finished or had a sharp edge that was nicking the string. The remedy is to take a length of old wound guitar G string (cadge one from a friend, or invest in one) and carefully draw it back and forth through the nut slot in a rasping motion, without applying too much pressure. When it passes smoothly and the edge doesn't feel sharp to the touch, take a sharpened soft pencil and draw it through the nut slot to leave a layer of graphite. Then replace the string. The graphite acts as a dry lubricant to ease the string 'sticking' and prevent any nicking. I have to say that the technique worked for me, and I have also used it to widen nut slots when restringing with low G strings.


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