Probably one of the most common ukulele beginner gripes this one, and a subject I continue to see so much terrible advice about online. A Ukulele that doesn't hold tuning.Actually, I am going to start this ukulele beginners post from another angle as this was the one that prompted me to go over this subject again.. An that is the completely unhelpful advice I regularly see given out to people who are asking for ukulele recommendations. That advice goes along the lines of...
"I recommend [Brand X] ukulele because this one holds tuning really well..."
What?? You are recommending a ukulele purchase based on the fact that yours holds tuning and some others don't?
Here's the thing... ALL ukuleles can be set up to hold tuning and ANY ukulele (even a $3000 plus model) can have tuning that slips (if the setup is wrong!). Saying to someone that 'this one holds tuning' as a recommendation that it is in some way a 'good' ukulele and not bad is completely flawed and fails to address what the actual issues could be. Holding tuning is not the mark of a good ukulele per-se and slipping tuning doesn't mean your ukulele is bad. In most cases it means something needs to settle or get adjusted. Yet still I see that being trotted out with recommendations for instruments every day.
So lets get back to the root causes here - and remember - these can affect any instrument, good, bad, cheap, expensive!
The most common gripe with a ukulele losing tuning is in the strings stretching, or rather with NEW strings stretching. This is perfectly normal and something you will have to deal with - simple as that. Strings made of nylon or fluorocarbon DO stretch over time, and keep stretching until they reach a point where they stabilise. If you put a new set of strings on a ukulele and tune them to pitch, they will go out of tune very quickly. This is the natural stretching of the string. So you tune up again, and sure enough they stretch again. Frustrating for a beginner, sure, but perfectly normal!
There are lots of conflicting theories as to how to speed this up, but for me, the only sensible way to do this is to just keep playing and keep tuning. This allows the strings to stretch naturally through the action of the vibration they were designed to deal with. Yes it can take time, but it does work. How long it will take will depend on how much you play it. Giving it 15 minutes a day will mean the strings may take weeks to settle! I personally recommend some good hard fast strumming for about 30 minutes (treat it as practice time!) and keep tuning as you go. They may still take a day or two to settle and you may need to keep doing it, but it will speed it up.
But I have to move on to the thorny issue of pre-stretching strings. That is the process of tugging or twisting the strings to get them to hold pitch quickly. I DON'T recommend it myself, and that is based on discussions with string makers who don't recommend it, and also advice from people like Frank Ford at Gryphon (a VERY highly regarded stringed instrument tech). The advice from these experts is that manually stretching strings this way can create thin spots on the length of the string where they shouldn't be. This can lead to intonation issues and ultimately shorten the life of the string. I stress, this is NOT just my advice, but advice taken from a number of very reliable sources. Does that mean I don't do it? Well, no, I have done it and lots of professionals do too. But I have done it where time was of the essence. If you have a gig and you pop a string 20 minutes before show time (or worse, during the set) - what are you going to do? Refuse to play because your new string is still stretching? Of course not - you make do and get the instrument as ready as you can for the performance. But if that happened, I would then change the string again for a fresh set the next day when I had more time!
For some reason this pre-stretching issue gets really emotive. At the end of the day, you can do what you like, but I've read the advice against doing it on nylon strings for years and will personally stick with that. You may have done it for years and not had an issue. Great! Not looking for an endless discussion on this subject, but it's not for me or many others, particularly string makers! At the end of the day, if you have the time, I think it's best to do it the natural way. What's the rush?
So lets now move on to the other obvious cause for losing tune - the tuners themselves. Unfortunately this is another area where bad advice seems on the rise, and I have lost count of the amount of people I have seen saying, 'just tighten them'. Yet that advice just doesn't apply in many cases as I shall explain.
On a ukulele you are really only going to see two main types of tuning peg. Either friction pegs that work through friction from the back to the front of the headstock to create resistance, or geared pegs that use a gear mechanism to create the same thing. ONLY friction pegs can be tightened by turning the screw on the peg. The screw on the peg of a geared tuner merely holds the peg on the post. Nothing else. The screw on the open gear mechanism of a geared peg merely holds the gear in place and in no way alters the resistance. If you have a geared peg that is turning in reverse under string tension, you quite simply have a broken tuner and no amount of tightening it will fix it. Replace the tuner!
So it's only with friction pegs where a lack of tightness at the peg can cause the peg to reverse when the strings are tight and cause them to lose tuning. You counteract this by tightening the screw on the peg (and it's sometimes a thumbscrew) to increase the friction. In my experience you often have to tighten this more than feels comfortable to get them to hold, particularly with cheap tuners, but it does work. Sadly with cheap friction pegs you trade off this ability to hold tuning with the peg then becoming hard to turn. So I suppose that cheap friction pegs ARE the bane of cheaper ukuleles but you can still get them to hold. In fact, in all my years of playing hundreds of ukuleles with friction pegs I think I have only come across one example where the pegs were so poor that no amount of tightening would make them work. Just one. Many were horrible and stiff when tightened but they can still be made to hold!
In short, if your friction pegs are slipping you CAN make them hold with the right adjustments and even loose friction pegs on a high end ukulele can (and will) slip. This is not necessarily the mark of a bad ukulele. I've had ukuleles come through my hands at the $1000 mark with friction pegs that needed a quick tighten. And why? Because the tuning was slipping! Didn't make them bad instruments though!
I suppose that brings me on to a final issue that brings both strings and pegs together, and that is down to the strings themselves slipping on either the pegs or the bridge. Frankly though, this one is down to user error and not the mark of a bad instrument in any way! If your strings are slipping on the peg posts it's down to there not being enough winds on the peg, and if they are slipping off the bridge slots it is down to the knots at that end not being secure. Either way, the blame lies with the person who installed the strings and not the ukulele itself. Properly instralled strings will not slip at either end, simple as that.
So essentially that is it. If your ukulele is losing tune then in the VAST majority of cases it is down to something needing to settle (strings) or something needing adjustment (pegs). It is very rarely anything to do with the quality of the instrument itself. Please don't judge a ukulele badly because it is slipping tuning and you don't understand why! Some rare cases may cause issues with slipping tuning that are more structural, but rare is the word and in most cases a bit of user adjustment is all that is needed no matter what the price of the instrument. Should all instruments come without the need for any adjustment or settling? Well, I suppose, but then we don't live in an ideal world! Saying that, I really don't see it is for a dealer to settle your strings down for you or tighten your pegs to how you like them either...
If you have a ukulele that holds tune, it means only two things. That your strings are settled and your pegs are tight enough.
As a foot note - this is, of course, all about staying in tune. Many people confuse this with 'playing' in tune - that is, the ability for the instrument to be in tune at the nut then go out of tune when you fret it. That is a whole other issue and is down to intonation and setup. And guess what? In most cases, that can be adjusted too!
Some links on these subjects for some further reading below!
A look inside different friction pegs for ukulele
Dont be afraid of ukulele friction tuners
Strings and tuning
How to tune the ukulele
Changing ukulele strings
What is ukulele intonation
Adjusting ukulele setup at the saddle
© Barry Maz