Online Ukulele Shopping and the Setup Myth

5 Oct 2014

Online Ukulele Shopping and the Setup Myth

On of the most common pieces of advice you will see being given to any ukulele beginner is to always try the instrument out before you buy it. But that really isn't always possible for some people and they revert to buying online. Are there any pitfalls here? What can you expect?

ukulele shop
Credit - Matt Warnes

The opening piece of that advice is completely sound. Despite what uke you have your heart set on, playing a few ukuleles in a shop may well change your mind, and it will also allow you to inspect the build, consider how it plays to YOUR fingers and ears. It certainly vastly reduces the chances of  issues later on. But for many people living in remote places, a visit to a dealer may be several hours drive away. Even for me, the nearest dealers I TRUST (and more on that trust a little later) are either several hours drive north or south and very few in-between. As such, the vast majority of my ukes have been bought online (and some internationally). Also bear in mind those for whom travel is not an option for financial or disability reasons.

So how do I deal with risks online? Well mainly, I have taught myself the ins and outs of setting a uke up. I know that if a uke needs work on the nut or saddle action, I can do it. I know that if I don't like the strings I will change them immediately. I can deal with setting the friction correctly on peg tuners. As such, I can deal with most things that are meant to be adjusted, but of course cannot deal with the potential that I simply won't like the uke. That is the risk I knowingly take.  For beginners though, who may find even tuning the instrument a challenge to start with, how should they buy if online shopping is their only option?

Well my advice is to be extremely careful where you buy. I actually only really buy from two or three stores, and they are shops where I have built a relationship with the people who run them. They have always been consistent and care about what they send out and how they send them. Please do beware with the many new online only stores that are cropping up all the time - you will spot them, no real bricks and mortar shop, product ranges at the lower end only..... bandwagon jumping really.  I am not saying all these sellers are bad, but let us just say I have heard some horror stories of ukes unfit for play being sent out, or instruments arriving in next to no packaging... broken.

I actually set up a list of trusted uke stores on this very site ( SEE HERE ).  You will note that there are not many, but that is because I either haven't had experience with others, or haven't had enough sound testimonials from others.  For now though, these are the stores I recommend.

( A side note here - I get many emails from stores around the world asking to feature, some with less than impressive product ranges or websites. This page is not intended to be a Yellow Pages of stores, so please don't ask. If I experience great service then I will add you. If I hear about great service enough from people I really trust, I may add the store. If I simply added every shop then the page would become pointless.)

But back to the point.  Even with a great shop you may get iffy instruments sneaking through. It is natural, and at the end of the day, a busy store doesn't have the time to spend over an hour on each uke that goes out. Perhaps some do, but what I am saying is that I think it is unreasonable to expect that. You would think that all ukes should come from the factory ready to go, but sadly that just isn't the case. Even at the high end, problems can materialise. At the lower end, these instruments are made in vast quantities on a factory production line, put in boxes and shipped around the world with fairly minimal QC checks at the factory in many cases. Problems do arise (and the cheaper you go, the problems get more likely). But a GOOD store will at least give the uke a once over and will also deal with any issues with the customer promptly and politely. I have experienced that with the stores I choose to shop with.

So on to that issue of 'setup'. I think that term is incorrectly used in many cases (and I guess I am guilty of it too). To say 'choose this store, because they will give the uke a full setup' is misleading. Perhaps it would be better to say that a good store will 'give the uke a pre-sale check' . There are a couple of reasons for this. For one, a full setup takes a good deal of time to run through. But also remember that there are elements of a setup that are completely personal to the uke player and no dealer knows exactly how you like your action for example.

What I WOULD expect from a good store

1. A check that the action at nut and saddle are within acceptable tolerances. Importantly this does not mean that they will be perfect for you, but just that they are playable in tune.
2. A check that fittings like tuners and buttons are tight
3. A check that strings do not have any nicks in them
4. Most importantly, an all over visual check of the build to ensure that the body is not twisted or cracked, the neck is not twisted or mis set, that the bridge is not lifting or the top sinking etc. If they find one of those I would expect them to have already returned it to their supplier and not have sent it to you!

Some dealers may do more, some may do less, but I consider these the basics.

When we use the term 'setup' though this can include changing strings, adjusting the saddle height to a position that the player  wants, filing fret edges, oiling dry fingerboards, inspecting bracing and the like. Whilst you may be able to pay a store to do that, personally I think this should be for the player to learn. For example, the height of the saddle, adjusting the action of the uke as it does, is not a universal thing. There is no one right height for every player, only a range within which the uke will accurately intonate. Some people prefer a slightly higher action, some very close to the fretboard. Personally I like an action set at about 3mm (or just under ⅛ inch) above the top of the 12th fret, but that doesn't mean it is right for you.

And I say this because I have read people commenting on stores saying the action was 'all wrong' and I often genuinely wonder what the hell they mean. Personally I have never been in a receipt of a uke from a trusted dealer where the action was 'all wrong' (and I assume that to mean either the strings were touching the frets or they were an inch above!). In my reviews I will not mark a uke down if the action is tolerable, but not quite to my liking as I will adjust that myself. Send me a uke though with an action ridiculously high and I WILL mark it down!   In fact, most factories and stores will tend to send ukes out with action a little on the high side for the simple reason that it is safer in terms of returns and complaints.

You really wouldn't want this through your letterbox...

I HAVE however bought cheaper ukes from random dealers on places like ebay or Amazon and found exactly that. I once bought a Mahalo (direct from Amazon) to find the neck was mis set, the bridge was mis set and the action was way, way too high. And that really highlights my point. A good dealer would have had trouble getting that through the pre-sale checks, and I would never have received it. Still it made for a good review to highlight the flaws that can plague ukuleles at the lower end. Do I blame the dealer? Partly I suppose for letting it through, but ultimately the manufacturer needs to answer for allowing it out of China too!

I've even received ukes with a slight bit of buzz, but don't consider that to be a capital crime necessarily. These things can often be fixed with a string change, a thin shim under the saddle, or even just letting the uke settle down from transit. I would never take to the internet to slam a store if that happened to me. In fact buzzes can develop on perfectly decent ukuleles over time. It happens.

So to sum up, knowing that buying a first uke can be a daunting experience, take note of these bullet points.
  • If you can buy a uke in person, DO SO. If you are in a random store and the dealer refuses to check it over or simply has a wall of £19.99 ukes,  choose another shop!
  • Problems can be found in ALL ukes whether cheap or highly expensive. The chances of problems as you go cheaper rises considerably though!
  • A trusted dealer should not let flawed instruments go out of the door, but bear in mind mistakes DO happen. A trusted dealer is also one who will deal with your problems professionally after purchase.
  • Do not assume that a dealer is going to spend hours on your ukulele setting it up to a standard fit for Jake Shimabukuro. Expect to need to do some tweaking yourself and learn how to do so.
  • If you are buying online, choose a bricks and mortar shop, and try to place your order over the phone. Actually ask the dealer to give it a once over.
  • There is only so much a dealer can inspect in the process of a sale. I would challenge anyone to spot that a brace is about to pop loose, or there is a hairline crack starting on the underside of the soundboard that may, in time, manifest itself as a full on split. If they happen, you have your manufacturers warranty
  • If you don't like the strings the uke arrives with, that isn't the dealers fault. A good dealer though will stock good string brands and for a charge will fit them before they ship to you
  • Generally speaking, avoid eBay, Amazon, Walmart etc. They will simply ship you the uke straight as it arrived from the factory without opening the box. (There are some exceptions, as some trusted dealers run eBay and Amazon marketplace stores). 
  • Remember, going to a random shop or supermarket to save $2 in the instrument price is crazy logic. There are specialist stores out there, so use them. (Try calling Amazon Customer Support lines to explain that you have a problem with a fret or nut action and see if they have a single clue as to what you mean....)

So go carefully people. Question anybody suggesting you buy from '' just because they are a dollar or two cheaper. Understand that dealers can only do so much, but their reputation rests on you being happy so work with them if things go wrong. And most of all, support your local specialist shops!


  1. The best day for me once I started learning to play was when I discovered a specialist shop (opened by a former Hawaii Music Supply tech!) was in town, a few minutes' drive from my office. Massive eye-opener & key resource.

  2. Good advice but probably still too hard for a beginner to chew on. I think for a beginner in the US I would advise someone to buy a flea/fluke or buy from HMS or MIM or uke republic and not buy the cheapest one in stock. I might even suggest that over buying local for a first.

    I actually prefer 2mm high at the 12th fret, 3mm makes the strings too wiggly at the high frets for me.

  3. Why would it be hard to chew on - beginners fret and stress so much on what to buy. I am not saying spend more money - I am saying spend a dollar or two more on a reputable dealer thats all. I am a big Flea and Fluke fan but they are being challenged on price left right and centre these days. If you check the dealer list that I referred to in the post you will see I am recommending both HMS and Mim. That is the point...

  4. (though I think your plug for Uke Republic may have just given you away..)

  5. Very sensible, balanced and helpful post.

  6. Actually I'm not a uke republic guy. I bought a makala dolphin from them that was a total dud but at the time I was a brand new player and didn't know how bad the dolphin was until I bought a fluke ukulele. I'm still not done trying to fix that dolphin. From that comes my suggestion for not buying the cheapest models carried.

    And yes you are right, beginners stress about everything when buying a ukulele, don't want to spend too much and don't want to get a "dud".

    Btw sorry for sounding critical this article is another good read for a fresh newbie. For buying your first ukulele local taking along someone who knows how to play should almost be a requirement.


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