- Which starter ukulele do I buy?
- Why should I change the strings on my new ukulele?
- How can I make it sound better?
- How can I make it easier to play?
Below you will discover the answers to all of
these questions and the technical secrets of how to set-up your ukulele correctly !
Buying your ukulele
Do not be tempted to buy the cheapest uke you can find, either in a shop or online.
The general consensus is that the Makala Dolphins* (available
with awful original strings from £30-35) are a sturdy suitable entry uke, and when carefully set
up with good Aquila or brown Worth strings can make a nice sounding
instrument to learn on. The cute shaped bridge and wide range of bright colours
make them very attractive to youngsters. Mahalos and other brands look similar
but are less sturdy, although cheaper at under £25. In my view it definitely
worth spending the extra to get a Dolphin. These are also very easy to resell
later on if you wish (but most players hang on to them when they eventually
upgrade and use them as second/outdoor ukes).
Update - we are now able to offer quality Aiersi coloured wooden ukuleles with Aquila strings from just £28 - these are in our opinion far superior to the Dolphins and have a full and clearer tone, with a superior longer fretboard.
Adults may prefer the slightly better quality Makala MK-SN* which
has a laminated wooden body as opposed to the plastic body and wooden laminate
top of the Dolphin. It has a more even and
less boxy tone. They are usually sold with very poor strings..
*Update - we are now able to offer quality Aiersi mahogany finish wooden ukuleles with Aquila strings from just £36 - these are in our opinion far superior to the Makala MK-SNs and approach the sound of a solid wood ukulele in tone. They also have a superior longer fretboard.
The key thing when choosing an entry level uke is to unpack it in the shop, roughly tune it up and see what it sounds like when strummed with all strings open (the A7min chord) – even the Makala ukuleles vary enormously in tone due to manufacturing tolerances and levels of glue used in the assembly.
Choose the one with the loudest and fullest tone, even though you hope to improve it a lot in due course. Do not simply buy a boxed instrument based on playing another identical example in the shop!
Here are other things to watch out for …
Inspect the internal condition of the uke - feel around under the uke top, through the sound hole. The tops of the bodies of entry level ukes are always made from plywood. On some ukes, a layer can be missing in sections underneath the top ply. Loose ply layers can set up awkward vibrations and buzzing. Also make sure that internal braces are firmly glued in place. Loose braces buzz!
Make sure that the fret ends are smooth. Sharp, rough fret ends make playing very uncomfortable. The tops of the frets should be smooth – rough frets will wear the strings at the fret, leading to breakage. The frets should not protrude too far from the fret board – high frets lead to over-stretching of the strings when they are played, causing the note to go sharp.
Frets can be filed level and polished later on (and the fretboard lightly oiled).
Bridge position is very important for making sure that the uke plays in tune when the strings are played in anything but the open position. This can be checked by measuring the distance from the nut end of the fret board to fret 12, and comparing it with the distance from fret 12 to the saddle. The distance from fret 12 to the saddle should be a few millimetres longer than the distance between the nut end of the fret board and fret 12.
Check that the neck is straight by sighting along it. Better still, place a metal ruler on the frets. The ruler should come into contact with all frets. The necks on some ukes can be bent downwards from fret 3 towards the nut. These instruments are nearly impossible to set up without strings buzzing on the frets. The neck should be angled slightly upwards from the body, or at worst parallel with body.
Angle of the Head
Make sure that the head is angled down from the neck sufficiently to obtain good string pressure at the nut. Low string pressure is more likely to give buzzing.
Most ukes at this level have geared tuners. Make sure that the posts are a reasonably tight fit in the uke head (often not the case!) and that the winders are tight in the two metal brackets that hold them. The Phillips head screw in the tuners can be tightened if necessary (I do this as standard with a new entry uke). Loose tuners are a curse and must be avoided. Sadly you will find these faults on some examples of all entry level ukes.
Only buy ukes with a saddle that can be removed, as it is often necessary to take out the saddle and adjust its height by sanding its bottom (on 220 grit sand paper laid on a nice flat piece of glass or glued to flat wooden board). Mark the saddle all the way around the base with permanent marker first to see how the sanding is going – take it slow..
If the worst happens buy a new saddle for pennies or shim it higher with stiff card.
Make sure that the saddle protrudes for a minimum of 3 mm above the bridge. If not, it may be difficult to ensure that the saddle is still proud of the bridge after it is adjusted. The saddle should be a tight fit in the slot in the bridge – this is necessary to ensure that string vibrations are effectively transferred to the uke body.
Some ukes (including some Kalas) come with ebony saddles which can lean and cause intonation problems – these can easily be replaced with bone / plastic bone.
The crown (top) of the saddle can be profiled with 000 steel wool if necessary if it looks square or grooved.
Avoid large, bulky bridges. Make sure that the break angle over the saddle (the angle made by the strings from the anchoring point to the saddle compared with the line of the strings from the saddle to the nut) is large enough to give good string pressure. Again, low string pressure can promote buzzing.
Action (string height above the fret board)
Measure the height of the strings at fret 12. I like to see about 2.75 to 3.0 mm here. If the strings are significantly higher, take the saddle out and sand the bottom until the desired string height is reached. Then get the action at the nut adjusted by a luthier if necessary.
Try and select a uke with no more than a credit card’s thickness between the first fret and the strings when played with open strings.
A good guide to nut action is if a credit card can just be slipped between the string and fret 1. My favourite test is to fret a string at fret 3 and see if a business card just slips with a little friction between the string and the fretboard.
The string slots on the nuts of entry level ukes are almost
always cut too shallow, making the strings too high. This leads to
intonation problems as the strings are over-stretched when played at a
fret. High strings at the nut also make a uke much more difficult to play
(see more about intonation below). Nut files are needed to do this job properly
– best left to a luthier – it is difficult (but not impossible) to get a nice
backward sloping v groove with a bit of hacksaw blade or nail file. If you try
and get it wrong and lower the slot too much then you need to get a new nut or
build up the messed up old one with a mixture of superglue and baking powder (or
5 min epoxy filler) and have another go. Another fix if you file too much is to dab / lay some hard nail varnish using a cocktail stick in the groove and leave for 3 hours or more. You can them refile if necessary although the nail varnish usually does the trick.
The strings on entry level ukes are almost always dreadful glorified fishing line. Rip them off and replace them with Aquila Nylguts – available from £7 in good music shops or ourselves . The difference is extraordinary.
If you have just put on new strings don’t go playing with the nut or saddle until the strings have played in and bed themselves correctly in the nut groove.
Intonation is the ability of the uke to play the right note when a string is played at a fret.
Factors such as bridge position, height of the frets, fret position, strings and height of the action all affect intonation. Many of these factors need adjustment prior to getting good intonation performance from an entry level uke.
Use a clip-on tuner and check the ukes in the shop, playing each string in a scale up the neck to fret 12, which takes you back to the open string tuning. It tells you straight off how far the notes wander from true frequency (almost inevitably sharp) as you work up the neck.
Be careful if strings have not been tensioned to tuned pitch for long on the uke you are checking – the strings sometimes stretch and go flat just quickly enough to compensate for going sharp as you play up the neck, fooling you into thinking the intonation is perfect!
In general is the uke is sharp on lower frets then the nut action needs looking at, but if the upper frets are sharp (by the tuner or if fret 12 sounds higher in frequency than the plucked harmonic) then the bridge saddle needs lowering. If it is flat at high frets then the bridge has been set too far back from the neck.
Beware though due to the nature of the tuning the third string always tends to bit a mite sharp on the ukulele.
If string 1 is flat, and string 4 sharp (or the other way around) at the same fret then the bridge is crooked.
Some players might be wary of fettling their uke as mentioned above, but at the end of the day most errors can be corrected and you are learning a lot of skills on a £30 uke rather than a £300 one ! That has to be better than struggling on with a poorly playing instrument.
Become a ‘uke fettler today’ !