It doesn’t matter how good a uke looks or how much you paid for it. If it doesn’t play easily, it is no fun to play! My first ukulele was a solid mahogany Harmony soprano made in the 1950s. It came with a poor setup, cheap tuners, old strings, and plastic nut and saddle. After I set it up properly, it sounded as good as any classic Martin and was a joy to play. (I never should have sold it, of course!) The task of setting string height, adjusting nut and saddle, dressing frets, and re-stringing is called a “setup” and some luthiers specialize in this process. Not only can a proper setup make your instrument easier to play, it can actually make your uke sound better, as it lets the strings vibrate freely.
Here are six differences between a uke that plays okay and one that plays great!
1. STRING HEIGHT
Many factory instruments come with the strings too high off the fretboard at the nut, making it difficult to play. (Playing a Bb chord, for instance, can be especially challenging.) Setting the strings high at the nut masks sloppy fretwork and reduces customer returns for buzzing. Makers often expect the retailer to deal with the setup, but many retailers save money by skipping this step. The height at the nut is set by the depth of the string slots. I use a feeler gauge to set the bottom of the slot .050 inches (1.27 mm) above the fretboard. I find that factory setups also have a saddle that is too short. I prefer the strings to be .085 inches (2.15 mm) above the 12th fret. With more than 3mm at the 12th fret, the ukulele seen above would be much easier to play with lower action.
I may need to make taller saddles for ukes after I lower the action at the nut in order to hit this mark. If you really want to improve the tone of your uke, these nuts and saddles should be made of a hard material like bone, instead of the soft plastic frequently used on budget instruments.
2. SIDE DOTS
I like to install small dots on the front and side of the fretboard at the 3rd, 5th, 7th, 10th, and 12th frets. If you only have the dots on the front, you may be twisting the uke or your posture to see them. Adding dots on the side of the board allows you to hold the instrument naturally and still keep track of where your hands should be placed.
3. FRET ENDS
If the ends of your frets stick out of the fretboard too far, the metal’s sharp edges can hurt your fingers, making it harder to play. I like to bevel the wooden fretboard, then bevel the edge of the frets. This double bevel puts the fret ends farther out of the way of your fingertips. The ends are then filed and buffed smooth. As your instrument ages, the wood will continue to dry out over time and may need to have the fret ends smoothed out, or dressed, to feel more comfortable.
4. STRAP BUTTON AND END PINS
In the old days, most ukes were soprano size and very lightweight, leading to a tradition of playing ukulele without a strap. But, it’s clear that a uke with a strap is easier to hold and frees your hands up to play, regardless of what size ukulele you play. Even though there are many contraptions that try to hold up your uke without drilling small holes for an endpin and strap button, I find that most of them don’t work very well. Let a luthier add an endpin on the butt of your uke and a strap button on the heel of the neck. Add a small strap and don’t look back!
If a fret is higher than its neighbors, it can cause a string to buzz when you fret it. The high fret needs to be tapped or filed down so that it no longer sticks out. If a fret is high because it is loose in the slot, it may need to be glued and pressed in to fix the problem. It is also possible for the fretboard to be back bowed or warped, causing the strings to buzz. Sometimes this can be fixed by working on the frets, other times the frets need to be pulled out and the wooden fretboard re-shaped before it is re-fretted.
Strings are a personal preference and are worthy of an entirely different article, but I will share a few ideas. If your strings are old and worn out, they will sound dull and play out of tune. You can also tell they are worn out when they are discolored or have dents worn into them by the frets.
If you play your uke every day, you should change them a few times per year. On the other hand, don’t get caught in the trap of constantly re-stringing in search of a better tone. You could end up wasting time stringing, stretching, and tuning instead of playing music.
Also, each brand and string material have different diameters. If you try to put a fat string in a narrow nut slot, it will sit above the slot and the action will be too high. If you put a narrow string in a fat slot, it may buzz. You may need to adjust your nut or have a new one made if you radically change the string diameters.
I hope these setup ideas will help you as you buy a new instrument, restore an old one, or order from a custom builder. The goal is to get an instrument set up properly so you don’t have to think about it: That way you can focus on the music and having fun!
Aaron Keim is a luthier at Beansprout Musical Instruments, and also a busy educator, historian, writer, and performer. He performs with his wife Nicole in the Quiet American, an old-time folk music duo based in Hood River, Oregon.