Every time I arrive to teach and perform at a festival, people come to me with problems regarding their ukes. They are frustrated with a funny buzz, a rattle, or a sour note and have hit a wall after reading conflicting advice on too many forums and online searches. Dealing with these undesirable sounds is pretty common, but it doesn’t have to be a big deal. Let’s talk about some common causes and what you can do to fix it.
First, let’s set the stage. Ukuleles are a strange collage of wood, metal, plastic, and bone, with each material expanding and contracting at its own rate with the weather. They are built to close tolerances to sound great and play easy, but the difference of a few thousands of an inch can throw things off and make for a buzz. I have seen it in high-end customs and mail order cheapies. It just happens. But, before you even worry about your uke, you need to worry about your right- and left-hand technique. Poor left-hand fretting and clumsy right-hand picking will make any uke buzz! You may want to ask a friend to play your uke and see if they have the same problem. After that you may consider the many possibilities we will discuss below. Yes, there are several things you can check and fix yourself, but be prepared to take it to a professional repair person who works on acoustic instruments. Which is worse—getting frustrated trying to research the problem and DIY it, or spending the $75 for one hour of a pro’s time?
Before you hit the shop, you should check the following, in the following order:
A clip-on tuner or a plastic part of your strap can rattle. Remove those accessories first to check if it is causing a buzz. Also, a button on a cuff on your right arm can rattle, so push up your sleeve.
Sometimes a screw or nut is loose on your tuning pegs, strap buttons, or endpin jack. If it seems like one of them is buzzing, touch your hand to it while you pluck the string to see if it dampens the vibration. If needed, you can use a screwdriver or wrench to tighten them. Take care to use the right tool so that you don’t strip screwheads or round over nuts.
Did you recently change to a new kind of strings? Different makes and models of strings have different diameters (or gauges), so you may have a string sitting in a slot that is too big for it. More commonly, your strings are old and worn, with frayed or flat spots causing a buzz. Changing to a new set may solve the problem.
4. Pickup Wires
Sometimes the inside wires of your pickup have crept over to lightly touch the top, causing them to rattle. You may be able to reach in and push them over. If there is a lot of loose cable, you can add a small self-adhesive clip designed for clipping computer cords out of the way. Just place it inside the uke through the sound hole, on the inside waist of the uke.
5. Loose or Broken Brace
This is a more significant issue that a pro will have to fix. You can tell if this is the problem by tapping with your finger on the outside of the uke on the front and back. The tap should resonate like a drum, if it makes a dry crack or rattle sound, then a brace is cracked or unglued. A loose brace can cause the top to warp or the bridge to twist, as well—it’s pretty serious and needs attention from a pro.
6. High Frets
The absolute most common cause of a buzz is a high fret or frets. This could be just one note on your uke buzzing, or it could be several notes on one string in a row. Even if your uke had no high frets when it left the shop, they could develop over time with changes in temperature and humidity. More commonly, the high frets were there all along, but you didn’t notice in your first few years of playing while you were learning to play. You may have noticed the buzz only when you started playing up the neck, fingerpicking, and playing single-note melodies. To fix this, a luthier must find the high frets with a small straightedge, tap or file the high frets, crown their tops round again, and polish them smooth—a process called “dressing” the frets. Sometimes this takes just a few minutes, sometimes it takes a lot of work, especially if your instrument’s neck is warped or twisted. Even a high-quality instrument from a professional luthier or factory may need a little fret dressing after a couple of years. Just consider it a 1,000-mile checkup.
The last thing to ask your luthier about is the string height at the nut and saddle. In my opinion, most factory-made ukuleles have the strings too high at the nut and too low at the saddle. This makes them hard to play and prone to buzzing. Strings vibrate in a wave shape and need plenty of room at the 12th fret to vibrate. Even if your frets have been dressed, the strings will buzz if the saddle is too low.
But who to take your instrument to? I really need to stress that you should take it to someone who specializes in acoustic instruments. At some big “rock ’n’ roll” guitar shops, there is still a prejudice against the ukulele, and they may not give you the attention you deserve. Ask your most experienced local friends who they trust. If that doesn’t work, search online for the right local luthier. It may even be someone who you find through social media who is running a small home shop.
One final thing to consider. I often find people overly concerned and obsessed with tiny noises coming out of their uke. If I want to, I can make any uke buzz at any fret if I pick it a certain way. Think about this: is the noise coming through in the music and noticeable to the audience? Or am I over thinking this late at night on the couch by myself? Hopefully, this article has given you some guidance through the process to get your uke back in “strumming order” as soon as possible.
This article originally appeared in the Fall 2019 issue of Ukulele.
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