BY AARON KEIM
The tuning pegs on your ukulele are a vital piece of equipment. Whether you have a collectible vintage ukulele or a new, factory-made instrument, it’s important to get your strings in-tune quickly and reliably. When your instrument’s tuning pegs won’t cut it, they may need to be replaced or upgraded. But before we get into specifics, first we need to understand a few concepts of how tuning pegs are designed and used. Then we will discuss the different styles and their pros and cons.
The Tune, the Tuning
The first concept is tuning ratio. When you turn the tuner button, the shaft also turns. Old-style friction pegs have a 1:1 ratio, meaning that every turn of the peg turns the shaft one turn. This low tuning-ratio means that your movements must be smaller and it will be harder to fine-tune a string. Modern tuning pegs may have gears that can give them a tuning ratio as high as 14:1, meaning that every turn of the peg makes a much smaller turn of the shaft. (In this case, it takes 14 turns of the tuner button to make the shaft turn once.) As the number goes up, accuracy and ease of use increases.
The second concept to understand is weight. The ukulele is a relatively small and lightweight instrument. The more gears and metal parts your tuning pegs have, the heavier they will be. If you’re not careful, your ukulele will be out of balance and hard to hold, even with a strap. Only in the last few years have manufacturers been willing to design geared tuning pegs for the ukulele market that offer gears at lower weights and smaller sizes.
The Simple Machines
The first type of tuning pegs to discuss are friction tuners. These can range from old wooden violin tuners to expensive modern replicas of golden-era designs. Friction tuners are traditionally used on ukuleles because of their lightweight and simple design. The most important thing to understand about these is that they have a 1:1 ratio. This can be problematic for fine adjustment, but if they are well made and installed properly, they can work very well. On the other hand, poorly made friction tuners can make your life miserable! Metal friction tuners usually have a small screw in the button that tightens the assembly, adjusting how easy or hard it is to turn. Too tight and you can’t turn the peg; too loose and the peg slips, making steady tuning very difficult.
If you have a vintage uke that needs old-style friction tuners with small shafts, I like the Waverly friction pegs (available from Stewart-Macdonald or Amazon) and Grover Champion friction pegs (available from Stewart-Macdonald or Amazon.) It takes some practice to use friction pegs accurately, and some folks just don’t have the patience. If you’re one of those people, it may be a good idea to replace them with geared pegs.
The first type of geared peg I’ll mention are planetary tuning pegs, which get their name from the tuner’s internal gears, which resemble planets orbiting a sun. Like friction pegs, these tuners stick straight back from the back of the headstock. They are traditionally used on banjos and normally have a 4:1 ratio, which makes them easier to use and more accurate than friction pegs.
Until recently, it was hard to find planetary pegs that were light enough for ukulele, but now there are two good options. Peghed brand tuning pegs look like traditional wooden violin friction pegs, but actually have a 4:1 gear in the metal shaft. Their tension can be adjusted by lightly pushing in or pulling out the button until the tension is just right. They are very lightweight, but require a tapered hole in the headstock, which means you may want professional installation. The new Gotoh UPT planetary pegs are miniature versions of the company’s popular banjo pegs and are another great option. They don’t require a tapered shaft and come with multiple finish and button options to match the aesthetics of your instrument. They are a little heavier than Pegheds, but still appropriate for most ukes, especially tenor and baritones.
Finally, we have guitar-style tuning pegs. This is the type of tuner that sticks out of the left and right sides of the ukulele’s headstock, on paddle headstocks, or face backward on slotted style headstocks. These are often the most accurate and easy to use tuners, with 14:1 gear ratio or higher. In the past, guitar-style tuners were too heavy for ukuleles, but now there are many lightweight versions. My favorite is the old-school Grover open-back tuners, scaled down from the classic guitar design with shorter shafts for ukulele. If you want an even fancier version of this style of tuner, check out the beautiful wooden knobs on the Waverley.
No matter what you choose for upgrade or replacement, keep in mind that every tuner requires a different size hole in the headstock. Don’t assume that your new pegs will drop right in. If you’re experienced with tools and woodworking, this isn’t a problem. But, if you’re worried about it at all, ask your favorite acoustic music repair shop to handle it.
No matter which quality tuning pegs you choose, it’s worth the cost to keep your ukulele playing in tune!
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.
The Ukulele Owner’s Manual is the book that belongs in every ukulele player’s instrument case. Each chapter was written by the experts and performers at Ukulele Magazine, with topics ranging from commonsense instrument care to fixing rattles and buzzes to a pictorial history of the instrument. Book owners can also download how-to videos with step-by-step guidance on common set-up and maintenance topics.