BY MIM | FROM THE SPRING 2019 ISSUE OF UKULELE
I teach a workshop called “Proper Care and Feeding of the Ukulele.” The first question I ask the class is “What is a setup?” The answers can be quite varied. Everyone agrees they have heard of a setup, but most of the class has no idea what it really means. “Setup” can mean different things to different people, but for me it is making the ukulele as playable and tone-rich as possible. I always try to set up every ukulele as if it were for myself and I personally want level frets, easy playability, good intonation, and a great tone. So I do my best to offer that to my customers through a thorough setup on every ukulele that goes out my door. Here is the process that a typical ukulele from my shop goes through before shipping to a customer:
The first thing I do is loosen the strings, tape them away from the fretboard, and then use a fret-rocker to isolate high frets (Figure 1). Frets are the “bones” of your ukulele. If they are not level and you do not have good bones, any other adjustments are basically superficial. Is it necessary on every ukulele? Maybe not. You may never notice small nuanced buzzes, or maybe a high fret above the 12th fret. In this process, I also smooth sharp fret-ends and oil and dress the fretboard.
Nut action is super important, especially when playing on your first five frets and barre chords. I have a set of gauged nut files and I get to work making sure your nut action is ideal (Figure 2). Most of the time they need to be lowered, rarely do they need to be raised. The Bb chord should not be an impossible chord for you. If it is, it’s often because your nut is too high and the slots need to be cut to make it easier to play. This is also a really important adjustment for beginners and those who have arthritis issues.
The next logical step in a setup is adjusting the height of your uke’s saddle. I adjust saddle height so that it’s ideal for the ukulele size and build that you have. I go as low as possible without giving you buzz, intonation, tone, and playability issues. But, this does not always mean a low action (Figure 3). A lot of people say they want low, low, low action, not realizing that they are doing themselves a disservice. Some problems include fingers hitting the fretboard and buzzing on the frets or saddle. But the biggest thing people don’t realize is that lowering the action too much can destroy the tone of your ukulele. I have heard a lively uke go dead when someone has insisted on extremely low action.
Per customer requests, I can add strap buttons (Figure 4) and pickups, swap strings, etc. I do not set up a ukulele until it is ordered, so that I can modify them up for left-handed players, people with arthritis, children, or any other unique need.
After all this, your ukulele, in theory, should play beautifully and be buzz-free, but of course I have to check. I pluck the ukulele strings chromatically, and then I strum every possible fret so I make sure there are no issues that went unnoticed in the setup process. This is also where I tighten any hardware and check any applicable electronics. Then it is time to shine and send to the customer.
I hope this shed some light into the world of the setup. You should be able to feel the difference in your fingertips and hear the difference in your ears!
A colorful figure in the ukulele world, Mim is a busy dealer of ukuleles from her eponymously named shop in Floyd, Virginia.
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.