GEAR GURU BY MAMIE MINCH | FROM THE SPRING 2018 ISSUE OF UKULELE
Q: I have been playing ukulele for about a year. I’m a melody/chord player, and play a tenor with a low G. I practice almost every day, and I always notice the same problem. I tune up with a clip-on tuner and get all the strings dead-on. Then, if I play up the board, one fret at a time, the intonation is sharp. Of the four strings, only the low G holds relatively true up the fretboard.
At one point, an instrument technician suggested I try heavier strings to solve the intonation situation, and he installed them. I only noticed a little difference in the intonation with the new strings.
I realize I don’t have a top-of-the-line ukulele; maybe that’s part of the problem? I guess it would be helpful if some more experienced players could test out this intonation and see what they come up with. —Greg Russell
A: We all know there’s just something great about ukuleles. You can use them as a simple way to work out chords to a tune, or accompany yourself while singing a melody. They’re a great excuse to make friends and connect with people—I hear George Harrison always travelled with two! When they behave, they’re trusty little friends who are always ready to have a good time. But often, ukuleles have tuning issues that are particular to them. Some of them happen right off the bat, while others appear as a beloved instrument starts to fall into the “vintage” category. Let’s start with the simplest possible answer to players wondering why their ukulele won’t stay in tune.
HAVE YOU STRETCHED YOUR STRINGS?
Most modern ukulele strings are made from some version of nylon—which is stretchy! It’s not enough to just put your new strings on and tune up your instrument; you’ll notice the strings go flat right away. Here’s what to do: once your strings are on and tuned up, grab one string at a time and pull it gently up away from the fingerboard. The string will go flat, and you’ll tune it back up to pitch. Repeat until stretching no longer makes your string go flat. This will improve the stability of your tuning. Also, be sure to tune up to pitch, not down, as this will ensure that your string doesn’t slip a bit on the tuner shaft and go flat.
ARE YOUR TUNERS HEALTHY?
Friction tuners, often seen on vintage ukes, are the simplest form of tuning machine, but they can be tricky. It’s not unusual for the cardboard washer inside the tuner to flatten and stop gripping, making the tuner fail to hold tune. You can tell that is happening if the screw at the end of the button is tight (don’t over-tighten it!) and the entire thing still spins. In this case, a good repair shop with vintage experience can help you, either to replace the tuners—not an expensive item—or possibly to fix your vintage ones if you really love how they look.
If they are newer, geared tuners, there’s a chance they were installed poorly. One way to check is to tug on a string: does the tuner shaft pull forward? It’s possible that one of the screws holding the plate to the headstock is loose. Make sure the screws are snug, using the right size screwdriver to avoiding stripping out the screw’s head.
IS YOUR RIGHT-HAND TECHNIQUE TOO AGGRESSIVE?
Walloping on your strings can be a ton of fun. But if you hit your uke really hard for a while, you’ll begin to notice that the strings won’t hold pitch. It’s no surprise when you think about the springiness of nylon ukulele strings; each time you strum, the strings stretch just a little. If you find that your already-stretched-in strings have a hard time behaving after you rock out particularly hard, that’s why.
DO MOST UKULELES INTONATE WELL?
So, we’ve talked about all the things we can do to help our instruments get in tune and stay in tune. It’s time to talk about something that’s functionally beyond our control: intonation!
The four strings on a ukulele—on all ukes, from soprano to baritone—are each of quite different thicknesses. This means that the strings need to have slightly different lengths to be able to play in tune along the fingerboard. Generally, the thinnest string is pulled forward to be the shortest, and the fattest string is pulled back to be the longest. (An electric guitar will have six adjustable saddles to slightly lengthen or shorten each string’s scale length to help intonate it. In this way, the diameter of the strings is compensated for; a fatter string needs a little more length to intonate than its thinner neighbor.) Ukuleles generally have a straight saddle, with very little room to compensate for different string thicknesses. For this reason, while you may get one, or some, of your strings to intonate well up the neck, you probably won’t get all of them to play in tune.
As if that’s not enough, inexpensive ukuleles are often built with less quality control than we wish. I figure it’s to help the manufacturer save time, and therefore deliver you a product at a lower price. Unfortunately, sometimes none of the strings intonate in tune.
A common and really frustrating problem is that many ukuleles are built with the bridge glued in the wrong place! Can this be fixed? Your tech could do a couple of things to massage the scale length to help your ukulele play more in tune, such as cant the saddle takeoff point back, or occasionally fill and rerout a saddle slot. But to really get to the bottom of the issue, she would need to reglue the bridge in right spot—and even then getting all of the strings to intonate would be a tough job. In any case, this will often fall into the category of an inadvisable repair, as the repair bill would very likely be more expensive than the instrument itself.
It’s like a perfect little life lesson wrapped up in the cute guise of your favorite four-stringed instrument. Rarely does life go exactly as we wish. So, relax! Sing a little Cliff Edwards! At least you have a ukulele to keep you company.