The Ukulele Fix-it Survival Guide
Care and Feeding of Your Ukulele
By Gordon and Char Mayer
From buzzing and broken tuners to storage and re-stringing, Gordon and Char Mayer take you through the essentials of ukulele maintenance and DIY repair.
We're Gordon and Char Mayer, otherwise known as Mya-Moe Ukuleles. In this article we're going to cover three things:
how to take care of your ukulele
how to fix some common issues
how to recognize problems that are best left to a professional.
Most importantly, you bought your ukulele to play it. It is made to be used. In fact, a strong argument can be made that playing it will keep it in better condition. If you keep it in a case, then you likely won't play it much; strange, but the very act of getting up out of your chair and opening the case is often too much of a barrier. Better to keep it on a wall hanger or floor stand where you can just pick it up and pluck it if only for a minute or two. Just don't put it in a place where it receives direct sunlight (more on this later).
Cases, stands and transportation
By far the most instrument damage is caused by "human error." As simple as it sounds, following some straightforward guidelines can greatly reduce the chances of an accident.
When the instrument is out of the case, either you should be holding it or it should be on a wall hanger or floor stand. If it is in the case, the latches should be closed. One of the most common accidents happens when an instrument is put in the case, the latches are left open, and someone picks up the case.
Putting an instrument in a chair, or leaning it up against a wall is just asking for trouble. If you're at a friend's house, just put it in the case and close a latch. If you're at home, put it in its hanger or stand.
In classrooms, the best and least expensive way to store the instruments is on the wall. A simple wall hanger for multiple instruments can be made with a 2x4 and some ¼" dowels (each instrument hangs, supported by its headstock which is between two ¼" dowels placed about 2" apart).
We recommend a hard case when transporting your ukulele. The most common damage that occurs during transportation is a cracked top. This happens when the instrument sustains a direct force to the bridge area. A gig bag is fine for protecting the finish, but it won't protect from the far more serious damage that can occur when the instrument is dropped or accidentally squished. And, a hard case will allow you to use a small instrument humidifier, which is great insurance when traveling.
Heat and humidity
Aside from accidental damage, the most common problems occur as a result of the environment. Direct sunlight, low humidity and rapid changes in temperature and/or humidity are the worst culprits.
Your ukulele is made of wood, which is obviously organic. It "lives and breathes," constantly expanding, contracting and changing in reaction to the environment. The wood cells absorb and release moisture; knowing this is the key to protecting it from damage.
Regardless of the finish on the instrument, the inside of the instrument is unfinished and will adjust to the environment. Some people are under a misconception that different finishes will protect the instrument from environmental conditions, or that a natural finish should be oiled in order to keep the wood moist. Neither of these is correct.
The instrument will adjust to the environment and there's nothing wrong with that. As it takes on moisture it will expand and as the humidity decreases it will contract as it releases moisture. The key is to minimize the speed and severity of these changes.
Natural changes in humidity are fine. The reason to travel with a humidifier in the case is that it will help compensate for the large changes that can occur between geographical locations. Also, direct sunlight can cause very large changes to temperature and thus humidity. Never leave your instrument in a parked car, for example, as this can result in very rapid environmental changes.
The most susceptible areas of the instrument for damage from heat and humidity are the top, back, neck and bridge. The top and back are both fairly thin (usually about 1/16"), and will crack if they are in a very low humidity environment or subjected to direct sunlight for a prolonged period. On many ukuleles the neck has no reinforcement and can twist or warp. (As a side note, this is why we reinforce the necks of Mya Moe Ukuleles with graphite rods.) Lastly, the glue that instrument makers use releases under heat (this is so that luthiers can repair the instruments), meaning that too much heat from direct sunlight can cause the bridge to come unglued.
Care of the finish
There are two general types of finishes: a brushed or sprayed-on chemical finish (such as lacquer, polyester, polyurethane) and an oil finish.
We are often asked which lasts longer or is most durable. In general, the chemical finishes are more durable, however, an oil finish can be easily "repaired" by the instrument owner. In addition, chemical finishes tend to show wear more than an oil finish.
If you have a chemical finish that needs repair, you'll need to take the instrument to a professional. That said, you can buy standard "instrument cleaner" that will help restore the finish.
For an oil finish, we recommend putting a small bit of lemon oil on it every few months to keep it looking new and fresh. If the finish wears off at all, you can easily re-apply some oil (such as Tru-Oil) on a rag. A few applications over the course of several days will restore the finish to its brand-new condition.
Re-stringing and changing from a high 4th to a low 4th
Don't be afraid to restring your ukulele! This includes changing between a high and low 4th string which can be done quite easily.
When Re-stringing, only change one string at a time. Take the tension off one string, untie it and throw it away. Then take the new string, put one end through the hole in the bridge, wrap it around itself, and put the end through the loop two times, like this:
Then take the other end and wrap it around the tuner post 3 times and then put it through the hole in the post. As you're looking down at the headstock, the strings wrap clockwise around the two tuners on the right, and counter-clockwise around the two tuners on the left. If done properly, the strings look like this:
And, since you have wrapped them around the post and then put them through the hole in the post, they should each look like this:
Since a high 4th string is about the same diameter as a (wound) low 4th string, you can change between the two, allowing you to switch from high-g to low-g (or in D6 tuning, high-a to low-a) by merely swapping out that string.
Intonation issues are relatively common. Intonation can easily be checked by playing the 12th fret harmonic (lightly placing your finger above the 12th fret and plucking the string) and then playing the string fretted at the 12th fret. These two notes should be identical.
The most common cause of poor intonation is a bad or worn out string. About 0.5% of the strings we test are "bad". They trend to the flat side as you go up the fretboard, and this is due to density variations in the string. Under-tensioned strings (for instance, using the wrong string) and old strings will trend to the sharp side as you go up the fretboard.
When someone complains of poor intonation, the first thing we do is change the strings so we know we're working with good strings.
If the intonation is still off then it is likely a problem with the construction of the ukulele. This can often be fixed (by a professional) by changing the shape of the saddle or by moving the bridge (the latter is expensive, but may be worth it to save a vintage or valuable instrument).
Next to intonation issues, buzzing is the most common and annoying problem. We classify buzzing in two categories: "fret buzz" and "other."
Fret buzz can be heard as a slight "bzzt" sound right at the attack of the note. Generally fret buzz will be fairly specific to a given string and/or fret. Most fret buzz issues need to be fixed by a professional, but the good news is that they're generally not difficult or expensive to fix.
If you hear fret buzz on an "open" (i.e. un-fretted) string , then it is likely that the nut slot is a bit low (this can be fixed by filling the slot or cutting a new nut).
If you hear fret buzz on a particular fret, then it is likely that either there is a high fret (often the next fret up the fretboard), or the action (i.e. the height of the string above the fretboard) is too low. The former can be fixed by leveling the frets. The latter is fixed by putting in a new saddle that is slightly higher.
There are other causes of buzzing. Non-fret buzz usually lasts beyond the attack of the note, and is usually specific to a given frequency. So, if you're hearing the buzz on f# for instance, you can find another f# on the fretboard and see if you still hear the buzz.
Possible causes include a loose nut on a machine head tuner, pickup wires that are touching the top or back of the instrument or a dislodged brace. Believe it or not, the most common cause of "other" buzzing is a loose button on a clip-on electronic tuner!
Sharp Fret Ends
One of the most annoying problems for a player is having one or more fret ends that are sharp. Even on expensive ukuleles, as they travel into a lower humidity environment, the shrinking of the fretboard can cause the fret ends to stick out a very small amount. But even a small amount can cause great discomfort.
Fortunately, "dressing" the ends of the frets is something that can easily be done at home by the owner. In some cases, the fret ends were never properly dressed by the builder/manufacturer and these may need to be worked on by a professional.
For home dressing we recommend the use of a ladies' nail buffer. We use one that has 6 sides. Each side is numbered, and as the numbers go up the surface gets less coarse. We purchase these at the local dollar store!
First, put a piece of masking tape on the body of the instrument next to the fretboard extension (where the fretboard goes over the body). Put a piece of tape also on the body next to the next heel. These pieces of tape are just to protect the body in case you accidentally hit it with the nail buffer.
Start with the coarsest surface of the buffer, and run it down the edges of the fretboard. You'll hear it contacting the frets. You'll only need to run it down 4 or 5 times. After doing this, feel your frets. If they are still sharp, then you can run the buffer down them again.
After the sharpness is gone, just use each successive finer surface on the buffer to smooth and polish the fret ends.
Broken or loose tuner
Friction tuners are very common on less-expensive instruments. If a particular string is not holding pitch then it is likely that the tuner is slipping. It can be adjusted by (carefully) tightening the small screw in the back of the knob.
If the screw is over-tightened it could break the plastic knob (they also sometimes break with age). Replacing a friction tuner is easily done by the owner. You can purchase a new one from your local guitar shop or an online lutherie supply company. Taking out the center screw (in the middle of the knob) allows the entire assembly to be taken apart. Take care to note the order of each part so that they are replaced in the same order.
Machine head tuners (the geared types whose knobs stick out the side of the instrument) are not adjustable. They rarely break, but if they do they must be replaced. Again, this replacement is easily done by the owner. The small screw in the back of the headstock is taken out and a small wrench (usually 10mm) will allow the barrel nut on top of the headstock to be removed. Then the entire tuner assembly will come off and can be replaced.
The good news is that almost anything can be fixed on your instrument. We've even seen an instrument that was driven over by a car and was repaired!
As bad as they seem, cracks in the top or back are relatively easily fixed. Lifted bridges (usually from prolonged exposure to direct sunlight) are also fixed pretty quickly.
The nastiest problem to fix is a neck that is twisted or warped.
We encourage instrument owners to play and enjoy their instrument. It doesn't need to be handled like an egg, but following some common sense measures will help to minimize problems.
Re-stringing your instrument is the best thing you can do for its tone; this often fixes apparent buzzing and intonation problems that have crept up as well. You should be putting on new strings about every 3 months. When you do, you'll be surprised at what a difference it makes.