One of the most important uke accessory is a tuner, which is just one of the reasons why numerous brands compete with each other about who’s making the best ukulele tuner. Once you’ve gotten your hands on one, you’ll be able to easily tune your uke and start playing – but what happens when your uke still sounds a bit off?
Beginners, especially people who have absolutely no background with stinged instruments, are often puzzled with this question – “Why won’t my ukulele stay in tune?”. Sadly, we can’t give you an easy answer, as there are numerous factors that contribute to this whole issue.
Before we even begin resolving the matter, we should clear up some air with a couple of “keywords” you’ll be hearing a lot, such as saddle, frets, intonation, ukulele setup, and how they’re all tightly correlated between themselves.
Ukulele glossary – important terms you’ll need to understand
There are plenty of “professional words” tossed about by veteran uke players, but you’re in luck – this sort of “shop talk” is practically identical with the terms guitarists and other string instrument players use, so if you have any experience with the latter, feel free to skip the next couple of paragraphs.
Understanding the terms will help you deal with the problem more efficiently
Let’s adress the term intonation first, as it’s in most tightly correlated with how your uke is tuning. First of all, the intonation regards an instrument’s capability of staying in tune for longer periods of time. It’s usually followed by attributes such as “good” if the instrument sounds the same for weeks or months, or simply “bad” if it doesn’t.
One of the greatest factors that have an impact on intonation is the saddle – this is basically a plastic (sometimes bone) part that gets supported by instrument’s bridge. The strings vibrate on this part before music is produced. Saddle is important is it affects the action of the strings.
The action regards how far away are the strings from the fretboard. Low action means higher playability but could result in buzzing sounds whereas high action helps the intonation unless you go too far, when it becomes counter-productive.
The frets are actually the pieces on the fretboard which are bordered by metal pieces – most ukuleles also feature dot inlays which help the player figure out the number of fret that should be played, especialy beginners.
Some of the most common reasons why ukuleles won’t stay in tune and how to counter them
There’s a couple of reasons that are so common that you’ll be surprised – the things we’re going to mention in the text below will eventually happen to your uke, so even if you aren’t having this form of trouble yet, it’s better to be prepared for the future.
Old or bad strings
Old strings usually tend to collect dust, as well as microscopic pieces of skin that got torn as you played your ukulele. The “tooth of time” corrodes them, the dusts makes them sound awkwardly bad while the skin pieces envelop them, so it’s safe to say that old strings are useless. However, the “fun” does not end there.
These “old” strings might lead you to frustration, as you’ll think that you are the problem – they tend to get “stretchy” with time, which is bound to cause minor or major intonation problems. “Bad” strings pose the same threat, even though in a very different way.
Bad strings aren’t necessarily “old” strings, but every “old” string set is bad, and that’s almost a rule. Cheap, budget strings made by obscure brands are almost certain to sound poorly, but what’s worse – they’ll give you big troubles with intonation. Buying a replacement set always helps, but in some cases simply cleaning them might do.
Bad saddle action
The saddle action is its height. If it’s too low, you might get a lot of buzzing, but even if it’s way too high you might experience intonation problems. Shifting the height of your saddle necessarily means that your strings will run at that (different) height. Your safest bet is to avoid going to the extremes (too high or low), but if that doesn’t work, try sanding the saddle a bit.
You’ll need to sand the base and then reinstall it – sanding it too much will result in the aforementioned buzzing problem while sanding it too little won’t get rid of your intonation problem.
Bad nut action
This is the same problem as with “saddle action”, but it’s just a bit more complex. Attuning the nut to a proper height is almost impossible if you don’t have the corresponding skills, so your safest bet is to simply recognize the problem and give your ukulele to a professional luthier. Getting the best ukulele tuner won’t help at all, as this problem will persist until it’s adressed properly.
The only reason why you shouldn’t try to resolve this issue alone is because you may end up ruining your ukulele for good. You’ll need special skills, as well as special tools to properly reinstall, or even remove the nut, so it’s best to leave it all to a veteran.
Other notable reasons
Other problems which could cause intonation issues are all characterized by the same thing – a badly made ukulele. The first thing that comes to mind is bad setup – that refers to wrong saddle or nut placement, outfitting the uke with a cheap set of strings, and more.
Badly setup ukuleles are most commonly cheap ukes and beginner ukes. Namely, some brands think that immediate beginners won’t notice the problems with intonation (or any other problem for that matter), so keep that in mind before you set off to find your first ukulele.
Finding the best ukulele tuner isn’t too hard, but that doesn’t guarantee that you won’t have intonation problems in the future. If you want to make sure that this problem doesn’t happen to you, make sure to perform regular maintenance on your uke – whenever you notice a problem, it’s best to take care of it straight away, as it might only get worse over time.