Introduction: Improve Your Cheap Ukelele

Picture of Improve Your Cheap Ukelele

If you are a guitarist, there's a fair chance that at some point, one of your friends or family decides to buy you an ukelele as a present. "Look at this cool mini guitar I bought you!". It's a ukelele, mom. Ukelele's are fun instruments, and if you already play the guitar, playing a few tunes on a ukelele is not so hard. Unfortunately, quality uke's are not cheap, so the one you got as a present is probably not the best quality. You might be able to read 'Made in China' if you look down into the soundhole.

There are probably three things that you will notice when you pick up the cheap uke for the first time:
- This thing is so tiny!
- Huh... the strings feel so slinky, but it takes so much force to fret them! (or: damn, this thing plays like sh*t! )
- It does not sound too pretty

Fear not, you can improve your little 4string with some simple DIY. I've tried to explain some of the guitar terms a bit, so even if you don't know a lot about guitars, you can still do this. Lets get started!

Step 1: Required Tools

You only need a few basic tools for this project:

- small hacksaw 
- straight file
- pair of plyers
- a towel, or something similar that is soft, in order to protect your ukelele from scratching (i didn't bother, I just put it down on the table)

Step 2: Lowering the Action: the Bridge

Picture of Lowering the Action: the Bridge

Cheap uke's have the same problems that cheap guitars have: the company that built them did not take any time to properly adjust and finetune the instrument, since that would add to the price. Take a look at the action of your uke (the distance between string and fretboard). On my uke, this was about 6 mm at the nut, and 15! This is what makes it play so bad. We have to lower the action in order to make it play better. 

The piece of string that is being played is suspended between two points: the nut (near the tuners), and the bridge (the end that is on the body). We're going to start with the bridge. Take the tension off the strings by turning the tuner knobs. Make sure there is hardly any tension left. Then try to remove the white piece of plastic that is slotted inside the bridge. I had to use a pair of plyers to get it out.

Take the file, and put it down on a flat surface. Put the plastic bridge piece between your fingers, and scrape the underside back and forth over the file. Put it back every now and then to check how much you have removed. I also sanded it slightly thinner, so it was easier to slide it in and out without having to resort to the plyers again (you can safely do this, the string tension will eventually keep the piece in place). Tension up one of the strings and push it down at the first fret. Now check the action at the 12th fret . I repeated this until I had about 5 mm of action at the 12th fret.


Step 3: Lowering the Action: the Nut

Picture of Lowering the Action: the Nut

Now put your string back up to tension, and play a bit. It should already feel lighter, but the real magic is yet to be done: the nut.

Lift the string out of their slots (leave them under tension), and pull them to the side of the nut, so you can acces the slots. Take the hacksaw, and carefully saw away some of the material. DO NOT TAKE AWAY TOO MUCH AT ONCE!! There is NO turning back! Start with one slot, and check the new string depth every now and then.
It might happen that the string will get stuck without fully popping down into the slot. In this case, slightly tilt the hacksaw and try to widen the slot a little, until the string fits.

You also want the slot to follow the curvature of the string. You don't want the strings to 'kink' over the nut. Start your slot parallel to the nut, and then curve them down slightly towards the tuner mechanisms. 


After you've done this, play your ukelele. What a difference!




&#*@!! I've destroyed my nut!

If you've gone too far and ruined your nut, you can still pretty much fix it. If one of the strings is rattling, try putting a small piece of paper around the string. This might lift it up just enough to fix the problem.

A more rigorous fix is to remove the whole nut (tap the side with a small hammer), and glue a piece of wood veneer or thick paper underneath. This raised the whole nut again, and you can give it another shot.

And if this all fails, you can always go get a new one at your local guitar shop, or online.

Step 4: Improving the Sound Quality

The sound quality of an acoustic instrument depends on hundreds of factors. Two important one's are the way the instrument is constructed, and the type and quality of the woods used. Unfortunately, you can't really change any of these factors. But there is one thing that you can do. Get yourself a set of ukelele strings, reasonable quality. The strings that come with your uke are the cheapest of cheap, a decent set of strings will improve the quality of the sound, and probably playability as well. Just don't expect miracles here, a cheap uke is a cheap uke, and swapping strings will not change that.

Step 5: Tune and Play!

Picture of Tune and Play!

Here is a free online ukelele tuner: http://www.get-tuned.com/online_ukulele_tuner.php 

Tune up your instrument, and enjoy the new feel of your ukelele! 

Comments

rimar2000 (author)2012-11-07

Very useful info! It applies to cheap guitars, too.

Another thing I did many years ago on my guitar was change the plastic bridge and nut by bones. You must search (and found) a long time dry bone, cut a piece of approximate size and shape, and then file/sand it until is the correct dimensions. This simple step improves a bit the sound, because plastics are not so solid as bones.

jamesbdunn (author)rimar20002017-12-02

Bone filing smell, hmmmm. I've not done that. But I wonder if a wet saw would work. I've cut a bit of stone and tons of tile; literally. Seems if you happen to have a wet saw with diamond dust blade (very common), you could easily slice up a dozen bone blanks to make nuts, frets, bridge, inlay....

That said, I wonder if stone would work as a nut.

jamesbdunn (author)jamesbdunn2017-12-02

I happen to think, waterproof sandpaper could be laid across a 2x4 into a kitchen sink on an angle with a trickle of water running. No smell.

KoenB (author)rimar20002012-11-07

That indeed makes a huge difference. However, it is a little beyond the scope of this easy fix, but it would be a good upgrade.

And btw, bone smells horrible when you sand it!

jamesbdunn (author)2017-11-30

5mm is very close to 3/16"

Harbor Freight sells a cheap file set of different shapes for delicate work for about $6.

Titebond glue is available on eBay for about $6.

Oasis (preferred) and Aquila string sets are available for......about $6.

Fluorocarbon strings seem to be the better choice, but the tone a ukulele naturally produces is a factor in choice of string. Cheap strings provided by cheap ukulele manufacturers seem to not stay in tune (stretch).

Manufacturers seem to use Titebond Glue for many musical instrument attachments like bridges and frets. Generally a couple layers of paper wrapped around what you are working on, and taping it with transparent tape will provide a temperature gauge to warn of too high a heat. Titebond (cheap) loosens up just above about 200 F (93 C). Parts can usually be gently worked apart once significantly warmed. Careful !!! If you just want to remove a small part of the bridge, fret board, inlay or other part connect to an adjacent glued part, keep the heat confined and not terribly hot. Use a hair dry and not an industrial heat gun. A heat gun will start fires and take up asbestos/asphalt tiles; a hair dryer won't. But make no mistake, a hair dryer can with extend effort get hot enough to burn wood.

Ukulele's with a cheap built in battery powered pre-amplifier that constantly produce background hiss/static even when not being played can be significantly improved by using a DIY 750 Hz audio filter. This audio filter has no attenuation from 0 to 500 Hz and slight fall off near 750 Hz. The highest note of a Ukulele is around 400 Hz, but you need the second and some of the third harmonics to sound natural; which are 800 and 1200 respectively. This RC filter is -20 dB at about 2000 Hz, made from a 100 ohm resistor (pennies) in series toward your ear buds, and a 20 microfarad capacitor (tens of pennies) on the ear bud side of the resistor and connected to the other wire of the ear bud. You can use an old set of ear buds, or buy one from a dollar store and modify the wires temporarily to verify this removes the static hiss you are hearing. If it doesn't help, don't modify your uke, it's something else. If it does work, then you can open the pre-amp section and hook the RC filter like you did with the sacrificial ear buds, at the inside part of the audio jack going through the case. You will then be able to hear your tunes through ear buds, plug in a audio plug to Bluetooth adapter, or a power amplifier. But the pre-amplifier won't work with a raw unpowered speaker of any significant size. Powered computers speakers can be picked up on the cheap .... about $6.

jamesbdunn (author)jamesbdunn2017-11-30

There are many free cell phone apps for tuning ukulele's. I prefer the ones that listen with the phone microphone and provide an averaged frequency. The most common ukulele frequencies are

Ukulele TuningsTypeStandard TuningAlternate TuningsSopranoG4-C4-E4-A4A4-D4-F#4-B4
G3-D4-A4-E4ConcertG4-C4-E4-A4A4-D4-F#4-B4
C3-G3-D4-A4TenorG4-C4-E4-A4G3-C4-E4-A4
D3-G3-B3-E4BaritoneD3-G3-B3-E4G4-C4-E4-A44 String Soprano, Concert and Tenor Ukuleles
Key of C (low g) tuningStringNotePitch in Hertz4G196.03C261.62E329.61A440.0

The low G string is often a wound string that produces an undesireable rasp as your fingers slide up and down the strings over the frets. The high G alternative eliminates this noise.

ede waard (author)2014-08-12

I guess I was lucky. I found mine in an antique-shop for $10, turned out to be a cheap thing but most of the work seemed to be done for me.

Bastl3r (author)2014-01-16

If you "destroy" the nut by cutting it too deep you could fix it with some of the plastic dust you cut out and a small amount of superglue it might be possible to repair the nut. Just search youtube "the baking soda and superglue trick".

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Bio: A guy with a passion for playing guitar, engineering and of course DIY... and beer too.
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