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
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
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!
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!