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#frequently asked questions about the ukulele

At Flea Market Music, we do our best to keep site visitors and store customers informed about all things ukulele.  To that end, we have worked hard to compile a listing of some of the most frequently asked general questions posed to us over the years, along with our answers to them.  

Many thanks to Dan "Soybean" Sawyer (and Dale Webb of The Magic Fluke Company) for providing us with many of the answers found herein.  If you have a question regarding vintage ukuleles, be sure to consult our Uke Yak section, where you can submit a question to our resident expert, Chuck "Frets" Fayne.

Mechanics View All FAQ Categories
Question:   How often should I change strings to get the best sound.
Answer:   This is a hard question to answer since there are so many variables. It depends on how often and hard you play and also on your body chemistry. As a general rule if you play your ukulele daily (and who doesn't?), change the strings around once a year. Thinner strings tend to wear out faster than thicker ones. As strings are played, they wear most at points of contact like the fret tops. Loosen your strings till they are slack. If you see divots or bends in the strings it is probably time to replace them. Likewise, if there are signs of fraying or uneven diameter. Strings don't just wear out as they age. They also become dirty and can get corroded from sweat and environmental factors. Players who have a lot of acidic content in their sweat will wear out strings much quicker than the average player. I have a friend who can play the uke for only 20 minutes and the strings become dead and lifeless sounding. His strings often need to be replaced or at least cleaned. Wiping down your strings when you are done playing is a way to prolong string life. Micro fiber cloths are especially good for this but any soft rag should do the trick. Do not use alcohol or other solvents to clean your strings as these can also damage the finish on your ukulele. Boiling has been used to clean strings, but it seems like an awful lot of work. In the same amount of time, a new set of strings could have been installed. Strings which are very old (many years) can begin to actually play out of tune. They will also not sustain properly and sound 'dead'.
Question:   How do I change strings?
Answer:   This is difficult to describe in words. Try going to the Kawika website for a detailed explanation.
Question:   I have an older uke with wooden tuning pegs.
Answer:   That type of peg was common in the 1920’s. Unfortunately, they are hard to use and often slip. The manufacturers all switched to friction pegs when they became available in the 1930’s. I recommend that you do the same with your uke. This is an easy upgrade and will not hurt your instrument. This is only a bad idea if your uke is a valuable vintage piece which would be devalued by altering (such as a Martin style 5).
Question:   Why won’t my uke stay in tune?
Answer:   There are many possible reasons for this, but without going into great detail, here are some things to know. Tuning pegs can become loose over time and slip. The fix for this is to gently tighten the set screw in the middle of the peg. New strings can take weeks to fully stretch and must be re-tuned often. Old strings or ones that have been played hard over a long period can wear out and actually play out of tune.
Question:   My uke still sounds out of tune!
Answer:   There are some other possibilities that a qualified repair-person can fix. If the slots in the nut are too high, they can cause fretted notes to become sharp and be out of tune. With the proper files, this is an easy fix. The bridge on some ukes is not installed accurately. To fix this, the bridge will need to be repositioned to play in tune. In rare instances, the frets themselves have been installed incorrectly. In this case, it is impossible to play the uke in tune! (I have seen two ukes like this, both built in the 1920’s before modern manufacturing methods.)
Question:   My uke still sounds out of tune!
Answer:   Get yourself a tuner, either pitch-pipe or electronic. That is a good starting point. Try playing a few chords while tuning, not just one. Sounding “in tune” is always a compromise. Sometimes one string has to be a little sharp or flat to make other things sound more harmonious. Experiment.
Question:   What difference do strings make?
Answer:   It’s a mistake to think changing strings will make a mediocre uke sound like a great one. The changes in sound are usually not that significant. The “feel” of the instrument is the area where strings make a bigger difference. Thicker strings usually have higher tension which translates to stiffer feel with more sustain and volume. Thinner strings usually have more flex and a softer feel and less volume.
Question:   Can I use steel strings?
Answer:   This is a bad idea unless you have an instrument specifically made for steel strings. Steel strings have a much higher tension than nylon and will put undue stress on the uke’s bridge. They will also cause the frets to wear much faster.
Question:   Are you ever going to shut up?
Answer:   Ummm… I guess that’s it for now. I hope this information has been of some help to you. Let’s consider this section a work in progress. I’m sure some of you will have questions I forgot or overlooked that can be addressed in a future version of this FAQ. I’d like to think some of you will be updating us on omissions or errors contained here too. My hope is that more people learn the ukulele and through playing it; find some joy. Keep on strummin’!

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Flea Market Music offers an on-line community for ukulele players, informative books on the ukulele, ukulele CDs,songbooks, videos and information on our instrument manufacturing of the FLUKE ukulele. Brought to you by "Jumpin" Jim Beloff. -