You’ve bought an ‘ukulele, and now you can’t seem to get the darn thing in tune! Perhaps you’ve had yours for a while and have just started noticing a tuning problem. Tuning problems are common and easily remedied (most of the time). Read on for possible problems and solutions. If you reach the end of the article and are still unsure of how to proceed, ask a TakeLessons instructor for help!
‘Ukulele Quality, Construction, and Care
The ‘ukulele (pronounced “OO-koo-ley-ley,” and roughly translating to “jumping flea”), as you’ve noticed, is an instrument with four strings. These strings are commonly made of a flexible thermoplastic material (moldable at high temperatures, solid when cool) called nylon. This synthetic chemical compound is heat-reactive, meaning changes in temperature can affect the tuning of the strings as they expand or contract. The solution is to keep your ‘ukulele in a case when not in use. Avoid storing it somewhere prone to temperature fluctuations (like a garage).
About Your Strings
Since the strings are being held under tension, they will need to be checked every time you play your instrument, regardless if the temperature or humidity levels in your practice space have changed or not. This is normal, and part of playing a musical instrument! Pay attention next time you watch a professional musician perform. Many will tune between every song! However, if your strings are too cheap, they may never settle and stay in tune. Simply change out the strings for a better set.
Old strings are notorious for being unable to maintain their tuning. They’ve been stretched and worn out. You know it is time to replace the strings if they look dirty or frayed. Once you’ve replaced them, either by yourself or by a professional at an instrument shop, you’ll need to make sure the strings have settled. Brand-new strings need time to settle around the tuning pegs and stretch out. The solution to this, whether you have a new ‘ukulele or one that has recently been re-strung, is to gently tug at the strings at various points up and down the neck. This stretches them out and gets them settled around the tuners in one go. Beyond this, play your ‘ukulele a lot so the strings get used to being played!
Choice of Material
Another reason your ‘ukulele may go out of tune is because of the material it was constructed from. ‘Ukuleles can be made from plastic or wood. Wood is sensitive to temperature but can also be affected by humidity levels. Keep a humidifier in the case with your instrument if you live in a particularly dry climate. Wood ‘ukuleles are also usually constructed well. If your ‘ukulele is plastic, it may just come down to the quality of your instrument. Lower-quality ‘ukuleles will not be as good at maintaining tuning. If you don’t have access to an instructor to recommend models, be sure to read plenty of reviews online while you shop and order from a reputable source.
Intonation problems are common among the smaller ‘ukuleles, in particular the soprano size. Check your intonation by tuning the string, then playing it again at the 12th fret. If the note at the 12th fret is out of tune, you have an intonation issue. This isn’t so easy to fix on your own. If it is slight, this will not bother most players, especially if you don’t venture too high up the neck. In the case that it’s really bothering you, take it to a luthier and they will tell you if they can help. Your luthier may choose to operate, and may clamp your ‘ukulele neck at both ends and leave it in a humid area overnight while it straightens out. This can be expensive and won’t be worth it if you have a low-quality ‘ukulele.
Cheap tuning pegs can also start to slip and not be able to hold the string in place. This is uncommon, but I’ve seen it before! See if you can tighten it with a screwdriver. Otherwise, get the tuners replaced or upgrade to a higher-quality model.
A Teacher Can Help You Troubleshoot Any Problems
Many of the problems with tuning your ‘ukulele come down to two things: the age of your strings and the quality of the instrument. Luckily, these issues are easily diagnosed much of the time. If you continue to have issues with tuning, and still wondering, “why is my ukulele going out of tune?” you can ask your TakeLessons instructor for guidance before taking it into a luthier, or spending your hard-earned cash on a replacement!