An alien from space may look at your ‘ukulele and think, “This is a simple instrument. You pluck the strings, the vibrations of which create pleasant wiggly air (also known as sound). What is all that extra stuff on it?” Look a little closer and you’ll see all these pegs and notches. Are you able to answer the alien’s question? Would you like to know what they’re called and what they do? Welcome to the tour of your ‘ukulele.
Starting at the top (or bottom if you’re reading music notation), we have the headstock. This is where the luthier (constructor of string instruments) will express a little flair. Many ‘ukulele manufacturers express themselves with this part of the design, meaning Fender’s headstock will look different from Luna’s. The pegs sticking out of the headstock are called tuning pegs, because the strings get wrapped around them and when you turn them using the tuner/tuning key/machine head (the knob that is underneath the pegs), the pitch of the string changes. Tighter strings have a higher pitch, and looser strings have a lower pitch. The strings are commonly tuned to G, C, E, A, with the A string being the closest one to the floor. Many ‘ukes have what’s known as a re-entrant G string, meaning the G is higher in pitch than the C. Other, usually larger ‘ukes, have a low G string, meaning the G is the lowest tuned string instead of the C.
Separating the headstock from the rest of your ‘uke is the nut. The nut is important because not only does it line the strings up with the neck after they come out of the headstock, but because it will show up on chord diagrams as a thick line at the top of the diagram. Take a look at a diagram for a chord that uses open strings (such as C major), and you’ll notice that there is indeed a thick line at the top of the diagram, with open circles above it. These open circles are above the nut because the diagram is telling you to strum those strings, but not to put a finger on them (known as fretting).
Below the nut, we have the neck. The top part of the neck is called the fretboard. This is the part of the ‘uke you’ll be interacting with the most. The metal bars on the fretboard are called fret bars, and between the bars are the frets themselves. The tips of the fingers on your fretting hand (left hand for righties, right hand for lefties) use the frets to make contact with the strings and squeeze them into the fretboard, allowing you to play notes. What you’re doing with your fingers is creating mini nuts, by which I mean you’re shortening the string to produce different notes. Your fingers will get sore doing this if you’re a new player, so don’t fret (heh)! This is normal and your fingers will toughen up by developing calluses over time.
The last part of the fretboard to address are those markings at various points on the surface of the fretboard. They’re not just for decoration; these are called position markers. They allow you to quickly find your place on the fretboard by placing them only on certain frets (e.g., frets 3, 5, 7, 10, and 12). A good way to start getting more familiar with the fretboard is to memorize the notes at these points. By the time you’ve finished doing that on all the strings, you’re already halfway to memorizing the rest of the fretboard, which is never a bad thing.
The body is likely the most important part of the ‘ukulele, since it is responsible for the sound quality of your instrument. Acoustic ‘ukuleles rely on the width of the body to give the ‘uke its tone and volume. To make the body useful, the vibrations of the strings need to be able to enter it and bounce around. This is called resonation, and it is allowed by the sound hole. After the resonation process, the sound is then projected out of the sound hole towards your listener, giving them the best sound experience. All this happens almost instantaneously. This means your playing is louder to your listener than it is to you, which is something to be aware of.
The strings finish their journey across the ‘ukulele at the bridge. Atop the bridge is the saddle, which acts like the nut in that it lines the strings up with the bridge to be fastened to it one way or another.
Your ‘ukulele may also have another notch or two sticking out of the bottom and top of the body. These are used to fasten a strap to the ‘uke to make it easier to hold.
If you need more information of the ‘ukulele and its workings, please feel free to reach out to one of our instructors. We’re happy to help! Is your ‘ukulele going out of tune? Consult this article on the TakeLessons blog. Would you like to know more about where the ‘ukulele came from, and why it looks so much like a guitar? Here is a brief history! Wondering what to do next? Sign up for some private lessons or group classes here on TakeLessons to take your playing to the next level.