Making that first string change can deliver some surprising improvements to your ukulele
By Nicolas Grizzle
I’m a hobbyist ukulele player. I don’t gig, but I do play for and with friends on occasion. I have one uke, which has never been restrung or adjusted in my three years of playing it. I’ve gotten better at playing over the years, to the point now where it felt like getting my instrument adjusted would make a noticeable difference. So I finally took it into my trusted music shop for a tune-up and restring. I expected a difference in sound, but what I didn’t expect it just how much it ended up affecting my playing.
First off, it’s important to take your instrument to a place you trust. If you’re asking someone to make modifications, often these are semi-permanent adjustments that may be more costly to re-fix than buying a new instrument (as was the case with my soprano Kala KA-S). I brought my baby to Loud And Clear in Cotati, California, where Matt took great care of my ukulele and patiently answered all my questions.
I asked about getting it “set up,” something I knew was done to guitars but wasn’t sure about for ukuleles. Turns out this is better left for more advanced players, or at least players with more refined instruments. To do a full setup would cost more than my instrument, and I likely wouldn’t benefit much from it due to my limited skill set. So we settled on a restring and minor adjustments, which he offered to include at no extra charge.
The restring came out to $35, including the cost of the new Aquila soprano strings. When I picked up my uke the next day, I immediately noticed it feel a little softer on the strum and especially the plucking. The strings sounded a bit rounder than the old ones. Matt suggested changing strings once every year or so. Now that I know what it feels like to have new strings, I’ll know when it’s time to change them.
Matt also cleaned and polished the body, cleaned the frets with “000” (triple aught) steel wool, and treated the neck with fingerboard oil. This brought out the figuring of the wood in the body and made me realize how dingy the fretboard had gotten. It made my simple instrument look classier. Not every shop would take this extra effort at no extra charge, but it might be worth it for you even if it costs a little extra.
I asked if there was anything that could be done to enhance playability, specifically to reduce the buzz and lower the action. Matt performed a minor nut adjustment by slightly sanding down the slots, no more than 1mm on each. He also shaved the saddle on the bridge down from about 8mm to 6.5mm, which brought the strings closer to the fretboard. I strummed a few chords in the shop and immediately noticed how much easier it was to play. There was definitely less buzz as well.
After about a week of playing I noticed quite a difference. I realize how much harder I used to have to press on the strings. It used to be quite frustrating when, no matter how slowly I played or how much I practiced the hand positions, certain chords would just not sound right. Either some of the notes weren’t fully present because they weren’t hitting the frets hard enough, or they would buzz, or they would sound detuned because I was bending the notes by pressing too hard. Now everything sounds much more even, and bar chords in particular are much easier to play.
It’s a marked improvement, but it’s not perfect. The open A string stands out more than it did before in my playing, and some of the lower notes fall back more than they used to. But I feel like that’s largely due to habits picked up from playing my uke pre-tune-up. Also, I find myself having to tune after each song. But that’s to be expected when any instrument is restrung as the strings take some time to settle in. I expect it won’t be an issue for much longer.
I’m still re-training myself how to play with a lighter touch, but already I am sight reading songs with less trouble. Those with jazzier, more hand-stretching chords sound better in my hands, and the songs I’ve been working on for some time immediately feel smoother.
For a first restring, I’m glad I brought it to a trusted professional. Next time maybe I’ll try my hand at restringing it myself—unless my baby needs a little pampering, in which case I’ll take her back to get the full spa treatment.