The Setup of the Ukulele

The following videos by StephanHW are a very nice tutorial for setting up and optimizing a cheap ukulele:

The purpose of the setup

The setup of the ukulele should optimize playability and intonation. The ideal setup is a little bit different for every player — a vigorous playing style requires high action, while players with a soft playing style will probably prefer the comfort and better playability of a low action. The optimum setup for intonation may vary as well: Many instrument builders optimize the setup of their instruments for specific string types.

Why is the setup of a new ukulele so bad most of the time?

Most ukuleles are cheaply manufactured in mass production. Only hand-crafted, premium-quality (and thus very expensive) instruments usually also have a very good setup from the beginning. That’s because setting up an ukulele is always manual work, and costs working time — making it comparably expensive. No manufacturer of 30$-ukuleles can afford to pay the working time for a good setup. For more expensive instruments a good setup is more likely to be expected, however you can’t take this for granted with industrially manufactured instruments.

Very diligent ukulele traders check the setup of the instruments they sell, and even improve it if necessary — adequate to the price of the instrument. Unfortunately, you can’t take this for granted. Some sellers are just “box movers” — they just pass their imports from far east unchecked to their customers, who possibly won’t even notice the bad setup and just blame their “lack of talent” for the problems with playing their new instrument. Unfortunately, this happens more often than you’d expect…

Beginners need an instrument with good setup!

I always emphasize that especially beginners need an instrument with good setup. More experienced players will have less trouble compensating a bad setup. But a beginner should have an instrument which supports his learning process, intonates well, and benefits a relaxed posture.

Therefore, in my opinion, the most important aspect for a beginner’s instrument should be good playability and a proper setup. I also recommend a standard body shape. Geared tuners are a reasonable choice. On the other hand, the type of wood is just a question of personal taste. It also doesn’t matter if it’s solid or laminated. Here you can find some advice for choosing a beginner’s ukulele.

Is a good setup possible for every ukulele?

No. Some instruments are just built too imprecisely. If the neck is warped or the workmanship of the fretboard is lacking, the positions of the frets are wrong, or the bridge is ill-positioned, it won’t be possible to setup the instrument for good playability or intonation. Unfortunately, this can happen even with more expensive instruments — all industrially produced ukuleles exhibit some production spread. Some traders are diligent enough to return such bad examples by themselves — however you can’t take this for granted, some just leave this to their customers.

What is subject to the setup?

Setting up an ukulele is done by adjusting the nut and the saddle.

  • The factory setup of the nut slots is usually too high. Most manufacturers want to better be safe than sorry, since too deep nut slots lead to annoying buzzing (which everybody will notice and identify as faulty), while too shallow nut slots just lead to some degradation of playability and intonation (which most players will more likely blame on their own abilities). Instrument builders use specialized nut slotting files for this job, however, a folded piece of sand paper will “cut it” as well. To check the setup of the nut slots, compare barring in the 1st fret and the 5th fret. It shouldn’t be harder at the 1st fret than at the 5th fret. Setting up the nut slots is not as easy as one could think, you have to watch out for several aspects:
    • A low action at the nut is great for playability and intonation, however, too low action will lead to annoying buzzing, since the strings will hit the frets while playing normally. You could argue that vigorous players need a higher action. However, this should rather be taken account of when setting up the saddle — not the nut! Only for playing with a bottle neck or a steel bar, a high action at the nut is preferable.
    • The slots shouldn’t be too narrow, otherwise the strings may stick in the slots when tuning, making it much harder to tune accurately.
    • The slots shouldn’t be too wide, otherwise the strings may buzz in the slots when playing. The optimum slot width depends on the string type.
    • The slots should be slanted towards the head plate. The strings should be supported by the nut only at the edge on the fretboard side, otherwise they may buzz in their slot when playing.
  • The height of the saddle is used for setting up the general string action of the instrument. Depending on your playing style, a very diverse setup may be preferred. However, more than 3mm at the 12th fret are seldom reasonable. The optimum setup depends on the instrument and on the strings here as well. If the fretboard is unfavourably domed, or the neck is warped, a low action cannot be achieved. Some strings are prone to a higher oscillation amplitude, thus requiring a higher action. On the other hand, if the fretboard is very slightly arched concavely, an amazingly low action can be achieved. However, this very slight arching is not easy to achieve correctly, so you’ll only find it on premium-quality, expensive instruments. For cheaper instruments, one should be happy if the fretboard is perfectly flat.
  • High-quality ukuleles will often have a compensated saddle. This helps optimizing the intonation of every single string, so fretted notes intonate more accurately. To achieve this, the top edge of the saddle is modelled by deliberately filing it into shape. For thick strings, the edge should be offset slightly away from the fretboard. That’s because the lower flexibility of thicker strings leads to a lower effective oscillating string length, which is compensated hereby.