One of the immediate challenges when you learn to play the ukulele is tuning it. It can be a difficult thing to find the right note at the right pitch. You might second guess yourself saying, “was the pitch really this high? No, I think it should be lower. Wait, now that seems too low. AAAAHHHHHHHH!!!!!”.
Or maybe that’s just my experience...
It’s all part of the process and it does get easier with time. I promise. Your ears will recognize the pitches and tuning will go by much quicker.
But no matter your skill level, a ukulele that won’t stay in tune can be frustrating to play. This tends to happen more for beginners, and there are a few reasons why.
Let’s take a look at the reasons your ukulele isn’t staying in tune. Starting with understanding where it could go wrong.
The Anatomy Of A Ukulele
There are very few parts, and even fewer moving parts, on a ukulele. So we can narrow the reasons down to just a few options. Let’s take a closer look at a ukulele to see what might impact your tuning:
The strings touch only 4 parts of the uke: the bridge, saddle, nut, and tuning machines.
The bridge is where the strings fasten to the top of the ukulele. Strings will either be tied on in a loop, or have ball ends that catch on the slots (pictured below). This could be a place where tension could be lost due to the way the strings are tied. But there’s typically enough pressure on the knot that if you can tune it up to pitch, it’s not moving from here.
The saddle is the white part that sits on the bridge. Its purpose is to elevate the strings far enough off of the second half of the fretboard so that there isn’t any buzz or dead notes. Most of the time it’s glued down. Even if it’s not glued down, there’s enough pressure on it that it won’t move. Likely not the culprit.
The nut is at the very end of the neck. It holds the strings in place so they don’t shift from side to side. It also ensures perfect string spacing and elevates the strings off the first half of the fretboard. If you look closely at the image below, you’ll notice some sharper angles from the nut to the tuning machines. Make a mental note of that.
The tuning machines are responsible for winding the strings up to their pitch. They are one half of what holds the strings at pitch. The other being the bridge. However, while the bridge is a static part (it doesn’t move), the tuners are mechanical. They bring the tension up, and release the tension as well. This is one of the two potential culprits.
If I were a detective, looking at the ukulele as my prime suspect, I might be missing the real culprit hiding right under my nose. The strings themselves. *GASP!*
People are often quick to point to the uke as not being able to hold a tune. This is especially true if you bought what you consider a ‘cheap’ ukulele. However, even a truly cheap ukulele should be able to hold its tuning.
Reasons Why Your Ukulele Won’t Hold Its Tuning
To recap, we have a few physical parts of the ukulele and the strings as the only real reasons a ukulele wouldn’t stay in tune. So let’s tackle each one of these reasons.
Your strings are really new....or really old!
This is the most common reason for your ukulele not holding its tuning. And I’m going to place my money on this being the issue.
New strings are one of the best joys in life. They have a vibrancy that reverberates through the entire ukulele (and our hearts). New strings require a little attention though.
Strings naturally stretch. If you just changed the strings on your ukulele, brought them up to pitch, and went to check on your coffee you just brewed, your uke is more than likely out of tune by the time you come back. That’s because the strings are settling into the tension. Basically, getting stretched out to their final point. Or I should say, final point before their life span is up. More on that in a bit.
There are various ways to stretch your stings. Some people just play for a while. Tune every few minutes, and play some more. This is good in theory, but it takes a long time for the strings to fully stretch. Other people might strum aggressively for several minutes to help move the stretching along.
I don’t like that either. What I’ve done with every stringed instrument I've ever owned is manually stretch the strings. Steel strings, nylon strings, big instruments and small. Here’s what that looks like:
1. Tune the entire ukulele up to pitch
2. Place your index finger of your fretting hand on the first or second fret of the first string
3. Grab the same string just over the sound hole with your other hand
4. Gently pull up on the string away from the ukulele (directly above the sound hole).
5. The string should be lower in pitch after that. Tune it back up and repeat the process until the string doesn’t change pitch after the gentle stretching.
6. Repeat with the rest of the strings
If you’re not being too aggressive with the pulling, there is no harm to your ukulele or the strings. Some people don’t fret the strings when they stretch them. My only issue with that is if your nut slot has some rough spots, the string can get damaged.
Once you have this down it will take all of 5 minutes to get your strings fully stretched.
Did you know you need to change the strings on your ukulele in somewhat regular intervals? It’s true. Just like tuning your ukulele when you’re first starting out can be a challenge, so can changing the strings. I’ll be honest, changing strings is one of my least favorite things to do. But it has to happen.
Our fingers and hands have natural oils, acids, dirt, and of course sweat that gets on the strings (and uke!) every time we play. This causes the strings to get dirty. The more dirt that piles up on the strings, the more dull they sound. And the weaker they get over time from the minor corrosion.
It’s a slow progression. You might not notice the strings sounding any different from week to week (yet, you will the more you play). But they’re collecting dirt, oil, acid, sweat.
The strings also get stretched out. Unlike the stretching I talked about for new strings, this is like that shirt you’ve been wearing for 3 years that you refuse to throw away because it’s near and dear to you. It’s been stretched past the point of what the material can handle from years of wearing, washing, wearing, washing. At some point, the seams just break.
Your strings are the same, sans the washing analogy. Late in the strings’ lifespan they stop holding a tune. If you wait too long they’ll eventually break.
Ukulele strings are commonly made of specific nylon polymers. This can vary by manufacturer, which is why you’ll get different tones from brand to brand. These nylon strings are held at a constant tension of anywhere between ~20lbs/9kg (Concert ukulele) up to ~50lbs/22kg (Baritone ukulele).
The constant tension is ideal, and the ukuleles are built for it. But over time the strings will get weaker. And when they do, they won’t be able to hold the tension. And so they slip out of tune.
Strings having varying lifespans based on a few different things. I’ll go deeper into this subject in another article. But if your tuning was fine for a few weeks and isn’t anymore, then it’s time to change your strings.
Tuning Machine Issues / Improperly Wound Strings
Tuning machines on less expensive ukuleles can be a bit of a pain. But even more expensive ukuleles can have tuning machine issues. They’re a mechanical part that can wear out over time.
There are two types of tuning machines on ukuleles: Friction pegs and geared tuners. Both can be used on inexpensive and expensive ukuleles. Though quality will vary.
Friction pegs keep their tune by friction that runs through the headstock from back to front. This is similar to orchestral stringed instruments like violins, but uses a screw to hold the tension.
If the friction peg loosens it will cause the string to unwind. Even a slight unwinding can knock the string noticeably out of tune. Most of the time this can be fixed by tightening the screw on the bottom of the tuner. Here’s what friction pegs look like:
Geared tuners use...umm...gears to wind the strings. The better quality tuning machines will have a higher gear ratio. That lets you fine tune the strings’ tuning more accurately. They’ll also hold their tune much better. They’ll either be covered like the first image, or exposed like the second:
The gears are screwed into the base plate, and can loosen over time. Less expensive tuners use less expensive materials, which are typically lesser in quality and therefore have a shorter lifespan. The converse is true for more expensive tuners.
Over time the gears can wear out and slip. The screws holding them in place can also start to wear out, causing the gear to move. All of this would cause tuning issues. It’s not uncommon to have to change tuners even on $1000 ukuleles. Granted this won’t happen for 10, 20, even 30 years. But nonetheless.
If the tuners are genuinely the issue, you can get a decent replacement set for around $30 USD.
Rough Edges On The Nut
The last potential issue I want to talk about is also the most rare. Especially on ukuleles with unwound strings. But it’s worth talking about anyway.
Nuts are typically made from either a durable plastic or a (sustainable) bone. Most ukuleles you’ll find under $1000 will have a plastic nut though. When the ukulele is being built, the nuts are blank pieces. The nut slots are filed using steel or diamond files. They're kind of a cross between a serrated knife and a saw.
They file away the nut material, and also smooth out the slot at the same time. Ideally the slot is smooth with no snags or rough spots. But sometimes the slot or the edges of where the slot was filed can have snags that makes the strings catch.
If you look at the headstock of your ukulele, you’ll notice that the strings are pulled at somewhat sharp angles to the tuners. These sharp edges can cause the strings to catch. When they do, they can un-catch from strumming and throw the string out of tune. Every time you tune your uke the string moves in the slot. This can catch and release at random times. The issue doesn’t really go away on its own.
(If you think the nut is the issue, take it to a qualified luthier or ukulele technician. Most guitar luthiers and technicians can work on ukuleles too.)
But sometimes it’s just friction. There are lubrications made specifically for nuts to help the strings glide in the slots. But you can just as easily take your favorite #2 pencil and “write” in the nut slot. The “lead” in pencils these days are made from graphite, which is a very slick material. When you write in the slot, you’re leaving small amounts of graphite behind.
This in turn gives the string something slick to glide on.
Changes in environment
One last thing to consider is your environment. Ukuleles are made from wood, and wood expands and constricts based on numerous conditions. Mainly temperature and humidity.
If you brought your ukulele from your house to another environment (even another indoors environment), the wood most likely has shifted in some way. This is especially the case going from inside to outside, and when there’s a significant change in temperature or humidity.
The best thing to do is to let your uke acclimate to the environment. This can take half an hour to an hour depending. If you’re playing through the adaptation expect to tune often. If you take your ukulele out of its case and let it sit, you should only have to tune it once.
And if you’re even in doubt, stop by your local music shop or drop us a line and we’d be happy to help you out.
Did you find this article helpful? If you did, share it with a friend who’s having tuning issues. Be sure to join our UkuleleMate Club online community to share stories, struggles, and successes with other ukulele players.