HUMIDITY & TEMPERATURE
The rule here is simple: treat your instrument the way you would treat a small child or a pet. Don't leave them in a hot car, even briefly. Don't leave them in a freezing car either. Rather than leave your instrument in the car -- even for a few minutes -- don't be shy about taking it into the restaurant with you. Much better that you get a couple of funny looks than to incur $$$ repair bills. Anywhere that YOU are comfortable, your ukulele will be comfortable too, and safe.
The glue that holds your uke together will soften and your uke will literally will come apart at about 135-140 degrees, which can happen quickly in a hot car. If the ukulele freezes, the finish may crack, but the wood will dry out too and will probably crack. If your uke gets really cold, bring it inside but don't open the case for several hours, or preferably even overnight. Allow it to come slowly to room temperature before opening the case. If you have seen an older instrument with a bunch of fine cracks or crackle in the lacquer, this is a cold-soaked instrument that has been rapidly re-warmed when the case is opened indoors, and is called "cold-checking". The flexible wood expands faster than the brittle lacquer, and the finish will crack. It is not a structural problem, but it is unsightly, and happens in literally a few seconds!
Low humidity probably causes more damage to wooden instruments than anything else. The instrument was likely built at 60% relative humidity (or more) in the factory. It is safe down to about 40% RH indoors. Drier than 40% and the wood shrinks noticeably. Splits will occur in the top or back, especially at the center seams. The top or back usually will sink noticeably, and can even pull away from the sides. If you feel sharp fret ends sticking out from the fingerboard, the wood of the neck has shrunk due to dryness. The metal frets don't shrink. The sharp fret ends can be filed smooth again, but it is far better all around to keep the ukulele at the correct humidity.
There are several commercially available humidifiers that you can put in the case with the ukulele. Re-wet the sponge or humidifier every week or two. Dry conditions occur indoors during both the winter heating season and the summer air-conditioning season. Many homes usually stay at 40-45% RH indoors (this has little to do with the humidity weather reported outdoors) but during peak heating or air conditioning times the indoor humidity can easily drop to 25% RH or less. When do you have a problem? The top of the ukulele should be basically flat. If you look across the top of your uke at its widest point and see the bridge dipping or see noticeable distortions in the top, your poor ukulele is crying out for water and is probably on the verge of cracking.
Wet a sponge and wring out the excess water so that it cannot drip. Then put both the sponge and the uke in its case or inside a large trash bag for a couple of days. Make sure that the sponge does not touch the instrument at any point, to avoid water damage. Check again every day and re-wet the sponge as needed. Keep going until the distortions in the top disappear, which should occur in a week or two as the wood re-absorbs moisture. Hard cases generally do a much better job of containing moisture. Padded gig bags with zippers are quite porous, and the moisture just wicks away. You will have to re-wet the case humidifier about twice as often if your instrument lives in a gig bag. or keep your gig bag inside a plastic trash bag when not in use.
If a crack occurs, it should be repaired promptly by a qualified technician. Resist the impulse to rub your finger across the crack repeatedly. This deposits dirt and skin oils into the crack, making it much harder to get a good glue repair.
There are four basic sizes of ukulele:
soprano scale length ~13½" "standard ukulele"
concert scale length ~15"
tenor scale length ~17"
baritone scale length ~20" (G tuning)
Scale length is the distance between the white parts -- the saddle (where the strings tie on to the bridge) and the nut (the white part near the peg head). The string vibrates between these two support points. There are also other types of hybrid ukulele -- six string, eight string, bass uke, guitar-uke, banjo-uke, and others. Never use steel strings on a ukulele unless your instrument was specifically designed and built for steel strings. Ukulele are built for nylon strings. The considerably higher tension of steel strings will pull the instrument apart overnight!
We get asked about changing strings from time to time. Ukulele strings usually last a long time, often a year or more, even with daily play. Change your strings when:
* a string breaks
* they won't stay in tune any longer
* there is visible fret wear or gouges on the underside of the string
* you want to try a different type or brand of string
Be aware that nylon has a lot of stretch to it (technically called plastic deformation by us engineers). Once a string has been brought up to pitch, it won't stay there very long until this initial elongation is taken out. At first, by the time you've tuned string #1, string #4 will be way low again before you get back to it.
Tug the strings out from the fret board about 1/2" and stretch them gently, up and down and side to side. They won't break, and you won't hurt the instrument. Re-tune up to pitch. Repeat. Re-tune again. And now once more. When you put the uke away for the evening with fresh strings, turn each tuning button at least 1/2 turn sharp. By the next morning it will only be one whole note flat again. After a few days of daily stretching and keeping it tuned to pitch, most of the stretch will be gone, and the tuning will become stable. If you don't keep new strings tuned up to pitch, they will never stabilize there. Yet another reason to pick it up daily......
When referring to strings and frets, we need common terminology. The convention for BUG is:
- the first string is the one closest to the ground (just like the stories in a building)
- the fourth string is the one closest to the ceiling
- "hopping over" means moving to the next adjacent string, while staying on the same fret
- "slide up" means the next fret up in pitch, away from the peg head
- "slide down" means the next fret down in pitch, toward the peg head
Moving up and down confuses many people at first. When holding the ukulele the peg head is usually somewhat uphill, so they instinctively think that "moving up" means moving uphill toward the tuning pegs. But musically we need to think about pitch, so moving up means going to the next higher note in the scale. Hopping over is another point of confusion. Think "changing lanes". Often a finger position or an entire chord shape remains aligned on the same fret, but moves horizontally to adjoining strings.
Holding the ukulele
You should hold your ukulele tucked under the arm, pressed against the body, with your forearm just below the centerline. The right arm
holds pressure against the body, since the left hand must be free to move around the fret board.
The neck rests lightly on your fretting hand at the base of the index finger knuckle. -- or --
while sitting, with bottom of the ukulele resting on your right thigh -- or --
use a neck strap (most players don't use a strap unless they play standing a lot) but it is never a bad idea to use a strap
Soprano (also known as standard size) gives the high "plinky" sound that some consider to be the traditional or true ukulele sound. Concert sized instruments are a little louder and fuller of tone, plus there is some extra room between the frets for larger fingers. Players with large hands often like the tenor size, which typically gives more room between the frets, and a bit more low-end tone (especially when string with low G string). Modern players who play melodic solos or "lead"often play a tenor model, but not always.
Baritone ukes are essentially a three-quarter size guitar (guitar has a scale length of about 25"). Baritone uke is a great way to start kids out if they intend to move into standard six-string guitar later. Since the tuning is the same as guitar, all of the chord shapes and note positions they learn will transfer directly over when they move up to six string guitar. [Plus for under $100 you can get a decent baritone uke, but most sub-$150 guitars are unplayable junk]. Once they move from baritone to guitar, they will just have to learn what to do with those two new bass strings that they never had before.
Baritone ukulele or "G" tuning: D -- G -- B -- E highest four strings on a guitar
string: 4th 3rd 2nd 1st
Tenor ukes can also be tuned to a baritone tuning using a slightly different set of strings. The shorter strings of the concert and soprano ukes do not lend themselves to baritone tuning, however.
Soprano ukulele or "C" tuning:
G -- C -- E -- A
4th 3rd 2nd 1st (the first string is closest to the floor)
remember: "Guys Can Eat Anything"
Although it is often called the soprano tuning, C tuning is also used for concert and tenor models - everything except baritones
Older sheet music or instruction books will sometimes show the standard ukulele tuning as one note higher than the modern standard
"C" tuning (G - C - E - A) as listed above. This is called "D" tuning, and is pretty much a soprano tuning from the old days. European and Canadian players and instruction books will often use D tuning. The "C" tuning is standard for modern US and Hawaiian ukulele music and instructional materials.
Most ukes and typical strings can be tuned safely to either C or D pitch. There is no such thing as a set of "D tuned" ukulele strings, as opposed to a set of "C tuned" uke strings. Both strings are identical.
LOCAL SOURCES and RECOMMENDED UKULELE
A ukulele of any size (soprano, concert, tenor or baritone) can be used. Acceptable beginner-quality ukes are available locally for ~$40 - $80 depending on the model. The "Makala" brand is recommended for entry level ukes and are readily available at local music stores like Dorsey Music (Boise and Nampa), Dunkley Music in Meridian, and Welch's Music in Meridian. The entry level "Kala" and "Lanikai" ukes are also decent quality and reasonably priced. We particularly recommend the thin-bodied Kala Travel Uke in various sizes (soprano, concert, tenor, and now baritone too). They all sound good - especially given the thin body depth - they play well, and have decent set-ups. Thinline's are $185 - $250 (more with electronics and cutaways) depending on which size you choose, but they are good instruments that you won't soon outgrow as a player.
Soprano, concert and tenor sized ukulele are all C-tuned instruments (GCEA). Baritone is a G-tuned instrument (DGBE).
If you plan to use a baritone ukulele with a group, also consider also getting a capo, which is available at any music store. Banjo or mandolin capos work just fine for ukulele. Guitar capos will work too but are usually way too big and heavy, plus they are curved (most ukulele fret boards are flat). A capo is a temporary clamp that can be put across any fret. The baritone uke is tuned lower than the other ukulele, like the four highest-pitched strings on the guitar. Guitar players often start with a baritone ukulele to convert over to "our side".
A capo at the fifth fret of your baritone ukulele lets you use the same chord fingerings and get the same pitches as the other types of ukes - you'll essentially be playing a soprano. Without a capo you will have to learn a whole different set of chord shapes for your baritone (the "G" chord on a baritone is a different shape than the "G" chord on the other uke sizes) so you cannot watch your neighbor's left hand for guidance. But remember, a G chord is a G chord on any instrument, regardless of what shape you hold to make the chord.
See the "Instruction" page to download a short guide to buying your first ukulele, a first lesson, and basic chord charts. Chord charts are posted for regular ukes (soprano, concert, tenor) and separately for baritone ukes. There are also left-handed chord charts posted.