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Thread: The first fret on my uke is the hardest to barre - how normal is this?

  1. #1
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    Default The first fret on my uke is the hardest to barre - how normal is this?

    Hello!

    Let me first provide some necessary background: a while ago I posted about my woes trying to barre the first fret on my uke (http://forum.ukuleleunderground.com/...rre-first-fret). The strings are stiffer there than anywhere else on the fretboard, and I need to apply more force fretting them to get a clean sound. The consensus I received was that my action at the nut was probably too high, which was also my initial suspicion, and logically it makes sense. (My uke is a Kala Solid Acacia Concert - KA-ASAC-C - https://kalabrand.com/products/ka-asac-c)

    However, I have since taken my uke to two fairly reputable stores that do setups. The staff in both stores claim that the action at the nut is not particularly high (and therefore the problem is nonexistent). Furthermore, a few commenters - plus some other places on the Internet - seem to suggest that the first fret is inherently the hardest to barre. Bearing that in mind, I have tried playing some other ukes at the store using chords like Bb and Gb, and their first frets seem no easier or harder to barre than any other fret. Strange...

    Therefore, my question is whether or not it is indeed normal for the first fret to be the hardest to barre (if so, resolving the problem should be a matter of practice) and if not, what plausible explanations there could be besides high action, and the best way to proceed. Help would be appreciated!
    Last edited by Aegislash; 12-28-2017 at 12:36 AM.

  2. #2
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    You said you went to a store, played other ukes and barring the first fret on those was "no" harder than barring other frets on those instruments. Just for clarification you are saying these instruments are easier to barr on the first fret than yours, is that correct. Were you playing the same scale instruments. I find a long scale length easier to barr at the first fret, tenor is easier than soprano. What is the make and size of your uke, this question was never answered in your original post.

    If this is the case then either the way they checked yours was not accurate, ie did they actually measure yours or just press down on it. Whatever strings you have are higher tension or the neck profile does not suite your hand. Logic dictates that if those other ukes barred easier at the first fret than yours then your action is too high. Practice will improve your performance, Bb is one of the most difficult chords for a beginner.
    Last edited by DownUpDave; 12-27-2017 at 11:55 PM.
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  3. #3
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    Quote Originally Posted by DownUpDave View Post
    Just for clarification you are saying these instruments are easier to barr on the first fret than yours, is that correct. Were you playing the same scale instruments.
    Yes. The first frets on those instruments could be barred more easily than the first fret on my uke. I used the same amount of pressure as was needed to cleanly barre the other frets (2nd, 3rd, 4th...) I tested this with concerts as well, same brand but different models.

    Quote Originally Posted by DownUpDave View Post
    What is the make and size of your uke, this question was never answered in your original post.
    It is a Kala solid acacia concert - sorry about that, I've updated the information.

    Quote Originally Posted by DownUpDave View Post
    If this is the case then either the way they checked yours was not accurate, ie did they actually measure yours or just press down on it.
    Both times they just pressed down on the first fret without measuring. However, in one of the stores they offered to (and I insisted that they should) measure the action and do a proper setup if necessary. Awaiting the results of that.

    Thanks for the input All things considered though, how true in general are the claims that the first fret is usually the hardest to barre and that it is normal?
    Last edited by Aegislash; 12-28-2017 at 12:51 AM.

  4. #4
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    The first fret is definitely the hardest to barr. It is pure physics, the string length is shortest here so there is less give or stretch. My first uke came without a set up and I didn't know any better because I was so new to playing a stringed instrument. After about three months of playing a luthier did a proper set up and lowered the action. Playing Bb was instantly so much easier.

    Your Kala acacia concert is a very nice instrument, comes stock with Aquila strings. You might try Martin M600 florocarbon strings, I find they have less tension.
    Last edited by DownUpDave; 12-28-2017 at 01:15 AM.
    Ukuleles.............yes please !!!!

  5. #5
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    The shops you took the instrument to seem to lack any understanding of string geometry, and possible have the misinformed conclusion that 'ukuleles are toys' and 'therefore dont need a setup' or 'cannot be setup' like a guitar.

    I would avoid such places that appear to be either inept or maliciously ignorant.

    As Dave has said above, if barre chords and the first fret are difficult, the sole reason is because the nut slots are TOO HIGH compared to the height of the first fret.

    This is EASILY remedied by lowering the nut slots with a round-edge nut file. It takes some finesse and patience and is a slow iterative process to get it right without going too far.

    Going too far and cutting the nut slots too low will result in fret buzz starting at the first fret. This can be fixed by either filling the nut slots with superglue and baking soda, OR by just replacing the nut with a new one, and starting over.

    Lots of places online will sell you plastic ukulele nuts in a 5-pack for like $10 USD. If you want a Tusq or Nubone nut they can be had for about $10 ea. <<< These will come with starter nut slots you can file down to spec. You can also get micarta blanks without any slots, which will allow you to customize your string spacing, from Roy T. Cone's ukuleleword.com site.

    StewMac also has nut and saddle blanks for ukulele, as well as the 'proper' files ($125 for a full set).

    Otherwise you can use the 'welding torch tip cleaners' from Amazon or CB Gitty which sell for ~$5-7 and has a dozen or so gauged and round files. These are not good for a bone nut as they are not abrasive enough to cut bone effectively (personal experience) and for that you can get the depth with a cut-in-half hacksaw blade, and then round-out the bottom of the slot with the tip cleaners. However the tip cleaner work just fine on the softer materials like plastice, Nubone/Tusq and micarta.

    There are LOTS of YouTube videos offering details and/or a tutorial of doing these procedures and it is not hard to learn to do it yourself with maybe as little as $20 in tools, otherwise you are going to pay a 'guitar tech' starting at around $50 to do it for you, with often questionable results unless they are experienced with fine-tuning ukuleles.

    I prefer the DIY methods, which is like knowing how to change the oil, or change a tire on your car, i.e., standard maintenance.
    Last edited by Booli; 12-28-2017 at 01:28 AM.
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  6. #6
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    Quote Originally Posted by Booli View Post
    The shops you took the instrument to seem to lack any understanding of string geometry, and possible have the misinformed conclusion that 'ukuleles are toys' and 'therefore dont need a setup' or 'cannot be setup' like a guitar.

    I would avoid such places that appear to be either inept or maliciously ignorant.

    As Dave has said above, if barre chords and the first fret are difficult, the sole reason is because the nut slots are TOO HIGH compared to the height of the first fret.

    This is EASILY remedied by lowering the nut slots with a round-edge nut file. It takes some finesse and patience and is a slow iterative process to get it right without going too far.

    Going too far and cutting the nut slots too low will result in fret buzz starting at the first fret. This can be fixed by either filling the nut slots with superglue and baking soda, OR by just replacing the nut with a new one, and starting over.

    Lots of places online will sell you plastic ukulele nuts in a 5-pack for like $10 USD. If you want a Tusq or Nubone nut they can be had for about $10 ea. <<< These will come with starter nut slots you can file down to spec. You can also get micarta blanks without any slots, which will allow you to customize your string spacing, from Roy T. Cone's ukuleleword.com site.

    StewMac also has nut and saddle blanks for ukulele, as well as the 'proper' files ($125 for a full set).

    Otherwise you can use the 'welding torch tip cleaners' from Amazon or CB Gitty which sell for ~$5-7 and has a dozen or so gauged and round files. These are not good for a bone nut as they are not abrasive enough to cut bone effectively (personal experience) and for that you can get the depth with a cut-in-half hacksaw blade, and then round-out the bottom of the slot with the tip cleaners. However the tip cleaner work just fine on the softer materials like plastice, Nubone/Tusq and micarta.

    There are LOTS of YouTube videos offering details and/or a tutorial of doing these procedures and it is not hard to learn to do it yourself with maybe as little as $20 in tools, otherwise you are going to pay a 'guitar tech' starting at around $50 to do it for you, with often questionable results unless they are experienced with fine-tuning ukuleles.

    I prefer the DIY methods, which is like knowing how to change the oil, or change a tire on your car, i.e., standard maintenance.
    Wow. Thank you very much for the very comprehensive overview, if all else fails and the problem persists I will quite likely experiment with DIY nut filing; good that I know friends who can help me along with that... and interestingly, the shops in question don't have any malice towards ukuleles at all, and in fact regularly sell them and set them up. But I guess it is pretty concerning that in a shop that is reasonably competent from a technical standpoint, the front desk staff told me no problem purely because "the action looks good by eye" and "I can play the first fret just fine". Seems a little hasty and noncommittal to me... :/

  7. #7
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    Quote Originally Posted by Aegislash View Post
    Wow. Thank you very much for the very comprehensive overview, if all else fails and the problem persists I will quite likely experiment with DIY nut filing; good that I know friends who can help me along with that... and interestingly, the shops in question don't have any malice towards ukuleles at all, and in fact regularly sell them and set them up. But I guess it is pretty concerning that in a shop that is reasonably competent from a technical standpoint, the front desk staff told me no problem purely because "the action looks good by eye" and "I can play the first fret just fine". Seems a little hasty and noncommittal to me... :/
    I'm glad to be able to help.

    if they are in fact competent, maybe the folks that analyzed your uke are either lazy or just dont want the business?

    Common wisdom here on UU is to only ever buy a uke from a vendor that does setups prior to delivery to the customer, and most of these vendors also will reject ukes that have obvious issues, as a sort of last-stop quality control, which is something completely absent from Amazon, or Guitar Center or other big-box stores that mostly just drop-ship items from a faraway warehouse.

    If you were buying from a reputable vendor that does setups, methinks that the action at the first fret would have been either remedied before it was even shipped to you, or rejected and sent back to the distributor if it was unfixable, as per standard practice from places like Hawaii Music Supply, Mim's, Uke Republic, Elderly, Mainland Ukuleles et al.

    Kala, Ohana, Gretsch, Cordoba, etc. in fact do NOT QC their ukes in this way^ once they leave the manufacturing plant and go to the distributors, and usually need a setup done specific to the player/buyer.

    Some folks that are banging away with cowboy chords in first position, and never doing any fingerstyle will want ~3mm action at the 12th to avoid the strings slapping against the frets, whereas folks that play up the neck and/or fingerstyle/campanella will want a lower action ~2.5mm. In either case this is also mitigated by the height of the nut slots in order to achieve both proper intonation and proper string geometry.

    It's really up to you how you like the uke to be set up. If it's hard to play now, I'd see about getting it fixed so it will be more comfortable.

    Usually all can be adjusted unless the fretboard is spaced wrong or the bridge is not in the correct location on the soundboard. With these issues, it's basically a wall-hanger and will not play in tune unless major surgery is done on it, and for the time & money involved, you can spend it on a uke that comes 'playable out of the box'.

    Unless the uke in question is a family heirloom or something, it's usually not worth it to pay to have a setup done on one of the "$25 Amazon Specials" since the setup work is going to cost more than the uke itself, and you can get a Makala WITH SETUP from Mim or Uke Republic that INCLUDES the setup for ~$50 + shipping.

    Yes, not in the same level as your KA-ASAC-C, but they do setups on all ukes sold, no matter the price range.
    Last edited by Booli; 12-28-2017 at 02:15 AM.
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  8. #8
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    I'm certain I've read this here before. Or, am I barking up the wrong tree?

    Does not a zero fret solve this issue? Can one not be installed after the uke has been delivered?
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  9. #9
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    In my experience, the first fret is always the hardest to barre. It is only a problem if it is significantly harder than other instruments. In your case, I have no idea if it's a problem, but it sounds like you are doing all the right things.

  10. #10
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    Sure the first fret can get easier to play with a good setup, but that doesn't mean it's going to be as easy as some other frets necessarily.
    You have a wire (string in this case) stretched across two points. It's only natural that it's going to flex more in the center and be tighter on each end (nut and bridge in our case).

    Quote Originally Posted by Nickie View Post
    I'm certain I've read this here before. Or, am I barking up the wrong tree?

    Does not a zero fret solve this issue? Can one not be installed after the uke has been delivered?
    The nut slots themselves could be set to the same height as a zero fret would be, so I don't see any advantage there.
    If you installed one after the fact, it'd throw the intonation off, since it'd basically move the nut. The zero fret would be the new nut and it'd be in the wrong place.

    There is one company that makes a nut that has a fret built into it, so things line up correctly. That is for guitar though and a few other instruments. I haven't seen a uke one.
    http://www.stewmac.com/Materials_and...SAAEgKSAvD_BwE

    They say it's more for tone and tuning though. You can take a #2 pencil and rub it through the nut slots on your uke and coat them and improve tuning simply.
    Last edited by jer; 01-09-2018 at 06:14 PM.
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