View Full Version : Plunk! Some frets lack sustain (Martin 0XK & Kiwaya KS-5 laminates)

10-05-2015, 06:24 AM
I bought two new soprano ukuleles. Both had dead or dampened-sounding notes on mid-to-upper frets. Sadly I returned them both. But I still want a laminate! What to do?

The first one to arrive was the Martin 0XK, from Elderly. It's a wonderful instrument, with a kind of heavy neck, but excellent construction and sound quality. The intonation is spot-on; the tone is rich and interesting, though rather covered/muted/vintage sounding, it can be played with good volume. They strung it with Martin strings.

I was really happy with it until I noticed that certain frets were not ringing out with sustain, but dying out after a very short "plunk". For example, the 8th fret on the C string. The frets just above and below those ones usually had plenty of sustain. I looked to see if the string was unable to vibrate properly due to contacting the next fret, but it didn't seem to be the case. The Martin has high enough frets and they don't set the action super low.

I can't remember all the frets that were dampened-sounding, but it was only a few, maybe 4 or 5. Most of them were at the 8th or above. One might have been at the 6th. I switched it to Worth Brown strings and this sounded slightly better but didn't correct the dead notes. A few of them were particularly damp-sounding in stark contrast to the nearby frets which sounded wonderful.

Sadly I returned the Martin and awaited the Kiwaya. When it arrived, I was excited again by the attention to detail in the construction. I bought it from HMS and requested custom geared tuners, and had asked them to please pay attention to intonation during the setup process. I told them I didn't want the action particularly low, that my main concern was tonal quality and correct intonation.

I was disappointed very soon after I started playing it, unfortunately. To my eye, the frets were not fully crowned in a rounded way but seemed fairly flat and very low. It had more dead notes than the Martin, by far. I spoke to Joel at HMS on the phone, and he confirmed that he filed down the frets "a little".

Some of the dead notes (with little or no sustain) were at lower frets, like 3rd or 4th. Of course at higher frets too. There were around 10+ "plunk"-sounding notes that didn't ring out. Joel had strung it with Fremont Black strings and he said those should be the best choice. I switched to Worth Browns and it didn't correct. So I sent it back.

With the Kiwaya, due to the low action, I'm guessing it could have been caused by the strings not having enough room to vibrate. But I've been doing some reading on here about this issue. It seems that this issue could also often be caused by "dead spots" in the resonance of the body or neck.

I read about the "glitter test" and putting a nickel, gum or other devices on the uke to assist in diagnosing or resolving this. Could it be that the custom tuners I requested on the Kiwaya, changed the vibrational quality of its neck?

I want an all-laminate because I travel a lot through different climates and outdoors. I thought the Kiwaya was the holy grail and had high hopes. Maybe if I hadn't gotten the custom tuners, or if he hadn't lowered the frets, it would have played perfectly. Any thoughts?

It seems like when someone is doing setup, they may not have time to pluck every fret individually on every string, to find these dead notes. And if they did find one, and it was related to the body/neck resonance, they couldn't do anything about it anyway, right?

Maybe if I could sit down with 100 of these Martin 0XKs and try each one, I would find some with dead notes in different areas, and eventually find one with less or no dead notes. Or on the other hand, maybe they all have dead notes in the same or similar areas.

If I buy an even higher-end uke, say a solid body (not laminate), or a boutique custom laminate solid-top like Sprucehouse, will this sort of thing still be an issue? Do top-notch luthiers care enough to resolve this before a uke goes out the door?

Not sure what to do now. My $35 Diamond Head is playing like a dream with Worth Brown strings. I lowered the action, compensated the saddle and it intonates perfectly. No dead frets anywhere on the fretboard. No "plunk" sound, the notes all ring out with long sustain. WTF?!?!

But I want a fancier uke with better construction and more interesting tone. I care a lot about this sustain issue (as well as intonation issues) so the problem is when mail-ordering, I can't be sure that anyone is looking out for my goals and preferences. If I can't sit down and try each fret, checking for sustain and intonation, then I'll end up ordering by mail and sending back ukes, until I find one that meets my needs.

Please advise, uke experts!! Should I try another laminate like the Kala, Flea, etc. with possibility of having to send it back? Should I just go with solid wood and a high-end luthier because I seem to be high-maintenance in the quality I'm looking for? If I go with a custom top-of the-line solid body uke, even then, can I still be sure to avoid dead notes?

Thanks for reading this and any thoughts or help.

(Admins: Please keep this thread in Uke Talk if you can, because to me, the subject matter is kind of a combination between Uke Tech, Buying Guide, Uke Reviews and Luthier's Lounge, but really I just want advice on what to do next, and hoping plenty of people will see and respond. Unless you think I'll get better quality help on another section.)

10-05-2015, 09:14 AM
Every ukulele I have has some of this. I think that a lot depends on how bad it is and if it is string, fret, or a cancelling resonant frequency (there is a lot of stuff on guitar forums).

I have found that there are certain notes that will thud. If I play the same note on other strings and get a thud then I think it has to do with that particular frequency that is impacted by the structure of the ukulele. I think it works a little like noise cancelling, but I'm sure that others can give a bettah explanation. In my knowledge lacked opinion, I would think it might be more noticeable with a soprano than a tenor due to overall note volume.

If it is a bad (high, loose, etc.) fret, I believe that you can tune the ukulele differently and the same fret will produce the dead note. There is no relationship to frequency.

It may be the string. I have found the fine line with some strings/material/thickness/tension that will produce a horribly dull/dead note with no sustain. In these cases I suspect it is a combination of a frequency and just the wrong string that accentuates this. I have improved the sustain by swapping strings, but I have never gone from a dead note to one that is singing by just changing strings.

I don't know if laminates has any influence.


10-05-2015, 09:58 AM
I'm not sure if this experience applies to your situation, but I have a 20s Gibson that spent at least 70 years unplayed and missing strings. When I had the bridge reset properly and strung up, it took quite a few weeks of playing before the sound came alive. I found dead notes were a bit different in how dead they were depending on what string / fret - ie the 1st string 7th fret was deader than the same note on the 2nd string 2nd fret.
I played each "dead" note over and over again, on all the strings for that note and they eventually increased quite a bit after a few weeks. It's like it needed to re-learn how to sing. After over a month of steady play it started sounding great. Formerly dead notes don't ring out like the best of the notes but don't sound out of place when played.
They say that laminates don't open up with age so maybe this doesn't apply.

-Vinnie in Juneau

10-05-2015, 11:02 AM
I've experienced this too with my Famous FS-5 (Kiwaya KS-5). It was brand new when I got it, and the finish smelled like it had just left the factory. The setup was perfect , but I noticed the dead notes right away. I played it a few weeks and the problem disappeared (I had ordered from Japan, so a return was not an option).

10-05-2015, 11:32 AM
The dreaded wolf tones. I had one instrument with a bad wolf tone that was cured by adding some weight to the head. On one dulcimer I had I cured that by adding a sound post to the inside, but I wouldn't recommend that on an ukulele.

10-06-2015, 12:49 PM
The dreaded wolf tones.

Thanks everyone... I have been reading about Mya Moe and it seems like they are paying a lot of attention to sustain, intonation and overall tone. Maybe what I really want is a custom uke from a luthier with an awesome reputation on attention to detail with tone & intonation. If there are wolf tones I can send it back, but I'm feeling like Mya Moe might be a good choice. If anyone has other suggestions in a lower price range, or ideas on laminates in particular, let me know. I wish I could have fixed this issue and kept the Kiwaya or Martin, particularly the Martin as I liked its tone.

10-06-2015, 03:17 PM
I hope that works out for you. Mya Moe I believe as a rather long waiting list or they did have. Last I checked it took a year to get a mya moe built. Do you have plans in the meantime ?

10-06-2015, 03:20 PM
Can't speak for the Kiwaya, but I am familiar with the OXK. My 11 month old OXK only has one place where there is less than good sustain and that is the c string 8th fret you mentioned. I wouldn't classify it as dead, but more like what mvisel described. All else is good.

Perhaps that is a commonality of build between mine and the one you had. But, I had to really listen for it by plucking individual notes up and down the neck.

I have noticed that not playing it frequently results in a day or two before it gets back up to speed. But I notice that in solid wood ukuleles, too.

10-07-2015, 02:41 AM
A change to South Coast mediums with a wound C might have fixed the issue for your Kiwaya. I did this, even though I had no gripes with my uke; then, just for kicks, I tuned the strings down a half-step to key of B. It was mind blowing. Felt like this Kiwaya can now stand shoulder to shoulder with some of the longer scale ukes out there.