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View Full Version : Beginner Ukes + Intonation = Big Deal?



blender
09-17-2011, 07:55 PM
I admit I'm a noob, less than a year of playing (and this is my first string instrument). My question is, does a uke's intonation (as I understand it) *really* matter that much to us picking up the basics? Intonation seems to be an issue for many first-time uke purchases.

AFAIK "intonation" really kicks in when you start working up the fretboard? Am I wrong here?

I'm still playing up near the top of the fretboard (mostly chords, starting to finger pick). I doubt I'll be challenging Jake to a pick-off any time soon.... ;)

Michael N.
09-18-2011, 05:17 AM
How big of an issue it is depends on how critical your ear is. Some pretty advanced Players have poor intonation (here I'm talking of Violin or Wind instrument players) whereas some beginners can hear that the note is off even though they can hardly play. For a player relatively new to the Uke it is important to get the 4 strings in tune. The limitations of the instrument will become more apparent as you advance up the fretboard. If it has obvious intonation problems on the first 4 or 5 frets it's probably a very poor instrument and you will quickly tire of it. I think what you are calling the top of the fretboard is actually the bottom. In short, if it sounds wrong to you seek an experienced second opinion.
A trained ear is also a useful skill- something that pretty much anyone can do. I've nothing against electronic tuners but I do believe that you should be able to tune the 6 strings of a guitar (or 4 of a Uke).
No fretted instrument really plays in tune (actually a lot of instruments don't). It's all a compromise but thankfully for most of us they are good enough.

cpmusic
09-18-2011, 07:22 AM
Poor intonation is not just an up-the-fretboard problem; it can and often will make one or more chords sound out of tune even when your electronic tuner tells you all the strings are in tune. I think even an untrained ear can hear the difference, and I suspect it's the reason some who have never played an instrument before become discouraged.

This does not mean that beginner ukes should be avoided, though. I'm new to this arena, but as I understand it, many are perfectly cromulent instruments that may just need some simple adjustments. The shops that inspect and set up their ukes are especially helpful in this regard.

cpmusic
09-18-2011, 08:11 AM
A trained ear is also a useful skill- something that pretty much anyone can do. I've nothing against electronic tuners but I do believe that you should be able to tune the 6 strings of a guitar (or 4 of a Uke).
Agreed. Tuning by ear is an excellent exercise, and it allows you to tune wherever, whenever.


No fretted instrument really plays in tune (actually a lot of instruments don't).
Well, yes and no. This gets into an esoteric area of music theory, but fretted instruments employ tempered tuning which is not quite accurate mathematically, but it is necessary for instruments with fixed notes. It is a compromise, but it's only out of tune in the strictest sense, and it does not excuse instruments with poor intonation.

Lori
09-18-2011, 09:02 AM
To get satisfaction from your playing, the ukulele must sound good. If the intonation is off at the 3rd fret (I discovered that on one of my entry level ukes), it may make you think you are a lousy player. For beginners, I think intonation must be pretty good up the the 5th fret. Even if you can't tell the difference, your audience might, and that will affect their enjoyment of your performance.

–Lori

OldePhart
09-18-2011, 12:43 PM
Many inexpensive ukes suffer their worst intonation at the first couple of frets - this is simply because the nut is too high so the strings pull sharp when fretted there. It's fairly easy to fix, but takes a little time, and that's why most inexpensive ukes come from the factory with the nut too high. They just stick a pre-slotted piece of plastic on the uke and no human being ever actually does the final adjustment to bring the instrument in tune. This is true well up into the "upper middle" price range of most uke brands (guitars, too, for that matter).

That's why it is actually more important to buy from a real uke dealer who sets them up before shipping them (Mim, Uke Republic, etc.) when you're buying a cheap uke than an expensive one. A luthier-built uke or a "K-brand" Hawaiian uke you can count on being set up pretty darn well - it's the rest of the field that really need a human touch.

I've found that correct intonation is very, very important for player development. I played guitar for many years and my ear never really improved until I bought nut files and started setting my instruments up perfectly. After two years of playing nothing but "perfect" instruments I pulled one of my old guitars out of the case - once my favorite and "best" guitar, and was so distracted by the intonation being a few cents off at the first fret that I couldn't stand to play it!

John

PoiDog
09-18-2011, 12:57 PM
You know, at the heart, you could likely learn the basics of finger position and chord progressions by using four rubber bands and a ruler.

You see where I'm going with this, right? The others have said it pretty well. An 'ukulele with a good sound, true intonation, and quality construction won't help you learn, but it will make learning more enjoyable, which in turn makes it easier.

The best advice I ever got when considering what uke to buy was this: Find a budget that you are able to live with, then buy an instrument that is just slightly more expensive. The better instrument you get, the more it will grow with you and visa versa.

blender
09-18-2011, 03:11 PM
Thanks for all the advice folks! As usual, I learn a lot here....

I should add, I started with a Kala KA-C as my 1st (starter) uke. I had some extra cash so I picked up an off-the-shelf Boat Paddle model M; that does sound "better" to me and is easier to play.

olgoat52
09-18-2011, 05:14 PM
I have setup at least 6 Makala's and everyone of them has been great for intonation, and I am realllllllyyyy picky about intonation. None of them was more than $60.

olgoat52
09-18-2011, 05:16 PM
Thanks for all the advice folks! As usual, I learn a lot here....

I should add, I started with a Kala KA-C as my 1st (starter) uke. I had some extra cash so I picked up an off-the-shelf Boat Paddle model M; that does sound "better" to me and is easier to play.

Jerry's uke are incredible for great intonation.

Shastastan
09-19-2011, 08:26 AM
You know, at the heart, you could likely learn the basics of finger position and chord progressions by using four rubber bands and a ruler.

You see where I'm going with this, right? The others have said it pretty well. An 'ukulele with a good sound, true intonation, and quality construction won't help you learn, but it will make learning more enjoyable, which in turn makes it easier.

The best advice I ever got when considering what uke to buy was this: Find a budget that you are able to live with, then buy an instrument that is just slightly more expensive. The better instrument you get, the more it will grow with you and visa versa.

I play some instruments other than uke. I think intonation is very important. Many non-musicians can tell if a note is not in tune--and it's a distraction. If you can have an inexpensive uke that plays in tune, that's fine. Personally, I don't think that it's good to learn on an instrument that's out of tune. Your mind will get the habit of listening to a certain sound for a certain note. If that's out of tune, then that's the sound your mind will retain. If the uke is your only instrument, playing in tune is even more important, IMO. I'm a beginner on uke and I use an electric tuner (A = 440). When I'm satisfied that my mind will retain the correct pitches for GCEA, I'll start tuning by ear. FWIW Sadly, I do hear some instruments out of tune on commercially done cds. No, I do not have perfect pitch....wish I did though.;)

OldePhart
09-19-2011, 12:49 PM
No, I do not have perfect pitch....wish I did though.;)

Be careful what you wish for - I have a blind friend with perfect pitch - relative and absolute. He's not able to enjoy a lot of music (I'm talking big-name professionally recorded stuff) because the "pitchiness" drives him nuts.

John

bazmaz
09-19-2011, 10:28 PM
The way I see it? If you are starting out with a new instrument, you have enough challenges ahead in just learning the thing without the actual instrument fighting against you with something that is unnecessary.

In many cases, intonation can be sorted with a setup. If it can't be sensibly fixed (ie misplaced bridge, frets, wonky neck) then it's never going to sound good. If you make the decision you want to play, why learn on something that sounds bad?

Buy from a real shop type dealer and ask them to set it up properly!

PoiDog
09-20-2011, 05:55 AM
I play some instruments other than uke. I think intonation is very important. Many non-musicians can tell if a note is not in tune--and it's a distraction. If you can have an inexpensive uke that plays in tune, that's fine. Personally, I don't think that it's good to learn on an instrument that's out of tune. Your mind will get the habit of listening to a certain sound for a certain note. If that's out of tune, then that's the sound your mind will retain. If the uke is your only instrument, playing in tune is even more important, IMO. I'm a beginner on uke and I use an electric tuner (A = 440). When I'm satisfied that my mind will retain the correct pitches for GCEA, I'll start tuning by ear. FWIW Sadly, I do hear some instruments out of tune on commercially done cds. No, I do not have perfect pitch....wish I did though.;)

I think maybe my original post was misunderstood, and that's probably because I was trying to be too cute. What I meant to say was that technically one could learn chord positions etc on anything with four strings and 14 frets, because the mechanics are the same. Hpowever, just because one can do that doesn't mean one should, and I actually did advocate for buying the best instrument one could afford when I said: "The best advice I ever got when considering what uke to buy was this: Find a budget that you are able to live with, then buy an instrument that is just slightly more expensive. The better instrument you get, the more it will grow with you and visa versa."

In short, we were saying the same thing, though, perhaps I said it somewhat clumsily.

gtrk
09-20-2011, 07:47 AM
I look at it a bit different. Buy an instrument in your budget, BUT better to go a little less on the instrument and spend the savings on a good set up. Good strings too. A cheap instrument with good strings and a good set up will sound better than an expensive instrument with poor strings and a bad set up, or no set up at all.

OldePhart
09-20-2011, 01:15 PM
I look at it a bit different. Buy an instrument in your budget, BUT better to go a little less on the instrument and spend the savings on a good set up. Good strings too. A cheap instrument with good strings and a good set up will sound better than an expensive instrument with poor strings and a bad set up, or no set up at all.

I think I agree with what you meant to say :) but I can only agree with what you said to a point. It depends on what one considers an "expensive instrument." If you're talking Hawaiian made "K brands" and up (luthier built) then you will probably never see a really bad set up. I consider KoAloha factory actions a little high for my tastes at the bridge end but even so there is no way I would call them a poor setup. The nut is perfect and the action at the bridge end isn't high enough to be problematic and is, in fact, what a lot of pickers seem to prefer.

If you're talking about Chinese factory instruments then you are 100% correct - better to go with a mid-priced one well set up than a more expensive one poorly set up. That's why I recommend buying from Mim, Uke Republic, etc. (Or buy a Mainland if you're getting up into that price range :) ) When MGM was in business he used to set up Dolphins before he shipped them! I have the tools and know how to do my own setups and still I bought my granddaughter's little LU-11 from MGM because if he was willing to do his great setup on that inexpensive of a uke I was more than willing to let him!

EDW
09-20-2011, 02:48 PM
When the instrument is actually in tune with itself it resonates better and sounds fuller. With the re entrant tuning, there are often notes doubled in the chords. If they don't sound the same it is dreadful.

Perfect pitch is not necessary, but really good relative pitch is good and can be developed.

olgoat52
09-20-2011, 05:57 PM
I love KoAloha but I wouldn't classify them as luthiers. FWIW I reserve that category for a few other Hawaiian uke builders. I'm sure you have strong opinions on that but I apprenticed as a luthier and got an eye full as to what that designation really means. I am not sure how to classify Kamaka and KoAloha. They are not factories like the Chinese makers but not what I would call a luthier built instrument.


I think I agree with what you meant to say :) but I can only agree with what you said to a point. It depends on what one considers an "expensive instrument." If you're talking Hawaiian made "K brands" and up (luthier built) then you will probably never see a really bad set up. I consider KoAloha factory actions a little high for my tastes at the bridge end but even so there is no way I would call them a poor setup. The nut is perfect and the action at the bridge end isn't high enough to be problematic and is, in fact, what a lot of pickers seem to prefer.

If you're talking about Chinese factory instruments then you are 100% correct - better to go with a mid-priced one well set up than a more expensive one poorly set up. That's why I recommend buying from Mim, Uke Republic, etc. (Or buy a Mainland if you're getting up into that price range :) ) When MGM was in business he used to set up Dolphins before he shipped them! I have the tools and know how to do my own setups and still I bought my granddaughter's little LU-11 from MGM because if he was willing to do his great setup on that inexpensive of a uke I was more than willing to let him!

blender
09-20-2011, 06:51 PM
Once again thanks for all the comments!
My problem with determining "intonation" is that I suffer from tinnitus, I can tell when a chord is really off but the 'little pieces" of the sound I miss.

Steve

bazmaz
09-21-2011, 12:23 AM
Blender - EDW's comment is an important one too, re the relativity of strings in tune with themselves.

With bad intonation, certain chords will cause strings to play in a disharmonious way with each other. Doesn't need perfect pitch to spot it - the signature sound is kind of a shrill wobbly jarring note - at least it is to my ears.

grandmofftim
09-21-2011, 11:21 AM
So is it actually normal for a uke to have intonation issues as you go further up the neck? I'm new to the uke, so I've been wondering if the problem is common or if I just have a bum uke. I have a Lanikai LKP-C that sound good and plays just fine when I'm strumming away at some chords on the lower frets, but when I get into stuff around the 7th fret and up I start having annoying intonation issues. I'm talking being off by as much as 20c in some places, which can be really grating. Is that just something that's par for the course with ukes in general, or beginners ukes like Lanikais in specific? Is this something that a luthier would be able to sort out, or will I just have to grin and bear it? For that matter, would it even be worth sending a $160 uke off to a pro (I live nowhere near anyone who I could take it to in person) to take care of? Will I have the same issues on the 7th+ frets on a pro-setup nicer uke (say, a mid-range Martin)?

Sorry, I know that's alot of questions, but this seemed to be the best thread to ask ;).

OldePhart
09-21-2011, 12:54 PM
I love KoAloha but I wouldn't classify them as luthiers. FWIW I reserve that category for a few other Hawaiian uke builders. I'm sure you have strong opinions on that but I apprenticed as a luthier and got an eye full as to what that designation really means. I am not sure how to classify Kamaka and KoAloha. They are not factories like the Chinese makers but not what I would call a luthier built instrument.

I thought at first you were crazy - then I read back over my post and could see where you might think I meant KoAloha was luthier built. What I meant by that phrase was that luthier-built was a step up in expense and quality from the "K-brands." I.e., "up from KoAloha" being luthier built, as an example.

JOhn

OldePhart
09-21-2011, 12:57 PM
Blender - EDW's comment is an important one too, re the relativity of strings in tune with themselves.

With bad intonation, certain chords will cause strings to play in a disharmonious way with each other. Doesn't need perfect pitch to spot it - the signature sound is kind of a shrill wobbly jarring note - at least it is to my ears.

Yep, in fact, listening for that "beat note" is the best way to learn to tune by ear. Just don't try tuning by ear under a slow turning ceiling fan - the doppler affect from the fan almost precisely emulates that "beat note" (yes, as you might guess, I discovered this the hard way when doing a setup on a guitar...) :)

John

OldePhart
09-21-2011, 12:59 PM
So is it actually normal for a uke to have intonation issues as you go further up the neck? I'm new to the uke, so I've been wondering if the problem is common or if I just have a bum uke. I have a Lanikai LKP-C that sound good and plays just fine when I'm strumming away at some chords on the lower frets, but when I get into stuff around the 7th fret and up I start having annoying intonation issues. I'm talking being off by as much as 20c in some places, which can be really grating. Is that just something that's par for the course with ukes in general, or beginners ukes like Lanikais in specific? Is this something that a luthier would be able to sort out, or will I just have to grin and bear it? For that matter, would it even be worth sending a $160 uke off to a pro (I live nowhere near anyone who I could take it to in person) to take care of? Will I have the same issues on the 7th+ frets on a pro-setup nicer uke (say, a mid-range Martin)?

Sorry, I know that's alot of questions, but this seemed to be the best thread to ask ;).

As you get further up the fretboard all you can really do is select strings that work as good as possible with your uke - which should get you within a few cents relative across the strings where you can then sometimes see further improvement with a compensated saddle.

Edited to add: Unless your action at the bridge is crazy high. If it's really, really high then lowering the bridge saddle will help some. But, if it's just "ordinary high" then lowering the saddle won't affect intonation much, though it may make the uke more pleasant to play.

John

blender
09-21-2011, 03:11 PM
Yep, in fact, listening for that "beat note" is the best way to learn to tune by ear. Just don't try tuning by ear under a slow turning ceiling fan - the doppler affect from the fan almost precisely emulates that "beat note" (yes, as you might guess, I discovered this the hard way when doing a setup on a guitar...) :)

John

What is this "beat note" for tuning? BTW, I'm still using electronic tunes (a Kala KC02 and a Snark) for tuning. A couple times I've tried just tuning the C string, then tuning the others based on that. While the uke sounded "sorta" ok to me, I'm not sure I was doing a good job.

One thing that occurs to me is I think I simply need more exposure to more ukes to hear how others sound.

Steve

OldePhart
09-21-2011, 05:26 PM
What is this "beat note" for tuning? BTW, I'm still using electronic tunes (a Kala KC02 and a Snark) for tuning. A couple times I've tried just tuning the C string, then tuning the others based on that. While the uke sounded "sorta" ok to me, I'm not sure I was doing a good job.

One thing that occurs to me is I think I simply need more exposure to more ukes to hear how others sound.

Steve

Any time signals of two frequencies are mixed you get two other signals out of that mix - one is the difference of the two frequencies and one the sum of the two frequencies, and generally they are down 6db (if I remember right - it's been a longggg time since I studied this stuff in school). in audio circles that's not important anyway because things like the shape, size, and construction of the instrument are going to have far more effect, anyway. This mixing is the prinicple on which most radio circuits work.

Anyway, to tuning: when you mix two audio frequency acoustic signals the same thing happens. The useful thing is that the frequency derived from the difference of two audible notes is a very low frequency (below our theshhold of hearing). Thus, it manifests as a "pulsing" of the frequencies that we can hear audibly. So, when you are tuning two notes that are very close to each other, this pulse will get slower and slower as the notes get closer together, until it disappears entirely when the notes are the same. This only really works when the notes get pretty close. When the notes are too far apart, the difference frequency is audible and just increases the noise factor without carrying much useful intelligence.

So, the trick is you first tune your reference string. Then you tune the next string so you know it's definitely lower than it should be. Hold the correct fret so the string being tuned should match exactly the frequency note of the reference string (i.e. you want the same note in the same octave, not different octaves. Gradually tune your string up until you begin hearing the beat note, which will be pretty fast at first. Keep going and the beat note will get slower and softer. When it disappears, you're done.

In a quiet room I've recently found that I can tune more accurately by ear than with an inexpensive clip on tuner like a Kala or Snark. I use a clip on strobe tuner most of the time, though, because it's easier and faster and I don't have to worry about noise or doppler effect from fans and so on. Still, the ability to tune by ear is a very useful ability to develop, even if you don't use it often.

John

Michael N.
09-22-2011, 05:14 AM
grandmofftim:
20 cents is a lot. I can hear the difference around 4 -5 cents which seems to be the norm. Some people can discern smaller values.
I guess you are checking this with an electronic tuner. Don't forget that the way in which you fret a string can also affect intonation, as can the type of string.
You don't say whether it is playing flat or sharp. Adjustments at the saddle might get things closer. The only way of telling is to test the accuracy of the fret placement and the compensation at the saddle/bridge end, that requires a very accurate rule. I'm afraid all Rulers aren't created the same.
Likewise sending off your Uke. It could get costly.

Keef
09-22-2011, 05:29 AM
just my 2 cents but if you cant tell something is wrong while you play your tune then nothing is wrong ... even if something is wrong

Michael N.
09-22-2011, 05:47 AM
But 2 cents isn't worth worrying about.:o

blender
09-22-2011, 09:41 AM
So, the trick is you first tune your reference string. Then you tune the next string so you know it's definitely lower than it should be.

Thanks! That does make sense. Looks like another skill set I need to learn.

But owww, my brain hurts right now thinking about all this.... ;)

Steve

ProfChris
09-22-2011, 10:10 AM
So is it actually normal for a uke to have intonation issues as you go further up the neck? I'm new to the uke, so I've been wondering if the problem is common or if I just have a bum uke. I have a Lanikai LKP-C that sound good and plays just fine when I'm strumming away at some chords on the lower frets, but when I get into stuff around the 7th fret and up I start having annoying intonation issues.

It's common but not normal, or at least it shouldn't be normal. I'm the merest of hobby builders, not that good at fretting, and my ukes are much, much closer than that all the way up.

I'd guess that the compensation on your uke is off, which is quite common on cheaper ukes. Check the note at the 12th fret - is it sharp or flat? My guess is sharp. If so, the break point on your saddle needs to be further from the nut. You may have a saddle with an angled top (don't know Lanikais), and if you do it's probably angled towards the nut. Take it out and reverse it so that the angle is towards the tail. Better?

grandmofftim
09-22-2011, 01:02 PM
I checked and it's indeed sharp at the 12th fret, by about 20c on each string but almost 50c(!) on the E. The saddle is rounded on top. Does anyone sell compensated bridges or nuts for ukes? I don't know that I trust myself to modify the one I have (or even a standard replacement), and I just don't know that it's "nice" enough a uke to be worth spending the money on sending it to a pro to fix. I'm sure I'll eventually get a nicer one anyways, I just don't know how much I want to deal with the intonation problem I have until then if there's an affordable fix.

Michael N.
09-23-2011, 05:11 AM
Seems like you may have to get your hands dirty and prep your own saddle. You can buy Bone saddle blanks from the major Luthier suppliers or from Ebay. You will need a file and various grits of sandpaper and a small hacksaw. If I had very accurate dimensions I could reproduce you one but I'm quite literally thousands of miles away!
Assuming that the action is OK you will need to reproduce your existing saddle dimensions, except that the apex or peak (the rounded top) needs to be positioned at the very back of the saddle i.e further away from the frets. That will improve your intonation. Whether that in itself is enough is another matter. If that doesn't improve it sufficiently it will require cutting the bridge slot further back. Not a huge undertaking but you are probably looking at $60 + for a professional to do it.

UkuleleThreads
09-29-2011, 08:01 PM
Good habits are good to practice from the beginning. Practice hearing it in tune, so that later you are used to it and you will be able to hear when you start to go out of tune. Playing with a group, a singer, or simply yourself, your intonation will be huge! Practice it right, because practice makes permanent.