View Full Version : Intonation. How does it work?

Ground Loop
01-03-2012, 07:58 PM
I got a digital tuner, and while it tunes the strings fine, I'm puzzled by what I can now hear and measure.

If I tune the Open string to be perfectly spot-on, most of the upper frets play notes that are quite sharp.

Bb on the A string, for example.. A open perfectly in tune, Bb really sharp. Is it supposed to be this way? It's mostly sorted out by the third or fourth fret, but the chords seem to use 1 and 2 frets quite a bit.

I can tune the string a bit flat, which helps, but I haven't seen anyone recommend that. It has the obvious downsides.

I've seen references to "Bad Intonation", and I know nothing about Ukuleles yet, so now I'm biting my (now very short) nails wondering if I got a lemon here.

Looking at the shape of the string, though, it seems unavoidable that the first fret would be sharp. Pythagoras would agree. Is this just part of the deal?

Does anyone split the difference and tune the strings on the flat side of perfect to pre-compensate?

Am I over-thinking this? :) Wouldn't be the first time.

01-03-2012, 09:41 PM
That sound like a set up issue regarding your action.If the strings
are too high at the nut,they will be sharp when fretted,as you are
stretching the string when you finger it.On the higher frets if the
notes are still sharp,then the bridge or saddle may be too high.
Check the action first,then check your individual notes on the fret
board.And remember,on such a short scale,they will never be 'perfect'
on every note!

01-04-2012, 05:01 AM
I don't pay any attention to the electronic tuner once I tune the open strings (if I use an electronic tuner at all). If it sounds out of tune when I play it, I will be unhappy.

If you like how it sounds when you play, you are allowing the tuner to make you over-think. If the intonation makes you cringe, you will need to do something. Set-up may help, depending on the instrument. If, as you describe, the pitch is off more at the first fret than further up the fretboard, a set-up is definitely indicated. Take it to a professional. If you explain your problem, they'll get it right. But, even set up perfectly, some instruments won't be good enough for some ears. Depends greatly on the quality of the ukulele, and to some degree on your ear.

First, ENJOY!

01-04-2012, 06:15 AM
Bb on the A string, for example.. A open perfectly in tune, Bb really sharp. Is it supposed to be this way? It's mostly sorted out by the third or fourth fret, but the chords seem to use 1 and 2 frets quite a bit.

This is very consistent with the strings being too high at the nut. Press a string at the 3rd fret. It should now barely clear the first fret (the thickness of a business card or so).

01-04-2012, 06:41 AM
High nuts are almost endemic on inexpensive ukes and even many midrange ukes. This isn't snobbery, it's just fact. Of the four ukes I bought for grandkids this year, all needed the nut slots lowered on most of the strings. This isn't unique to ukuleles, either. You have to spend around a grand on a guitar before you can assume that it can be taken out of the factory box ready to play. In the lower ranges, you'll sometimes get one that's set up, other times not.

This is why I recommend buying such ukes from dedicated uke dealers like some that frequent this forum (at least if you don't have the tools and know-how to set them up yourself). If you buy from a "big box" store (online or B&M) you are getting something that has never been touched by human hands, basically. Even many smaller music stores don't set the instruments they sell up - especially instruments that are at the low end of the price range.

If you search the forum you should find many threads describing how to correct the problem if you feel like tackling it yourself.

01-04-2012, 10:18 AM
And here is something else:


Ground Loop
01-05-2012, 05:33 PM
That's great information.. thanks y'all!

On the one hand, I'm certain this high-strung Soprano will be just fine for learning chords and getting some practice. I'm more sound engineer than musician, so hearing things out of tune is something I will have to practice accepting. I don't want to make it a mountain or anything, just curious.

I took my Sunlite to a guitar service shop to see what they think, and they agreed it's too high, but like OldePhart said, common for these cheap ones and not unexpected. It would cost me about $50 to get both the nut and bridge reduced down to size. They agreed that it's a lot to spend on a $50 Uke, but.. they did point out that the resulting instrument would be dialed in better than any $100 Uke on the shelf -- an interesting point.

My plan is to accept it as-is for now, put the $50 toward my future new one, and maybe someday turn it into my amateur filing project.

Thanks for the balanced outlook and useful links.

01-06-2012, 02:27 AM
I'm a newbie. Started playing in August with my 3 year old's Maholo U30LB (http://www.amazon.com/Mahalo-U-30LB-Painted-Economy-Soprano/dp/B001SN7R54/ref=cm_cr-mr-title) with Aquila strings. Enjoyed learning chord shapes and messing around for a couple months. My fingers were raw and the uke needed to be tuned every 15 minutes or so, but it was still cute and fun. Sadly, the sound I was making didn't seem to be improving, so I played less and less.

Just got a lovely Mainland Classic Mahogony Pineapple (soprano) (http://cargo.ukerepublic.com/product/mainland-ukes-classic-mahogany-pineapple) for Christmas and it is an absolute joy. The difference is night and day. Not only does it sound much, much better, it is easier to play. The lower action has enabled me to hit chords that were impossible on the Maholo. And as an added bonus, despite playing an hour or more each day for the past week that I've had her, my fingers are still in good shape.

Guess that was the long way to agree with your plan of saving for a well set up uke. You won't regret it.

Ground Loop
01-07-2012, 07:58 AM
I got a Tuner app for Android (ClearTune) which shows a fine scale for tuning. With this, I can see that all three top frets on the Sunlite are 10 to 20 cents sharp. Some positions 25+ cents. I still play it, but I look forward to a cleaner sound someday.

My other Uke is a Mahalo U-30BR, but it has original junk strings.
Now I have one that came with the Hal Leonard "Play Today Ukulele" kit. (Hey, I wanted the DVD) Boy this one is a piece of work! No brand logo at all (so at least they feel shame), black plastic strings, wobbly friction pegs.
Someone should make a YouTube review video for it. I did notice that Hal Leonard doesn't play THIS uke on the DVD at all. Huh.

01-07-2012, 12:57 PM
I did notice that Hal Leonard doesn't play THIS uke on the DVD at all. Huh.

I may be mistaken, but I think that Hal Leonard has been dead for decades. Now it's just a brand name and they have other people writing the books. It's been that way as long as I can remember.