Does my uke need a set up?

Hoopoe

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So with the current backlash against the sales practices of a certain brand (can’t say I agree 100% with that) there’s been a lot of talk about uke set ups and how it helps beginners (such as myself), people with arthritis etc. So it got me thinking if I’m missing out on something, if I’m not getting the best experience that I should. Would it discourage me from playing after I get to a certain point? I’ve read in an article “playing Bb shouldn’t be impossible” and it’s kind of hard at the moment. Also not sure if the strings up the neck are too high and so on, you can see where this is going. Thoughts creep up whether I made a mistake buying off-the-shelf instrument that could have used some love and attention before I got it.

So before I take it to a very well known luthier here that might charge give or take $75, are there 2-3 signs that one can check without any equipment on hand, to know if their uke really needs a set up or it can pass?
 

saltytri

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There are a couple of things you can do yourself to get a reasonable idea of how good your setup is:

1. Depress each string in the third position, i.e., so that there are two frets between your finger and the nut. Each string should be just a hair above the first fret. Think of a "hair" as meaning the thickness of tissue paper or a cigarette paper or just enough so that the string is just about in contact with the fret but not quite.

2. At the twelfth fret, and without pressing on any string, the clearance between the top of the fret and the underside of the string should be around .090" to .100". You can use a 3/32" drill bit as a guide.

There is some more subtlety to a proper setup but these are the basic spatial relationships between the strings and the frets that will get you close to a setup that is easy to play. At some point, the clearances get too small and buzzing can result. My impression is that with factory built ukuleles the more common situation out of the box is that the setup will be too high, which many people find difficult and uncomfortable.
 

Ed1

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Buy yourself a string action ruler (About $9) and measure your string heights. You can then look around in the various threads here to find out what others think.

At the nut, a test that others use is to hold down the string at the 3rd fret and see if you have minimal (almost touching) at the first. That never meant much to my untrained eyes in terms of ease of play.

$75 is a lot to pay for only lowering the strings at the nut and saddle. Perhaps six strings might be worth that, but I'm not sure about four.

https://www.amazon.com/String-Repai...ds=baroque+string+action+ruler&qid=1594487294
 

Hoopoe

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To my untrained eye, the first test with the frets, pressing at the third, it’s close to the first fret but it’s not cigarette paper thin. Maybe I should try with printing paper and see if that fits.

And yes, those $75 could be for a guitar. I’ll probably have to try my luck. Maybe if they say $40-$50 it wouldn’t be too much as a beginner’s lesson :(
 

snowdenn

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I agree about $75 being kinda high. You're getting good advice here. You should check the action yourself. There are lots of resources on how to set up an instrument yourself, and while you probably won't have the skills of a tech, some of the basics is easy enough to do.

Also, sometimes the factory setup for an instrument is fine, and you don't need to do any more to it, although I think this more often tends to be the case for more expensive brands. I might be going against popular opinion on here, but not every instrument from the builder needs to be set up. However, the cheaper an instrument is, the more likely it was sent out of the factory without much inspection. And the more likely it needs a set up. Which is why shops that set up for you are especially good for beginners. Keep in mind, a Bb shouldn't be impossible, but will still be difficult for beginners.

The backlash you're seeing is because that brand (if you're talking about what I think you're talking about) is primarily catered towards beginners and ships out of a factory, and if I'm correct, is more likely to have set up issues. So by undercutting shops that have long represented them and set up their instruments, they seem to be putting profit over their customers and their relationships with their vendors. They've gotten big enough that they can do this. But it seems like they got big by helping the ukulele community, such as it is, whereas their current practices can be seen as harmful in the long run. Sorry for getting sidetracked; I've been thinking about it this morning.
 

the.waz

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Based on other UU threads I’ve read, this might be the minority opinion, but I’ll throw it in for counterpoint.

For me personally, setup is not the magic bullet that is going to transform an instrument from non-playable to amazing. It can make playing more of a joy, sure, but I can also pick up a non-set-up mass-produced instrument and still play it. By all means, if you can buy from a setup-included dealer for a few dollars more and get a setup included, do it! (And to put my money where my mouth is, I have bought from Mim before) But I gather you’re talking about an instrument you already have.

Reading some of these threads, it could be easy to get analysis paralysis on questions like you asked. Rather than looking to someone else’s opinion, just ask:
- Can you play it?
- Is there something really wrong like buzzing or dead frets?
- Is it a nice enough instrument to be worth investing another $75, knowing you won’t get it back in resale?

For a beginner, the biggest difference you’ll notice is due to action (how high the strings are above the frets). That’s what is going to make your Bb easier (side note: just switching to Martin M600 strings would also help, as they are softer on the fingers). If you measure like Ed1 suggested and find that the action is really high, it’s not difficult to remove the saddle and carefully sand the bottom on a flat surface to drop a couple mm…plenty of other threads on that. Given that fact, I’d also like to think that a small action adjustment would be considerably less than a full set up at your local shop.

Where a pro is really important is if you are trying to squeeze every last ounce of playability out of a uke. If you’re trying to get absolute minimum action, you need a true neck and perfectly level frets to avoid buzz. A full setup would address those things, and possibly check for intonation, etc. A pro can even tailor some adjustments to your playing style. But (again, my opinion) beyond reasonably low action, all that is going to matter more when you’re moving up than just starting out. If your starter instrument is good enough to get you playing and practicing, maybe just look to a setup-included dealer when you level up. Don't overthink it! (signed, serial overthinker :))

Full disclosure: I come from the guitar/bass world and have pretty strong fingers and callouses, so even with high action nylon strings are comparatively soft. But I would say the above about a mass-produced steel-string guitar too.
 

Pukulele Pete

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I've always wondered about these so called "setups" . Why would a manufacturer produce an instrument that needs adjustment before it can be played correctly .?
I wonder how many of these setups that are done , is work on the nut or saddle or frets even needed or done.
I'm not saying none of them need it , but I'm guessing most of them dont .
 

Larry Usselman

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I've always wondered about these so called "setups" . Why would a manufacturer produce an instrument that needs adjustment before it can be played correctly .?
I wonder how many of these setups that are done , is work on the nut or saddle or frets even needed or done.
I'm not saying none of them need it , but I'm guessing most of them dont .

I've watched Mim do setups at workshops and I think she would disagree with you. Every instrument she handled that day (and there were many) needed something, whether it was string height, fret leveling, fret end dressing, etc. The setups are also customized to the needs and playing style of the player. Some like high actions, some low, some need adjustments to accomodate physical limitations.
 

Pukulele Pete

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I've watched Mim do setups at workshops and I think she would disagree with you. Every instrument she handled that day (and there were many) needed something, whether it was string height, fret leveling, fret end dressing, etc. The setups are also customized to the needs and playing style of the player. Some like high actions, some low, some need adjustments to accomodate physical limitations.

I'm just curious . How many of Your ukuleles required a "setup" .?
 

Larry Usselman

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I'm just curious . How many of Your ukuleles required a "setup" .?

Every one of mine, except for the Harmony Baritone, has had a professional setup. The Harmony needs one, and probably a neck reset or new saddle, as the strings are pretty high and the saddle doesn't have much room left for adjustment. Whether the setups were "required" or not is irrelevant. I know they play better and easier thanks to the setup.
 

John Colter

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"Why would a manufacturer produce an instrument that needs adjustment before it can be played correctly?"

All new ukes should be playable and have reasonable intonation, and most are and do, but there is a big difference between playable/reasonable and a uke that has been given close individual attention. The reason that manufacturers usually opt for merely "OK" is cost. It takes time to set up each individual instrument - time is money.

"Close enough" is much cheaper to produce.

John Colter
 

Jardin

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I would add a somewhat dissenting opinion on $75 being too much....I say somewhat because every single ukulele is going to have differing needs....If the uke needs "the works" to be "set up" then that figure is actually not bad at all....If it just needs the action set ...well that is a different thing and the price is high....This is why I disagree with having a set price for a "set-up". However, I do understand why they do it.

The fact is you are paying to have someone look at the instrument, determine what needs to be addressed then addressing these aspects. So first of all, it presumably took them time to hone their skills and buy tools to get the job done right (all of which you are trying to avoid doing yourself as it is expensive and time consuming to get to that point alone). Then it takes lots of time and patience to get the job done.

My suggestion is to find someone who will look at the uke, determine what is needed (if anything) and then give you a price as to what it will cost for that service. This will also give you the opportunity to tell them what your playing style is like and this helps to get things that much more dialed in for you personally....
Or
Build those skills and buy those tools with the help of someone who is willing to walk you through it (plenty of resources here on the forum as well as on the web at large).

Of course the other option is to just keep playing and don't look back....

In the end it all comes down to the fact that we all deserve to be paid fairly for our time and charged fairly by someone for their services. The fact is that you don't know what it is like to be in their shoes. To me saying they charge too much is a cheap shot as I have done set ups for others and I can tell you there are times where an instrument is just a pain. There are some that are so poorly constructed that you would have to take the bridge off to even make it worth it. You are basically dealing with all the errors someone else made, all the inconsistencies created by neglect and weather and then trying to fix them while coming to a compromise of personal needs of the player. Committing to that with an unknown instrument is likely why they have a higher price. The fact is often, it is not just the action that is off when you are talking about factory made ukuleles.

Of course for you, it sounds like your instrument is not in the horrible category as you find it acceptable already. But the fact remains that when you are looking for someone to do a good job on a tedious project. Be willing to pay them well as there is a reason you are not doing it yourself.

Sorry if I ranted a bit but I am obviously jaded by folks who expect the world to be handed to them for paying pennies.... I stopped doing set-ups for folks for a reason. I like to build high quality instruments not fix poorly constructed mistakes...

In the end....it always pays to buy from a luthier who sets the instrument up properly before it leaves their shop, or from someone like HMS or Mim who does that service for you.

I wish you all the best and would love to hear how you choose to go and if it made a noticeable difference for you.
 

merlin666

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"Why would a manufacturer produce an instrument that needs adjustment before it can be played correctly?"

All new ukes should be playable and have reasonable intonation, and most are and do, but there is a big difference between playable/reasonable and a uke that has been given close individual attention. The reason that manufacturers usually opt for merely "OK" is cost. It takes time to set up each individual instrument - time is money.

"Close enough" is much cheaper to produce.

John Colter

I also find a fresh setup for new ukes overrated maybe even unnecessary. I own five ukes and only one of those needed a setup. That one is a 20 year old KoAloha that had terrible intonation. Though with new setup now I find the action too low and it needs a new saddle. I know a luthier who will cut a new one for $20. The two cheap mass produced ukes that I bought new had perfect setup out of the box and one of them has been in original state for more than 5 years. But I also go to uke stores whenever I can and have tried 100s of ukes there. Indeed many of the cheap ones are terrible and difficult to play, but they may also be poorly constructed and effort of setup may then be a waste of resource. The only time a setup for new uke may be needed if the owner is fairly advanced and requires personal modifications such as new strings. If the uke was so bad that it was indeed difficult to play for a beginner the advice should be to pass on it rather than trying to fix it as there are also plenty of cheap ukes that are fine.
 

John Colter

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"I also find a fresh setup for new ukes overrated maybe even unnecessary"

My experience of this is very different. I've adjusted the string heights on dozens of ukes, and the owners are always delighted by the improved playability. It is most often the nut that requires fettling. Just getting that right can make a big difference.

John Colter
 

Rllink

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Setups are a good thing, but for my part I can't just go in and say, "set it up." I'm particular and I happen to like a bit higher action than I'm going to get by just going in and taking what I get. If I buy one and it comes with a setup by the seller I make sure to tell them what I want. I think if you just take what someone gives you because you don't know what you want, you might not gain do much.

A setup will not make a barred Bd easy to play. It is just a hard chord.
 

John Colter

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"A setup will not make a barred Bb easy to play. It is just a hard chord"

It is no harder than playing a B chord or a C chord etc, using the same moveable shape. However, if the strings are set too high at the nut, Bb becomes much more difficult to play than it should be. Once upon a time, someone commented that Bb is very difficult. I asked to see the person's uke. It was a mid range concert (price-wise) and there was much too much clearance over the first fret. I had my tools with me, so I offered to fix it. They were a bit dubious, until a friend assured them that I could be trusted. All I did was deepen the slots in the nut. The owner of the uke couldn't believe how much easier it was to play. They were effusive in their thanks - insisted on buying me a pint of beer!

John Colter
 

besley

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To my untrained eye, the first test with the frets, pressing at the third, it’s close to the first fret but it’s not cigarette paper thin. Maybe I should try with printing paper and see if that fits :(

The way I've seen this test described is to use two narrow strips of standard (20 lb, about 0.004" thick) printer paper between the strings and the first fret, with a capo on the third fret. The action at the nut should be low enough for there to be drag on the double thickness of paper, but not so low as to really grab a single thickness of paper.
 

John Colter

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Besley, that sounds good to me. If manufacturers sent out all ukes set like this, it would greatly reduce the amount of fettling required to enhance the ease of playing. I recently bought a very inexpensive Aiersi Pineapple soprano. It is the first new ukulele I have bought that required no adjustment of any kind. It was perfect - for me - right out of the box.

John Colter
 

KohanMike

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I didn't realize how useful a setup is until I had it done, made the uke so much more comfortable to play. Since then, any new uke and bass uke/mini bass guitar I get, I have Eric's Guitar do a full setup.


This is Michael Kohan in Los Angeles, Beverly Grove near the Beverly Center
9 tenor cutaway ukes, 4 acoustic bass ukes, 12 solid body bass ukes, 14 mini electric bass guitars (Total: 39)

• Donate to The Ukulele Kids Club, they provide ukuleles to children in hospital music therapy programs. www.theukc.org
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Graham Greenbag

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So with the current backlash against the sales practices of a certain brand (can’t say I agree 100% with that) there’s been a lot of talk about uke set ups and how it helps beginners (such as myself), people with arthritis etc. So it got me thinking if I’m missing out on something, if I’m not getting the best experience that I should. Would it discourage me from playing after I get to a certain point? I’ve read in an article “playing Bb shouldn’t be impossible” and it’s kind of hard at the moment. Also not sure if the strings up the neck are too high and so on, you can see where this is going. Thoughts creep up whether I made a mistake buying off-the-shelf instrument that could have used some love and attention before I got it.

So before I take it to a very well known luthier here that might charge give or take $75, are there 2-3 signs that one can check without any equipment on hand, to know if their uke really needs a set up or it can pass?

I don’t think that I’ve ever had a Uke that didn’t need a set-up and each one of them has vastly benefited from one. As for spending $75 that’s almost a separate question and I’d very seriously have to consider the value of the Uke before spending that type of money on it. Fortunately for me I know how to, can and do set-up my own instruments, the effort involved isn’t small but it is worth it. Depending on what work is actually done and where you are $75 might be excessive ... your judgement and choice.

Instruments typically come out of the factory right enough to ‘play’ and right enough not to have buzzing strings - some play better than others and some shops will tell you that an instrument is just fine as it is - struggle through if you wish or see what can be done to make your life easier and your playing better. Anything else (work) after that basic factory build involves risk and spending more time, neither of those is attractive to manufacturers. If you want to get the best out of what instrument you have then a set-up that looks at the finer details is the way to go, whether it is economic or not is another question.
 
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