What is an Ukulele “Setup”?

When browsing the ukulele market have you ever seen the word “setup”?  Often people are not sure what this means, or they don’t understand why they would pay more for this. “I can find it on Amazon for cheaper”.

Well believe it or not, a Makala/Makai/Leolani /(every other import) are not “feeling GOOD” right out of the box. They feel “OK” but I have never taken one out of the box that can not be improved. Very rarely will one have ideal “action”. Action is the height of the strings from the fretboard. Often the measurement is given from the top of the fret to the bottom of the string on the 12th fret.

If the string is higher than necessary ( 6-8/64ths or 2.5-3mm) you end up having to push harder down to get a good sound. This can make you slightly out of tune and hinder your enjoyment and progress on the ukulele. How high your strings need to be without buzzing on the frets is determined by what your playing style or technique can handle.

Your goal to sound better on the ukulele is something you should work toward…. the easiest way possible!

It is easier to learn songs and techniques. It is easier to get better, faster, on a quality instrument with a good setup.

The biggest factor in our setup is the string action. On a Pono ukulele their is a truss rod to adjust, but on most ukes you are only dealing with an adjustment from the two points that the strings rests on. The nut (at the beginning of the fretboard- it has slots that the strings sit in and go through) and the saddle (on the belly of the top is the bridge and inside that sits a saddle – the string rests on saddle and is locked in at the bridge). The lower you go on those two points, the lower your action is, and the easier it becomes to play.

However lowering the saddle and nut slots will create a disturbing problem at some point.  Fret Buzz! Most of the imports need a “fret dress” or fret leveling to be blessed with “ideal action”. When we lower the action to a comfortable height, the strings buzz because the neck or frets are not level enough. But Why? Don’t these companies know what they are doing? Of course, but there are two factors here.

One is that these are wooden handmade instruments. They are not iPads. No matter how cheap you got your ukulele, it was handmade. China seems to be doing the best work and as a whole they are still handshaping their necks and hammering in their frets. Their is some talent and devotion in those factories, but in the end, their is no way for the instrument to sell whole sale for $40 and it get as much attention and quality control as an instrument that sells for $140 and the same for that one to the one that sells for $400.

And that leads into the second factor, which is …reality. What quality level is even possible? I cant even buy the materials to start to build an ukulele for $40. So keep this in mind when judging a $40 ukulele. Every uke company we carry is doing good work and putting out a lot of value even before we set them up. Every single one does an amazing job for the price. That’s why we buy them. But when we level the frets and lower the action it takes it to another level of appreciation. And that is our goal.

If you have bought an ukulele from Music Guy Mic in the last 4 years their is a big possibility you have already benefited from this man’s skills. Joel Blechinger is serious about doing a good job. He must be one of the four or five people in Hawaii with that trait (kidding)  Well, he lives right down the road, so when MGM closed his ebay store, simultaneously God broke Joel’s car so he would take a job at his nearest music store. Yay! super nice, easy going guy. Until he gets behind a setup bench. Then he’s like a quarterback at the Superbowl. We got Aaron to interview him recently, check it out~

So if you have already gotten an ukulele and it was not setup, can you do it yourself? Well… at your own risk, I will explain this adjustment. In the one of next posts I will give step by step procedures, and a video for you as well. Aloha from us here at HMS.  A hui ho ~

Comments 4

  1. Can I send you my Makai TKU24 for a setup?
    I live in San Francisco

  2. Just finished two Baritones but still have setup to do. I’m assuming that setup on a baritone is the same as a tenor on the 12th fret and at the 1st fret. I very much agree regarding fret leveling as it’s my experience there are rarely no high frets that require leveling. Also looking at my plans for the Baritone shows the bridge much higher than on a Tenor so guessing these are not exact measurements if string height is the same on all sizes of ukes.

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