One of the most common questions I hear is “what ukulele should I buy?” There are so many new models and options these days that it’s hard to give specific recommendations.
But I always tell people one thing to prioritize: Get a uke that comes with a setup.
You might think that when an ukulele is shipped out of the factory, it’s the best it can be. After all, they made it. Why wouldn’t they take the time to line everything up perfectly?
Well, they don’t. The main reason is because it takes time and costs more. But let’s not resent them that too much since there’s another good reason for it.
If you’re Kala, for instance, you are shipping 100s of thousands of ukuleles around the world every year. Some go to dry climates, some go to wet climates. Some go to cold climates, some go to hot climates.
Instruments react to different environments. In a dry climate, the wood shrinks. In a wet climate, the wood expands. As long as it’s within reason, this usually doesn’t pose a major problem.
Typically, dry climates (and dry, heated houses) are more hazardous than wet ones, depending on where the uke was made.
Since most ukes are produced in Hawaiʻi, Vietnam, Taiwan, etc, they tend to be acclimated to wetter, tropical air. If you take an ukulele to Arizona, it’s going to starve in the dry atmosphere without a humidifier.
The movement that an instrument experiences from its wood absorbing or losing moisture can change the action. If the factory keeps the action high and ships it with a very conservative setup, the ukulele is more likely to remain playable and not buzz when it adapts to its new environment.
So while quality control has come a long way and the average uke now is much nicer than 10 years ago, mass-produced instruments still usually lack a fully-optimized setup. Now you know why.
Keep in mind that high-end instruments crafted domestically are usually made with tighter tolerances from factory. They are fabricated at a higher quality and are often set up much better than a budget uke.
This is true to an even greater degree for luthiers in your locale. They don’t need to account for all kinds of bizarre climates if they know you live right down the road. The uke can be sent out with a perfect setup.
Action and Playability
But why is a lack of setup bad? What is action anyways?
Having a low action puts the strings closer to the frets so they’re easier to press down. But low action is more prone to buzzing and the maximum volume and tone can be stifled.
Having a high action keeps the strings further from the fretboard so you have to press down harder. However, high action can be played louder before it buzzes and often has a fatter tone.
As you can see, it’s a trade off.
Action usually ranges from 1.5mm to 3mm in height off the 12th fret. How low or high you need to set it depends on the instrument and the player’s style.
At the nut, action that’s too high will make it hard to hold down barre chords like Bb and cause you to play out of tune. Ideal action at the nut is to have only the slightest amount of space (a hair or less) between the string and the 1st fret when you hold down the 3rd fret.
Outside of action, neck relief and the frets also play a role in the playability of an ukulele. By having everything perfectly interacting, it’s far easier to play the instrument.
The better made the instrument is, the easier it is to have low action without buzzing or bogging down.
What a Setup is
A setup is basically an aftermarket service or “mod” performed on your ukulele to make it the best it can possibly be.
This improves upon the factory quality control/setup and gets you attention to detail that you otherwise would not normally get from an ukulele in the sub $600-700 range. It maximizes the potential of the instrument and can make it significantly easier to play than stock.
When doing a setup, a technician will adjust the action for your playing style, level the frets, and usually put on a fresh set of quality strings, adjusting the nut accordingly.
Good technicians have done 1000s of setups and talked to many, many customers. They know what any given instrument is capable of and how far they can push it to fit someone’s needs.
When in doubt, give them a broad idea of how you play (strumming or picking, light or soft) and what sort of strings you like (high tension or low tension, nylon or fluorocarbon). They will do the rest.
Where to Buy a Uke That Comes With a Setup
There are a number of boutique ukulele shops that provide setups. I only have experience and word-of-mouth recommendations for a few, but there are many more you should seek out locally, if possible.
This is not a service that you can expect from everyone who sells ukuleles. It takes a certain dedication to quality to want to provide a setup. And some shops just flat out can’t afford it or find the appropriate talent.
Some people say Amazon is great because you can return very easily. I say he can kiss my ʻokole and you should take your business somewhere it won’t contribute to polluting the planet in an ego/space race.
I can personally recommend The Ukulele Site. Andrew Kitakis, the owner, runs a tight ship with an insane emphasis on value and customer satisfaction. Joel in the setup department is a super skilled tech who has worked on my ukes and is an overall good dude. And Billy, who manages the setup department, has an insane amount of experience with which to guide the newer guys.
I’ve heard just as many or more recommendations for Mim’s Ukes over the years. As a one-woman show, it sounds like she has an eye for detail that is unrivaled.
Southern Ukulele Store has a good reputation and serves Europe, offering a simple setup.
How Do I Get a Setup on the Uke I Already Have?
First, you need to know that your ukulele needs a setup. While most ukes can benefit, there’s no point paying for something that won’t make a big difference.
If you’ve been playing your uke and holding down barre chords without trouble, it’s probably not something to worry about. Continue enjoying your instrument and consider a setup if and when you get a new ukulele.
If you feel like you’re constantly fighting your uke, get out a precision ruler and assess your action using the above numbers. I love these rulers for everything. (Get metric! It’s far easier to work with.)
Should you decide that your ukulele is far enough out of spec that you want to get it set up, you’ll have to do some homework to find a local tech. The retailers listed above don’t work on 3rd party instruments to my knowledge, except in special cases, so you’ll gave to locate someone who does.
Some music shops have the skills and means to do this, but many don’t. Try to get referrals or recommendations before you commit. There are, unfortunately, hack “luthiers” and instrument repair people who don’t really know what they’re doing and still say yes to projects outside their skillset.
The very basics of setup are simple enough for all but the most craft-averse to try out at home. All you need is a ruler, a pencil, and some fine grit sandpaper.
Adjusting the action at the 12th fret requires only removing the strings and sanding down the bottom of the saddle. This takes patience and attention to detail, but is really no big deal if you’ve ever used a tape measure and sand paper.
The nice things about saddles is that they are replaceable. So if you goof it up or sand too much and end up with a buzz, you can get a new blank and make a new one (or admit defeat and take it to a repair tech).
Baz at Got a Ukulele put together this nice guide that covers most of what you need to know. Here’s also his video rundown:
Bottom line is that you get the most bang for your buck when you get a uke that is properly set up. By purchasing instruments from dealers who take this extra step, you know you’ll get a perfectly playable instrument that is the best it can be.
This is especially important when buying sight unseen. When you don’t have a chance to play the ukulele yourself, you can lean on the expertise and quality control of the dealer to make sure you get a great instrument.
For more insight on setups and the mindset behind them, check out my podcast interview with Joel Blechinger (S2E20). He’s one of the main technicians at HMS and knows the ins and outs of the business.