Ukuleles – Why won’t my ukulele stay in tune?

So, you want to tune a new ukulele. Maybe it’s just one instrument. Maybe it’s a pile of them. Chances are you’re on this site you’re a school teacher with a newly arriving fleet or a music store employee staring at your first box to tune up and put on the wall.

Regardless, you pick up an instrument and start tuning and it just won’t settle into the nice “my dog has fleas” (or G, C, E, A) notes that they should. Your ear and eye struggle to make sense of what’s going on. Twist as you might, but the tuning pegs just don’t get the note(s) up to pitch. What’s going on? Is this ukulele junk? Are you dealing with a bad batch of instruments? Are you on a musical version of the show punk’d?

A ukulele I got from the Ottawa Folklore Centre.
A ukulele I got from the Ottawa Folklore Centre.

Answer:
Nylon Strings Stretch. (a lot)
Easy enough to understand, but hard to think around. Here’s my ___ step program for getting your instruments in tune and STABLE.

  1. Give yourself time
    This whole process takes a day or two. Part of the secret sauce is giving the instruments a bit of time to settle and stretch before relying on it to hold steady.
  2. Get a clip-on Tuner
    Not essential, but oh man will you thank yourself later on. Clip-on tuners (sometimes called headstock tuners) “hear” the sound of the instrument through the clip so you can put on a TV show, or listen to music, or even talk to students while you’re going through the industrial tuning process we’re about to start. I’m a big fan of the D’addario brand tuners, especially Micro Universal Tuner (PW-CT-13) but anything of decent quality will work.
  3. Be Prepared for a work out.
    You’re going to do a lot of twisting. I’d recommend a hand peg winder or a drill attachment to help get the work done quicker. If you’re working on a class set, give yourself lots of time to do all of the tuning and don’t book your Violin Recital for the same night 😉
  4. Start to tune the ukuleles and don’t panic.
    Pick up a uke, get your tuner/piano/app ready to go and start tuning.
    The word that jumps to mind while I’m starting to tune a uke is “slippery”. If you’re using a tuner, you’ll be able to literally watch the ukulele fall out of tune. This is normal. There is no fault with the instrument or anything. You’re just dealing with a fresh batch of strings that needs to settle. Keep tuning and keep reading.
  5. Take a moment to Stretch.
    Nylon is a lovely material for strings. It lasts for years and creates a fantastically plinky and warm tone. The bad part is that it stretches…and stretches…and stretches. Help it along. Once the ukulele that you’re working on starts to “hold” it’s tuning, it’s time to give the strings a stretch. Get a finger under the string and gently pull it away from the finger board and hold for a slow count of 3. Do this for each string.
    How to Stretch Nylon Ukulele Strings
    Don’t be surprised if the tuning ‘progress’ you made goes away. You just stretched the tension out and will need to “tune” it back in. THIS IS THE GOAL!! The Nylon will only stretch so much so the more we can encourage it to do so now, the less likely it will while we are playing.

    5. Over Tune each Uke.
    This is the real magic. Nylon Strings stretch right? Well…let’s lean into it. Our normal Ukulele tuning is g,C,E,A, so if we push each uke up a whole step (a,D,F#,B) the string will take on some additional tension which will help encourage it to get it’s ya-ya’s out. (Incidentally, this tuning was wildly popular in the early part of the 1900’s).
    These are the notes you tune the ukulele to. Start with the string closest to you.
    6. Let the Uke get some sleep.
    Hopefully by now the ukulele is more or less settling in to the sharp tuning that we’ve pushed it to. You might notice the tuner/tone of the instrument dipping slightly flat as you pluck each string. That’s ok. That’s more of the string getting pre-stretched. Set the instrument down and give a while to rest at the sharp D tuning.

    7. Do it all over again.
    Once the instruments have rested and had a chance to stretch, you’ll end up repeating a mini version of the tuning process. Tune, Stretch, settle. You’ll notice that the instrument is a lot less “slippery” and will begin to hold tuning much more effectively.

    8. Tune back down to standard.
    Don’t forget to put the instrument back in standard tuning!
    It will feel a little weird to relax the instrument down to the notes g, C, E, A, but you’ll also notice that it feels a lot more comfortable.

    9. Play it in the rest of the way.
    Strumming the ukulele strings will provide some additional stretch and will help the instrument to fully settle in to its state of regular play. You might notice some additional flattening as the uke gets played but will be negligible compared to all of the drifting that occurred while we were settling the instrument.

Congrats! you got your ukulele settled and in tune.
When I’m doing this for a class set I’ll walk each of the instruments up through step 5 and then let them rest as a batch in the sharpened tuning. I’ll pay attention to which instruments are slipping more or less and keep an eye on them for any potentially bigger problems.

If I’m working with a used fleet, and I notice that the strings aren’t holding tune, I’ll put them through the above process, change the strings if they look severely worn, and then double check the tension screw on the back of the machine head. Over time these can slip a bit and a quick bit of hand tightening with a phillips-head screw driver will solve any problems.

Ukulele Machine Heads (Better than the rest)

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