So, your ukulele won’t stay in tune? There are several possible reasons for this, so let’s look at potential causes and what you can do to get your ukulele back in good order.
It’s Usually the Strings
The most common reason a ukulele won’t stay in tune is a problem with the strings. However, they may not be as much of a problem as you think.
First, it takes time to stretch new ukulele strings properly and get them to work with your instrument. If you’re having an issue with brand-new strings, it’s entirely possible that you need to keep tuning them until they stretch enough to hold the notes for a while.
Ukulele strings are much stretchier than metal guitar strings, so it takes time to make them settle in. Re-tuning new strings is not an indicator that they are defective or low-quality. It can take a few hours of playing and re-tuning to get new ukulele strings to a good spot, so try playing for a bit longer.
Most ukuleles ship with nylon strings, one of the cheapest options. Nylon helps produce a warm, mellow sound that works well with ukulele music. However, they’re also terrible at holding a tune. If you have nylon strings, you may need to re-tune them before each performance; this is normal.
Nylgut is another common choice for ukulele strings, and it’s also cheap, so your instrument may ship with these instead of nylon. Nylgut holds a tune much longer than nylon, so once you break them in, you should be able to go several performances between tunings.
Fluorocarbon strings are much more durable than nylon or Nylgut, with a bright sound that amplifies the potential of a ukulele. These hold a tune even longer than Nylgut, so despite their cost, they’re an excellent value for serious performers.
Most ukuleles only use some variant of plastic strings, which includes nylon, Nylgut, and fluorocarbon. Metal strings are available, but they can harm any ukulele not built to handle metal, so it’s usually better to avoid those.
Older strings tend to hold a tune longer. With sufficient use, they stretch to the right length and don’t try to shrink quite as quickly. However, older strings don’t sound as good as new ones, so it’s best to change them before your sound quality drops too much. Unfortunately, that means you’re going back to tuning.
Casual players (about 30 minutes of playing several times a week) should change ukulele strings every 6-12 months. Professional players and people who use their ukulele more often may need to change as often as every two months. Higher-quality strings tend to last longer, with fluorocarbon lasting several years.
If you haven’t played the ukulele for years, the strings are probably brittle and won’t hold a tune well. Replace them before you start playing again.
Remember, strings are aging even if they’re in their original packaging. If you buy strings and don’t use them for a decade, they may not be good when you put them on your instrument. Try getting the newest strings possible when your ukulele won’t stay in tune.
Matching Strings to Ukuleles
Some strings work better on certain ukuleles. Changes in the wood, bridge, nuts, and tuners can all affect how a string sounds and performs on your instrument. You may need to try ukulele strings from several manufacturers to determine which works the best on your instrument.
Also, remember to use strings that match your ukulele size. Putting soprano strings on a tenor ukulele isn’t going to work out.
Winding Strings Properly
Winding the strings correctly helps ensure they can hold the pitch properly. On most ukuleles, strings should wind from inside to outside the headstock. However, this can vary somewhat, so check a manual (if you got one) or contact the manufacturer if you’re unsure which way to wind the strings.
It’s hard to get this wrong once you have some experience, but amateurs often struggle to install strings correctly. If you haven’t done this before, try going into a shop and asking them to show you how to do it.
Temperature and Humidity
Outside of the strings, the most common reason that ukuleles go out of tune is the local temperature and humidity. Rapid changes can cause components to shift slightly, throwing your instrument out of tune.
The ideal situation is keeping your ukulele in a climate-controlled environment whenever you’re not playing it, but that’s not a realistic option for most people. Instead, consider putting a ukulele humidifier in the case if you’re in a drier area, which will help stop your ukulele from drying and cracking.
Keeping your ukulele in a case whenever you’re not playing it can also help minimize changes.
Realistically, however, you may still need to tune it before every performance. Most experienced musicians can tune a ukulele in less than 30 seconds, so if you only need to adjust it once a day, that’s probably good enough.
Higher-quality ukuleles hold a tune longer and better than low-cost choices. This is one of the main reasons it’s best to get at least a mid-quality ukulele, even if it’s your first instrument.
Your style of music can affect how quickly your strings go out of tune. In most cases, heavier strumming stretches the strings more, which causes them to go out of tune. Strumming gently or using a fingerstyle for playing has less impact, so the strings don’t go out of tune nearly as quickly.
If you have an aggressive playstyle, consider investing in fluorocarbon strings, which can handle things much better.
Your tuners probably aren’t the issue. Most modern ukuleles use a type of worm gear for their tuners. These tuners can’t go backward under typical circumstances, which stops you from pulling your strings out of tune that way.
However, older ukuleles may have a friction-based tuner. These can rotate backward, causing your strings to go out of tune. If this is your problem, try replacing the friction tuner with a worm gear, as the modern components are better.
On some occasions, ukuleles may have structural issues that force things out of tune. For example, a loose bridge can decrease the tension in your strings.
Most structural issues are easy to spot, so a simple visual inspection can help you determine if this is the issue. If so, the best solution is to take your ukulele to a repair shop. Most new ukuleles have a warranty for their first owner, so repairs and replacements may be free.
However, it’s worth remembering that structural problems are rare on everything except the cheapest instruments. Try checking for all other problems before bringing your instrument in for repairs.
Another rare problem is an issue with your tuning equipment, the tool you’re using to check if your instrument is tuned properly. Electronic tuners can fail, especially if they have water damage, ultimately making you think your instrument is out of tune when it’s fine.
Try some different tuning equipment if you suspect this problem. Many serious musicians have at least two different options here to minimize any necessary downtime.
That said, it’s more reliable when your equipment is working than trying to do it by ear. Undiagnosed hearing loss is a common problem in America and can make it hard to tell if you have the right pitch for your instrument.
Intonation issues are relatively rare problems where the strings sound in tune with the tuner but off when you play them normally. Pinpointing the reason for an intonation issue can be difficult, but the problem may involve issues with your fretboard, problems with nuts, or a need for adjustments of a truss rod.
Intonation issues require an expert’s touch to fix, so take your ukulele to an experienced luthier and explain your problem as best you can. If possible, try to list the exact places where the string seems out of tune. It may be bad in a single spot, not along the whole string, and knowing the problem area will help a luthier pinpoint and fix your issue.
How Often Do Professionals Tune Their Ukulele?
Professional musicians may tune their ukulele as often as before every song. If your instrument can’t hold a tune for a single song, that’s an issue. However, if it can last for a whole song, you can tune them so quickly that it ultimately becomes a habit.
Pros need to maintain a higher quality standard and often play multiple songs in a row. Casual and amateur musicians don’t play quite as much, so the ukulele may not need tuning more than once a day.
How To Keep A Ukulele In Tune, Final Thoughts
So, now that you know potential reasons why your ukulele won’t stay in tune, it’s time to fix your problems. Check the strings first, your tuners, and then the rest of the ukulele. Try a few different things, including strings from another manufacturer. If none of those solve your problem, bring your ukulele to an expert.