Need to understand why your ukulele strings are buzzing?
I Asked a Luthier How To Fix Ukulele Buzzes & Rattles (So You Don’t Have To)
I don’t know about you, but when I was an absolute beginner ukulele player, walking into instrument shops – whether they were; specialist ukulele stores, guitar shops with a range of ukuleles or full selection, general instrument shops, it always seemed daunting. I felt like (and later made friends with someone who worked in a shop who confirmed it that) the staff were on commission, that they wanted to upsell me (whether that was with instruments, accessories, or lessons) and so I didn’t feel confident to ask ‘stupid’ questions about my ukulele, their ukulele or anything to do with stringed instruments in general.
What’s a ukulele teacher and why should you care what they say?
A ukulele teacher is someone who teaches ukulele. That’s ME! Lorraine Bow! I know my limits, though. I realise I may not be the finest player in the universe, or the hottest looker, but my day job since 2009 has been teaching people how to play the ukulele. I’ve taught hundreds of people how to play the ukulele in person. From children at school to the Olympic Organising Committee to Ant and Dec. My bread and butter has been teaching adult groups in pubs as it combined three of my great loves, gin, ukulele and singing in a group. Since COVID19, meeting up in person and singing (causing lots of -possibly infected- aerosolized particles) to spread in a room is one of the most risky things to do. So, I’ve decided to share my ‘wisdom’ online. At first, I hastily put the existing in-person courses online. I’m planning to keep them until 2021 but now I have someone wiser than me helping me to get my ‘knowledge’ out there so it’s accessible to everyone and those who want to, can join me on a course and a live zoom class. I’m not trying to sell you anything. So, I hope this blog helps you. Onward…
What’s a luthier?
A luthier (/ˈluːtiər/ LOO-ti-ər) is a craftsperson who builds and repairs string instruments that have a neck and a sound box. The word “luthier” is originally French and comes from the French word for lute. Because this is not a skillset I have, I talked to my friend, George Pearson who is a luthier.
What’s a technician?
Further along, you’ll see me refer to luthiers or technicians. What’s the difference? The difference between a technician and a luthier is that a technician can fix and maintain an instrument but isn’t necessarily versed in instrument construction.
Over the years, I’ve been asked by lots of students how to fix ukuleles that make noises – unwanted noises that is, like rattling or buzzes, mechanical imbalanced noises and things that I do not know how to fix, but George does, so I thought I’d ask him and share that with you so you might be able to fix your ukulele at home. If you want to watch our full 20 min zoom chat, you can see that here, but I’m going to write up the key things here. Massive caveat: sometimes, you’ll be able to fix your ukulele at home, and others, you might need a technician or a luthier to take charge.
To help you with listening, locating and diagnosing where the buzz or rattle is coming from.
If you’re new to the ukulele, move your hand up and down on the fretboard, where you’re playing. If you hear a rattle when you’re playing all the way up the strings, the likelihood is that it’s something on the body or the headstock. That’s one of the things we’ve covered so it’s probably something attached to the ukulele.
Things you can fix at home:
Strings are a very common source of buzz. They’re the moving parts when you’re playing. That can give you problems, not least due to the fact that over time they will get worn so, if you’re having a problem with the buzz when you’re playing, hand it over to someone else to verify that it is the strings – it could be something else – so double check that. If it is indeed the strings, get yourself a new set of strings and pop them on. That should help sound of the ukulele get rid of all those little buzzes. It’s possible for them to get worn underneath the string – between the string and the fret, where the string hits down on the fret, it can wear out. The frets are made a metal, the strings are (typically) made of nylon, nylon will wear out first. You may have seen, the little divots underneath when you don’t change your strings for a long time. A new set of strings will sort that out straight away.
2. Excess and overhanging strings
Something to be mindful of, when you do change your strings is, at the headstock that there’s no excess or overhanging string. Excess string hanging around at the top, whether it’s wrapped up into a little loop or hanging around, it could move about and could buzz off the headstock or other bits of string at the headstock. It’s always good if they’re nice and neatly put on, so they’re not slipping through. Snip them off when you’ve put the new ones on and you’re all tuned up, either with scissors for ukulele strings or a specialist guitar string cutter if you have one. If you also play guitar, due to the metal strings, it’s worth investing in a set of these.
For ukulele, a set of nail clippers or a pair of scissors will do the job as they have nice soft plastic strings.
3. Loose fittings
Loose fittings come in different forms.
a. tuning pegs or machine heads.
Tuning pegs or tuning machines have got a few moving parts to them and rattles can come from those. There are a few different types so some of the bits you might hear are [demonstrated on the video] This little ferrule which slides over the post and as you can see it moves about a bit. That movement can cause a rattle, that could be part of the cause. Another type of machine head is this, which has got a little nut, which tightens up onto the headstock. If that’s not tight onto the headstock, it can move about, especially the washer underneath. That will rattle around and cause a bit of noise. If the tuning keys aren’t tightened up properly, they can move about and rattle. To fix that is really easy. All you need is a regular screwdriver – a phillips screwdriver, or a spanner – an adjustable spanner. These are easy things to get hold of, in any hardware store. This is a very easy fix if that’s where the noise is coming from. Always worth checking the parts of the ukulele first.
b. Strap button
The strap button is a little part that juts out of the bottom of your ukulele. It’s usually metal or plastic, screwed into the wood. It could come loose. All you need is a screwdriver to tighten it up. If it’s been over tightened or if the thread has been stripped out, it might not be possible to tighten the screw, in which case, you can plug the hole with a matchstick or a cocktail stick. Pop that in the hole and screw it tight. It’s a wood screw going in to a block of wood in the bottom of the ukulele so there’s nothing on the inside to worry about.
4. Electric, or electro acoustic ukuleles have additional parts that can cause unwanted noise.
i The pickup system which has a few sections:
a. jack socket and/or nut
Look at the jack socket, where the cable plugs in. Sometimes that nut can come loose. It’s
worth keeping an eye on that because it can come off completely. Then the socket will drop inside. If it’s working loose, tighten it up gently. Make sure you’re not twisting the whole thing around because inside you might break the wires. Be weary of that and carefully tighten up again with your little adjustable spanner.
The wires can also make buzzy noises in electro-acoustic ukuleles. You should be OK, so long as you are gentle and don’t force anything. Otherwise, this is a little trickier to fix, because you might have to go inside the ukulele. If you’re not sure what you’re doing, take your ukulele to a shop where a technician or luthier, who knows how everything’s secured inside can take care of it, because you might do some damage. If you’re try to force anything, like a hand or something through the sound hole, it might cause some damage.
c. preamp and or battery compartment
These are another very common source of rattles, not only on ukuleles, but on anything with an acoustic style preamp. A little bit of electrical tape can sometimes help but it depends on the kind of battery it uses because you get ones with 9-volt batteries – the big square ones, that are big and heavy, they’re the worst! They can rattle around quite a bit. You can fix that with a little piece of foam or a bit of electrical tape. Some people even fold up a bit of paper so the battery can’t move about, and it’s pressed neatly – not too tightly so you can’t get the battery back out, but neatly against the battery box so it doesn’t rattle around.
If it’s an external piece that is easily fixed with say a spanner or a screwdriver, have a go at it yourself. Take it easy! Don’t force anything. If anything’s not going properly, say, if the jack socket nut isn’t tightening up properly, don’t keep going. Don’t force anything – it might break it. Take it easy, go gently and you can probably fix most of those external things with a screwdriver or a spanner. That’s it for the bits you should fix yourself. To avoid damage, stick to external, easy fixes only.
The setup is, essentially, the height of the strings from the fingerboard or the nut. A good way of discounting if you’re nut’s causing a rattle or buzz is to play a fretted note. If it starts rattling or buzzing at that point, you know the nut’s the problem. That’s something I’d recommend taking to a technician or luthier. It’s a very finely made piece. You’d need a set of nut files that would set you back, generally, over a hundred pounds or so to fix it properly. Unless you’ve got the right tools and know what you’re doing, pop it in to a technician or luthier. It will cost a fraction of the cost of the tools, and they have the experience to do it properly.
The setup can be a big component of how well the ukulele plays and if it’s going to make buzzing noises when you’re playing it. The ideal, really, is to have the strings as low to the frets as you can, so you don’t have to use too much effort to play them. However you can only go so far.
What is action, in relation to my ukulele?
Action can be described as high or low action. If it’s high action, the strings are held high, away from the fretboard. This makes it tricky to press down to make chords. Low action is closer to the fingerboard, but you can only go so far before the strings will start buzzing off the frets, so it’s always a compromise. It’s a personal preference.
The benefit of having high versus low action?
The benefit of a higher action is that you can hit the strings harder to get a bit more volume and possibly more tone from your ukulele without it buzzing. It can produce more volume but you have to work harder for it. If you go for a lower action, it’s going to be much easier to play but you won’t be able to play it as hard or get as much volume out of the ukulele so, that’s the compromise. It depends what you’d like to go for. Whether you’re struggling to play it or if you want to get more sound out of it.
How much would it cost to get the ideal action from having a decent setup by a technician or luthier?
If you wanted to get as low action as possible but with the maximum amount of volume, (which is the best compromise we can manage) how much, on average might that cost? It varies on who you go to each repairer will have their own price and price list. The done thing is to ask for a quote beforehand. If you’re unsure of how much you want to spend, have a discussion with the technician. For a twenty quid uke, you won’t want to spend fifty quid on the setup, I would say.
Georges’s standard setup prices, at time of recording, in May 2020 for reference is £45 pounds for a guitar or £35 for a ukulele. George also plays and fixes all kinds of stringed instruments. He’s a double bassist. If you spend money on a good setup, your ukulele will be a lot better than it was when you bought it. It’ll more enjoyable to play and, and as Marie Kondo would say it’ll ‘spark joy’ and it’ll be enjoyable to practice. It will make you want to play it more if it’s rewarding you to play. So a good set up is definitely worth the money if the ukulele was worth the money in the first place. Totally fair.
Breakages or new ukuleles
The final thing to address that could cause buzzes or rattles are structural issues. These could be causing your ukulele to make buzzing noises. Let’s start with breakages. If it’s if it’s had an accident or if it’s buzzing when it’s new, don’t forget that to get to the shop that you bought it from, it’s had to be shipped from somewhere. It may well have had a bit of damage in transit that’s not immediately apparent. You may have bought it and not noticed a problem with it straight away. Things like that are often because of loose braces, say if it’s had a bit of pressure on the top, you might have a brace pop loose. Other things could include cracks, so if you have a look, there might be a crack in the wood. The top is a solid piece of wood, essentially. Even if it’s been together, it’s a solid piece. If there’s a crack, the two sides of that crack can move about and hit off each other. Not enough that you’d be able to see, but you’ll hear it in a little bit of a buzz. So cracks, loose braces, are the sort of things you’d take to a technician. If it was a particularly cheap ukulele, you’d want to take it back to the shop if you’ve only just bought it. Unless, of course, you’ve caused the damage – in which case, you’re a bit stuck. Is that an expensive thing to fix? If it’s a super cheap ukulele, it’s not worth getting it repaired. Most technicians will be at least £20 pounds per hour for their labour rate. That’s at the lower end of the scale, as well. If it will take them over an hour to repair the ukulele properly, then it could be more than the ukulele cost to buy. In which case, it’s a write off. You’d have to make that call yourself, but always chat to a technician. They’re usually very friendly and willing to openly chat about how much their repairs will cost to give you an estimate, so there’s no nasty shock at the end. Also, if the neck has snapped or something and you’re thinking of taking it in to a technician, don’t have a go yourself first. It makes the job of repairing it so much harder. Anything external or structural, get it done professionally.
For easy, external loose bits and pieces, like strings and loose fittings, like tuners, you can probably fix that yourself.
If it’s a tricky external or structural issue, then please take it in to a professional, like a luthier or a technician.
OK, you made it to near the end! That should cover most buzzes and rattles, and noises – unwanted noises. There may be some few other mystery things out there but take your ukulele to a technician in those instances. Those are the common causes. It feels remiss not to pimp George’s services whilst you’re here, but he doesn’t service nationwide. So, if you’re in and around Epsom or vaguely SW London, drop George a line.