Upgrading an Inexpensive Ukulele

Hello Friends!

First, we need to get this out of the way, as in any upgrade / DIY article:

WARNING/DISCLAIMER: Any modification or upgrades that you do to your instrument, you do so freely at your own risk. Neither Musicians Unite nor the author of this article is responsible for any damages to your instrument that can incur no matter how simple they may appear.

Continuing in this three part series of articles, we are going to look at some inexpensive acoustic instruments and how to improve them. The second instrument that we are going to upgrade is this tenor ukulele that I purchased. You can usually find these instruments around the $39.00 USD range on websites like eBay, ect. This brand is Kasch from a company call Yoshioe (pronounced: yo-shi-oh) from Amazon.

Mainly made in China, the majority of these inexpensive ukuleles are made using laminated wood for the body. This one has sapele wood for the entire body (and neck) which is brighter sounding than mahogany laminate. The rosewood fretboard on the neck is nice and the rosewood bridge is OK too. Sometimes, and again I would like to stress this point, you take a chance buying an instrument like this because quality control may be "spotty" for lack of a better term. However sometimes with an inexpensive instrument (like this one that I received), you can get one that actually plays well.

You don't have to buy this ukulele per se, just read the many online reviews out there on whatever inexpensive ukulele you are interested in. Sometimes you can weigh out the people posting reviews based off of their skill level, age or even sadly “fake” positive product posts that some companies do. Oh yes I've seen it all folks, really. Some companies have been known to build their quick sales from false web reputations, and I'm not pointing any fingers. I'm just saying that as a general statement in regards to some instrument music companies in general.

This tenor ukulele here I already shaved down the white plastic saddle to lower the strings when I received it. As a quick tip, the white saddle that the strings go over can be taken out of the bridge, and the underside of it can be sanded or filed down using a standard metal flat file. That will make the saddle's height lower, and that will bring the string height closer to the fret board. You don't want to go wicked low, because that may create string buzzing. Also it's hard sometimes to find out from the product description of the actual thickness of the saddle. In some cases you may have to file down the sides of the saddle to make the saddle fit into the bridge slot.

Here is a great tip that I'll give you to help you shave / file down your original plastic ukulele bridge saddle. Get a regular wood Popsicle stick; loosen the string all the way WITHOUT taking the strings off. You may need some sort of pliers to gently pull the white saddle out. Then cut the wood Popsicle stick carefully with some sharp scissors to the length of that original white saddle.

Then take a little bit off of the bottom of the Popsicle stick and put it into the Ukulele bridge as a temporary saddle. Tighten your ukulele strings again. In using the wood Popsicle stick as a template or guide you can see how low you can go string height wise to the fret board without getting any annoying buzzing. Then use that same wood Popsicle stick as a marker to your original bridge in regards to knowing the correct height dimensions to sand or file down the original plastic ukulele bridge to match the wood Popsicle stick.

After I did all of that I was happy that the string height was lower to the fretboard, but I wanted to replace the plastic saddle to something better. Most common saddles out there are real bone and synthetic bone saddles, and they produce great bright tones and also longer sustain in notes than plastic saddles. They also are a denser thicker material and do not wear down as much in other acoustic string instruments such as acoustic guitars.

What I chose is an older material that has been used for both string nut and string saddles - ebony wood. The reason why I decided to go with ebony wood for the saddle is it will enhance the deeper sound of the larger tenor ukulele. Tenor ukulele can be tuned lower than a normally tuned soprano ukulele. Also because the strings are monofilament / carbon filament, they will not wear down the ebony wood saddle. If this was an acoustic guitar with regular strings, yes I would certainly use a real or synthetic bone saddle instead.

I found a really good deal on Amazon (yes, I get a lot of items there!) on an ebony saddle and string nut for only $5.31 USD.

The string nut is important as it holds the strings in place to the tuning pegs of the headstock, but I do not think I'll see an overall improvement replacing that. We'll put it aside for now in our spare parts bin as it may come in handy for another project down the road as the saying goes.

When we again loosen the strings all the way without taking the strings off, remove the white plastic saddle gently with some needle nose pliers. We notice that the white plastic saddle that I shaved down earlier (noted in this article above) the ebony saddle needs to be shaved down in the same manner:

What I did next to make the process faster was after marking the material that I needed to shave / file off the bottom of the ebony saddle (and again, I used my Popsicle stick tip noted above in this article) I used a cordless dremel rotary tool to shave down the majority of the bottom ebony material from the saddle, then I used a metal file to make the surface evenly flat.

As you see in this picture, I almost have taken half off of the bottom of the saddle:

I then placed the saddle back into the ukulele bridge, and tighten the strings and played up and down the fretboard. 100% perfect! The timbre of the strings sounds fuller at especially the lower tuning of this tenor ukulele. I also found afterwards that with the original plastic saddle I would get a “clack” sound when strumming. That is not the case anymore! The ebony wood certainly made this upgrade project worthwhile doing. Right where the strings go over, we can see the thin ebony saddle in place. The “Sun will shine”, indeed.

Last great tip. If you take too much off of your original saddle, and you do have string buzz, do not fret (pun intended). Again take a Popsicle stick, use a pair of scissors and carefully cut off thin strips of wood and place that wood under your plastic saddle when you slide it back into your bridge.

This will increase your saddle height in small increments until the string buzz goes away (from the strings too low and hitting one of the frets). Making these is what is called “saddle shims”. Some people may say a lot in regards to making shims like that, but we are not talking about a vintage ukulele that costs over $1000 either. There is no loss of sound either in making shims in this manner. There is still proper sound transfer. The same can be done for acoustic guitars as well. Stay tuned for article three next week!!

So good luck and have fun!!

-Thomas Rawding - MU Columnist

*Thomas Rawding (AKA: Mr.Tom) is an multi-instrumentalist, singer and a registered songwriter currently under BMI, Inc. He has been playing and recording music for more than 20 years and continues to write and record songs in South Carolina, for both retail sale and commercial licensing.

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