Whether you’re somewhere over the rainbow or can’t help but falling in love– you’re ukulele is the instrument to get you there.
Over the past six years, the ukulele’s popularity has steadily grown. From its appearance in blockbuster movies to its fan-base on YouTube, the instrument is a staple in folk and indie music today.
Like any instrument that gains popularity overnight, new musicians are unaware of how to properly maintain it.
Starting out with a new instrument is intimidating enough while learning how to play. Friends, family, and instructors will have different opinions about proper care and maintenance.
We have assembled some straight-forward maintenance tips to help keep your ukulele in great condition.
The strings on your ukulele are the key to creating the sound everyone knows and loves. Without taking care of them, your music will suffer.
There are a few signs that indicate when you need to replace your strings
- Noticing grooves or roughness from the fretboard
Strings should feel smooth to the touch when they are in good shape. After you’ve played with the same set of strings for a while you’ll begin to notice grooves and unevenness. These can cause a string to break while you’re playing.
- Needing to tune your ukulele
New strings will naturally take time to be tuned. If you notice older strings are losing tune more often, however, you should consider replacing them.
- The sound of the instrument is dull or distorted
Your ukulele should sound vibrant and loud. If it starts sounding duller or not quite right, replacing the strings will give it back its original quality.
How often you use your instrument will determine how often you will need to replace your ukulele strings. Strings are more durable than they used to be and may not need to be replaced as often as you think.
Musicians who play heavily replace them every couple of months. For more recreational users, it is recommended you change your strings at least twice a year. This will ensure your ukulele sounds its best every time you play.
If a string breaks while you’re playing it is best to replace all of the strings at once rather than just that one string. Your strings are likely to be worn down and in need of replacement anyway. This can happen if your strings are overstretched or worn from extended use.
While restringing, be sure to start at one end and work your way towards the other– replacing one at a time keeps stress on the fretboard. If you’re just starting out, take your ukulele to a local music store or instructor to learn the proper way to restring.
They can also help you determine the best strings for the sound you want.
Neck and Body
Taking care of your instrument means doing more than just focusing on its strings.
Ukuleles are usually made from one of six types of wood:
Like all wood, its quality depends on the conditions of its environment.
Humidity is a huge factor in keeping your instrument in good shape. Humidity is defined as the amount of water vapor in the air. Solid wood ukuleles are affected more than laminated ones but both have adverse reactions to too much or too little humidity in the air.
When it’s too high, or above 60 percent humidity, the wood absorbs the water and expands. This causes swelling and distortions in the body and neck of your instrument.
If the air is too dry, at less than 40 percent humidity, your instrument will contract. When this happens you could see cracks and breaks.
Some climates have varying degrees of humidity depending on the time of year. Your instrument goes through phases of swelling and contracting in this environment. The damage from expanding and contracting over time will cause irreparable defects.
Signs that your ukulele is experiencing these effects can range from warping on laminated instruments, glue loosening, neck bending or top sinking. Cracks will appear in the body and the wood will become brittle.
The best way to prevent that from happening is to gauge the humidity where you store your instrument and being aware of the weather when you play outdoors. A hydrometer will do the trick. This tells you the percent of water vapor in the air around you.
An ideal environment for your ukulele will be somewhere between 45-55% humidity.
In a home setting with air conditioning and heating, the air will be drier than normal. Purchasing a ukulele humidifier will keep the water vapor levels at an optimal range for your instrument. The humidifier goes inside your instrument, attached to your strings and allows water vapor to pass through it.
For environments with too much moisture, however, it can be a little trickier. While there isn’t a special dehumidifier for the ukulele, you can purchase one for the room it is being stored in. This will control the level of water vapor around the instrument and prevent swelling.
Knowing the best atmosphere for the type of wood your ukulele is made from can help you determine the best way to care for it.
Aside from humidity, your fretboard can also be affected by your use of a capo.
If you do use one, put it on and take it off properly to prevent damage such as dents. This is especially true for capos without rubber protectors.
When placing the capo on, be sure to open the clamp entirely and place it on gently. When taking it off, be sure the clamp is opened all the way and don’t slide it over the strings.
If you continue to slide the capo on and off you will begin to notice damage to the fretboard and your strings.
Another thing to keep in mind while you’re playing is to use the right pick. You don’t want the end of your pick to hit the body of your ukulele while playing. Over time this will result in nicks and scratches.
Using proper techniques while playing and being mindful of your environment will keep your ukulele looking and sounding great.
Storing your Ukulele
Being aware of the humidity is one aspect to storing your ukulele but water vapor isn’t the only danger to your instrument.
Places NOT to store your ukulele:
- In your car
Don’t do it. The temperature in your car can reach extreme highs and lows that will damage the integrity of your instrument. Storing an instrument in a car gives you no control over environmental factors.
- Your garage or unfinished basement
Much like your car, your garage is not an ideal place to keep your ukelele. Many garages and basements are damp, dirty and unless altered as a studio or living space, it’s a no-go. Water damage is a real threat.
- Next to that heater or fireplace
This seems like common sense, not to put a wooden instrument next to a fireplace, but space heaters or vents can also warp your ukulele. You should also be sure to never keep your instrument in direct sunlight. This will cause fading and heat damage.
This includes but is not limited to porches, patios, sheds or other closed in spaces exposed to the elements.
Places TO store your ukulele:
- A bedroom or studio room
Having your ukulele in a space you can control the humidity and temperature will keep your instrument in tip-top shape.
- In a case
Most ukuleles will come in a soft case or bag when they are first purchased. For the average owner who is playing periodically at home or for recreation, this is great!
If you are a musician who travels often and takes your ukulele with you, a hard case is better suited for your needs. A hard case will also keep the humidity level balanced with the help of a ukulele humidifier.
Choosing the right case for you is a decision based on use and necessity.
- On a stand or wall hook
Getting a stand for your ukulele will give it it’s own designated safe space. A wall hook will provide the same support but can be easier in smaller spaces.
Be careful not to put your instrument up too high on a shelf or on the floor. Falling down or being dropped can cause breaks in the body or neck. Keeping it off ground level will protect it from feet, dirt, dust and possible water spills.
Maintenance Tips for Cleaning
Your fingers produce oils and sweat that will clog your instrument over time. Neglecting to clean your ukulele leads to a build-up of that oil and dirt. This prevents the wood from breathing and absorbing the moisture it needs.
After every time you play, wipe down the strings, neck, and body of your ukulele with a dry microfiber cloth. This attracts the dust and dirt that accumulates while you play.
If you don’t keep your ukulele in a case, wiping it down every couple of days will keep dust buildup from causing issues later on.
For minor cleanups and keeping your fretboard and strings from oil buildup– musicians recommend using Dunlop 65 Lemon Oil. Using a small amount, the oil will wipe away dirt, sweat, and oils left behind from your fingertips. It also acts as a sealant to prevent further stains or grime.
For the body of your ukulele, how you care for it will depend on whether or not it is painted or laminated.
For solid wood ukuleles, using a damp cloth (not wet) wipe it down and dry thoroughly.
If your ukulele is laminated, painted, or finished you take the same steps– making sure to wipe away the smudge marks with a dry cloth– and add polish. Do not use shoe polish or other alternatives. Speak to a professional at a local music store to determine the best polish for your ukulele.
You will only need a small dollop on a soft cloth to polish. Over-polishing will leave a thin layer of extra polish and leave marks on the surface.
Polishing and other extensive cleaning should only be done when necessary. Always use clean microfiber or cotton cloths. Other materials or leftover debris will be abrasive to the wood and fretboard.
The more proactive you are about cleaning your ukulele, the longer the lifespan it will have.
Repairing the Damage
If you find your ukulele becomes damaged after humidity or being dropped it is important to know what you can fix and when you need a professional.
For easy fixes like re-gluing part of the fretboard or a loose screw from a tuning peg feel free to do it yourself. These are usually basic fixes that are a product of wear and tear.
If you find your ukulele is showing damage from humidity– either a crack, warp or neck bowing– you will need to see a professional. These types of damages have the potential to become much worse if you don’t know what you’re doing.
Getting these damages repaired right away is in your ukulele’s best interest. Using the maintenance tips above will prevent these from happening but we all know accidents happen.
Long Live Your Ukulele
As you become aware of how to properly care for your ukulele you can begin focusing more on learning how to play it.
Without these maintenance tips, you will find your ukulele needing replaced long before it is necessary. Staying vigilant to signs your ukulele is in distress will prevent you from having to take more serious action later on.
If you’re interested in learning more about ukuleles– from accessories, tabs, or how to tune it, contact Eduardo Uke.
Eduardo Perez is a multi-instrumentalist with over 20 years of experience playing instruments such as piano, guitar, ukulele, and bass. Having arranged songs and produced music in a recording studio, he has a wealth of knowledge to share about analyzing songs, composing, and producing. Currently pursuing a Bachelor of Arts degree in Interdisciplinary Musical Studies at Berklee College School of Music. Featured on Entrepreneur.com. Subscribe to his YouTube channel, or follow him on Instagram.