From ghoulies and ghosties
and long-leggety beasties
and strings that go sprong in the night-
Good Lord, deliver us.

By Dr. George Orthey
This article reprinted by permission of
Autoharp Quarterly,
from the July 1989 issue, Volume One, Number Four.
Please note that I blithely substituted Ukelin wherever Autoharp was written.

Tuning problems are not at all unique to the ukelin. Every stringed instrument owner is blessed with the tuning dilemma to some degree. However, with the ukelin, we are talking at least 36 strings here, which makes us lovers of this instrument just a little more interested in the tuning subject than, say, the three- or four- stringed Appalachian dulcimer player.

Good physical condition of the ukelin is basic to its staying in tune.

If your ukelin is warping, coming apart at the seams, or has loose pins, you have headaches. If the ukelin won't stay in shape or the tuning pins won't hold, all else is lost.

Restringing a ukelin either one string or a whole set, must be done properly.

Each string should be firmly seated at the ball [or loop] end so that no further slippage will occur after the ukelin is tuned. This is easiest to do by tuning the string up above its intended pitch, repeatedly plucking the string and observing it to drift steadily flat. Keep tuning it up till it doesn't drift flat and holds a steady note. Pull the brass-wound bass strings and the middle octave of non-wound strings up and 1 or 2 notes high till they stabilize. Do this with each string as you put it there. But, don't leave it there. Tune it down below its intended pitch. If you are just doing one replacement string, bring it up to pitch. If you are doing a whole replacement set, leave it tuned low and go on to the next string. After the strings are all on, tune all the C's, then all the D's, they all the E's, etc. so you load the ukelin evenly.

Do all your stringing and tuning in one sitting. Don't ever leave a randomly tuned ukelin sit for any length of time- even overnight.

A piano tuner's nightmare is a randomly pitched piano. It can be carefully retuned many times and still it will wander aimlessly. These are all issues of string "memory".

A ukelin in poor tune cannot be tuned today for performance tomorrow. It must be brought to pitch, allowed to stabilize, then retuned as near as possible to the time of performance. It is still likely [to] drift out of tune as you play it.

Avoid too much winding on the pins.

Standard replacement strings are made to wrap about 4 turns around the pins. If you are using hammered dulcimer wire or guitar wire for a replacement, a string length about 2 to 3 inches beyond the pin will give you 4 to 5 winds. Too much winding, overlapping, and uneven coils on the pins will increase the chance of slippage, and therefore should be avoided.

For the new player, I would like to put a word in here about replacing a broken string.

So many people have asked me, "When replacing a string, how do I know when I have wound a string enough times on the pin? How far into the ukelin should I turn the pin?" I tell them to remember to back up the tuning pin as many revolutions (counter-clockwise) as the string is wrapped on the pin. Then remove the old wire. Put the new string through the hole about one-quarter inch past the hole, bend over the end, and turn the pin clockwise the same number of turns. Better yet, use the method I developed years ago. After pulling the string through the hole, double the end over about one quarter of an inch with needle-nosed plier. Then, carefully guide the loop back into the hole before rewinding. This technique helps keep the string from pulling back through the hold while tightening, and you won't have those string ends stabbing your fingers or pulling the threads of your clothing. When tuned the string should come tight with the pin back where you started.

Don't ever pick up your ukelin by the tuning pins-

Especially the high treble pins. Just the weight of the ukelin alone will be enough to move the pins enough to knock those strings out of tune.

So why does a perfect, well-strung, solid ukelin like yours still lose its tuning on the bedpost overnight? Or more frustrating yet, between the 2 pm tuning and the 3pm performance?

String drift on the bridge after tuning can be a cause:

You pluck string #1 gently, then turn it up to pitch. Then the next, (#2 string), you get too high, so you pluck it gently and turn it down to pitch. The first time you play the ukelin firmly, the #1 string will drift sharp, the #2 string, flat. To avoid this, tune all strings up to pitch while plucking the string firmly and repeatedly. The string will settle at its proper pitch now, not later.

If you are a very gentle tuner and gentle player and have not properly seated your strings, avoid asking [a rough player to show you some licks].

If you don't heed this advice, you will have to reseat your strings and tune up - again. This time using a firm steady plucking on each string.

String age is a very controversial subject.

Some say replace strings when you break them. This results in strings that very from one hour to ten years old [plus!] on the same ukelin. Others say re-string periodically, as the strings will go "dead" and will be hard to keep in tune. My experience shows both to be correct. For those who play gently, clean their instruments meticulously, store them in cases, and treat them generally like the crown jewels, breakage rarely occurs and frequent replacement of strings is not necessary. For those people who "ride 'em hard and put 'em away wet," annual replacement is a must for both sound quality and tune-ability.

Last, and probably by far, the most frustrating problem in the fine tuning of 36 strings is the Constant and Unprdicatable Ravages of Weather.

Temperature gives rapid and short-term change; humidity, long-term change. Unfortunately, different string diameters, tensions, and some wound- vs. unwound-string effects cause strings to go sharp or flat independently. The shorter, higher-pitched, and tighter a string, the more it is affected by the weather.

Having weathered 26 years of craft and music shows in all seasons, I have made the following discovery: if I tune an instrument at say - - 2pm on a sunny afternoon, no matter how bad it sounds the next morning in the middle of a cloudburst, later that day, when the sun is shining again, it will be miraculously back in tune again!

Anything that can be done to stabilized the instrument's environment will help to reduce the problem. Tune it in a temperature/humidity environment similar to where you will be playing. Keep it in a case and protect the case from extreme heat and cold. If a sudden summer hail storm appears and the temperature drops 30 degrees as you stand waiting your turn at Winfield, you can always hope it keeps up long enough that the sound of the hail on the tin roof will drown out your out-of-tune ukelin. And, you can rest assured that the poor soul who is at that moment competing on stage is hearing his ukelin slowly go mad. There are no favorites played in this game.


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