My favorite ukulele and I recently experienced a near tragedy. I took a tumble while playing at the Blue Stone Folk School Beginning and Intermediate Ukulele Workshop last Wednesday and actually snapped the tuner for the E string in half. Don't ask. I was sitting on a less than stable old camp stool that I’d salvaged from my dad’s garage, and it disintegrated right under me. After much billowing of skirt and a startled “OH!” I found myself sitting on the floor, my uke still clutched in my hands. It wasn’t until after I’d rounded up a more stable chair and prepared to play again that I realized that the E string was dangling uselessly, flapping on the fret board and unable to produce an acceptable note.
Geoff Davis let me play his Old Crow Resonator Ukulele for the remainder of the class, and assured me that nothing was broken that couldn’t be fixed. I smile cheerfully, and assured him that I had enough spare parts at home that I should be able to fix the problem on my own.
But, inside, I felt a bit like Ernie’s monster friend in this old Sesame Street clip:
In the end, the spare parts I had—salvaged from junky ukes and tuner upgrades on better ukes—didn’t do the trick. The cheaper, weaker tuners couldn’t hold the stress of the string, and my E continued to slip out of tune. I sent an S.O.S. email to the wonderful Mike Hater from Mainland Ukes in Nashville, Indiana. I’d originally purchased the pink tuners from him back in June during the Ukulele World Congress. True to form, Mike found the piece I needed, popped it in an envelope, and it arrived in the next day’s mail.
Everyone who knows Mike agrees that he is the embodiment of the Ukulele spirit. It’s been said that once you get Mainland uke, you become part of Mike and Tookta’s extended family. I don’t even have my Mainland yet, yet I still feel like well-loved kin. Mike, known as Hoosierhiver on YouTube, has a very unique delivery. He sings like he doesn’t care who is listening, and it is clear that he is one very contented man. Once you’ve watched a Hoosierhiver video, you get the feeling that maybe you already know the guy, pet chickens and all. He’s that swell.
LITTLE OLD LOG CABIN IN THE LANE
I used the new part that Mike sent me, and salvaged my precious pink tuner. But, the darn ukulele still wouldn’t stay in tune. Upon examining the headstock, I realized that the tumble, and consequent attempts to replace the tuner, had driven the metal parts of the tuner into the headstock. I thought my goose was cooked. I rattled off an email to Geoff Davis, bemoaning my situation. He told not to worry—“Wood stuff can always be fixed,” he says. I'm handing it over to him.
Meanwhile, it looks like I will be playing my soprano for the August 27 Alice Chalmers and the Stick a Cork in Your Jug Band at Locals Only.
The experience made me realize that every ukulele player needs a few odds and ends on hand, in case something like that should occur. What do folks keep in their ukulele cases? Extra strings? Spare tuners and tuner parts? A screw driver? Pocket knife? Super glue? Short of always having a spare ukulele on hand, I wanted to know what other, more seasoned players did to be prepared in the face of an emergency.
Some strategies were unexpected. Geoff Davis advises that ukers should always have beads and super glue on hand. It seems that on the way to the Eagle Creek Folk Festival in June, Geoff discovered that a piece of the bridge on his vintage Vita Uke was missing. He says, “It would not hold a string. I stopped at my least favorite big box store and bought super glue and a bead. I glued the bead to the bridge (kinda) and strung the uke through the bead. A couple of months later...still holdin'!”
My buddy Jim Ek says he never goes anywhere without zip ties and duct tape. When it comes to emergency ukulele repair, I am not so sure that using duct tape is the very best idea. Here’s a video of a guy inadvertently demonstrating two very important factors: First, duct tape doesn’t make for a very aesthetically pleasing repair. Second: just because you can fix your uke all by yourself, even with duct tape, doesn’t really mean that you are a master musician. I applaud FreshmanFred0000’s ingenuity, but I’m thinking maybe he should have left White Stripes’ SEVEN NATION ARMY alone.
My friends on Ukulele Underground also chimed in with their uke emergency kits. Bt93 says: "I have 2 tuner batteries, 5 sets of different strings, strap, cable, humidifier, hygrometer, polishing cloth, picks, and a tuner. Since there is not a lot of room in my case, I took the strings out of the packaging, wound them up, and then labeled them and put each in one of those mini ziplock bags (like the jewelry bags)."
And luthien advises: If you have friction tuners on the ukulele, a Phillips (Cross-head) screwdriver is always handy! And I
carry a nail file in the case, for widening/lowering fret slots if the nut is way too high. A clean duster for removing sweat, sticky fingers, and cleaning the strings after a long bout of playing. Spare strings and an electronic clip-on tuner."
Spare strings are a necessity that many of us don’t think of purchasing until we need them. This guy was pretty bummed to discover that his kid broke the strings on his ukulele.
Besides exhibiting a need for some simple parenting classes, I think this guy should maybe think about having some spare strings around. Or maybe some fishing line. A discussion at fleamarketmusic.com revealed a number of suggestions regarding line weights for use as ukulele strings. I know some folks who have tried it, and have been very happy with the inexpensive yet punchy-sounding results. I’ve even heard of people using weed whacker line for instrument strings.
Even if your uke seems broken beyond repair, don’t despair. The parts and pieces may be reincarnated into something new, playable, and perhaps even better than the original. Here’s our favorite uker, Gus, showing what he’s done with various ukuleles that came to him already broken:
If you happen to damage your ukulele, the most important thing to remember is not to freak out. If it’s broken, it can most likely be fixed. If it can’t be fixed, you can turn it into something else. Have a spare uke and some spare parts and a little fearless ingenuity, and just about any uke problem you have ends up being small potatoes.
UKE REPAIR RESOURCES
Did you know that Sam Ash now has a luthier on site? He recently fixed an old Blue Comet ukulele that sales manager Jon Martin picked up on eBay. After seeing this guy’s work, I’d be perfectly comfortable leaving a ukulele in his expert hands.
A number of ukulele websites and stores offer spare parts. You can order high-quality friction or geared tuners, Aquila strings, and necks for cigar box ukuleles from Mainland Ukes.