Anatomy of a Ukulele - dummies

By Alistair Wood

Ukuleles are usually shaped like small guitars, but other shapes are also common (the pineapple shape is popular). The shape of the ukulele doesn’t usually make a great deal of difference to the sound, but some shapes — the Flying-V, triangular ukuleles, and cricket bat-shaped electric ukuleles come to mind — are harder to play, so don’t choose one of the wackier shapes for your first uke.

Ukuleles share many part names with people parts — body and neck, for instance.

A typical ukulele.
A typical ukulele.

The two sound-producing parts are

  • Body: The body is the main part and where the sound is produced. The body is divided into three main parts: soundboard or top (the front of the uke), the back, and the sides. The soundboard is the most important part, which is why you often see ukuleles with expensive woods used for the top and less expensive wood, or even plastic, on the back and sides.

  • Strings: Nowadays, ukulele strings are made from synthetic fibers (with ugly names such as fluro-carbon and nylgut) that combine the best features of the catgut and nylon that uke strings used to be made from.

The rest of the ukulele’s parts are

  • Bridge: The bridge is attached to the front of the ukulele and holds the strings at the bottom end. Two main types of bridge exist: one where you tie the strings to the bridge, and one where you knot the end of the string and thread it through a slit.

  • Saddle: The saddle is the thin, usually white, piece that sticks up out of the bridge. The strings rest on top of the saddle.

  • Soundhole: This round hole on the front of your ukulele lets the sound out. The soundhole is usually placed under the strings, but not always. The placement of the soundhole doesn’t particularly impact on the sound.

  • Neck: The neck is the long bit that sticks out of the body. Ukulele necks are lighter and weaker than similar instruments, such as guitars and mandolins, because they’re designed for nylon strings. So don’t be tempted to put steel guitar strings on your uke; you’ll snap the neck.

  • Fretboard: The fretboard is the strip of wood that runs along the neck just behind the strings. When you’re playing your ukulele, you press the strings down against the fretboard to produce notes.

  • Frets: The frets are strips of metal that go vertically across the fretboard. They mark out the different pitches of the notes. The higher up the fretboard, the higher the note is musically.

  • Fret markers: Fret markers are the dots on the fretboard. They make it easier for you to spot which fret is which farther up the neck. Ukuleles have fret markers on the 5th, 7th and 10th frets (and also at the 12th and 15th if the fretboard extends that far).

    This arrangement can be a little confusing for guitar players who pick up a ukulele, because guitars have a marker at the 9th fret rather than the 10th.

  • Nut: The nut marks the end of the fretboard. The strings sit on it as they go from the fretboard to the headstock. It forms the end of the section of the strings that you play.

  • Headstock: The headstock is located at the end of the fretboard and is there to hold the tuners. But its main function is as an advertising spot for the uke maker.

  • Tuners: Tuners are attached to the headstock and hold the strings of the ukulele. You change the tuning of your strings by twiddling them. Two types of tuner exist:

    • Friction tuners: Traditionally, ukuleles have friction tuners, which stick out behind the ukulele and hold the strings in tune by friction alone.

      If your ukulele has friction tuners, you may need to tighten the screws that hold them to the headstock. If your ukulele goes out of tune as soon as you’ve tuned it, check the tuners. If you can see them unfurl, tighten the screw.

    • Geared tuners: Some ukuleles have geared tuners, which stick out from the side of the headstock like ears (the type of tuners you get on guitars).

      Geared tuners make fine-tuning easier and help your uke hold the tuning better. So unless a ukulele comes with high-quality friction tuners, your best bet is to buy one with geared tuners.

      Geared uke tuners.
      Geared uke tuners.