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Down the Rabbit Hole of Tuning Heads

Last fall, I won a prototype ukulele. It is a rugged ukulele that is meant for outdoor use, and it has not yet come to market–nor has there been any updates on the product from the company. Another company has recently put a very similar instrument into the market place, successfully crowd funded the ukulele, and they start shipping in August.

The prototype ukulele has basically been unplayable because of its tuners. It had low cost friction tuners on it, and regardless of how much I tightened the screws, it simply went out of tune. The strings were not the issue–it was the tuners. I think back to Shelbi Busche whose presentations about ukulele programs always included a warning about friction tuners on cheap ukuleles. Most ukuleles come with geared tuners (see more about my recent Sawtooth Pineapple Ukulele below) these days, and while geared tuners made out of plastic will break, most die cast metal geared tuners with “ears” work fine–even if they grind a little. I have had geared tuners break, from having the “ear” slip out of the channel or the main gear screw fall out…but this is certainly the exception and not the norm.

On the prototype ukulele, there was no hope for a geared tuner, as the ukulele has an ABS plastic back, and the screws would likely rip right out. What did seem as if it could work would be Gotoh’s UPT…the Ukulele Planetary Tuner. These tuners are the Rolls Royce of ukulele tuners, in an attractive design (all kinds of colors) with gears inside the tuner, coming straight out of the back of the ukulele headstock like a friction tuner. The prototype ukulele has a REALLY thick headstock (nearly 15.5mm) and I ordered LONG UPTs for the application (another person I have talked to since recommends UTPLs on all applications).

Some time ago, I knew that I would be changing some ukulele tuners, and I knew that I would need a hole reamer. These devices allow you to slowly and cleanly expand a hole by hand–so I bought one from eBay and had it waiting for the chance to use it.

Now was the time. We have a camping trip coming up, and in addition to bringing my Outdoor Ukuleles, I wanted to bring the hearty prototype with me…but to do so, it needed to be playable. So I ordered Gotoh UPTS from The Ukulele Site last week.

The UPTLs arrived from The Ukulele Site on Friday. I opened the package, dismantled the old friction tuners on the prototype, and started to ream out the first hole…going very slowly so as to not make a mistake. When the front (smaller) and back (wider) of the hole was large enough, I put in the UPTL…to find out that the UPTLs were not long enough to handle a 15.5mm headstock.

Not kidding about the 15.5mm thickness of the prototype

I contacted the Ukulele Site, to verify that I had received the “L” version of the UPT (I did…they have a groove on the shaft and the nut), and also asked for any other recommendations.

Meanwhile, I knew the UPTs wouldn’t work on the prototype, so I took the Grover friction tuners off my Martin and very quickly installed the UPTS on my Martin S1 Soprano. The Grovers were fine…these UPTs are like heaven. Seriously. If you have an expensive ukulele with friction tuners , you might want to consider UPTs…they simply make tuning (and changing strings) so much easier.

Meanwhile, I had a prototype ukulele with one bored out hole and three other holes and needed to figure out what to do. I decided to see what was available for Banjo planetary tuners, and found a set of Banjo tuners, with a mediocre rating, for $20. I ordered them. They arrived today, and they aren’t fantastic. They are not butter smooth like the Gotoh UPTs. And they are huge (Banjo strings are metal and a tuning head needs to be able to deal with that tension). But I installed them, and they work. And while they are not the best, they work much better than the friction tuners that came with the prototype.

The offending tuners that had to go

Meanwhile, my Sawtooth Pineapple Ukulele had one tuning head that didn’t turn well. I asked members on Ukulele Underground if anyone had an old set of Grover geared tuners that they would be willing to sell me (most people take off hardware to install UPTs and hold on to the old stuff). A member contacted me, and those arrived today as well. Meanwhile, I looked at the Sawtooth, and one of the main gear screws had fallen out of the tuner (I cannot remember if that was the same tuner that was hard to turn). I removed the old tuners (clearly lower quality) and installed the Grovers. The tuning problem is fixed. A new set of Grovers costs around $17…so you can add that to the cost of buying a Sawtooth Ukulele…it doesn’t take long before you are simply better off buying a better starter ukulele than buying a cheap ukulele.

So…all is well tonight. My Martin S1 is a better instrument tonight. The prototype ukulele, which was at risk of being unusable, is actually playable now, although it has HUGE tuners on it, and the Sawtooth Pineapple is also a much better instrument.

It doesn’t take a lot of gear to change tuners…you will need a wood reamer, a small crescent wrench (to tighten nuts if tuners have them; the Grovers I installed did not), some smaller screwdrivers (Phillips head for sure); and UPTs have a “stake” on the back side that require an additional hole. I have a small handheld hobby drill that does the job…as the “stake” is not very thick. I did have to use a larger drill bit (by hand) for the prototype ukulele.

While I do not suggest the installation of Banjo tuners on a ukulele, I wholeheartedly recommend UPTs. You aren’t going to install them on your school instruments–but on instruments that you love…you might be surprised. On instruments that had geared tuning heads installed, there will be little holes on the back of your headstock. But truthfully, that’s a low price to pay for such an improvement on your instrument.

At the current time, the best place to buy Gotoh UPTs is The Ukulele Site, and you’ll pay about $63-$80 for a set depending on where you buy them (shipping included). If you have a $80 Makala as an instrument (my first ukulele was and is a Makala MK-CE), you probably are not going to put UPTs on the instrument. But if you have a $300 Mainland or similar quality instrument (or even a more expensive ukulele), UPTs can be a nice addition. Collectors won’t like UPTs on their instruments…but I don’t buy instruments to show in a museum…I buy them to not only appreciate, but to play!


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