If you’re serious about learning how to play the ukulele (or any instrument for that matter) it’s important to know what the different parts are called. It’s a must for any beginner.
It will not only help with tasks such as tuning and restringing but also general maintenance too. Plus you’ll know what the guy at your local uke jam is talking about when he says ‘your bridge needs adjusting’.
In this article, we run through what each part is called and what it does. Here’s what we’ll cover:
Table of Contents
Parts of a Ukulele
The body of a ukulele is made up of several different pieces, known as the ‘back’, ‘top’ and ‘sides’. These parts are glued together and work to amplify the vibration produced by the strings. The body’s sections are usually made out of wood or some sort of laminate, all of which determine the specific tone the instrument kicks out.
For example, a mahogany ukulele body will sound warmer than a maple one, which kicks out very bright notes. In terms of shape, a ukulele’s body usually features an ‘upper bout’ and ‘lower bout’. You can think of the upper bout as the instrument’s shoulders, and the lower bout as its hips, giving the uke a curved shape so that it fits over the musician’s thigh.
There are cutaway bodied ukes out there too, these instruments have part of the upper bout reduced, so you can play the top frets more easily.
The top of the ukulele is the part of the body that faces the audience whilst you play. Here you’ll find a cutaway soundhole in the central area of the panel; this lets the amplified vibrations project out from the instrument.
It is not unusual to find a rosette inlay around the edge of the soundhole too, which help to strengthen the edges of the wood and add to the aesthetics too.
In the more high-end ukes, you’re likely to find something called perfling, also known as ‘marquetry’. This is a dense wooden lining (or ‘trim’) that curves around the edge of the top and sometimes the back of the instrument, to provide some extra support against warping, knocks, or bangs.
Additionally, if you look inside the soundhole of a high-quality uke, you’ll also find what’s known as bracing. Bracing consists of narrow lengths of wood that are attached to the inside of the instrument’s top and back, which helps to strengthen the uke, preventing its body wood from straining under pressure from the strings.
The back of the body is the part closest to your stomach as you play. This section is sometimes constructed from a different type of wood than the top.
For example, a hardwood like mahogany is often used in the instrument’s back and sides, whereas a softer wood, like spruce, is often used to craft the top.
The back often undergoes a manufacturing process known as ‘bookmatching’. This is when the wood is cut symmetrically so that it opens apart like a pair of wings and keeps an identical grain pattern.
The ukulele’s back panel can also be slightly curved outwards so that more there is more resonance in your sound.
If you look inside a ukulele through its soundhole, you’ll spot the label attached to the back of the body.
This is basically a sticker, that tells us information, such as the instrument’s manufacturer, date of production, serial number and make.
Historically, especially with classical guitars, the luthiers that hand-crafted the instruments would sign their name on the label. This meant that the instrument’s owner knew who had made it, in a similar way that an artist signs a painting.
The bridge is always found near the base of the ukulele’s body top, and functions by securing the strings in place and transferring their vibrations into the body wood.
The bridge is usually glued onto the uke’s top, therefore it is quite prone to damage due to the high-pressure it has to withstand.
There are three main varieties of ukulele bridge out there, known as; the ‘Standard Bridge’, ‘Slot Bridge’ and the ‘String-through Bridge’.
- Standard bridge: the strings are fed through a hole and tied into a knot to secure them in place.
- Slot bridge: the strings are tied into a ‘stop knot’ and then positioned in one of the bridges slots.
- String through bridge: work in a similar manner to the slot, as the musician needs to tie a knot in the string to prevent the string from sliding out of the hole in the bridge.
The saddle is a strip of material, placed on the side of the bridge that is nearest the soundhole.
Its purpose is to keep the strings in the correct position (at the right height above the fretboard); in a similar manner to the nut (see below), but at the opposite end of the instrument.
This is important as having an action that is too low can result in string buzz, whereas having it set too high can make pressing the strings down tough on your fingers. In regards to structure, if you take a look at a saddle close up, you’ll notice it has four tiny grooves across its surface, which are used to secure the strings in place.
The neck is made from a piece of wood that extends from the upper bout of the instrument’s body, right up to the headstock, nut and tuning pegs.
Necks can come in different shapes, for example, some are a C shaped, whereas others are a D or U shape in regards to their curvature. According to the shape, the playability in your fretting hand can feel slightly different.
The type of wood used can also vary and is often different from the instrument’s body and fretboard wood. Different neck’s wood won’t vary your tone as much as say, changing the fretboard wood, but can still alter the instrument’s durability.
The heel is the part that connects the bulk of the neck with the body of the instrument.
Usually, the neck’s wood at this point curves outwards slightly, so that its thickness matches up with the depth of the body.
Additionally, you’ll often find the strap button attached to this area, which allow you to attach a strap – just remember, you’ll need to secure the other end of the strap over the tailblock button too!
The fretboard is a smooth, single piece of wood that is glued onto the front of the instrument’s neck.
Manufacturers have followed tradition here by keeping the board black or dark brown. This coloration choice is a sort of ode to the dark hardwoods that were initially used in earlier models.
Nowadays, ukulele fretboards can be produced from a number of different woods however, the most common type is rosewood, with pricier instruments incorporating things like super silky ebony.
That wood used to craft fretboards can alter the tone your ukulele produces too. For example, rosewood is on the warmer side of things, whilst ebony and maple sound very bright.
Fixed to the fretboard, you find the frets. These things are made from raised metal, with the lowest pitch fret closest to the uke’s headstock and nut, and the highest positioned next to the body top’s soundhole.
When you press down on a string, you’ll see that it touches a fret. This, in turn, makes the length of the ringing string shorter and the pitch higher. As you move up the fretboard, the ringing string length becomes shorter and shorter, hence why the notes steadily ascend in pitch.
The spacing between the frets also becomes smaller as the string length decreases and the difference between semi-tones gets shorter. Ukuleles are quite diverse in terms of scale lengths and can have as little as 12 frets, to as many as 19 frets, depending on the size.
Fret Dots / Markers
These are small inlays, usually made from white plastic, abalone or sometimes even pearl in high-end models.
Fret dots help to visualize what notes you are playing quickly, so are a great help when playing scales or chord fingerings.
Fret markers are usually placed on the third, fifth, seventh, tenth and twelfth frets, depending on the size. For example, there may be an extra one on the fifteenth fret if you’ve got a nineteen fret uke.
Occasionally, you’ll get fret dots on the side of the instrument’s neck facing you, as well as on the fretboard for convenience and extra visibility.
The headstock is a solid piece of tough plastic or wood that supports the tuning pegs and needs to be sturdy enough to withstand the tension produced by the strings.
It’s found at the furthest point from the body and occasionally features the instrument’s decal (brand name) in its center.
There are two types of headstock known as; ‘standard’ and ‘slotted’.
- Standard headstocks: have tuning pegs extending outwards from a flattened headstock and four raised string posts extending from the headstock’s wood.
- Slotted headstocks: have tuning pegs facing a sideways angle and the string posts inside gaps in the headstock wood.
There are four tuning pegs to secure each string into. To attach a string, you’ have to feed the string through a hole in the string post and turn the peg, so that the string wraps tight around itself.
Usually, all the tuners will extend either behind or sideways from the headstock, depending on the particular brand of uke you’re playing.
In terms of material, tuners are usually made from either tough plastic or metal, as they need to be able to withstand the high pressure from the strings.
There are two types of tuning peg:
- Geared tuners feature a tiny gear which makes the mechanism easier to turn whilst tuning each string, and more stable whilst holding a pitch.
- Friction tuners rely on the friction of the wound string to keep tuning and are a little less reliable, so not as popular.
The nut is a thin piece of material that lies between the fretboard and the fingerboard.
The nut is similar to the bridge’s saddle, in that features narrow grooves which hold the strings in place evenly, before they enter the tuning pegs. It’s also designed to raise them away from the fingerboard by just a couple of millimeters so that you get a note when you press down on the strings.
If this wasn’t the case, the strings would always be rubbing against the frets without you applying pressure. Ultimately, the nut may seem a little unimportant, however, without it, the strings would slip across the fingerboard, especially if you were playing some bends.
Believe it or not, the first ukulele strings were actually made from catgut, however, nowadays manufacturers tend to use a variety of different materials, depending on the size of the instrument you’re playing.
For example, the smaller soprano and concert ukes often feature nylon strings, whilst larger baritone and tenor models incorporate a combination of nylon and metal wound ones, that offer a fuller tone whilst playing lower notes.
Soprano, concert and tenor ukes are usually tuned A, E, C, G, with the A being the first string, lowest to the floor and the G being the last string, lying closest to the musician.
If you’re a guitarist, remember this is different to the linear style of tuning you’ll be used to, with the strings running from the lowest note to the highest.
In ukuleles, the 4th G string is a higher pitch than the middle E and C strings, so will require a different playing style.
I think it’s fair to say that learning to play the ukulele is a rewarding but challenging pursuit! We hope this guide has educated you on what things are called at least and has given you a renewed enthusiasm for this wonderful instrument.