Sunday, March 11, 2018

Zombie Ukulele

the Zager humidifier
I’m blogging about my ukulele today because I brought it back from the dead. Well really, Ray saved its life. Well really, Dennis Zager Jr. saved it. And if you have a stringed wood instrument with buzzing strings, metal frets that feel like exposed nails when you run your fingers along the side of the neck, or a flattened or concave instrument face or back, he can probably save yours, too.

I have a beautiful Luna concert tattoo (carved) uke. (ASIDE: Luna is the only stringed instrument company I know of owned by women.) I bought it two years ago, and almost never played it. I have a Lanakai bari uke I played all the time, because the chord fingerings are exactly like guitar, and I’m generally lazy, so it was a no-brainer.

But recently, I had the opportunity to take OO-KOO-LAYLAY lessons from a pro, Joseph Ahuna (, a native Hawaiian stuck in our Little Town while his wife finishes up her music degree. The lessons are FREE and once a week at our local library. How incredibly LUCKY are we?!? Anyhoo, I had to switch brain hemispheres and finally start learning uke tunings and fingerings.

Long story short-ish, out comes the Luna. Immediately, I discovered a couple things: (1) the frets felt like railroad spikes when I moved my hands up and down the sides of the neck; and (2) I couldn’t play any chords, like C7, that involved the first fret on the A string (GoodCowsEatApples); I got only a nasty buzz and no melodic sound. Too late to exchange it, I had Ray take it to a luthier in the Big City. After a few days, the luthier reported that to fix it would involve taking off and re-setting the bridge, filing down frets, and a general overhaul that would cost more than the uke was worth or had originally cost me. So home came little Luna, and Ray thought he might try filing frets, since at that point, we had nothing to lose.

In the process of Ray’s research on filing, he came across this info from Denny Zager Jr.: (ASIDE: You old people will remember that Denny Zager Sr. had a hit song back in the day called “In the Year 2525” as part of a duo, Zager & Evans. Denny and his son are now living in Lincoln NE making and modifying geetars. I have one of their modified Zager “Easy Play” guitars, which I adore.) Ray said I needed to see the website myself, so I checked it out and watched Denny Jr.’s embedded video. Holy smokes…could humidity be my problem???

So…I made a bazillion (6 really) little homemade humidifiers a la Zager, and put one in the case of each of my stringed instruments. For more intensive treatment, I put little Luna in a garbage bag, slipped a homemade humidifier under her neck, sealed up the bag, and put the whole thing in a case. One week later (no peeking!), I checked on her. The humidifier was still damp, so she hadn’t soaked up all the water. I could still feel the frets running my fingers along the sides of the neck, but NOTHING like before. And there was still a buzz on the first fret of the A string, but I COULD HEAR A NOTE! Back in the bag Luna went, sealed in for another 72 hours. I took her out yesterday, took her to uke lessons, and she played like a dream. I can barely feel the frets at the side of the neck, and the buzz is completely gone. C7 is so sweet.

As Zager explains, lack of humidity makes the wood shrink away from the metal frets, exposing more of the metal and causing buzzes. Once I re-humidified the Luna, the wood expanded back around the frets.

My last step was to go on Ebay and buy 10 little humidity monitors ($2 each). I keep one in every instrument case. I keep the humidity around 45-55%, and if it slips any lower, I put a homemade humidifier back in the case for 72 hours.

Little Luna, happy in her humid case!
Best of all, this process, which cost me a few Ziploc bags, saved me a TON of money I didn’t have, because while I was on Ebay, I came across a gorgeous Kamaka tenor uke…for only $1300. I was trying to decide how badly I really need a car…

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