Make a 6 String Ukulele

If you do a web search for “6 string ukulele,” you will find that a majority of links lead to the “guitalele,” an instrument the size of a tenor ukulele with 6 independent strings, which is played rather like a guitar. But a few of them will lead to the true 6-string ukulele, where two of its four strings are doubled up in octaves. This one is played like a regular 4-string ukulele, but sounds richer, more uke-like if that were possible (see this video, for instance). True 6-string ukuleles are hard to find, and those that you do find tend to be pricey, but in this article I show you how to convert a regular ukulele into a 6-string uke with a minimum of hassle and expense.

You’ll need the following parts:

  1. A regular 4-string ukulele. I recommend a tenor, but you can use any size. Since I wasn’t so sure that I was going to succeed, I got the cheapest tenor on Amazon at the moment. I looked hard at the headstock to make sure the two extra tuning pegs were going to fit between the original ones, which usually means the closed type rather than the open type. Here’s the link:
  2. A 6-string uke string set. You can add two strings to the original set as well, but a matched whole set makes sense since they carry a professional guarantee and the added cost isn’t significant. I got the d’Addario set because I’d heard that the wound strings in Aquila sets tend to break easily. The material (nyltech vs. nylgut) is the same.
  3. Two extra tuning pegs. Hard to find sets of two, so I ordered a set of four. Make sure the color matches the original ones (the uke I ordered from the link above arrived with silver pegs rather than black pegs as in the Amazon pictures, and I had to return the first set I ordered).

That’s it for parts. The tools you need are the usual hand tools, plus a sharp blade for making extra slots on the bridge, and a power drill. You will need a very long small bit, or a bit extender, for making extra holes on the bridge, and a large bit to make extra holes for tuning pegs (I found that those that look like a spade work best).

Now the fun begins. If you don’t feel too confident messing with an otherwise fine ukulele, start with the least intrusive step, namely,

  1. Make slots on the nut for the two extra strings. They will be made next to the slots for the strings that are doubled up, leaving a millimeter or so in-between so the strings don’t hit each other as they vibrate as seen in the picture (you can blow it up a lot to see the detail). If you have plenty of space on the outside of the 1st and the 4th strings, you may make the extra 1st string slot outside of the original, but my ukulele did not have much room to spare, so I made it on the inside so that the space between the 1st string pair and the single 2nd string was reduced. Then you make a smaller slot for the extra-thin 3rd string between the original 3rd string slot and the 4th, again 1 mm away from the original slot. You’ll get what is shown in the picture. I found that digging slowly in and sideways with a sharp blade worked quite well with the plastic nut of this uke. A bone nut may be harder. Don’t go too deep; you can always dig it deeper if the slot is too shallow without even removing the strings.
  2. Then you need to make extra holes on the bridge. Since I had plenty of space there, I made a hole for the extra 1st string about 5 mm to the outside of the original 1st string hole, matched by a hole about 5 mm to the outside of the original 4th string hole, to relocate the 4th string there. Then I drilled a hole 5 mm to the outside of the original 3rd string hole. This way the space between string courses is pretty even. I drilled the holes from the bottom of the guitar, with a cloth protecting the wood against contact with the drill chuck. Try to be very straight since the spacing that matters is where the holes come out, not where they start, and it’s quite impossible to start the holes from the other side.
  3. And then, we need two large holes for the extra tuning pegs. Remove the original pegs and mark the spot exactly in the middle of the existing holes, on either side. Put a piece of scrap board below the headstock so the hole exit is clean, and clamp everything together before you make the holes. Using a good bit that won’t seize up is essential. As I said above, I found a spade shaped bit to work quite well.

Now comes the assembly:

  1. Install all six tuners but don’t put the little screws on yet. Chances are you’ll need to move them around so they all fit properly and can be turned. In my case, I had to move the handles a little bit toward the body, leading to a funky “arrow” shape that still doesn’t get in the way when I play a c# diminished chord with my left hand almost teaching the tuners. Once you’re happy, install the little screws, making sure not to drill through the headstock as I did.
  2. Install the strings. It is quite standard to place the thin C string on the outside of the original fat C string, but people differ as to where the extra wound A string should go. I put it first on the outside, as shown in the top picture, so it would be the last string played on a downstroke, but ended up switching it with the regular A string, so this one ends up being the last played on a downstroke. This moderates the sound of the wound A string, which otherwise tends to be too loud, and presents the high A string for plucking from the bottom, which makes a lot more sense for fingerpicking.
  3. And now tune the strings. Nyltech strings take days to stretch to their final shape, so don’t expect the ukulele to sound good for a couple days. I found that tuning one semitone sharp before the end of the day allows the strings to settle better during the first night. They’ll be flat again in the morning, but not a lot. Thin strings take longer to stretch than thick strings.

And now you can enjoy your rare, inexpensive, impressively sweet-sounding 6-string ukulele. I think I’ll do one on the key of G next, starting from a 1/2 size guitar. If I get it done soon I’ll post about it right here. But you might beat me to it. Let us know in the comments.

Here’s a sound sample, so you can appreciate what you might be getting:

Update: I did build the uke in G ! Here is a post about it.

Starting from a 1/2 scale guitar has the advantage that it already has 6 tuning pegs, so the most dangerous part of the process is eliminated. I bought this one from Amazon (used): . It turned out to have metal strings, so I also had to order a set of baritone uke strings: . For the other two strings, I used a tenor uke 1st and an extra baritone 4th that I had lying around (both too short, but I managed to tie them to the first two pegs). The nut was way too high from the shop, which was OK with me because I was going to file it down and make new grooves anyway. The bridge was too low, fixed with plastic shims placed underneath. After the strings settled it sounded sweet indeed, even though I decided to keep the low D string from the set rather than replace it with a high D. A very unique instrument made on a super-low budget.

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