Design Proposal (in progress)


Statement of the Problem: A prototype of a ukulele which can teach the user to play it has been developed. There are several issues which need to be addressed, such as improving usability and sound. The second model of this ukulele is in the planning stage. 

Purpose of Study: The purpose of this study is to provide a new interpretation of music education.  Ideally, the next model will provide a fluid and intuitive learning experience for users. This study will address the issues of the first ukulele model. The second model will address the following:

  • Creating a ukelele strong enough to use metal strings
  • Improving intonation
  • Implementing finger tracking
  • Writing code for the ukulele to react as it is played in either visually appealing or informative ways
  • Incorporating 3D printed parts for accuracy
  • Incorporating a text file read in for song storage
  • Designing an improved menu
  • Introducing SD card storage



All hereafter mentioned instrument parts are in reference to a ukulele, although they may be applicable to other instruments as well.

Adafruit: A Manhattan based electronics retailer. Designer of the NeoPixel.

Arduino: An arduino is a popular brand of microcontroller. It is open source meaning similar models can be developed by third parties. A 3rd party Arduino mega was used for the model 1.

Bridge: A wooden ukulele part which connects the strings to the soundboard of the ukulele. See Figure 1.

Fret: A piece of metal wire which lies on the fretboard. When a string is pressed down onto the fret, the length of string which can vibrate is shortened from its full length. This raises the pitch of the vibrating string.

Fretboard: A flat wooden ukulele component which lies on the neck and soundboard of the ukulele. It has systematically distanced frets to allow each string to play several different notes depending on where the string is pressed down. See Figure 1.

Headstock: The top of a ukulele. The headstock and neck are usually a continuous piece of wood. The headstock is the upper connection between strings and the ukulele. The headstock houses the tuners (or tuning pegs) for the ukulele. See Figure 1.

Microcontroller: A device used to control outputs and receive information through its I/O pins. These usually run on C or C++. Common examples include: Arduino, Raspberry Pi, Teensy, and the Trinket.

NeoPixel: An individually accessible RGB LED designed by Adafruit. Each LED has an integrated microprocessor. They can be strung together while still being individually controllable. Their compact size, high brightness, and combined use of only one output pin makes them ideal for this project.

Neck: A structural member of the ukulele. This member must be able to resist the tension of the strings and still rest comfortably in a ukulele player’s hand. See Figure 1.

Saddle: A component of a ukulele bridge, usually made of plastic or bone. It raises the strings to the appropriate height. See Figure 1

Soundboard: The faceplate of a ukulele’s body. The type of wood used for this part is an important component of the volume and warmth of a ukulele’s sound.

Soundhole: A hole on the soundboard of acoustic ukuleles. This is generally directly below the strings and located near the end of the fretboard. See Figure 1.

Trinket: A microcontroller designed by Adafruit. The pro edition is nearly identical to an Arduino Uno, but cheaper and much more compact. A Trinket will be used in model 2.

Tuners: Also known as tuning pegs. Devices used to change the tension in the strings by turning to wrap the string around a bar.

Figure 1

ukulele diagram copy

Image provided by





Significance of the Study: There are several intended outcomes of this project. The first is the notion that motivated me to begin the first model: A ukulele with smart LEDs integrated into the fretboard would be really cool. The second outcome was stumbled upon during the coding portion of the first model: The ukulele could provide a new, intuitive, and affordable means for individuals to learn an instrument. Once the project is polished, it could be used both by individuals and in school systems.

Literature Review: Most of the design components for this project are well documented. Instrument quality improvements, such as attaching frets, will be implemented from professional procedures (Silberberg). Logic gates will be used to reduce the required microprocessor inputs. The process for using these is described in Design of Logic Circuits Using Reversible Gates (Manoj et al., 2014). The project will also address the structural necessities and intonation improvements. The necessary information for this is provided in The Science of String Instruments (Rossin, 2010). Additionally, text file read in and SD card implementation will be simple to implement in this project. These aspects are clearly laid out in Beginning Arduino (McRoberts). This project utilizes components from adafruit. Guides and datasheets for all components are provided (Freid, 2014).


Questions or Hypothesis: How can the first model be improved upon? How can these improvements actually be built into the ukulele?


Developing the U-lele Model 2

Working thesis:

Through developing a second iteration of the U-lele, it is possible to create a marketable device which is capable of teaching users to play the ukulele.


Working Arguments

  • Competitive with gTar
    • Multiplexing inspired input minimization
      • Less inputs=cheaper
    • Visual appeal
    • Iphone not required
    • Also appealing for performers
      • Free play mode*
      • Passive Display mode*
    • Only device designed around a ukulele (although future aspirations include branching out to other stringed instruments
  • MODEL 1 & 2 COST
    • Click here to see cost breakdown
  • Design Challenges include:
    • Creating a ukelele strong enough to use metal strings
    • Improving intonation
    • Implementing finger tracking
    • Incorporating 3D printed parts for accuracy
    • Incorporating a text file read in for song storage
    • Designing an improved menu

Questions List:

  1. How can production cost be further reduced?
  2. Will my Keyboard inspired finger tracking be efficient?
  3. What is the tension in each string?
  4. How can intonation be improved?
  5. What type of pickup is best?
  6. How can I store a text file on an arduino?
  7. How to eliminate noise from pickup?
  8. Is there a way to systematically convert ukulele tabs into U-lele songs?
  9. How can I better install the electronics into the ukulele?


Design Approach: This project is primarily an attempt to bring the ukulele closer to being a marketable product. This being the case, the design approach is heavily based around making improvements to the original model. This will be accomplished through troubleshooting and redesigning completed by myself. I will also be utilizing my colleagues and family to test the device and provide feedback. This adds no additional cost to the project. Funding for the project will be put towards material costs.

Type of Design Used:  A study with issues and solutions for the first model of the U-lele (name subject to change).

Role of the Researcher: Interviewer and designer.

Data Collection and Analysis: A combination of observations and interviews will be used. Individuals will be observed using the device (after being given varying degrees of instruction). They will then be interviewed to obtain feedback.

Ethics: Few ethical issues are raised by this project. Any substantial discoveries on the musical learning process should be made available to the public–however, the scope of the project suggests that no well founded discoveries will be made.

Reliability and Validity of Methods and Results: This research is intended to find any improvements which can be made between the model 1 and the model 2. All feedback is relevant and will likely be implemented if reasonable. Conflicting feedback will be evaluated. The small pool of data is of little concern for this stage of the model, but a more diverse pool would be useful for further development of the product.

Timetable: This design stage of the project is currently underway. The only current roadblock is funding for build materials. Once obtained, the build stage may commence. The model 2 will be completed by summer 2017 but may be available as soon as December 2016.

Resources and Materials:

  • Soldering supplies
  • Workspace
  • All necessary woodworking supplies
  • Misc Ukulele parts (see budget for more details)

Budget: Click here for full budget.

Limitations: There is a small sample pool for research. The model also is more expensive than a production model.

Delimitations: This model will be a second prototype, not a marketable product. The build and code both need to be improved before they can be solidified into final product. That being said, this model will have a soldered circuit opposed to a printed one.

Final: The findings that this project would provide would allow create a product that is nearly marketable. The sound, interface, and usability of the ukulele will all be polished.


Silberberg, David. “Pohaku Ukulele.” Kanopy. Les Blank Films, n.d. Web. 2 Apr. 2016.


This video shows the entire build process of a ukulele. As this is done by a professional, many specialized machines are used. These are out of the scope (and price range) of this project. The principals of each step of the design, however, are still easy to follow and should be reasonable to replicate without specialized machines.


McRoberts, Michael. Beginning Arduino. New York: Apress, 2010. SpringerLink. Web. 29 Mar.

  1. <>.                                              


Michael Roberts, also known as “the arduino guy,” is a popular writer of arduino guides and tutorials. His book, Beginning Arduino, covers various Arduino topics. Chapter 15 covers reading and writing to an SD card. This will be used twofold in developing the next model. The more simple application will be implementing SD card storage. This will allow songs to be easily added to the ukulele. The other application is utilizing text files for storing the songs. This resource will be consulted for efficient methods of converting lines of text into a custom class for the ukulele.


“Introducing Pro Trinket.” Adafruit. Adafruit, 24 Aug. 2014. Web. 02 Apr. 2016.



Limor “Ladyada” Fried is an MIT engineer and founder of Adafruit. In this article, she gives all the necessary information about the microcontroller used in this ukulele project. It contains all necessary programs, libraries, and specifications for implementation in the model 2.


“Adafruit NeoPixel Überguide.” Adafruit. Adfruit, 30 Aug. 2013. Web. 02 Apr. 2016.


Phillip Burgess, senior designer at Adafruit since 2011, is a popular writer for the Adafruit website.This is the primary resource on neopixels (a key component in both model 1 and 2). It covers the requirements, guidelines, and resources necessary to operate the neopixels.


Manoj, K.v, and M. Amarnath Reddy. “Design of Logic Circuits Using Reversible Gates.” IJETT

International Journal of Engineering Trends and Technology 16.8 (2014): 394-96. Web.


Mar. 2016.


This journal entry is available here. In order to reduce the necessary inputs to the device (as well as simplifying the code), a network of logic gates will be needed. This resource goes over their theory and implementation. It will be used in the design of the finger placement tracking system.


“The Science of String Instruments.” The Science of String

Instruments | Thomas Rossing | Springer. Ed. Thomas Rossing. Springer New York, 2010. Web. 02 Apr. 2016. <>.


Thomas Rossing is an accomplished researcher in several fields of physics and is employed by Stanford University. One of the major difficulties of this project is implementing metal strings. Ukuleles generally avoid this because metal strings require such high tension compared to nylon strings. They can tear the off the bridge of the ukulele or the soundboard entirely. This resource provides the information I will need to correctly analyze and minimize the tension in the model 2 strings. It also provides information to aid in the improvement of the ukulele’s intonation.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s