The kind of strings that you put on your ‘ukulele greatly affects the sound of the instrument. Some strings are “dark” with less treble, some the opposite. Some are skinny, some fat. Some are high tension, others low. What you choose is a matter of preference, but here is some information to point you in the right direction.
These days, every string company and their brother are creating unique “formulas” that they claim produce the best sounding ‘ukulele string. From my experience, these formulas can be grouped into these main families:
- Nylon – A typically warm-sounding string that uses bigger diameters to achieve proper tension. Nylon strings tend to be stretchy and react to temperature, throwing your ‘ukulele out of tune when you go from a hot, sunny day to a cool concert hall.
- Fluoro-carbon – This string type tends to be bright and punchy, with a higher tension-to-mass ratio resulting in smaller diameter strings.
- Metal-wound strings – In order to get proper tension with good tone, many people like to use wound strings for their C and low-G strings. These strings have a bell-like sound and can be round or flat wound to minimize squeaks.
- Nylon-wound – An interesting feel and concept that acts like a metal-wound string, but wrapped with nylon.
How many pounds of pressure a string pulls when tuned up to pitch is called tension. Low tension lets the string move more and be “floppy”. It’s easier to fret notes with low tension strings. Higher tension puts more pressure on the soundboard creating a more snappy sound, but makes the strings harder to press down.
Tension is affected by several things – mainly density and scale length. My non-scientific conclusions:
Density – The material the string is made up of and also the thickness contribute to density. It comes down to mass. More mass in the string = higher tension.
Scale Length – The longer the scale is, the higher the tension, providing you are tuning the string to the same note for each length. If you tried to put soprano ‘ukulele strings on a guitar and tune them to GCEA, odds are you’d break them because the tension would be incredibly high before you even reached the correct pitch.
Low G vs. High-g:
Low G strings seem to be a mystery to many ‘ukulele players. While many artists still opt for using the reentrant tuning (high-g), the low G string is becoming a popular option.
- A low G string gives the ukulele a more rounded, even sound. Some claim that it makes the ukulele sound more like a guitar. I don’t think it makes the uke sound like a guitar, but it does give you 5 extra notes.
- A high-g string is best for the more treble-oriented traditional Hawaiian rhythm sound. It also keeps the note spectrum tighter and usually doubles two notes of a chord in unison.
A low G string replaces a high G. You put a low G string on your ukulele just like any other string, though sometimes you just might use only one wrap in the “tuning knot”. The only reason for this is because a low G string has a larger diameter than the other strings, and you might not be able to pull off the standard double wrap because of its thickness. A low G is tuned one octave below the high G – the 5th fret of the G will be the same as the open C string. (How to put strings on an ukulele)
The only tuner you might have trouble with is an ukulele pitch pipe, because it will be tuning the high-g instead of the low G. You should be able to hear the note as an octave and tune to that. If you can’t hear the octave, just tune the rest of the strings to the pitch pipe and use the 5th fret on the G to tune to the C string.
Low G strings come in two types: wound and unwound. Wound strings are just like they sound: they are made with a nylon or metal strand in the middle and metal is wound around on the outside. Wound low Gs have a different tone than the rest, which might throw your overall sound off. They are a lot richer sounding than the unwound – you instantly know when someone is playing on a wound G. They also squeak when you slide you finger on them. Sometimes, if you are sliding a long ways, your finger will get caught and you will end up stranded in the middle of a slide. Worth makes the only unwound low G I know of. Unwound low G strings have to be a bit bigger in diameter than wound low Gs to have the same tension. To hear the difference in wound/unwound low G strings, listen to Herb Ohta Jr.’s “Ukulele Breeze” album which he uses a wound low G on, and then “Ukulele Journey” where he goes the unwound low G route.
More and more brands of strings are popping up on the market, and it can be hard to decide what ones to buy. Here are the brands I have played:
Worth – My favorite, hands down. These fluro-carbon strings pack more punch than most. They are bright sounding and pull very tight across the fretboard. These strings are used by Herb Ohta Jr., David Kamakahi, and Brittni Paiva. There are two main kinds of strings that Worth makes: brown and clear. The brown strings are warmer sounding and the clears are brighter sounding. The clears are what I like. I’m usually a bass/middle frequency guy, I don’t like songs with treble boosted anything. But these strings work for me because my ukulele has such a warm sound, it all balances out. Both kinds of string comes with an optional unwound low G string (yay, no squeaks!) in normal, medium, or heavy tension.
Aquila – Loved by many. These strings are white and made with nylgut. They are very smooth. Unlike Worths which (for descriptive purposes) feel “wet”, the Aquilas feel “dry” to me. Almost to a fault, as I find that the strings sometimes roll out from under my fingers. Aquila strings are not as bright as Worth strings, but they are brighter than Hilo strings.
D’addario J71 Pro Arte – Used by Jake Shimabukuro. More warm than Aquilas, with the “wet” feel of Worths. These strings are clear and made of nylon with a flat warm tone. I like these strings probably second best to Worth. They feel very fat and “there”.
Hilo – The original best-of-the-bad. Hilo strings were some of the first on the scene. They are kind of “the ukulele strings“. They look black, but are really dark purple (look at them against a light). These are some of the warmest sounding strings available. I would consider these light gauge strings – you can bend them easily. Hilos are a great place to start in the search for the perfect string so you have a reference point.