The kind of ‘ukulele strings that you put on your instrument can affect the sound of the music you play. Some strings have a “dark” sound with less treble, some the opposite. Some are skinny, some fat. Some are high tension, others low.
What you choose is completely a matter of preference, but here is some information to point you in the right direction.
Why Change ‘Ukulele Strings?
First of all, what’s the point of changing strings on your ‘ukulele at all? I mean, I’ve written you a nice tutorial on how to change strings, but it’s still a hefty chore at first. Here are some reasons:
- Because old strings wear out.
- Because some strings bring out certain desirable characteristics of a uke more than others.
- Because stock strings are often installed wrong.
Some people are still using the same strings that came stock on the ‘ukulele grandpa got during the war. If they haven’t broken, there’s not really anything wrong with using the same strings for years.
But if you’ve been playing steadily on the same set for more than six months, you can be sure that you’ll notice a positive change from an upgrade.
Strings loose their brightness, intonation (ability to stay in tune), and sparkle over time. Instead of getting a beautiful note, you end up with a dull “plunk.” By putting on a fresh set of ‘ukulele strings, you get the full spectrum of frequency response and dead-on tuning.
The other reason is that by experimenting with your ‘ukulele, you can find a string set that complements the instruments natural sound. For instance, if you get a cheap, laminate uke that’s overbuilt, odds are that it sounds a little bit “dead.” You can counteract this with a set of strings that have a vibrant, bright tone.
What Strings Are Made of
These days, every string company and their brother are creating unique “formulas” that they claim produce the best sounding ‘ukulele strings. From my experience, these formulas can be grouped into a few main families:
Nylon ‘Ukulele Strings
A traditional and typically warm-sounding string that was one of the first to be widely available in the modern era. It’s cheap and does the job decently well. As such, Nylon is used as the stock string on many cheaper ‘ukulele brands. This material needs bigger diameters to achieve proper tension so it’s a very tactile kind of ‘ukulele string. They tend to be stretchy and react to temperature, making tuning a challenge if you change environments regularly.
Fluorocarbon ‘Ukulele Strings
These strings have a high tension-to-mass ratio resulting in smaller diameter strings and a bright, punchy sound. It’s essentially fancy fishing line, but works so well for ‘ukuleles that it’s the go-to choice for many players. Fluorocabon intonates extremely well and probably offers the most precise and stable tuning of any ‘ukulele string.
Metal-wound ‘Ukulele Strings
In order to get proper tension with good tone, it’s often necessary to use wound strings for lower notes. On the ‘ukulele, this is nine times out of ten a low-G string and, less often, a C-string. These strings have a bell-like resonance and can be round or flat wound, which minimizes squeaks. Cheap versions tend to sustain and ring out in a way that overbalances the rest of the set, but a good quality wound string can be a beautiful thing.
Others: Nylgut, Titanium, Gut, Etc…
There are also nylon-wound, gut, and strings that surely must be made from soda bottle plastic!
With so many options it’s easy to get overwhelmed quickly. That’s why I like a focused approach to trying out new ‘ukulele strings. More on that later.
How many pounds of pressure a string pulls when tuned up to pitch is the “string 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 (the distance from nut to saddle) is, the higher the tension – providing you are tuning the string to the same note. If you tried to put soprano ‘ukulele strings on a bass guitar and tune them to GCEA, they would certainly break because the tension would be incredibly high before you even reached the correct pitch.
Which tension you should choose depends on how you want your ‘ukulele to feel and sound.
In general, the lighter the strings, the quieter and brighter they will be. Heavy strings are louder and have a fatter tone. In regards to feel, the tension affects how hard you have to press the strings onto the frets and how easy it is to play out of tune.
Since a lighter string will vibrate more, you need a higher action setup to accommodate the wider ringing arc. On the other hand, if you put heavier tension ‘ukulele strings on a uke that buzzes because of a low action, you might find that the increased string pull clears the frets better, resulting in less buzzing.
I have a heavy hand and like high-tension strings that I can really dig into without feeling like they are bending out of tune. But if you play lightly, the increased sustain and “touch” of low-tension strings might be just what you need.
Low or High G
There’s so much to say about low and high G-strings that I’ve created a page dedicated completely to that discussion. Click the button to learn more.
Finding The Perfect ‘Ukulele Strings
Here we are at the million dollar question: which strings are best for you and your ‘ukulele? The answer?
Now that we’ve got that out of the way, I feel I can maybe provide a couple tips on how to begin your search.
‘Ukulele strings are only a tiny portion of what make up the sound of a person’s playing. James Hill could make an iPod charge cord sound amazing if strung on a uke. What matters far more than the kind of strings you use is practice. If you don’t practice, the best strings in the universe won’t make you sound better. But if you do practice, you’ll get to the point where the strings won’t matter as much and you’ll sound pretty good on most ‘ukuleles and most strings.
Next, give strings a chance. It’s really easy to change strings and then go “Well, these don’t sound very good…” and take them off again.
Play them for a week at least, let them settle down and adjust to the uke, then come to a conclusion. Every string is going to sound different compared to any other when played back to back.
Make sure to cover your broad bases before you start fine tuning your search.
It really amazes me when people talk all about trying strings and how many tens of different sets they’ve used, but somehow never put fluorocarbon or Nylgut on their ‘ukulele!!! Seems like a no-brainer to me.
There’s a much bigger difference between string types than string brands of the same type. I would be sure to try: Nylon, Nylgut, and fluorocarbon paired with wound and un-wound low strings first – before comparing anything that’s remotely similar.
Brad’s ‘Ukulele String Sampler:
If I had to choose, say, four string sets for a beginner to get a wide variety of sounds and feels, I would recommend these.
It’s not a perfect list, but it will get you a long ways through the general options before you start doubling back to fine-tune your search.
Once you’ve tried the biggies you can start to get more anal about what you’re looking for. Do you want a brighter sound? Are you more comfortable with a light-gauge string?
From there you can step back and eliminate possibilities according to the preferences you’ve discovered while trying these main kinds of strings.
There’s a million options and no wrong answers. Everyone has an opinion. That means there are gobs of forum threads that might help give you insight to a certain string set you’re thinking about trying.
Here’s a Google search of my favorite forum, Ukulele Underground, for “strings.” There are 44,000 results – from one little ‘ukulele site! https://www.google.com/?gws_rd=ssl#q=site:ukuleleunderground.com+strings
Strings & The ‘Ukulele
Each instrument reacts to the same strings differently. What sounds best on one ‘ukulele might sound terrible on another. Once you figure out your general sound-independent string preferences like tension and feel, you can taylor your ‘ukulele’s sound depending on the strings you use.
In general (remember: it depends), to make a dark sounding uke brighter, try fluorocarbon or monofilament strings. To mellow out a bright uke, try nylon or Nylgut strings.
At The End Of The Day…
…you’ve got to be happy with the strings on your ‘ukulele. But remember that “always better” isn’t always better. There’s no such thing as perfect. Find some strings that make you stoked to play and relax. You might run across something you like more, but the sooner you can be content with what you have, the sooner you can get down to the important part of business: music.