The kind of ʻukulele strings that you put on your instrument can affect the sound of the music you play and the feel of your uke.
What you choose is completely a matter of preference, but here is some information to point you in the right direction.
ʻUkulele String Materials
These days, every string company and their brother are creating unique “formulas” that they claim produce the best sounding ʻukulele strings. From my experience, these formulas can be grouped into a few main families:
Nylon ʻUkulele 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 ʻukulele brands. This material needs bigger diameters to achieve proper tension so it’s a very tactile kind of ʻukulele string. They tend to be stretchy and react to temperature, making tuning a challenge if you change environments regularly.
Fluorocarbon ʻUkulele 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 ʻukuleles 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 ʻukulele string.
Fluorocarbon string hack
I’ll break it to you: ʻukuleles are not popular enough to even come close to matching fishermen in foot-by-foot string consumption. So a lot of the “special” fluorocarbon technologies that are marketed to ʻukulele players are, in fact, different brands of fishing line.
Since it’s the same exact material, money can be saved if you buy bulk rolls of fishing line to use on your ʻukulele. It’s quite a commitment since 50 yards of fishing line is enough for 50 or (quite a lot) more sets of strings. You’ll be playing the same kind of ʻukulele strings for many years.
Barry Maz figured he saved more than half of what he would have spent on conventionally packed uke strings.
Wolfewithane came up with similar numbers, but also provides gauge formulas for selecting the right pound test for each string.
This extensive thread goes deeper into the math and costs of fishing line for uke strings.
Bottom line: if you like fluorocarbon and don’t plan on changing your opinion of it anytime soon, it’s an investment to consider. I’d do it if I didn’t get my strings for free.
Metal-wound ʻUkulele Strings
In order to get proper tension with good tone, it’s often necessary to use wound strings for lower notes. On the ʻukulele, 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 ʻukulele 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:
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.
The longer the scale length (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 ʻukulele 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 ʻukulele 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 ʻukulele 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-G and high-g strings for the ʻukulele that I’ve created a page dedicated completely to that discussion. Click the link to learn more.
Finding The Perfect ʻUkulele Strings
Here we are at the million dollar question:
Which strings are best for you and your ʻukulele?
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.
ʻUkulele 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 ʻukuleles and most strings.
Trying New Strings
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 ʻukulele!!! 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 ʻUkulele 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.
- Worth Clears
- Aquila Nylgut
- Savarez Alliance (Red Pack)
- D’Addario Titanium
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.
This video by Hawai’i Music Supply is a fabulous demo of 12 different sets tested back to back:
Why Change ʻUkulele Strings?
What’s the point of changing strings on your ʻukulele at all?
Some people are still using the same strings that came stock on the ʻukulele grandpa got during the war. If they haven’t broken, there’s not really anything wrong with using the same strings for years.
- Manufacturers often use cheap strings. When you’re putting strings on 100,000 ʻukuleles a year, every cent spent on strings adds up. It’s common for ʻukuleles to ship with budget quality strings that don’t showcase the instrument’s sound.
- These crappy stock strings usually sit on the uke for months, if not years, in storage and on the music store shelf before you ever pick it up.
- String installation is usually done hastily at the factory by unskilled laborers who over-wrap the strings and sometimes don’t even lock them in place correctly. This can lead to tuning problems and an ʻukulele that’s constantly slipping.
I always recommend replacing the stock strings ASAP. You might be surprised at how much better your uke sounds!
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 ʻukulele strings, you get the full spectrum of frequency response and accurate tuning. If you’ve been playing steadily on the same set for more than six months, you’ll probably notice a positive change from an upgrade.
The last reason you might want to swap strings is that by experimenting with your ʻukulele, you can find a string set that complements the instrument’s 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.
If you decide your ʻukulele could benefit from a freshening up, here’s a tutorial on how to change strings.
Each instrument reacts to the same strings differently. What sounds best on one ʻukulele might sound terrible on another. Once you figure out your general sound-independent string preferences like tension and feel, you can taylor your ʻukulele’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 ʻukulele. 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.