Low-G ʻukulele strings seem to be a mystery to many players. While many artists still opt for using the reentrant tuning (high-g), the low-G string is becoming a popular contemporary option.
What is the difference between a low-G string and a high-g string?
High-g ʻUkulele String
A high-g string is the traditional way of tuning an ʻukulele. The high-g makes for an odd tuning pattern that goes high-low-high – uncommon with stringed instruments. It’s called a “re-entrant” tuning.
High-g is best for a more traditional, Hawaiian rhythm sound or a campanella style. It keeps the notes in a chord closer together for tighter-sounding voicings. This can create cool piano-like note clusters which really kick ass when playing jazz chords.
Players who tune their ʻukulele with a high-g: Jake Shimabukuro, Troy Fernandez, Del Rey, early Eddie Kamae, and many more.
Low-G ʻUkulele String
A low G string creates what is called a “linear” tuning on the ʻukulele. This means the string order goes from low to high, hence, a more rounded, even sound. A low-G also gives you five extra notes below middle-C. It’s tuned an octave below a high-g.
Having a second “bass” note can be useful for solo fingerpicking arrangements which allows you to get a more full sound when playing by yourself. It creates a wider range of notes when you play any chord.
Players who tune their ʻukuleles to low-G are: Brittni Paiva, Herb Ohta Jr., James Hill, and Ohta-San, to name a few.
Implementing a Low-G String on Your ʻUkulele
A low-G string simply replaces a high-g. It is often a metal-wound string and usually fatter than the rest. If you try and tune a high-g string down one octave it will be incredibly floppy. This isn’t very useful, so by increasing the size of the string, you can have a higher tension at a lower note. This is why specialty low-G strings were created.
You put a low-G string on your ʻukulele just like any other string, though sometimes you just might use only one wrap in the “tuning knot” at the bridge because of the string’s thickness.
ʻUkuleles are usually setup for a high-g string from the factory.
If this is the case for your ʻukulele, you might have to file the nut slot wider to accommodate a larger-diameter string. If you try to put a larger string in a high-g-sized nut slot, it will usually sit too high off the fretboard. The playability of your ʻukulele will suffer and you’ll have to work hard at fretting notes on that string.
Oftentimes though, wound low-G strings will fit into a stock nut slot. This is not usually the case for unwound low-Gs.
It’s a simple enough change to make if you have the skills, but it won’t be reversible. Make sure you hire someone who’s competent to do the job.
Tuning a Low-G String:
Getting the octave right on your strings can be a challenge when you are just starting out. You want to make sure you’re tuning the string to the octave it’s intended for – where it’s not floppy, but also not too tight. If you try to tune a low-G string to high-g pitch it will most likely break.
For reference, a low-G note is G3: 196hz. A high-g is G4: 392hz. Some tuner apps will tell you which octave you are in in addition to the pitch of the string. I like insTuner.
Low-G strings come in two types: wound and unwound.
Wound Low-G Strings
These strings are created just like you’d think: with a nylon or metal strand in the middle and a metal winding around it on the outside. Because of this design, wound strings can hold the same tension as an unwound string with a smaller diameter.
Wound low-G technology has improved over the years. In the beginning, these strings were overly rich sounding and would sustain far longer than unwound strings. This gave them a bit of a bad stigma since the transition to and from a wound low-G would often be distracting as you played. They also often would squeak when you slide you finger on them.
Thankfully, leaps and bounds have been made in wound low-G production and there are some really good options available these days that address both imbalance and squeaking issues.
Wound String Options
Thomastik-Infeld CF27 & CF30 – Made in Vienna, Austria, these strings are the best of the best. They balance fabulously with fluorocarbon and are flatwound to reduce noise from hand shifts. Diameters: .027″ and .030″ (.035″ also available).
Fremont Soloist – Same basic specs as the TI strings, but executed at what seems to be a bit lower level. Only available in one size, but cheaper than a CF27. Diameter: .030″
Classical Guitar D-strings – Any string used as a nylon classical guitar 4th, D-string can also be used as an ʻukulele low-G. Though not specifically designed for it, they will serve the purpose fine. Options abound! (Though I’m a fan of Savarez classical strings so I’d probably start experimenting with a 544R.)
Generic Low-Gs – This covers all the old design low-g strings that, in my opinion, are inferior to other options. These are usually round wound (which means squeaks) and don’t balance very nicely with other strings in a set – even though they often come as part of a set. If you want a powerful low-G sound this might be a good option, but most people find them overpowering.
Unwound Low-G Strings
These low-G strings are commonly found as part of a set and are made of the same material as the other strings (usually a breed of fluorocarbon).
The obvious advantage is that these smooth strings don’t make any noise when you move your hand.
The drawback is that to create an unwound string that will tune to low-G pitch at a decent tension, you need a larger string diameter. This step-up in size pretty much maxes out the ringing potential of an unwound string. Hence the reason most unwound low-G strings sound a bit lifeless and sometimes even muffled. It’s simply because the diameter of the string is creating a dampening effect on the string vibrations.
New, non-fluorocarbon materials like Aquila Red claim to achieve a higher tension with a smaller-diameter string, but they haven’t seemed to have caught on so jury is still out…
Unwound String Options
Savarez KF95 – This specialty harp string is the perfect compromise for my playing. It has enough tension to feel tight, but is still small enough that it avoids some of the large diameter dampening effect. The gauge comes in two lengths: the KF95 is 1 meter long, the KF95A is 2 meters. Though the string material itself is exactly the same, I prefer getting the later which is long enough for 3 low-Gs and ends up being cheaper.
Aquila Red – One of the “weirdest” strings to appear on the market, possibly ever. This one is made of a proprietary material that feels and looks like hardened Sculpey clay. It also supposedly has a higher density that allows for a smaller diameter string. This lets it ring more naturally. My impression is positive, but I don’t feel like the technology has matured enough to be a reliable option just yet. The strings are delicate and must be installed just so to avoid breakages.
Generic – The unwound low-G string that comes with sets from the likes of Worth, Living Water, Oasis, Fremont, and others are all very similar in my experience. Theoretically, they sound good. Implementation is a trade off between tension and over-dampening. I find that most of these options fall on the floppy side with low tensions. This is fine, but can make for an unmatched (and unideal) feeling set. The exception is the monster Worth LGEX which is heavy enough to reel in an ‘ahi, but also sounds like a shoelace.
To hear the difference in wound and unwound low-G strings, listen to Herb Ohta Jr.’s ʻUkulele Breeze album on which he uses a wound low-G (albeit an “old school” one) and then to ʻUkulele Journey where he switches to an unwound low-G.
To Low-G or Not to Low-G…
Before you come to conclusions on whether you want to tune your uke with a low-G or high-g, but sure to try both. Seems obvious, but lots of people latch onto one stigma or another and take whatever they read somewhere as gospel, avoiding that other string. Always try to avoid this and form your own opinions.
If you mainly strum your ʻukulele, the difference between the two strings won’t – from a technical standpoint – be very noticeable. You can strum the same way with a high-g or low-G and not have to change anything about your playing. Simply answer the question: does my uke sound better with a high, tighter sound or a lower, deep one? Then string up accordingly.
However, if you spend a lot of time picking single notes or playing solo arrangements, you’ll need to rearrange your fretting patterns when switching from high-g to low-G – or vice versa. This is simply a matter of studying the intricacies of the tuning matrix and finding alternative ways to play the same notes.
A unique compromise to this dilemma is a 5-string ʻukulele. These instruments usually have a coursed G-string which use both low and high-g for a full, octave sound. The problem is that these strings are located very close to each other and probably canʻt be plucked separately.