A “low-G” ukulele string is a slight tuning variation from standard GCEA. It’s a more contemporary sound that is gaining popularity every day. In this guide I’ll walk you through everything you need to implement a low-G string on your uke.
What is a Low-G?
A low-G is a replacement string that you can put on your ukulele to change the pitch of the G-string down one octave.
Standard re-entrant tuning goes high-low-high, like this (watch the notes):
Changing to a low-G moves the first note down one octave and keeps the strings ascending all the way through the tuning. This is called linear tuning.
The pitch you can tune each string to has to do with its physical mass. All things being equal, a thicker string can be tuned lower than a thin one.
This is why you need a replacement string in order to tune to low-G.
On the other hand, if you try to tune a low-G string up an octave to high-g pitch, it will probably break since it will be super tight for its size.
Here are two ukulele of the same model, one with high-g, one with low-G:
It’s only a couple hundredths of an inch difference, but you can see that the high-g is smaller in diameter than the low-G.
What is the difference between high-g and low-G?
The main difference between the two string sizes is how they sound.
High-g has a more focused, brighter sound because its note range isn’t as large (middle-C is the lowest note). It’s best for a more traditional, Tin Pan Alley or Hawaiian rhythm sound or a campanella picking 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.
Low-G extends the range of the ukulele by five notes (G below middle-C is the lowest note). This makes for a more warm, full sound and creates a wider range of notes when you play any chord.
Having these additional “bass” notes can be useful for solo fingerpicking arrangements which allows you to get a more rounded sound when playing by yourself.
To get an idea what styles and sounds you can achieve, here are some artists and the G-string they use.
A few players who tune their ukulele with a high-g:
- Jake Shimabukuro
- Troy Fernandez
- Del Rey
- Early-era Eddie Kamae
A few players who tune their ukuleles to low-G:
- Brittni Paiva
- Herb Ohta Jr.
Implementing a Low-G String on Your Ukulele
A low-G string simply replaces a high-g. You put it on your ukulele 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.
Ukuleles are usually set up for a high-g string from the factory since this is the most common tuning. This means the string will sit properly in the nut at the right height over the fretboard.
But if you try to put a larger string in a thin nut slot, it won’t be able to fit. The string will sit up in the slot and rest too high above the fretboard. The playability of your ukulele will suffer and you’ll have to push the string further down to make it contact each fret.
To fix this, you have to file the nut slot to an appropriate size for the low-G string.
This is a simple enough change to make if you have the skills, but it’s irreversible. So make sure you’re confident before you start. Otherwise, hire someone competent to do the job.
The easiest way to do this is by folding a piece of fine-grit sandpaper a number of times until its width is similar to the new string and the edge is nicely rounded.
Then, place the sandpaper file in the nut slot and gently slide it back and forth along the length of the slot. Go slowly and check the fitment of the string often to make sure you don’t sand too much.
Since more and more people are transitioning to low-G, many uke companies are anticipating the use of both string types and file the nut so that it will accommodate either.
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 ukulele 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 Ukulele Breeze album on which he uses a wound low-G (albeit an “old school” one) and then to Ukulele 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 ukulele, 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 ukulele. 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.