By Greg Olwell
Changing strings is something every ukulele player will need to do at some point. Uke strings don’t break often and can last a long time, so you might not need to change your strings as often as guitarists or other stringed-instrument players. But, it might happen someday, and when it does, you should know how to do it right.
The first question is: When do you need to do it? Because today’s strings are so durable, you’ll rarely be forced to change them. Still, over time your strings will become worn and eventually sound a little dead.
More than just replacing worn-out or broken strings, changing your strings is also the quickest and cheapest way to enhance the sound of your ukulele. Even using the same set from the same manufacturer will make a surprising difference. A fresh set of strings can sound so much zippier and livelier; it can breathe new life into your instrument. (Before you go shopping and decide which strings to put on your uke, take a look at the string overview in the Fall issue.)
When putting on strings, I like to start on one side and work my way across. (It doesn’t matter which direction you go, but I usually begin with the bottom strings — the G string on most ukuleles — and work my way to the higher strings, repeating the following steps for each string.) Some ukuleles, like my main concert uke, have a slotted bridge, which allows you to simply tie a knot on one end and slide the string into the slot. However, since most ukuleles have a bridge that’s similar to that of a classical guitar, these steps focus on that style of bridge.
There are plenty of ways to change strings, but I’ve found this method works well on every instrument, holds the strings securely, and helps you get in tune quickly.
1. Start by gathering the things you’ll need: your ukulele, a cloth, a tuner, a pencil, and a wire cutter (or, if you’re in a pinch, scissors). It’s easy to accidentally grab the wrong-size set of strings at the store, so make sure you have the right strings for your uke before you begin.
2. House cleaning I like to do a little cleaning once I’ve removed the strings. Having the strings off makes it easier to reach those places under the strings that attract dust, like near the bridge or around the tuners. If your fingerboard has accumulated some gunk, you can clean it off by gently rubbing your fingerboard, along the wood grain, with extra-fine steel wool (0000 grade) can remove the buildup without harming the wood. Bonus: It also shines up the frets.
3. Smooth running. Use a sharpened pencil to add a little graphite (“pencil lead”) to each slot on your ukulele’s nut. This helps the string slide smoothly through the slots.
4. Tie-up. Now you can anchor the string to the bridge. Start by feeding one end of the string through the back of the bridge, then wrap it around itself. Get it snug around the base of the bridge, then wrap the excess under the string once, then twice. This keeps the string from slipping. Pull it tightly into place so the string is now anchored.
5. Peghead end. I like to wind the string around the peg three times—more than that might cause the peg to get messy and can interfere with tuning, while fewer turns might be a little less secure. To do this, I mark the point by crimping the string about 1 ½ to 2 inches past the peg. Feed the string through the hole until the crimp is through the peg hole (above).
6. Wind ’em up. Now it’s time to start winding the string. A string winder can help speed up the process, but the process is the same with or without one. Wrap the first turn above the tuning peg’s hole, then just before you complete one full turn, push it down below the hole and continue winding. This wraps the string around the excess length and holds the string tightly so that it doesn’t slip. Continue winding until you bring the string up to pitch.
7. Finishing up. You should have three or four neatly wound turns of string on the peg. Use your wire cutter to snip off the excess string. Repeat for each string.
Share your tips in the comments!