By Gordon Mayer | Excerpted from the Spring 2013 issue of Ukulele magazine
After a ukulele is built, the biggest impact on its tone (besides the player) is the choice of strings. There are a variety of different string types from which to choose, but there is no “best” string for everybody and every instrument. The best string is based on your personal preference and your instrument. In other words, the strings you like best on one ukulele might not be your choice on another uke, so don’t be afraid of restringing to find the right string for you and your uke. In this article, I’m going to look at the different types of ukulele strings and give you a step-by-step guide to restringing your ukulele.
Tone is like color: if your favorite color is blue, no one can tell you that you’re wrong. Likewise, the string (and tone) you prefer is what is important. It doesn’t matter what I like, or what a famous player is playing. So you should feel free to experiment with different strings and find what works best for you.
There is one caveat to this, however: the diameter of ukulele strings can vary considerably, and you should check with your builder or dealer to make sure that the slots in your nut (the small piece of material between the fingerboard and headstock through which the strings pass) will accommodate the strings you are going to use. If the string diameter is too small, you could get buzzing in the nut, and if the string diameter is too large, the strings won’t fit into the slots and it will likely throw off the intonation (tuning) of the ukulele.
Types of Strings
While there are many string types available (all of which are similar to the type used on classical guitars), let’s focus on four of the major string materials: nylon, fluorocarbon, Nylgut (a proprietary material used by Aquila), and wound (usually metal over nylon). Each of these types of strings can vary in terms of thickness, tension, brightness, sustain, attack, and feel.
Fluorocarbon, which is used by Worth strings, is the most dense (other than wound metal), so strings made from it are the smallest in diameter. They have a smooth feel and, to my ear, a very balanced tone.
Nylgut is a medium-density material, and Aquila’s standard set is designed for somewhat high tension (over 20 percent more tension than a standard nylon set from D’Addario). This tension, combined with the properties of Nylgut, tends to deliver a brighter tone. These strings have a somewhat “gritty” feel, which some players prefer.
Wound strings are often used for a low-G tuning, although an unwound version is available in both Nylgut and fluorocarbon. And, just to confuse matters, some people use a wound C string. The wound strings have smaller diameters than their unwound counterparts, and they tend to have more volume, presence, and sustain. As a result, they don’t have as muchtonal balance with the other strings.
As I’ve said, strings are a matter of personal preference, but I would trust the opinion of your ukulele builder/maker when deciding what kind of strings to use. It is likely that they have done extensive string experimentation on their instruments and have selected the strings that they believe perform the best.
How to Restring Your Uke
Changing your uke’s strings is easy to do. Don’t be afraid! There are different types of bridges, but by far the most popular is the tiethrough design, which we will focus on here. Also, while there are several different types of tuners, most ukuleles have tuners with posts that stick up through the headplate, so we’ll use that as our example.
The most asked question I hear about restringing a uke is, “How often should I change strings?” There are a few things to consider when answering this question. If one breaks, I would recommend changing all of them (but of course you can replace the broken one first and come back to the rest of the set if you’re in the middle of playing). Older strings tend to lose their intonation (they start to run sharp), so that’s another indicator that you should change strings. Overall, however, I recommend a string change every three to six months. As strings get older, they start to sound dull and it is possible you won’t even notice a change in tone until you change strings.
Here’s a quick summary of how to change your strings:
- Take off one string at a time
- Detune the old string and either cut it or unwrap it
- Tie the new string onto the bridge
- Wrap the string around the tuner, and put it in the nut slot
- Put some tension on it
- After all the strings are replaced, bring them all up to pitch
- Clip off the excess string at the tuner
- Stretch the strings out
If you’ve never changed a string before, you may want a little more detailed information. So here we go:
Remove The Old String
Set your instrument down on a nice, protected surface. Start with one of the strings (I start with the first string—the farthest away from the player) and take the tension off by tuning it down. When the tension is removed, you can either clip it in the middle (using small diagonal cutters or a fingernail clipper) or unwind it from the tuner and untie it from the bridge.
Tie The New String Onto The Bridge
Get the new string out of the package and unwind it (make sure you have the correct string, of course). Take one end, and put it through the hole behind the bridge. Bring it back toward the fingerboard, making a small loop in the string. Put the end of the string through the loop two or three times. You can now pull the loop tight, by pulling on the long end of the string—pull the string down the fingerboard, rather than up and away from the bridge.
ATTACH THE OTHER END TO THE TUNER
Before you start, notice in the diagram (below/right) that the G and C strings (the two on the left) wrap around the tuner post counterclockwise, while the two strings on the right (E and A) wrap clockwise. Now, bring whichever string you’re changing up to the tuner, and wrap it four times around the tuner in the proper direction. (Note that this is a different approach than is commonly used with acoustic guitar steel strings, which have less stretch than ukulele strings.)
Most tuner posts have a small through-hole at the top of the post. Put the end of the string through that hole. As it exits the hole, put it between the second-to-last and last wraps. This will “capture” the end of the string to help prevent it from slipping as it is tuned up. The diagram below shows the wrapping steps for the G or C strings—the other two wrap in the opposite direction. When done properly, the string should exit the bottom of the tuner post on its way to the nut. That way you get a good break angle over the nut and won’t get any buzzing.
Start to put tension on the string by tightening the tuner. As you turn it, make sure it is going through the appropriate nut slot. Don’t bring it all the way up to pitch—stop about one or two steps below the final pitch to give the string time to get used to tension. Then repeat the process for the last three strings. Clip the excess off of both ends of each string. Make sure that the end at the bridge doesn’t touch the top of the ukulele. Now you can go to the first string and bring it fully up to pitch, and do the same for the other three.
Rather than wait several days for the strings to fully stretch, I stretch them a little bit now myself. Put your hand over the 12th fret, with your index and middle fingers on one side of the string and your thumb on the other side. Then rotate your wrist to twist the string a bit. It is best not to pull up on the string, because this puts undue pressure on the bridge. After twisting the string, bring it back up to pitch. If you do this a few times for each string, it will hasten the stretching-in process.
The last thing I do is to verify the intonation. Either using a tuner or playing the harmonic, test for intonation at the 12th fret. We find about two percent of strings are “bad” and tend to run flat, and this is most prevalent on the high G and A strings. So if your intonation was perfect and is now off, the string is the likely culprit, and should be replaced.
Restringing your ukulele is straight-forward, and with practice, the process will become second nature. Use your skills to change strings after they start to sound dull, and also to experiment with different types of strings.
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