For your ukulele to make music you need strings! Sounds easy, right? Well, if you go on the internet and simply ask, “Which ukulele strings are the best?” you will get hundreds of opinions. Why? Because at the end of the day, it really comes down to personal preference.
Think of it this way: If you gather a group of people together and ask them their favorite color, you are bound to get a variety of responses. The same holds true with ukulele players and strings. If you gather a group of ukulele players together and ask them about their favorite strings, you are in for a lot more information than you bargained for.
“What works on my instrument may sound terrible on yours. The joy of ukulele is that strings are inexpensive, and you can try many. I’ll generally order seven or so sets when I get a new instrument and give them all a go to see what suits it best. The instrument will always tell you what it does and doesn’t like.”—Christopher Davis-Shannon, ragtime/swing
When I am asked which ukulele string is best, my answer is, “Whatever strings you like!” If you catch me on a good day, you may get a few recommendations out of me. Giving a solid string recommendation is hard because my ears, my fingertips, and my playing style are bound to be different than yours. So in this article, I will do my best to provide guidance on string selection without endorsing one type of string over another. This way you can make an informed decision that is best for you.
When choosing an ukulele string, keep these 3 things in mind:
- Strings are cheap. Most strings do not cost a lot of money. It never hurts to grab a few different packs of strings, and when it is time for a string change, throw a new set on and give them a try.
- Strings are temporary. They are meant to be changed. If you love them, great! If you don’t, on to the next set. Just keep a set of your go-to strings on hand to switch back to.
- Strings are subjective. A string that sounds and feels great to you, may not to someone else—and that is OK.
With these three things in mind, strings can be a fun and affordable way to conduct your own tone experiments on your ukulele. You may also be surprised to find that a string you love on one ukulele may not bring out the best in another. When you take into account the size, wood, and build of your ukulele, then mix in your own preferences for tone and feel, there really is no way to give any string the sought-after label of “best ukulele string.”
“The instrument chooses the string. Some demand higher tension, some want sweet and warm.”—Heidi Swedberg, Ukulele Teacher & Performer
It is important to keep in mind that it can take strings anywhere from hours to days to settle into their tone. They need to stretch into place. So instead of giving up on them immediately, give them a few days to a week to settle in before you declare them rubbish.
4 Things to Consider When Choosing Strings
It is impossible to cover every string material in a general essay like this. Companies are always innovating to add unique and interesting strings into the ukulele market. So, although this is not an all-inclusive list, most strings can be lumped into the following subcategories:
SYNTHETIC GUT. Ukulele strings were originally made out of gut, which is exactly what it sounds like: the intestinal lining of sheep or goats, usually, and sometimes cattle. You can still buy them, but they are rare and expensive. There are many companies that have made great strides in replicating the density, tone, and feel of gut strings with synthetic materials. These strings tend to be warm, with a punchy mid-range tone, and tend to have great longevity. There is a wide variety of affordable synthetic options.
NYLON. Made from a variety of nylon polymers, the exact feel and tone of nylon strings can vary from brand to brand. Smooth and easy to play, nylon strings give an ukulele a more mellow tone, with a distinct punch and warmth. One common complaint about nylon strings is that they are very “stretchy,” so they require a lot more tuning. So be sure to allocate a few extra days for them to settle in if you choose to try nylon strings.
FLUOROCARBON. Most fluorocarbon strings produce a bright, crisp, resonant tone, which I often describe as “smooth.” These strings are generally smooth to the touch, too, and often easy on the fingertips. But again, there are so many varieties, each set can produce a different feel and sound depending on gauge and tension. Fishing line is also made of fluorocarbon and comes in a variety of gauges, so many players have been known to experiment with different string gauges via their local sporting goods store, to see what combination they like best on their ukulele. Fluorocarbon strings are also known for their longevity and and holding their tune well. They tend to be far less stretchy and settle into their tuning more quickly.
WOUND STRINGS. These are generally nylon strings that are wrapped in a metal or polymer material to create lower tones without adding a lot of density to a lower-voiced strings. They are often found in low-G, tenor, or baritone sets. They have their own unique booming low voice. Their main drawback is they often do not last as long as the other strings, often wearing out, corroding, or unraveling before the other strings in the set. Luckily, many can be purchased individually so you can replace just that one string. They also tend to squeak more than regular nylon or fluorocarbon strings.
The gauge is the thickness, or diameter, of a specific string. Why is this important to note? If the nut, where your string rests, is cut for a thinner string, a thicker-gauge string may sit too high, making the string action high and therefore making your instrument difficult to play. Conversely, if a nut has been cut for a thicker gauge string, a smaller gauge string may sit too low, causing a buzz when you open strum. Both of these issues can be fixed in a matter of minutes by an experienced ukulele tech. My advice is, if you have a solid string preference, you may want to have your ukulele set up to accommodate that specific string.
“I’m still looking for my ‘favorite’ strings. My playing style is mostly loud, for lack of a better term. I am playing sing-a-longs, dance parties, and busking on the street most of the time, so I really think a thicker string is right for me.”—Devin Scott, Pop Sing-a-longs
Your playing style may also lend itself to thicker or thinner strings. A thicker gauge often has a louder, harder-hitting, bold voice that is a favorite among more aggressive strummers. The smaller gauges are often favored by those who are looking for a crisp, light, intricate sound.
String tension is how many pounds of pressure a string exerts when at pitch. So, in the simplest terms, tension is how tight a string feels. The higher the tension, the tighter the string. Higher-tension strings can give a bigger, bolder, more aggressive sound, but can also be harder to fret. A lot of players with an aggressive playing style tend to favor higher tension. The lower-tension strings are easier to fret but have a looser feel. They often have a warmer and richer tone. They are what I recommend for children and people with hand-strength issues, or arthritis. A low-tension string paired with a low setup can be a game changer for a new player or someone with finger pain!
4. Low-G vs. High-G
An ukulele is traditionally tuned G C E A, with the G string being a high G, and the tuning dropping down for the C, and then going up to the E and then to the A. This is called re-entrant tuning. It gives your playing that distinct, traditional, bright and lively ukulele sound. Most ukuleles come with a high-G string. Low-G, also known as linear tuning, is when the G string is tuned an octave lower than the traditional tuning, lower than the C string. This expands the range of notes that can be achieved on the ukulele by five. The ukulele then has a more warm, rich, and low tone to it, more similar to a guitar.
“High-G for me—the close chord voicings it creates are what gives the uke its distinctive sound and distinguishes it from the guitar. When I do want to play something guitar-like, I play my guitar instead!“—Andy Eastwood, jazz
Which one is right for you? Again, it depends on your preferences and playing style. Some musicians have more than one ukulele, one strung low-G and one strung high-G, for different songs. Some just stick to one tuning. If you don’t know which is right for you, my advice is to buy a single wound low-G string. Thanks to the material they’re wrapped with, wound G strings provide the lower tone without drastically affecting the diameter of the string. Therefore, most wound low-G strings fit nicely in nut slots that have been cut for a high-G string. You can replace just the G string and see if you like the sound, and then you can always go back to the high-G if it is not for you.
“Low-G for blues improv, high G for bluegrassier songs. I like a wound low-G for the ‘thunk’, but I go through them like nothing else.“—Robin Evans, country blues
When choosing a low-G set, keep in mind that most string sets achieve the lower octave pitch by either offering a wound string or increasing the gauge of the string. If you choose a set with a larger-gauge low-G string, you may need a slight adjustment so that the string does not sit too high in the nut slot.
When to Change Strings
There is no solid time frame for when you should change your strings. A lot depends on how often you play, how aggressively you play, and whether you exclusively play one ukulele or spread out your playing among different ukes. Usually, the first sign that your strings need to be changed is when your ukulele starts to sound a little “off.” It might seem a little dull, not hold its tune, and the intonation won’t sound quite right. Intonation is how well your string stays in tune as you play up the fretboard. Whenever someone expresses concern that their intonation is off, I ask them when they last changed their strings. Most seem to be skeptical that the answer is so simple, but after they change their strings and allow them to settle for a few days, the intonation issues are usually resolved. Strings are in a constant state of being stretched, and therefore a time will come when they are literally stretched too thin, and the intonation will be sharp.
“The only part about changing strings that I like is getting a good cleaning on the fretboard when all the strings are off. I don’t care for that ‘new string’ sound, and only change them as needed. The life of a set can vary depending on how much I’m playing a certain instrument.“—Victoria Vox, indie pop/folk/jazz
The other obvious time to change your strings is if they are damaged, show a lot of wear, or if you want to just try a new string set for fun!
More String Tips
Strings are not a “magic pill” that will make you play better. They are a tool for your musicianship. Though they may not improve your playing, the right strings can make you want to practice more if they are easy to play, appeal to your ear, and bring out the best in your ukulele. But needless to say, strings cannot replace practice!
Keep in mind, you most likely won’t find a one-string-fits-all solution. Depending on the size, tonewood, brand, and build of your ukulele, you may find you prefer one type of string on one ukulele and another type on a different ukulele. I have one set I love on my spruce concert, but it does not bring out the best on my mahogany soprano. I also have a set I like for my upbeat and lively songs, and another I like when I want to bring out the dark warmth of my koa ukulele.
What if you don’t want to spend money, time, and hassle of trial and error? If you are lucky enough to have an ukulele community in your area, you can attend a jam or festival and ask to try out ukuleles that are strung differently than yours. If you like the way the strings sound and feel, ask what they are and try them out on your own ukulele. If you are unable to meet with other players, you can find a lot of great demos online, so you can at least hear how they sound.
Sometimes, it is not your strings. The proper strings can certainly bring out the best in your ukulele. If your ukulele is built in such a way that it has a slightly dull tone, you may note some improvement when you change the strings, but the ukulele itself may not be able to achieve the tone you are looking for. A string set is an easy way to troubleshoot any tone issues.
Some strings are easier to fret, but if your ukulele has high action (the string height above the fretboard), or structural issues, even the lightest gauge strings may be hard to fret. When this happens, my advice would be to see a skilled technician about getting your ukulele set up properly. A great setup can be the difference between you loving your ukulele or giving up in frustration. I set up thousands of ukuleles a year and am a firm believer in the power of a great setup!
Learn to change your own strings. It is not as hard as it seems. I have had many people say they never change their own strings. Often they are afraid of damaging their instrument, but in fact it is very hard to damage your ukulele while changing the strings. I have been changing strings for ten years and have yet to damage an ukulele during a string change. Your first few tries will be awkward and take you forever, but before you know it you’ll be helping your friends learn to change their strings!
In closing, don’t overthink it. Have fun! Strings are strings. They are a fun way to tweak the tone of your ukulele. Don’t worry too much about finding the Holy Grail of strings; use the strings that feel good and bring you joy when you play!