TEXT AND PHOTOS BY SANDOR NAGYSZALANCZY | FROM THE SPRING 2018 ISSUE OF UKULELE
If you’ve ever had the privilege of playing a vintage ukulele strung with old-fashioned natural-gut strings, you know what a warm, mellifluous sound those strings can produce. It’s distinctly different from the snappier—and much louder—sound created by modern uke strings made from synthetic materials.
Although steel strings started to become readily available around 1900 (mostly for guitars), gut strings remained a better choice for ukuleles, as most steel strings imparted too much tension on the thin, lightly braced tops used on traditionally built ukes. Hence, gut was the string material of choice for the vast majority of ukuleles sold up until the mid-1940s. Banjo-ukes were an exception, as they were often strung with silver- or gold-plated steel strings, which made these instruments sound more like full-sized banjos. Silk was also used as a uke string material, but was far less prevalent than gut.
Long before the ukulele was born in the Hawaiian Islands, gut strings produced in Europe were used on all manner of stringed instruments—violins, cellos, harps, and so forth. Although sometimes called “catgut,” these strings were typically made from the intestines of sheep, cattle, or goats—never felines. The string-making process involved cleaning, scraping, soaking, and drying the intestines. Next they were twisted to form strings, then bleached for more color consistency, and finally ground and polished to the desired diameters. A colored dye was sometimes added for visual effect, and a coating of oil was sometimes added to the strings to make them feel slicker and to preserve them (after all, they are made from biological material and need to be kept moisturized). Gut strings made for ukuleles were sold under innumerable brand names and were typically packaged in glassine envelopes often adorned with decorative graphics.
But the uke string scene changed during World War II, when gut strings were in short supply—no doubt, because the majority were made in Germany and Italy, both wartime enemies of the USA and its allied forces. A practical replacement for gut strings came about thanks to the efforts of Albert Augustine, an instrument maker from New York. Augustine happened upon some nylon line at an army surplus store in Greenwich Village and thought it would be a good material for classical guitar strings.
The first synthetic guitar strings, made from DuPont nylon, were manufactured in 1948 under the La Bella brand name. Players praised the new nylon strings for their smoothness, durability, and ability to stay in tune. Not only were they more affordable, they also overcame the inherent problems of gut strings, which were harder to tune and became weak and brittle over time. It didn’t take long for ukulele players to embrace the new strings, and by the early 1950s, DuPont nylon were the new standard for ukulele strings. In addition to clear, colored nylon strings were also available and were often used on plastic ukuleles in the 1950s and ’60s.
Contemporary uke players can choose from dozens of different types of ukulele strings made from various synthetic materials, including nylon, fluorocarbon, and Nylgut. However, if you’d like to experience the “vintage sound” of your ukulele, Italian string maker Aquila has revived the manufacture of natural-gut uke strings. Although these cost several times as much as their regular strings (Nylgut and Bionylon), Aquila says that their Genuine Gut ukulele strings “allow you to enjoy the authentic sounds of the ‘Roaring Twenties.’”
Historic Ukulele String Packaging