Thoughts for Strings

What about ‘ukulele strings?

Over the 17 years I have been playing ‘ukulele I have gone through a multitude of different styles, brands, and materials in the quest for the perfect set of strings. As someone who plays daily, taste in strings becomes an equivalence for finding the perfect blend of coffee to rise in the morning. While we gravitate to our immediate reactions and taste, the only way to truly discover an objective conclusion on what taste best, one must explore the world of coffee to know what is in your cup. Beans from Ethiopia will taste different from those from Kona, the way it is roasted will bring out certain flavor notes, and of course the way it is brewed will add subtly or take it away.

Strings are no different in the range of possibilities and variance.

About 6 years ago when I started working in ‘ukulele shops, I started to really dive into the world of strings a little more scientifically. It was easy for me to switch strings on a whim or try various combinations as many ‘ukulele shops will have a drawer somewhere full of random sets and single strings. It turned out to be a great education for me as there was always another combination to experiment with.

I have boiled down what I find to be three elements that I now look for in strings. As the title mentions, these are thoughts to consider and by no means are a complete and definite answer on the best set of strings. The key is to find the combination of strings that matches your playing and tastes. With that said, I pose some questions to the feel, tone, and durability of the strings you are exploring alongside some personal anecdotes.


Feel
How do the strings feel under your fingers?

Playing an instrument is a physical action that requires the body to know how much strength and dexterity are required to achieve the sound you desire. Do you prefer a light touch on the fretboard or a little kick back in holding down the strings? Does a wound C-string or G-string feel odd when moving from nylon or fluorocarbon? When fretting some chords do you feel yourself accidentally bending strings as you contort yourself into position? Do you feel an overwhelming fatigue with this set of strings?

Personally, I prefer strings that have a little more tension. I enjoy the feeling of bending strings that typically don’t want to be bent. This sensation elicits a certain emotional reaction for me as there is a bit of struggle to get the pitch you desire (Certainly can attribute that to the years playing blues guitar). I also will tend to bend lighter gauge strings on accident so I find strings with a little more tension easier for me to stay accurate in pitch. While it does wear out my fingers a little faster, I welcome the trade for the accuracy and tone.


Tone
How do the strings sound?

Arguably the most important element in choosing strings, tone can make or break a player’s sound. While a lot of it is dictated by the player’s technique, the type of string partly makes up for what we can’t control. Are your strings bright or warm? Is there a style or sound that you are trying to emulate? How do the strings sound open opposed to fretted? Does the squeak of a wound string add charm or noise to your songs? Do you get the desired sustain and/or attack? What are the different sounds can you get from this set of strings?

I equate tone to the general aesthetic of a particular sound and find it to be a very important aspect in creating a voice. I prefer my strings to help give “body” to my ‘ukulele at all parts of the fretboard. Due to its scale length, often producing a punchy yet warm tone above the 9th can be a challenge to those with the best of technique. This mixed in with the loss of clarity can be tricky to deal with the already short range of the instrument. While technique can mitigate the circumstance, I feel strings should have a “natural musical sound” that have the ability to be bright and punchy with a strong attack and warm and mellow with a soft touch. While wound strings bothered me in my youth, the squeak has almost disappeared from my ears and add character when it does stick out.


Durability
How long will these strings last?

While less esoteric and more pragmatic than the first two elements, durability is important to acknowledge for the sake of your time. How long does it take to break in a new set? Is there any visible wear that will hamper your playing? How fast do these strings degrade? How long will they last at their peak tone and feel?

From a utilitarian point of view, the strings that last the longest will reap the best benefits. Though in consideration of the first two elements, it is important to acknowledge just how your strings weather with the way you play. The life of the individual string alongside the set as a whole should be observed to help expand your ability to use nuanced tone in your playing. If your paint becomes watered down you will paint a different subject. When first playing a new set of strings I usually find them to be too bright and both stiff in sound and feel. At the end of the life of a string, they tend to sound stale and dead with the loss of a lot of complexity in tone. Finding and sustaining a balance in these two extremes becomes key. These thoughts in comparison to price are considerations to help sustain your art.


Last Thoughts
For what we can and can not change:

A mixture of the density, tension (at pitch), and diameter should be synthesized to create flexibility to allow you to move in the direction you want to go.

While I agree to play to the limitation of any instrument, this level of acceptance should only be met with the desire and ability to evolve and grow with it. While strings may be only one element that affects tone, it is one we can control and change. Ultimately becoming a key interface to creating music.

Our playing will reflect our habits. What may be hard and uncomfortable could also be just new and requires some time to get acquainted with. Keep in mind your end goal and fix the details along the way.

Just as most subjective things, tastes can change as much as you do. Welcome these changes with the thought of changing again. Moving water never grows stale.


This hopefully has given you some thoughts to think about when discovering new strings. While we only scratched the surface on some of the finer details, these thoughts will hopefully evoke questions that are relevant to you. For the rest, leave us your questions and comments below. Your thoughts enrich the dialogue and keep the subject alive.

What are your thoughts for strings?


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Neal Chin
‘Ukulele Artist and Educator

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2 thoughts on “Thoughts for Strings

  1. Interesting to me because I just bought two new sets of strings and so am enjoying the difference. I use a warmer set (and a low “G” string) when I play with my house band at church. It seems to fit in better with the other acoustic guitars, banjo, mandolin, etc. My new strings are thinner, brighter, slide more easily when I’m barring them, and I’m back to that high G. These are sounding great on the Christmas songs I’m learning. Yet to try that third set. Changing them is quite a job! Thanks, Neil.

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    1. I definitely understand that sentiment and brings up a great point to the discussion! As life, music is so situational and having the ability to maneuver into different musical settings by changing tone and feel is key!
      Changing strings can be quite tedious but I feel a great opportunity to have a moment with your instrument. Also I do promise it get’s a little easier each to change each time you do it.
      Thanks for reading Judy!
      -Neal

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