Whenever I got a new guitar I used to spend some time trying to find the perfect set of strings for the instrument. This could take months. Some of my acoustic guitars sounded better with 80/20 Bronze strings while other seemed more alive with standard Phosphor Bronze. Some guitars sounded better with light gauge strings while others seemed to like medium gauges.
Now that I’m becoming re-acquainted with the ukulele, I’ve been researching and trying different strings to see what works best. So far, the biggest problem is I have not yet bought a new ukulele and the two I already have are of fairly low quality. There’s only so I much I can hope to do to improve the sound of my cheap ukuleles. I am still researching and shopping for a better ukulele – but as always, I must first sell some guitars.
Until I get a new, higher quality ukulele, I’ve been learning a lot about strings. Except for ukulele, all my instruments have steel strings. I feel fairly knowledgeable about different types of steel strings for guitars and mandolins but I didn’t know much about nylon strings until now.
Before I share some of what I’ve learned on the web, let me share the results of my experiments on my baritone ukulele. These are of course subjective and specific to the instrument I was testing.
Within the past two weeks I’ve had my baritone ukulele strung with:
- A low G tenor set of Aquila Nylgut strings tuned two steps lower to Bb instead of C.
- A GCEA baritone set of Nygut strings but with the Aquila Red Series Baritone low G substituted for the high G.
- The same set as above but with the Nylgut high G as the 4th string.
- A standard Aquila Baritone DGBE set (G tuning) with wound D and G strings.
- The same set tuned up to A (E-A-C#-F#).
- The same set tuned half way between the previous two tunings making it G# tuning (D#-G#-C-F).
- I’m currently back to standard baritone tuning DGBE. But …
- I’ve received a linear no wound string set and a linear set with flat wound basses from South Coast Ukulele. I’m looking forward to trying both sets. I’m also expecting a replacement so I can again try the Aquila Red on the basses (no wound) in CGEA tuning. I need more ukuleles.
Wow! A lot of string and tuning changes. Here’s what I’ve learned.
- I don’t like high G reenterant C tuning on my baritone. I much prefer linear tuning on this instrument. I have a soprano with standard reenterant G tuning. I wonder if it would sound better in D tuning? I wish I had a concert ukulele so I could keep it in reenterant tuning. Maybe two concert ukes so I could have low G and high G tuning ukuleles.
- I don’t particularly care for standard DGBE linear G tuning on my baritone. That was a surprise. It’s not that it sounds bad. It’s just that it sounds too much like a guitar. Others have said the same about baritones. If you want to sound like a guitar, why not play a guitar?
- Linear GCEA with the Aquila Red unwound G string was fairly nice sounding. Unfortunately the Aquila Red string appeared to be defective – twice. These are high tech strings that have been made with copper particles embedded in them to increase their density so you don’t need wound strings on the bass side. I contacted Aquila and give them extremely high praise for the rapid and thoughtful response to my problem. I was told they sold 10,000 strings in a month and have only had 10 complaints. I am looking forward to trying these again.
- I was surprised to discover that on this particular ukulele, my opinion of the best sounding string combination so far has been the tenor strings tuned to Bb.
- I tried tuning the standard baritone set up a half step to G#. The extra tension when tuned to G# seemed to really make the sound jump out. A tuning, two steps up from standard baritone D tuning was too much tension and actually made the ukulele seem more dead than alive.
- However, after a few days at G# I began to notice and dislike the extra tension in the strings when I fretted notes. So, for now, back to DGBE. Regarding this sounding too much like a guitar: I don’t have any nylon string guitars and the baritone uke is more portable than any of my guitars. But I will probably go back to a higher tuning when I get new strings.
Although there are many ukulele string companies that are recommended and occasionally praised, my subjective assessment is that the top three companies in terms of quality and sound are:
Aquila is definitely number 1. They are an Italian company. The Aquila website is full of interesting technical information about string technology and their research into perfecting strings for different instruments. Their focus is on genuine gut strings and synthetic strings which have the good characteristics of gut but not the bad characteristics.
Worth Strings are often mentioned as an alternative to Aquila and I’ve read a number of comments suggesting some ukuleles sound better with Aquila and others with Worth. Worth is a Japanese company and provides very little useful information on the web. They have two types of strings. The browns are a warmer sounding string while the clears are brighter and more traditional nylon sounding.
The least known company is Southcoast. They are located here in the USA (Louisiana) where they build instruments as well as create their own string sets to go on them. You can purchase their strings direct from their website. Their website has a lot of technical information relating to strings and how you pick the right strings for the right instrument. They sell reenterant and linear tuning string sets and explain the problems with getting a good linear set of strings on a small instrument such as the ukulele.
The goal for a good set of strings is to have an even balance that sounds good on a particular instrument. When it comes to put this into practice, there turns out to be many variables to make achieving the goal difficult.
What is meant by balance? The easiest way to balance a set of strings is to attempt to give each string in the set approximately the same tension when tuned to the desired pitches for each string. However, our hearing does not hear all frequencies the same. Assuming equal tension between strings gave equal decibel levels, we still might think the strings not balanced. We hear high frequencies better.
It would seem a goal would also be to make the strings balanced in terms of how they feel to the player. Yet an experiment showed that players couldn’t detect some differences in tension which are often mentioned as being important to players. My conclusion is this aspect is overrated, though there still must be limits to which feel is important.
When trying to scale string diameter to give approximately the same tension on lower pitched strings the string makers face two problems. The first is the diameter of the string becomes so large that is looks and feels wrong compared to the higher strings. The second is a problem is strings become too stiff. The reason then for wound strings on bass strings isn’t just to add mass but to add mass while allowing the string to remain flexible. The string maker is attempting to balance elasticity.
Aquila has created their Red Series strings to substitute for wound ukulele bass strings. Their innovation was to find a way to increase the mass of unwound strings without greatly increasing the diameter and without increasing the stiffness. They did this by embedding copper particles into the string formulation.
Southcoast offers a linear set of strings for ukulele but suggests different tunings based on scale length and also body size of your instrument. The instruments they make include some with a longerer scale length on a shorter body, e.g., a twenty inch scale on a tenor body.
Southcoast also has a mixed material linear set of strings where the two high strings are standard nylon while the bass strings are flatwound. These sound interesting. I’ve ordered a set of both types from Southcoast.
[jbox title=”String Tension Calculator” content_css=”font:90% verdana,sans-serif; “]I’ve made a String Tension Calculator that allows you to see what happens to tension for a string designed for one pitch and scale length is used at a different pitch and/or on an instrument with a different scale length: String Tension Calculator.
See table at end of this article for different ukulele tunings with note names and frequencies. The calculator can be found on it’s own page with instructions or just use it here!
Another area I hadn’t thought about but some people have is how the strings are attached to the bridge. Nylon strings are normally tied to the bridge of ukuleles and classical guitars. But I’ve become aware that some instrument makers put in one or two extra bridge holes for each string allowing an altered attachment method. The theory is that the string is pulled up by the tied loop thus decreasing the break angle of the string over the bridge. Alternate attachment methods that avoid this allow a steeper break angle which theoretically gives stronger tone.
Southcoast sellswhich are drilled to allow you to attach your strings to the beads and then feed the string through the bridge. It’s another way to keep the break angle at a maximum.
Table of Ukulele Tunings with Note Frequencies in Hz
|Tuning Name||String 4||String 3||String 2||String 1|
|D Reenterant Notes||A4||D4||F#4/Gb4||B4|
|D Reenterant Hz||440.0||293.7||370.0||493.9|
|D Linear Notes||A3||D4||F#4/Gb4||B4|
|D Linear Hz||220.0||293.7||370.0||493.9|
|C Reenterant Notes||G4||C4||E4||A4|
|C Reenterant Hz||392.0||261.6||329.6||440.0|
|C Linear Notes||G3||C4||E4||A4|
|C Linear Hz||196.0||261.6||329.6||440.0|
|Bb Reenterant Notes||F4||A#3/Bb3||D4||G4|
|Bb Reenterant Hz||349.2||233.1||293.7||392.0|
|Bb Linear Notes||F3||A#3/Bb3||D4||G4|
|Bb Linear Hz||174.6||233.1||293.7||392.0|
|A Reenterant Notes||E4||A3||C#4/Db4||F#4/Gb4|
|A Reenterant Hz||329.6||220.0||277.2||370.0|
|A Linear Notes||E3||A3||C#4/Db4||F#4/Gb4|
|A Linear Hz||164.8||220.0||277.2||370.0|
|G# Reenterant Notes||D#4/Eb4||G#3/Ab3||C4||F4|
|G# Reenterant Hz||311.1||207.7||261.6||349.2|
|G# Linear Notes||D#3/Eb3||G#3/Ab3||C4||F4|
|G# Linear Hz||155.6||207.7||261.6||349.2|
|G Reenterant Notes||D4||G3||B3||E4|
|G Reenterant Hz||293.7||196.0||246.9||329.6|
|G Linear Notes||D3||G3||B3||E4|
|G Linear Hz||146.8||196.0||246.9||329.6|