The Great String Comparison!

In ukulele circles, arguments over string preferences get mighty personal, not quite as feisty as debates over barbecue (eastern vs. western N.C., Texas vs. Memphis, etc.), but still quite heated.

Why? Few ukes use steel strings, so you have different materials at play. Most strings are made of nylon, fluorocarbon, or some proprietary substance. (You can find honest-to-god gut strings, but it’s difficult, and I think they tend to be both delicate and expensive.)

The Italian string-maker Aquila seems to have cornered the market on decent mass-produced strings, but I’m not a big fan of their “nylgut” formulations, intended to offer the durability of nylon and the precise tone of gut. I’ve found them to be muddy sounding and more rigid than I like.

My favorites are fluorocarbons. They’re thinner than nylon and smoother to the touch. They also tend to be easy to find and not that expensive. (Aquilas are about $8 – $9 a set; Martin fluorocarbons go for $6 -$7.)

But, as Barry (“Baz”) at gotaukulele.com points out, fluorocarbon also is used to make fishing line, which is a lot cheaper than the $1 per foot you pay for a comparable precut uke string. Barry also thinks a lot of strings really are fishing line, cut into roughly two-foot pieces and packaged individually.

Is there a difference in sound or playability? Barry did his own test (comparing my favorites(!), Worth Browns, vs. Seaguar fishing line), and I couldn’t resist conducting my own.

Here’s the deal: I bought 25-yard spools of Seaguar Blue Label fishing line at the break points (tensions) Barry recommended. I used my soprano Flea, played the same songs — Six Days on the Road, Roly Poly (Bob Wills), and Sunny Afternoon (the Kinks) — with Worths and the fishing line, giving the Seaguar time to settle after making the switch. Judge for yourselves.

The four spools of fishing line cost slightly less than $90 on Amazon and they will make between 35 and 40 sets of strings. All you need is a yardstick, scissors, and a little patience.

UPDATE: Many uke players prefer “wound” strings — strings that have a core of the basic material but are wound with a filament of steel or nickel. You’ll usually find them on instruments with longer scales (tenor, baritone). This allows the string to maintain tension without making the diameter of the string ridiculous (think coathangers). I tend not to play tenors and never have played a baritone, so I stick with unwound strings. The other issue with wound strings is that they are much brighter than unwound ones, so if your set is mixed, the instrument could lack balance (the G or C could be much louder than the E or A).

My stable, over the years

I’ve owned (or at least had in my possession) 11 ukuleles since September 2013. He–eee—eee–re they are!

IMAG0156Kala KA-8 8-string tenor. I had mentioned to my colleague Mitch Kokai, who had taken up the mandolin, about my interest in playing something, and I settled on the uke. He saw this one listed for $150 (including hardshell case and shipping) on the classified section of the mandolincafe.com website, and after a little consideration, I bought it. The case itself would sell for about $75 new. The uke was in great shape, but I snapped the low G string on day one, and had to get a new string. I could shape a few basic chords, and the instrument sounded wonderful, but after a few weeks it became clear that my hands weren’t really large enough to make the stretches comfortably or hit the frets squarely. Hence …

2013-11-29 09.37.52Mahalo mahogany soprano. This little laminate was part of a Black Friday sale at Guitar Center. $25. It was more comfortable to play than the Kala, but the Kala still sounded better. I could handle the reaches, though the frets hadn’t been filed, so the fingerboard was a bit rough. (Initial lesson learned about buying a new uke from a big-box retailer.) Even so, we were getting somewhere. Which led to my briefest affair with the …

2013-12-25 09.59.13Oscar Schmidt concert with gig bag, tuner, and songbook. My dear, delightful, wonderful wife ordered this package as a Christmas present. The laminate mahogany uke was beautiful out of the box, and appeared to be just what I needed to really let my playing take off. But … but … one of the tuners was loose, causing the g string to buzz. I couldn’t tighten it, suggesting that the headstock may have been cracked, or the tuner wasn’t installed correctly. The result: an immediate return to the Amazon seller. By this time, I had it bad: Ukulele Acquisition Syndrome. The desire to get just one more (though I could have stopped whenever I wanted … . Right.) The day after Christmas we went right back to the Guitar Center and purchased a …

2013-12-26 16.15.17Mitchell spruce top concert. This is one of GC’s proprietary brands in the U.S. This one — all laminate — had shiny chrome tuner pegs and a glossy finish (like the Kala). Very pretty. It also had a thick neck and wasn’t that comfortable to play. Still, I stuck with it. For awhile. (Had it been flawless, that Oscar Schmidt might still be with me to this day.)

DSC_1929Sometime over the course of the fall, I discovered the North Carolina Ukulele Academy in Wilmington. Kent, who runs the academy and the attached music shop, is a very cool guy and fine teacher. The academy hosts a monthly jam (open to the public), teaches seminars, and has the occasional performance by a pro player (it sponsored Jake Shimabukaro more than once.) I pored over the website of the online store, and saw a few all-solid ukes. We visited Kent one Sunday and I came home with the Kanaloa sapele concert. This beauty had a thinner neck than the Mitchell, a great finish, a wonderfully light touch … and it still didn’t feel right. (This was no fault of Kent’s. He did a stellar setup/fret dressing, etc. It makes a difference.) Before giving up on the Kanaloa, though, I sold the Mitchell on eBay at a very fair price. Spring was on the way. As April and our (mostly) annual trip to Merlefest approached, I started lurking on the website and online store for Mims Ukes, a well-regarded dealer who had a brick-and-mortar store in Charlotte for several years but had just moved to the Danville, Va., area. I phoned Mim to see if she would be at her store on the Sunday of Merlefest so we could take a roundabout way home and drop by. She was. I decided to buy another tenor, thinking I had been snakebitten by concerts. And after spending more than an hour with her demoing a dozen or so instruments, we arrived at this beauty:

ohanaOhana TK-70G, solid spruce top, laminate maple back and sides. Oh, baby, did this feel and sound sweet. Mim noted that it looks a bit like something a televangelist would play, but no matter. It was the one for me. And, as it turns out, it’s been my only keeper. (More on that later.) Fretting wasn’t as much of an issue as it is on the KA-8, and the spruce top projects like crazy. Plus, I bought a second hard shell case.

jam.071515Summer got here. I began going to the twice-monthly meetings of the North Raleigh Uke Jam (and now I help out with the Facebook page). Highly recommended. It has improved my playing and singing significantly and hooked me up with some wonderful people. I’ll probably write about it often.

2014-05-14 12.34.35With summer, came UAS. I subscribed to Ukulele Magazine (naturally), and in it read a positive review of the Eddy Finn line of ukes, designed in Michigan and manufactured in Asia. (Note the shark fin-shaped sound hole.) I found a concert-scale laminate mahogany model on eBay that I bought for $50, including shipping. It’s a pretty instrument, and it played OK. It was worth the gamble. So that became part of the stable.

And it was time, as they say, to start thinning the herd. On eBay, I sold the Mitchell and the Kanaloa, leaving me with the Kala, Mahalo, Ohana, and Eddy Finn.

IMG_0419Then on Facebook, I learned that a music shop had opened at the weekly Flea Market situated at the North Carolina State Fairgrounds. Charles, the owner, posted that he sold ukes, including Ohanas and products from The Magic Fluke Company in Massachusetts. Learn more here. I had read a lot about the Flukes and Fleas, and when he told me he would give NR Uke Jammers a discount, I left happily with a soprano-scale Flea and a Flea bag. Terrific purchase. This puppy winds up being played almost daily.

ohana-sopranoThe hits just keep on coming. In early October, I broke down and made another purchase from Mim, this time an Ohana solid mahogany soprano with a gloss finish. This guy gets played as much as the Flea. It has the classic uke sound, with more sustain and depth than most. Friction tuners, beautiful binding and purfling, for the money I don’t think you can do better.

ohana-vitaBut wait. There’s more. December was a veritable acquisition spree. I had read about the Vita ukuleles made by Ohana (and others) modeled after the Vita instruments designed for uke wizard Roy Smeck in the 1920s. The Vitas have f-holes like mandolins and project like crazy. As I learned more about the Ohanas and the price point (less than $200), I started looking for used ones online. I found one listed at the UU Marketplace, made an offer, and had me a new-ish Ohana Vita. This, by far, is the loudest uke I own. It’s also one of the more playable ones.

cara-guileleThen, what with Christmas coming and all, I decided to include the lovely and talented Cara in the ensemble. I gave her a Cordoba Guilele (6-string instrument that’s the size of a parlor guitar or a tenor uke tuned like a guitar) for Christmas. It’s actually a pretty cool instrument that she picks up every now and then (when she’s not knitting, which she prefers to do). We’ll perform together sometime. The guilele is a fun instrument to have around.

January 2015 rolled around, and several ukes weren’t getting a lot of love: The KA-8, the Mahalo, and the Eddy Finn. The KA-8 was too difficult to play crisply, and I wasn’t picking up the others very often. So it was time to thin again. I donated the Mahalo and the Eddy Finn to Goodwill (selling on eBay and paying for shipping wasn’t worth the trouble). I was about to list the KA-8 on eBay or UU, when, out of the blue, Facebook friend Bill Kalles asked me about it. We worked out a deal, and he’s been delighted. (Me, too. It’s a fine uke and I’m happy to see it in loving hands.)

Also in January, for my birthday, Cara gave me a beginner’s harmonica set and a very sturdy rack. I don’t practice nearly often enough and need to do more.

Now thinned, it was time to restock the herd.

OhanafrontIn February, I went back to Mim, this time for a concert scale Ohana. Solid cedar top, laminate willow back and sides. It’s a genuine looker and a wonderful player as well. Ab-so-freakin-lutely gorgeous. She also had a very slightly dinged hard shell case at a good price, so I got both. This one could not be replaced for the money invested in it. I really love taking Willow to the jams.

flea-flukeAt that point, I thought I was done. No more acquisitions. But it hit me again after hearing one of the UU players (at the Seasons of the Ukulele) play a wonderful rendition of The Band’s Stage Fright on a Fluke. the bug bit again, but I swore only to buy a used Fluke. This natural concert Fluke popped up almost immediately on eBay for $190, a significant discount from the list price, primarily because the original purchaser had modified the bridge/saddle to lower the action. (He said it was to make it easier to fingerpick. Frankly, I have no idea why you’d want to mess with success.) I bought it, caveat emptor, and after a few weeks, I hated the low action. I tried to raise it by using string spacers in the slots on the bridge, but that didn’t work. (The Fluke shown here alongside the Flea.)

So I sent it back to Magic Fluke for repair. I told them I wasn’t the original owner, the bridge had been altered, and I was happy to pay for a repair/replacement. They told me they usually charge only return shipping charges for repairs. Wow. So I sent it to Massachusetts with a check for the shipping, and within two weeks, it was back to me with a brand new bridge/saddle and a new set of strings. The folks who run Magic Fluke defy description. They’re the best. Buy something from them and tell your friends.

For now, UAS is in remission. (Don’t talk to me about String Acquisition Syndrome, a real issue when you’re using something other than steel strings.) It may hold on for awhile. But having four Ohanas (mahogany soprano, Vita, cedar/willow concert, spruce/maple tenor) and two Flukes (soprano Flea, concert Fluke) works very well.

Sound clips of each to follow. Thanks for your patience.

Playing with injuries/knowing your limits

I’ll probably never be more than a serviceable player. For one thing, I started in my mid-50s and never had played anything with strings before.

But also, two major injuries limit my strength and reach. In 1996, while working in Washington, D.C., at an office building with marble floors, I slipped on a wet spot and fell while I had a glass bottle (Snapple) in each hand. The resulting serious cuts (and some shards of glass) led to a lot of pain, a handful of stitches, several weeks of therapy, and minor nerve damage in the ring finger and pinky of my left hand. My reach and feel are limited on the fretboard, so I’ll probably never be able to play a guitar or perhaps even a baritone uke. I also have some difficulties fretting cleanly chords with a long reach.

Ten years later, living in Denver, I slipped on an icy patch and all my weight wound up on my left wrist, shattering it. That necessitated surgery, including several screws and a metal plate (all still in there). I don’t experience any lingering pain, but my range of motion is limited slightly (maybe 15 degrees or so), and I’ve never regained full strength in that wrist. Both of these issues will limit my ability to do funky things on any fretboard.

Even so, I love playing the uke, restrictions and all. The more I play, practice, and do the few exercises I can, the better I get and the more I enjoy it.

About this page

I earn my living, pay the bills, keep the family together, prevent homelessness, etc., as a journalist — managing editor (aka traffic cop in chief) of Carolina Journal, the monthly print publication and daily online site of the free-market John Locke Foundation in Raleigh, N.C. JLF promotes free markets, limited, constitutional government, and individual responsibility. It’s an ideal job, even though I never planned to have it, and am grateful for it every day.

I’ve been with CJ since April 2009. Before that, I spent 20 years as a journalistic vagabond. From 1989-98, I was with Reason magazine, splitting time between the magazine’s (then) headquarters in LA and its Washington, D.C., office. After that, I was at Investor’s Business Daily for a year as the editor of the National Issues section; four months at Los Angeles Business Journal as a reporter; four years at the Las Vegas Review-Journal as an editorial writer and columnist; a year and a half at the Press-Enterprise in Riverside, Calif., as an editorial writer and deputy editorial page editor; and three years at the Rocky Mountain News in Denver, Colo., as an editorial writer (the Rocky closed in February 2009).

I’m happily married to my wife Cara, who’s an R.N. and longtime Colorado resident. We have (as of September 2015) four dogs and two cats. We enjoy a lot of things, including cooking, Americana music, most sports, Alton Brown, smartass comedy, gardening, the menagerie, and each other.

I started playing ukulele in September 2013. My goal is to play well enough to accompany myself singing and to sing well enough to justify playing a uke. My favorite hangout is the Ukulele Underground Forum, where I post a performance video or two weekly.

I was born and grew up in Wilkesboro, N.C., and seem to keep gravitating back here.  It must be home.

What I lack in talent, I make up for in enthusiasm

Inspired by a friend/colleague who took up the mandolin, two years ago I decided to try playing my first stringed instrument, the ukulele. Since then, it’s been a trip, a blast, incredibly frustrating, and completely rewarding. I’m not sure how much I’ll share here, but thanks for jumping on board.

This video is from Ukulele Underground Forum’s Seasons of the Ukulele. I’ll explain later.