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 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).

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