I think it's nice when a new development hits the ukulele shelves, and that is certainly something that can be said for a new brand of strings that have recently been made available - Living Water Strings - which are causing a buzz all over the ukulele forums. I've been trying them out.
Firstly though - a little bit of housekeeping. Whilst I do like to review and test strings, I always make the same point to my readers. Strings are a personal choice and just because I say I do or don't like a certain brand, does not mean you will have the same experience. Other factors come into play; the ukulele they are played on, the players style, the players own ears. As such, the old adage 'Your mileage may vary' has to apply. All of that said, when it comes to these new strings though, I may be changing that opinion a little - read on!
Living Water Strings are a new brand, brought to market by Ken Middleton - and I find that quite exciting for a couple of reasons. Firstly, there are actually not that many strings around for ukulele. There are a few, but nowhere near as many varieties as available for the guitar. Sure there are some bespoke packs cropping up, but in the main the forums are full of people endlessly debating the pros and cons of Aquilas, Worths, Martins, D'Addarios and maybe a couple of others. In that sense it's great to see a new kid on the block. The second reason I find this exciting is because this string set has been selected personally by a renowned player and exponent of the Uke - Ken himself! Ken has chosen a supplier and product line, and tested them until he found the string qualities that he liked and suited his own playing. He is putting these strings together into packs himself and is distributing them in England (although I like the touch on the packet that states they are "Made In Heaven"!)
The strings are available in the four main uke scales, Soprano, Concert, Tenor and Baritone, and, very recently, Ken has launched a Low G version for Tenor. All the others are in high G Re-entrant tuning (the Baritone in high D). It's worth noting that the low G set is an all fluorocarbon set (no wound strings here) which is something I personally applaud.
I have put a set on my Soprano and Tenor ukes so cannot speak for the Baritone or Concert yet. In addition, my review really comes from playing them mainly on the tenor scale - that is where I have been putting my strumming hours the most recently.
The strings are elegantly packaged - a very simple but classy design which explains on the back:
"Manufactured from hi-tech fluorocarbon, these strings give a wonderfully vibrant, crystal-clear tone to your ukulele. They are made to exacting standards, with a complex polymer structure that is formulated to give both strength and flexibility, whilst maintaining resistance to abrasion. In other words, they don't break easily, they vibrate well and last a long time."
I actually really like the packaging. What?? I hear you cry - what does the packaging matter? Well, I think it does matter. For a start the individual strings come in re-sealable clear plastic wallets (and the wallets themselves in a 'master' clear wallet that contains the card branding and a business card with contact details). As someone who changes strings a lot (for fun!) this is great, as a 'not so old set' can go in the wallets and be re-sealed so they don't uncoil. In addition, being clear, I can see what I have put inside them. For me this is far better than flimsy paper bags. Secondly, the wallets are labelled not only with the string number but with the note as well - far better than some of the other coding systems (or no coding systems at all) that you see on other strings.
The strings are a completely clear fluorocarbon and when on my ukes to me feel similar in gauge to Worth Clears. They are supremely smooth on the fingers with no noise when sliding on notes. The tension is also right for my playing (no flopping strings, but not so tight as to feel like strumming iron bars!) On my tenor these settled down from stretching really quickly with only minor tweaks in the week ahead. When I installed the tenors, I found quite a lot of excess string at the post, though less so on the Soprano, and wonder whether Ken is experimenting in the optimum length. (Uke sizes vary and as such strings need to be a one size fits all)
But how do they sound? Well, let me give you a little background on a journey I have been on with my Kanile'a Tenor uke. This is a wonderful instrument with a loud, warm and earthy tone that I adore. Well, I 'say' I adore it - no matter what strings are on it, I adore it's voice when it is fingerpicked. Strummed however, I have been feeling it is falling short for me a little. That earthy voice is making some strumming a little muddy for me - not enough bite or clarity across the strings. I have tried virtually every string I can lay my hands on to try to get the sound I want, but to no avail so far. On went the Living Water Strings and.....
Wow! Honestly, wow! It felt like I was playing a different ukulele! The sound was immediately brighter and I think a little louder, but it was the relationship between the strings in strumming that really pleased me. The strings sound like they are really working together and harmonies between notes really shimmer and sing. There is total clarity across unfretted strings, but played in chords and the sound is more than the sum of its parts (if you see what I mean). I spent the rest of the night strumming away with a smile on my face!
But how were they for picking? Had I gained something only to lose elsewhere? Well, they are just great. There wasn't such a massive leap from the Worth Clears that were previously on the Kanile'a (and any leap may have been, to my ear, because I was swapping from a played in string) but they are no worse. As such I am a very happy player - they hit exactly the spot I have been looking for and have made my Kanile'a the full shilling. Most recently I gigged with the N'Ukes as part of the Chester charity event with my Kanile'a and the Living Water Strings - was really pleased with the sound and the feel.
And what about the other gauges? - well that sudden leap in bite and brightness on such an earthy instrument as the Kanile'a did worry me when it came to putting them on my Koaloha Soprano. Whilst I haven't played that as much, it would seem my fears were unfounded as they sound just great on that too though perhaps with a more subtle improvement in tone. That harmonic ring is improved though.
So let's just go back to that earlier paragraph in which I pointed out that string choice is personal. Well, yes I still believe that, but bear something in mind. All over the social media, ukulele players are talking highly about these strings. Friends in our uke group are playing them and posting me extremely positive feedback. In fact I've not yet seen any bad feedback! Could Mr Middleton have hit on something special here? Let's put it this way - I bought more as I intend to keep using them.
Accordingly - these get my vote and a strong recommendation you give them a try asap!
The strings are available direct from Ken on his website (on which you can see the individual string gauges) and I believe he is also selling them on eBay.