Snake Oil in the Ukulele World

11 Feb 2015

Snake Oil in the Ukulele World

Coming to the uke some years ago from a guitar background, there is something I have noticed of late as this current boom in ukulele buying shows no signs of slowing. Where an instrument has a big buyers market, so the mythical ideas and gadgetry start to follow. Is Snake Oil on the rise in the uke world?

So aside from the myths that continue to perpetuate the uke world ( and I have exposed a few before on this blog - see here ) it seems that the wonder treatments are also on the rise.

At the simplest level, strings seem to have been a hot topic on social media (and this site) of late, but I am really starting to lose patience with the endless debates as to 'which string is best'. In the simplest terms strings come in three types of material, either nylon, synthetic gut  (or nylgut) solely made by the Aquila company or Fluorocarbon. Whilst traditionalists may occasionally still state they like nylon, by far the most strings are sold in the latter two categories. But let us look at fluorocarbon as a material. It is an increasingly well known fact that there are not factories set up around the world to make fluorocarbon ukulele strings - it just would not be cost effective. As such the suggestion is that they are actually sourced from fishing line makers, mainly in Japan, who make miles of the stuff already. It figures, and I believe that Worth have admitted that they source their string materials from Seaguar fishing line makers. Waverly Street ukes ship theirs with the same fishing lines.  (Note - i am not saying any old cheap fishing line will work here, we are talking about high quality fluorocarbon)

(note - I am not saying it is wrong for companies to repackage fishing line into ukulele sets - they provide a service that allows people to buy strings in a variety of gauges and brands for a lot less money than it would cost to buy lots of reels in bulk. My point is more about how people will endlessly debate the differences that I am not totally convinced are there (or if they are, not to a degree that really matters))

Here is a sound test of a few - the final ones being fishing lines And here is a discussion on the subject -

And so, despite differences in gauges (that might be only minimally different) and densities, most fluorocarbon strings are made of the same stuff. So why then do people argue until they are blue in the face that brand X is better than brand Y? I am increasingly of the view that people believe what they want to believe, and this is precisely why I don't tend to recommend particular strings. The best string is the one that sounds best to your ears. Pure and simple.

But yet the arguments can also take a turn into the ridiculous too. My particular favourite are those that attempt to hold up one of either Worth Clears or Worth Browns as being better. To the best of my knowledge they are pretty much identical (or they sound that way to me). They may have different compositions I suppose, but my suggestion is this. With these strings, or indeed with many other fluorocarbon strings - I would wager that 95% of people if given a blind listening test would not be able to pick them apart, or more importantly, pick out what they thought were 'their' preferred strings.

So not quite Snake Oil perhaps, but a case that I believe shows that the 'wild differences' people sense in string types just don't actually exist. For me, if you like fluorocarbon strings, any good reputable fluorocarbon will do you well. And most importantly of all, NO strings will make you a better player or make you sound like anyone else. The biggest impact on your playing is your own talent.

So beyond that regular dispute I see online, lately I have seen discussions that suggest only certain types of straps work well on ukes for reasons of 'dampening the soundboard'. The fact that those discussions both recommended strap hole hooks, whole body wrapped straps, half straps and full guitar style straps as all being 'good' (according to different people) seems lost on those in the debate. I've seen people claiming they won't fit a strap button to a uke because it will change the tone.... Oh please... The simple fact seems to me that this is another case of people convincing themselves that what they have chosen sounds good and 'best', and no other opinion can hold any water whatsoever. To a point, I agree with that approach - if something works for a player then it works and that is a good thing. Where I think things get crazy is when they take to the internet to tell other people that their choice is 'the best'...

I've seen debates on the effects on sustain of different weight necks and even tuners. Really? On a uke? and instrument not famed for its sustain? The other day I saw someone talking about liquid treatments to apply to strings to either (I wasn't paying too much notice, was busy preparing a noose), prolong their life / make them play better / feel better. Honestly...

What are people searching for here? A holy grail of techniques and gizmos combining tuner choices, straps and strings that convinces them they have squeezed a single 1% more tone out of their ukes over their rivals? Surely that is completely subjective? Even if true (and provable) wouldn't their efforts be better placed in just improving how they play rather than looking for technical crutches?  "Hey, I may not be able to play that difficult chord, but at least my string and strap combination has a micro amount more sustain than your uke does!"...

And then the latest one hit me the other day - the concept of techniques to speed up the process of solid woods opening up and ageing. In the guitar world this has been debated for years, but not once have I really seen a convincing argument.

With solid woods, there is no doubt that they do change over time with playing. The wood grains 'open up' and many will claim that this 'improves' the sounds. They might be right and I have certainly noted differences over the years with my solid wood instruments. Do they improve? Hard to say - and how on earth do you test or prove that reliably? If I look at my playing today compared to how it was ten years ago a lot of other things have changed. My technique, my skill level, my tastes and more than likely, my strings. Even if I had recordings from ten years ago and today, how could I take any comparison as being reliable? I can't.

Yet lately I have seen people talking about the benefits of putting a new ukulele next to a loudspeaker for hours playing bass notes to vibrate the wood. I mean, really? Would you? Why not just play the damn thing? And then I see that the company Tonerite are marketing a ukulele version of their gizmo designed to sit on the uke and speed the opening up process along. A snip at $200.... Apparently some fine ukulele players have endorsed them, and swear they work for them, so perhaps I don't know what I am talking about. But for me, I will stick to playing my uke and letting it age naturally. I know that there is no way at all I could prove that any gadget has improved the opening up process so I won't bother.

Being a ukulele player is not meant to be complicated. All it needs is a uke, some strings and your fingers - oh and your own efforts.

Yet alongside much else, it would appear owners of ukes are as easily taken along as the guitar world ever was with money making ideas that supposedly will improve your instrument and your playing. It just strikes me that if people spent as much time  playing than they did testing and debating some of the things discussed here, then maybe they will find the real holy grail of getting a better sound from a uke - practice!

What do you think?


  1. Just like some who rarely ski love to talk about skiing some who rarely or poorly plays
    love to talk about their instruments and the aesthetics. It allows them to bypass their own skill level and become internet experts. A large grain of salt is required.

  2. I agree. Spend your and your time playing the darned thing and taking lessons from an experienced musician.
    PLAY, and more importantly - LISTEN!

  3. Barry, thank you for being a voice of reason - as always. So tired of these controversies! But my husband has one comment as a luthier: coloured strings, no matter what the colour, are much easier to do action set-ups on than clear strings because they're easier to see and take measurements on. And he states that THIS IS ONLY HIS OPINION and NOT INTENDED AS GOSPEL!!! ;)

  4. Kate and Fred - that is a perfect reason justification for coloured strings!

  5. I agree with most of what you say, but I'd prefer to think that the biggest impact on your playing is your practicing habits. You can't change the talent, but you can change the amount you practice, I know from my personal experience that it takes many hours of practice to truly learn a song, but that may be because I lack the kind of talent that would allow me to pick it up instantly. Everybody is born knowing the C6/Am7 chord on the uke, but it takes a lot of practice and experience to learn when to use it.

  6. Amen!! And this applies to other instrument, and most endeavors in life. Get some good gear and dig in with hard work. That is how things get done. It's not magic.

  7. Wouldnt disagree with that at all - The point I am making is merely that expending energy on gizmos and strings doesnt help you improve.

  8. Can't argue with any of that. Well said.

  9. I love this rant couldn't have put it better if I tried. I've heard so many comments from mediocre players about how good their instrument, strings etc are. They'd have impressed me more by telling me they practiced every day for half an hour on a piece of junk, it's about the passion for playing and getting better and not the tools imho.

    The legendary cellist Pablo Casals was asked why he continued to practice at age 90. "Because I think I'm making progress" he replied.

  10. I wonder how many of these people having found their "perfect" strings, strap and magic wood elixir then plug into an amp and turn up the chorus?

  11. You could pretty much write the same thing about cyclists, fishermen, photographers, etc. Every hobby has its equipment fetishists. They put more thought into the gear than the activity itself. I always think of that Filipino double bass player I heard in a Singapore bar - incredible talent on an instrument that looked like it had washed up in the harbor. Doesn't really hurt anyone but it can be confusing when a new entrant shows up on the forums asking "what kind of strings should I get". So this is rant would be a handy link (short answer: ones that are long enough).

    Also, followed the fishing line links and I see that it comes in flourescent colours. There's an untapped market!


  12. I too was not convinced about the process of vibrating the tone wood by other than strumming. Having purchased a commercial unit and tried it on several ukes, I now know it makes a difference. Technically, it frees up the cell structure in the timber (lignen) and allows the sound waves to travel with less resistance through the timber. I purchased the unit that provides user supplied audio through transducers sitting on the soundboard. In my opinion.........good snake oil.

  13. Daryl - but you can't possibly say that the sound is 'better' without being totally subjective -it doesn't follow that everyone else would have that experience or agree.

    More importantly, my point is that there can be no proof such devices are any 'better' than playing the uke the natural way. Impossible to prove

  14. The music is in you. There is no rules. Sometimes less sustain and more compression are enjoyed when playing ukulele. Some look for a lower bed of tone with longer sustain. 99% skill. 99% opinion. But don't limit people's options because it's admittedly part of the fun/ Ukulele is a musical instrument. Get as anal as you want with it. Closest thing to proof is in the sound of your opinion to others.

  15. The best ukulele strings are the ones you like the best! Certainly, it needed to be said that the whole matter of "best" is subjective, as is true in just about everything. I run across people with high-end ukes that struggle to play "Row, Row, Row Your Boat", and others with inexpensive starter ukes (or maybe a step up from that!) who are very talented and entertaining.

    If people feel good about having really nice equipment that they don't really need, and can afford it, more power to them, but, it's right on the mark to say that improving one chops make it far more likely that anyone would want to listen than coughing up the large cash for a premium instrument...

  16. Play, sing, enjoy.....

  17. Couldn't agree more! Well said. In Australia, we call theses people "wankers".
    PS. How do you have a blind listening test? ��

  18. Most of the points above are mine too!

  19. Good rant.
    The more time I spend reading this, the less time I spend playing. LOL

  20. When it comes to strings, especially for the novice, it’s a mind blowing experience to try and find ones that you actually like over and above the ones that came with the instrument.
    Retailers will emphasise strongly that you should try many different types on all instruments, which I’ve done, and spent loads of money without coming to any concrete conclusions as to what is better.
    Case in point - I bought a Soprano years ago which was very nice, but everyone said I should try different strings as the ones it came with were generally thought of as rubbish. So I did, and spent loads, and everyone I tried was not as good.
    The good side of it was that the original strings were the cheapest by far, yet everyone discards them because their cheap.
    Forums are generally good for a lot of things, but when it comes to strings nobody knows the right or wrong answers to any string questions because there isn’t any.
    Dave Whitcombe.

  21. Loved your analysis and comments :-). Thank you. I found strings feel differently to my fingers. For that reason I don’t like Martin or Worth Brown strings - they hurt my fingers. The feel of Aquila is much better for me.


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