On Ukulele String Changing Opinions

10 Jan 2016

On Ukulele String Changing Opinions

Ah, the ukulele world. Never really changes when it comes to the opinionated  armchair experts who love to use their keyboards to dictate what other players should and should not do... Don't use a strap, don't use a pick, don't play this, don't play that...  One of the most common I see is the strong opinions  on how often you should change your ukulele strings. Why all the fuss?

Interestingly, the most opinionated views tend to be those that like to force a view that ukulele strings last FOR EVER. Sure you also get those who tell you that your really should be changing them every week but the most animated and forceful arguments tend to come from people with an aversion to the concept of 'new strings'. Well at risk of letting the cat out of the bag in this rant too early... the frequency you change your string is entirely dependent on how much you play the instrument and when YOU feel like you want to change them. And that's it.

But lets just focus back on those that like to jump in to any debate on this subject and state that they have 'happily kept strings on for years and they are absolutely right... '.  It is usually stated in a 'I'm right and everyone else is wrong' kind of way, and usually (I suspect) because they are either too lazy to change strings or they don't really know what they are listening out for to make them consider changing them. That, or perhaps they just like being different and / or controversial..

Back in the days that ukulele strings were strung with natural materials (Cat gut - incidentally - nothing to do with the inner workings of actual cats - but actually innards of sheep or goats), there were reports of people who kept those strings going for years (literally). I have never played gut strings so I can't really comment but perhaps it is true. That's cool if it is I guess, but also kind of irrelevant to 99.9% of todays ukulele players who will never use gut strings.  What is also true is that most strings today are made of nylon or fluorocarbon material and that is a synthetic product. It's also a fact that such materials when held in tension for a period of time start to harden and go brittle as a natural consequence of the material they are made from.  That can lead to snapping but also a loss of one of the very functions you want for a string - a vibrating resonance. So in my view, the 'strings last forever' argument is an extremely unlikely one to hold true with most of todays modern strings. Sure enough, someone will pop up and tell me they have had strings on an instrument for 10 years. Great.... Good for you..... But for the vast majority of people that really isn't going to happen is it? And please don't tell me that strings get better with age as I saw in one discussion. That is just pseudo science that you can in no way prove to be true (quite simply because there is no way to fairly compare strings of ten years ago with strings today - your technique and the resonance of the instrument will also have changed in that time making the comparison unfair at best and mainly pointless).

So stepping back from the extreme viewpoint on changing frequency, what about the people who suggest string changes every couple of years only. Absolutely fine with me. If your strings have lasted that long and still sound ok to your ears, then why not? I think the reality for most people is they will likely snap one before that time period elapses or they will just get bored and want to try another brand, but if you are happy with them, that is really all that matters. I suppose what I say to that is, 'how are you judging that you are happy with them'?

At the other end of the scale we have the people who obsess about perfect tone, accuracy and freshness and suggest changing ukulele strings on an almost weekly basis. Again, if you have the time, money and patience to be restringing your uke every week (and dealing with the stretching and settling down that involves) then be my guest. Its not for me to tell you not to do that and equally not for anyone else to tell you that you are wrong either.

Yet rather like the strong views on string brands themselves, some people really like to tell other players, usually beginners, that what works for THEM is the only answer for YOU. All other viewpoints are null and void because they know best.. The reality is we are all different, we all play different instruments, we play different styles with  different attack angles and a different strength of strumming. We may have different picking techniques, different hardness of fingernails or use different picking implements. We keep instruments in different environments, we play them in different environments, we store them in different environments. Some of us dutifully clean down ukulele strings and necks after even five minutes play, and some put their ukuleles away still soaked in beer and blood from the show the night before. There are just too many variables for there to be a one size fits all answer to this issue.

Personally my re-stringing regime has changed. Last year I stopped performing regularly with a band, so my instruments now not only get less play, but they get less HARSH play. When gigging, I tended to play a lot of hard, thrashing, rock stuff on the ukulele. Couple that with gigs lasting for two hours, often in sweaty clubs and often with the inclusion of the occasional spilled beer or blood from a broken nail and my ukuleles would often finish the night pretty grimy. In those days I would change strings every couple of months or so (or more frequently). But that was because they were taking a massive hammering. These days I don't really have a set pattern and change them when I feel like it. But how do I know I want a change?

The usual tips I give people apply here:

1. Are you noticing any change in tuning accuracy (intonation) down the neck?
2. Are the strings starting to buzz when they didn't before?
3. If you run a finger under the strings can you feel notches where the frets have started to wear the strings down.
4. Have you snapped a string, and replaced it with a single (meaning you now have a mix of new and old strings)

If the answer to any of the above is 'yes' then you may want to change the strings. It's not a hard and fast rule, but a guide that works for me. And note.... the time period these things can start to indicate a change is needed will vary based on YOU.  There may be other reasons for a change of course - you may just 'fancy it' - and there is nothing wrong with that either!

Strings are really not that expensive, and rather like tyres for a car they are of course MEANT to be changed, not kept for as long as possible in some sort of perverse stamina contest. Whether that means you want to change them weekly, monthly or yearly, that is entirely up to you but don't be afraid of changing them. And please, please don't be afraid of changing them, even though you are having tuning issues just because a chap in your club told you that 'strings last for years'.... A change can actually breathe new life into an instrument that you were finding uninspiring.  Hey a string change can also just give you a change in voice even if they didn't need changing.. And guess what - if the old strings were not actually that old, you can save them and use them again!

And if you want to try to max your strings out and keep them on for 10 years, then be my guest. Just stop telling the rest of us that you know something magical that we don't and that we are all wrong.

For me - I'm off to change my strings... or maybe I'll do it tomorrow / next week / next month / next year....


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  1. Hi Barry, I have a question that I have not seen addressed in your book, The Complete what ukulele players really want to know. It seems that my ukulele strings go flat if I do not play. For a variety of reasons with my highest dollar ukulele I set it back and was playing the cheaper ones (didn't want to mess up my good one ) and I would not take her to the lake house where I practiced the most. And then I didn't play any uke for a while because I had some arthritis pains which now have let up with a change of diet. I started playing again with my Lanikai Tenor which sounds great and then I picked up the high dollar girl ukulele the other day and apologized for my neglect of her but she was still flat and unhappy. I would say I have owned her a year and a half but probably don't have 8 hours of playing on her. I would think for what I paid she would have good durable strings on her since she is hand made. So for you people who collect more ukes than I do how does that work out? Do you take turns playing them even when you probably have your favorite "go to" ukulele? If you don't play them often do you have to change strings when they are played again? Thanks for ideas here.

  2. Thanks Barry, as always,informative and honest and straight to the point!! Puffin Pete!

  3. Every ukulele I have if I pick it up after even a short break will have the strings go flat - it happens - they are constantly stretching - I suppose the don't ever totally reach a 100% stable point - some strings more than others of course. Never really considered it an issue as i tend to fine tune before any playing anyway.

  4. @krickey - yes - Beer and Blood - and sweat - on many occasions.

  5. Bravo for this well-meaning and well-written article on the question of when to change strings on a ukulele. Like you, my view on this subject has undergone changes over the years. My first ukulele was a gut-strung Sears Silvertone when I was a teen-ager that was destroyed on a school bus before the strings ever needed changing. My second ukulele was a nylon-strung Martin concert 1-C model bought new in 1961, which received quite a bit of play over the next 10 years, a period in which the strings were never changed. In August of 1971, however, I was motivated to write a letter to C. F. Martin in Nazareth, PA to ask several questions about my instrument. I told Mr. Martin that the original strings on my Martin concert ukulele still sounded "mellow" after a decade of use. He kindly responded to my many comments and questions, and his reply to my still-intact 10-year-old strings brings a smile even today when I re-read it: "Being made of nylon they are quite durable and a reserve supply is not needed." As time passed, I began to experiment with strings other than the Martin brand and found myself changing them fairly often for many of the reasons mentioned in your excellent essay. I now favor Ken Middleton's "Living Water" strings, though I also occasionally use other brands just for variety. You are very correct in saying that new strings can gift any instrument with a new voice and that it's always OK to change strings just because you fancy it. While changing strings can be a bit of a chore, it's always a worthwhile use of time and expense, in my experience. I have a highly trained classical guitarist friend who occasionally strums my ukuleles, and his first question is always the same: "Where were the strings last changed?" Again, thank you for this fine and well-crafted analysis.

  6. When to change strings is a debate all stringed instrumentalist are familiar with. To the best of my knowledge, after many years of plucking, picking and strumming a variety of instruments, I have to say, it depends! How often do you play, how hard, and what style and which strings you use.
    The occasional strummer may well get away with a year or more. A finger picker may notice subtle changes in a month or less.
    Nylon and other compound strings usually need a "settling in time" and this is what can put folks off. The job itself needs no more than 1/2hr.
    I invariably tune new strings up a tone or two, leave for an hour or so and repeat. It helps to have more than one uke so settling in is not so frustrating


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