Whether you’re a seasoned player or just getting started with the ukulele, you might have wondered how often you should change your strings (besides when they break!) and why you should do it in the first place.
Deciding when to change your ukulele strings depends on various factors. Here are answers to some of the most frequently asked questions about when and why you might want to change your uke strings.
How Long Do Ukulele Strings Last?
Although there’s no definitive answer, a sensible ballpark figure would be that ukulele strings generally last between eight months to a year.
Saying that, it’s not unknown for strings to remain relatively playable for eighteen months to two years if they are treated with a degree of kindness and not strummed aggressively for several hours a day!
Your playing style will determine how long your strings remain both tonally and harmonically stable. If you’re a heavy strummer and have a penchant for playing thrash metal on your uke, they will start to lose their timbre a lot earlier than if you’re playing gentle acoustic or traditional baroque music.
Another big influence on the lifespan of your strings is how you strike your uke strings, and what with.
Some people tend to predominantly play with their fingernails and prefer to use this method because it produces a brighter, more percussive sound.
Others rely on a mellower traditional Hawaiian sound produced with the pads of the fingers and thumb.
You may fall somewhere between these groups and like to mix up your playing style to suit the music you’re interpreting at the time.
The general rule of thumb is the harder you play, the more often you’ll find yourself buying new strings.
The final playing style I haven’t mentioned yet is a technique frowned upon by ukulele purists…the plectrum!
It’s not quite a high crime or misdemeanor, but the use of a plectrum might raise a few “tut-tuts” in loftier playing circles. In truth, this isn’t just because it’s considered to be a sledgehammer cracking a walnut, but because using a plectrum on a ukulele is the single most destructive implement for shortening the life of your strings.
I will qualify this by saying that I’m largely referring to standard nylon guitar-style picks. In the world of ukuleles, not all plectrums are bad. Some less harsh alternatives include wool felt, leather, nylon or rubber.
Do You Always Need to Replace or Change Ukulele Strings?
If your ukulele sounds all right and you haven’t broken a string, you probably wonder if you should bother changing the strings at all – until you have to.
Whether you should change your strings very much depends on application and how particular you are when it comes to the sound of your instrument.
If you’re an occasional player who likes to pick up a ukulele when the mood takes you, then the need for new strings isn’t likely to be high on your ‘to do’ list.
If, on the other hand, you play a lot, both privately and with other people, including the odd gig every now and then, it’s likely your instrument will need to sound as dynamic and fresh as possible.
As strings age, they tend to lose some of their natural ‘oomph’ and start to sound dull and unresponsive. Tuning stability can also start to suffer, so you’re constantly re-tuning to maintain the correct pitch.
If this is important to you, then you should seek out new strings more regularly.
How Do I Know When It’s Time to Change my Ukulele Strings?
There are a few classic ‘warning signs’ that will tell you that it’s probably time to re-string your ukulele. These include:
- The Strings lose some of their brightness and general tonality, becoming dull and unresponsive
- The strings start to go out of tune more easily
- Sections of the string develop nicks and rough spots
- One string breaks and the remaining strings sound sufficiently different in quality, due to age or incompatibility, to work well together. In this case a new set of strings is the best option.
How Often Should I Change My Ukulele Strings?
How often you should change strings depends on how often your uke gets played and how much punishment the strings take over a given period of time.
For instance, a flamenco-style player will get through strings at a faster rate than a finger picker and may well break the occasional one during live performance.
The same will apply to musicians who rely on a high octane strumming style, rather than gently caressing the strings Hawaiian-style.
Here’s a table showing how often (approximately) you should change your uke strings, according to use:
|Ukulele Use||How Often to Change Strings|
|Professional or semi-professional use||1 to 6 months|
|Regular use at home, gigging or playing with a local ukulele ensemble||8 months to a year|
|Irregular use, children or a light playing style with a soft felt plectrum||18 months to 2 years|
|You like the look of your ukulele on the wall||Never!|
The type and manufacturer of the strings will also have a major bearing on their lifespan.
For instance, Nylgut will last much longer than traditional animal gut strings and will also have a much shorter bedding-in time.
Do Ukulele Strings Go Bad?
Ukulele strings are less inclined to suffer the degradation that occurs with acoustic and electric guitar strings, as they’re manufactured from composite and nylon-type materials, rather than all metal.
The exception to this is a wound low ‘G’ string on the tenor uke (optional) and the lowest wound D and G strings on the baritone.
These tend to become dull and lifeless after the dirt and grease from your fingers seep into the tight coils of the metal.
Unlike wound acoustic and electric guitar strings, the inner core material of a wound ukulele string is still a composite material like Nylgut or nylon. So, as a general guide, wound strings age a lot more quickly than their standard unwound counterparts.
A useful tip to prolong the life of your strings is to wipe down the fingerboard and strings of your instrument with a microfibre cloth after playing.
This will clean away a lot of the sweat and grease that can build up through frequent use, particularly when it comes to wound strings. If the cloth gets a lot of use and needs a bath, avoid using hot water, fabric softeners, washing powders and bleach as they will ruin the integrity of the cloth.
Always wash using warm water and or liquid detergent. It’s also a good idea to keep a cloth in the pocket or accessory compartment of your gig bag or case when it goes travelling.
The Two Exceptions to the String Rule
There are two exceptions to this general advice on when to change ukulele strings:
Electric Solid-Bodied Ukuleles
Most of the above advice is applicable to acoustic and electro-acoustic ukuleles. However, solid bodied electric ukes should be treated as little electric guitar when it comes to the string dos and don’ts.
Of course you can still play them using fingerstyle only, but they’re equally suited to the use of nylon, metal, glass or wooden guitar picks and arguably come alive when played in this fashion.
A true electric ukulele will use steel strings and not the usual nylon or composite material found on their acoustic and electro-acoustic counterparts.
With regard to string wear and tear, you can expect the same degree of degradation you would typically find on a regular electric or acoustic guitar. So string-wise, don’t expect the 8-12 months you’ll probably get from an acoustic ukulele string.
Most professional guitarists will change their strings after every gig, while the majority of amateurs would be looking to make a change every couple of months if the instrument is played regularly.
So to sum up, steel strings have a much shorter shelf life than their nylon/composite counterparts.
To increase the life of your electric ukulele strings, it’s a good idea to invest in a good lubricant such as GHS’ ‘Fast-Fret. This both cleans and lubricates your dirty and tired strings.
U-bass are quite different from any string you’re ever likely to have played before. U-bass strings are generally manufactured from polyurethane and have a peculiar rubbery feel to them.
The good news is that U-bass strings generally have a long shelf life and are likely to serve you well for at least a year and for all but the most destructive players, well beyond that!
Their longevity is off-set against their relatively high purchase price compared with standard ukulele or guitar strings. A better comparison would be with bass guitar strings which also carry a fairly hefty price tag.
One physical trait some polyurethane u-bass strings seem to suffer from is a tendency to feel a little sticky to the touch. This can be obviated to a certain extent by lightly applying a little talcum powder to new or unplayed strings, but don’t overdo it!
To any new u-bass players, don’t expect your strings to bed-in quickly. It can take a good couple of weeks for them to stabilize and to retain their tuning for a significant period of time.
Some u-basses are built to be strong enough to use roundwound or flatwound bass guitar-style strings and should be cared for in much the same way as a wound ukulele string, using a microfibre cloth.
The outward appearance of a wound u-bass string would lead you to presume they have the same physical properties as a bass guitar string. This is misleading, as u-bass wound strings have a nylon core, as opposed to the bass guitar’s metallic innards.
Overall, when and how often you should change ukulele strings comes down to playing style, personal preference and your budget.