How to know when it’s time to change your ukulele strings
Pop quiz: When was the last time you changed the strings on your ukulele?
Do they need to be changed now? If not, when do they need to be changed?
Don’t worry if you don’t know the answer! That’s exactly why we’re here today. For beginner and even intermediate ukulele players, this is a big question. After all, unlike batteries that just stop working, strings can last a really long time. Well, a really long time without breaking.
But just because your 9 month old strings haven’t broken (yet) doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be changed. String breaking is actually a point you shouldn’t ever get to*!
Instrument care, which includes routine string changing, isn’t always taught in formal classes. For many players it’s learned over time with trial and error, and experience. While you do develop an awareness to such things over time, there are also clear indicators you can use today.
*Sometimes strings, even new ones, break for what seems like no reason at all. It could be due to a defective string, a sharp spot somewhere on your saddle or nut, or a string that was tuned way too high at one point. It’s kind of the luck of the draw.
Why Do Ukulele Strings Need To Be Changed?
Before we talk about the when, let’s talk about the why.
As you’re playing your ukulele, your hands and fingers naturally secrete sweat, oils, and acids. These plus any dirt that you have on your fingers will also transfer onto the strings.
We’re talking small amounts here. But overtime they can actually build up on the strings. Especially wound strings. This buildup causes the strings to vibrate differently. They get a little more muted (muddy sounding), and lose their brightness. The sustain drops as well.
This all makes the ukulele sound a bit dull and lifeless. This progression happens slowly, almost unnoticeably, over time. To an undiscerning ear it won’t sound different from week to week.
Over time the strings will also start to get over stretched. Strings carry several pounds of pressure (~20-40lbs depending on the ukulele size). Over time they’ll get stretched out to a point that they wont hold tuning very well. And you’ll find your uke going out of tune much easier.
To recap, you’ll notice:
- Drop in sound quality
- Lack of sustain
- Tuning stability issues
The first two issues are related to, well, the strings being dirty. You can help to prevent this by washing your hands before playing, and wiping your strings down after you’re done playing. It won’t make it so they don’t lose their tone over time, but you’ll get a little more life out of them.
How Do You Know When It’s Time To Change Your Ukulele Strings?
With all of the knowledge we now have about why they need to be changed, let’s apply it practically to your ukulele.
The first thing I always notice is the tone change. New strings are bright, vibrant, and full of life. They’re one of my favorite things (in general, not just music related). The first strum of a new set of strings is simply beautiful.
Old strings on the other hand are a lot duller and more lifeless. This can take a couple years of playing to notice reliably. But it’s something to keep in mind after say 3 or 4 weeks (depending).
You might also notice them looking a little dull. Take a mental picture of your strings when you first put them on. Notice how clean they are. Keep this in mind as you’re playing through the days and weeks. If you have more than one ukulele, and just changed the strings, look at another uke with older strings. Do you notice a difference?
This is probably harder to notice than the sound, but it’s another skill you’ll develop over time.
When Should You Change Your Ukulele Strings
OK, enough beating around the bush. Let’s get to the real question: when or how often should you change your ukulele strings?
I know, I know. But the answer isn’t clear cut. It depends on a lot of things.
- How often you play
- What kind of strings you use
- What tone you like
- Practicing or performing
If you play your uke for 30-60 minutes at a time, a few days a week, you can easily go a month or two between changing your strings. In this case, change them once they sound bad to you. Some players prefer to replace their strings every 2-3 months. But hey, if the strings still sound good and there are no signs of wear and tear, there's no need to replace them right away. In general, ukulele strings show signs that they already need replacement within 6 months at the most.
While I do know people who don’t share my zeal for the new string sound, you’ll potentially run into tuning stability issues after this point. Sometimes you can stretch this out (no pun intended), but the clock’s ticking.
Professional or gigging players might change their strings much more often. Maybe even before every gig (#sponsorships). They want the absolute best sound they can possibly have for every show. I’ve been in this camp. It’s a bit of work, and costs more money, but that new string sound just gets me!
Use your ears. Like I said, it will take time and experience to develop the judgment here. But if you’re actively thinking about it, you’ll develop that much quicker.
But what happens if you break a single string? Should you replace just that one, or all of them?
If your strings are only a week or two old, you can probably get away with changing just one. You’ll need to open a new pack to get just one, so you might consider just replacing them all so you don’t have leftovers.
If you do replace just one, keep the rest of the pack as backups for potential broken strings down the line. They won’t last forever once you open the pack. But they’ll last for several months. And can be there for you when you’re in a pinch.
It’s mighty helpful to have a few packs of strings on hand at all times. A few for each size of ukulele you have. Once you notice that you need to change the strings, it’s hard to unhear. For me, I lose a little inspiration when I’m playing strings I know need to be changed.
What Are Ukulele Strings Made From?
Ukulele strings come in different sizes, just like ukuleles themselves. Always check to make sure you’re buying the right size. They’ll clearly tell you on the packaging if they’re for Soprano, Concert, Tenor, or Baritone ukuleles.
You’ll also need to know if your ukulele supports ball end strings or will need to be tied.
If you can believe it, this “material” is still used in string manufacturing. Not just for ukuleles. Classical musicians (including guitarists and violinists) prefer gut strings. All strings were made from gut at one point, which was made from sheep’s intestine.
They’re harder to find these days, and a lot more expensive than your standard nylon strings.
The tried and true standard. If you’re not sure what type of strings your uke has on it, it’s probably nylon. These are the most popular and common type of strings. They sound good, they’re inexpensive, and you can get a halfway decent set almost anywhere.
Fluorocarbon strings are the new kids on the block. They’re similar to nylon but tend to be brighter, louder, and hold tuning a little better. That’s due to the density of the strings. They’re much denser than your standard nylon. This in turn can let them last longer (physically, not necessarily tonally).
A less common string you’ll find is a wound string. A set will typically only have wound G and/or C strings. The sounds is very different from a non-wound string. They’re a little louder and more pronounced than their unwound siblings. You’ll notice more string noise when you slide your hand on them.
The winding can be a metal winding (phosphor bronze, copper, silver, or aluminum), or a nylon winding. The tone will vary with each style of course.
What Are The Best Ukulele Strings?
I like two brands in particular. D’Addario and Aquila.
Aquila makes strings for ukuleles, mandolins, and several underserved instruments like the oud and hurdy gurdy (yes that’s the name and yes it’s pronounced how you think it is). So basically, these non-guitar and orchestral instruments are their wheelhouse.
Aquila is one of the few companies making gut strings. I don’t recommend these for beginners due to cost. But if you’re curious about the sound they’re worth checking out.
If you want to try something close, the Nylgut strings are the first synthetic (vegan) gut strings. It replicates the tone while being made of a Nylon material.
(I'm going to link to the individual strings, which will be for specific sizes. To see the right option for your ukulele, check out our entire string selection.
The best way to find the best string for you is to try a lot. Get a couple different packs and see what brand and material you like best. Try a new one every time you change your strings!
Replacing Strings When You Have Several Ukuleles
The farther you go into ukulele playing, the more ukuleles you’ll end up owning. You’ll have your daily driver (the workhorse!), maybe a baritone for specific uses, and a few others you’ll break out every now and again.
Surely it’s not practical to change the strings on all of these at the same intervals?!
And it’s not. BUT, they should still be cared for. I have a friend who changes strings on all of his instruments at least once or twice a year. This is regardless of if, or how much, he plays them. Sometimes all he does is change the strings, strum a couple chords, and puts it away for a few months.
There are a couple major takeaways from this.
The first is general instrument care. Besides changing the strings, there are a couple other things you should do to your ukulele.
- Condition the fretboard
- Polish the body
You can buy a set that includes a fretboard conditioner, body polish, and microfiber cloth for around $15 USD. I do this every time I change strings. The fretboard conditioner is important to keep the wood at a good moisture level so it doesn’t dry out and crack. The polish cleans the body, removing all of the oils and dirt we have on our hands.
The second is more of a preventative maintenance.
I mentioned earlier that strings carry a certain amount on tension. This tension drops overtime even without playing the ukulele. Ukuleles are designed to be under this constant tension. When this drops or goes away completely (like storing the uke with one or more strings missing) it’s changing the structure of the ukulele.
Over time this can have a negative impact. The neck can shift in such a way that you’ll need to take it in for adjustment. Or it could form a twist. These are extreme cases, but worth avoiding.
Doing these things will keep your ukes looking and sounding good for decades.
This also ensures that if you want to play that uke you haven’t touched for a few months, the strings won’t sound bad and you'll enjoy playing it.
String Changing Q&A
Q: How long should it take to change strings?
A: Once you’ve changed strings a few times it should only take 20 minutes or so. This includes conditioning the fretboard, polishing the body, and stretching the strings. Changing strings is a skill in itself, so it will take longer the less you’ve done it.
Q: How do you stretch the strings?
A: Here’s the step by step process. This is very important to do with new strings. It gets them to a place where they will stay in tune.
1. Tune the entire ukulele up to pitch.
2. Place your index finger of your fretting hand on the first or second fret of the first string.
3. Grab the same string just over the sound hole with your other hand.
4. Gently pull up on the string away from the ukulele (directly above the sound hole).
5. The string should be lower in pitch after that. Tune it back up and repeat the process until the string doesn’t change pitch after the gentle stretching.
6. Repeat with the rest of the strings.
Q: Should I take all of the strings off at one time, or just one at a time?
A: Some people will tell you that you should only remove one string at a time. The idea is that it keeps constant tension on the ukulele. I mentioned that ukuleles should be stored with strings to maintain this tension. However, taking the strings off for 20 or 30 minutes won’t do anything.
Plus, you have to take the strings off to clean and condition the fretboard.
Double plus, I've never seen a luthier only change one string at a time.
Were there any questions we missed? Leave a comment and we’ll be sure to answer it!