I’ve been playing gut strings on my basses for at least as long as I have been playing ukulele (10+ years). I’ve always wanted to try them on my ukulele, but was apprehensive about drastically changing the vibe of my main axe. I finally pulled the trigger on some Aquila gut strings, and thought it might be helpful to put my thoughts down here, but first some background…
Sheep intestines were the most common material used for making instrument strings before (and largely during) the industrial revolution. They certainly were the most common string for the ukulele when it hit the scene in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. This period encompasses the vaudeville era, which is when most of my favorite ukulele music was written.
Old time American music is sort of my bag, and being a bass player who swears by gut strings, it was only a matter of time before they made it onto my uke. It’s actually weird how long it took.
Gut strings aren’t nearly as popular for the ukulele as they are for the bass—and they aren’t very popular for the bass to begin with. This is somewhat ironic, because the most common ukulele strings by far are Aquila Nylgut—a synthetic gut string, designed to play and sound as close as possible to the real thing.
Synthetic gut strings are sort of the holy grail for rockabilly bass. Gut strings play a huge roll in the way slap bass sounds, and they don’t tear up your hands the way steel strings do. They are also prohibitively expensive (the strings I use cost as much as a decent electric bass). Synthetic strings are very popular among rockabilly players, as they are just as easy on the hands as gut strings, but way easier on your wallet. Unfortunately, few of them sound very much like genuine gut strings. As it turns out, the same is true for Aquila Nylgut strings for the ukulele. Fortunately for me, this is exactly what I expected.
If you are reading this, chances are:
- You play the ukulele
- Have Aquila Nylgut strings on your instrument(s)
- Totally love them
Seriously, these strings are popular. I, myself, find the regular Nylgut strings to be too boomy and guitar-like for my taste. I do like Aquila’s Lava line of strings quite a bit, though. I find they have a bit of a raspy bite to them that brings out the boxiness of my main axe. Of course there is no right or wrong answer here. Well, okay, your preference is the correct answer.
I bring preference up because gut strings change everything. Not just the sound, but the feel, the playability, and the response of your instrument. Whether you play fluorocarbon, nylon or some sort of hybrid, putting gut strings on can be as jarring a change as putting a new neck on your instrument. This is how it was when I first put them on my bass.
The change is so drastic, that it’s best to leave your expectations behind and try to open yourself up to the experience. What you probably like about your favorite strings simply will not apply here.
Gut strings have less tension than other strings. This makes them quieter, have less sustain, and a bit more difficult to maintain intonation when fingering chords, since they are much easier to bend. This effect will be more dramatic on a soprano ukulele than a concert or tenor, as longer scale lengths have more tension. It will still be very different than the tension you are used to on your concert or tenor, though.
One of the benefits of this lighter tension on a ukulele with friction tuners is that you get a little more play in them. Their extra elasticity makes them a bit less sensitive to smaller movements of the tuners.
Gut strings don’t sound as bright as other strings. They do have a slight scratchiness on the fingers that I have really grown to like, but this is very subtle, and very different than the attack that is present with Lavas or fluorocarbon strings. They also do not have the thud that is characteristic of Nylguts. This is a good thing in my opinion! While I do think lower-end laminate instruments benefit from this, I think it hides the nuances of solid top instruments—especially sopranos.
Nylon and fluorocarbon strings are pretty much bullet-proof. There isn’t really anything that you can do to them that will change their tone. They are also extremely inexpensive (~$5–$10), so replacing them isn’t much of an issue. Gut ukulele strings cost quite a bit more than regular strings (~$20), and require some maintenance.
To prevent them from drying out, it’s important to oil them somewhat regularly. I use Yolo County extra virgin olive oil, because we make incredible olive oil out here, but walnut oil is pretty common as well. You can even get gut string oil specifically made for oiling your strings.
If you play your instrument frequently (a few hours every day), you may not need to oil your strings very often. This is not the case for gut bass strings, but ukulele strings are so much shorter and delicate, that I think the oils from your skin might work to keep them in shape. I haven’t been playing them long enough to see if this is actually the case.
To oil your strings, put a few drops of oil on a lint-free cloth and rub it up and down the length of your strings, then wipe off with a dry part of the cloth.
When gut strings dry out, they start to get little hairs on them as the fibers break down. This can cause the strings to weaken and break if left untreated. When (not if) you see little hairs start poking out, carefully clip them off with fingernail clippers. Then lightly go over the clipped areas with 800–1,000 grit sandpaper to take off any rough edges. Afterword, oil the strings to re-lubricate them to get the string dust off.
I am really starting to enjoy these strings! If you are after a warm, vintage tone with less sustain, you should seriously check these out. If you prefer a more modern Jake Shimabukuro type sound, definitely steer clear of these.
Be aware that when playing with others, you may need some amplification if your instrument isn’t super resonant. You will also likely need amplification when playing live. If you do perform live with these, opt for a microphone or a pickup with a sound board transducer. Under-saddle pickups will probably not reproduce the nuances of these strings.