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Going Back

The gut ukulele strings were a bust

Ukulele view from the bridge to the nut

View from the bridge of my ukulele showing some possible back-bow. Or maybe it’s just the way the light glares on the contour of the fingerboard. Kristyn says hi.

A few months ago, I put gut strings on my main ukulele. I ran into some big intonation problems after a while, though. I had to switch back.

I really liked the sound and playability of the Aquila gut strings. I absolutely loved them for delicate finger picking pieces. The dull scratching sound they made when plucking was very organic, and unlike anything you year on other strings. I really miss that.

Well, what happened?

Over time I realized my intonation was getting worse, especially on the 1st and 2nd strings. This was different than the low tension accuracy issue I mentioned in my previous post. It got so bad this past week, that I was worried my neck may have started to bow back a bit. The 2nd string at the 7th fret was more than a half step sharp! Some of the strings had picked up some buzzing, too. The way the neck and fingerboard of my instrument are contoured makes it hard to tell if there is any back-bow or not. If there is, it is very, very slight.

I don’t think ukulele strings are actually strong enough to have much of an effect on neck bowing, but since this had only become an issue when I put on the gut strings, I figured I should see if switching back to my regular stings would help. It did immediately.

When replacing the gut strings (one at a time) I realized just how much lighter they were compared to the Lavas I replaced them with. Much lighter, in fact, than I remember them being when I first put them on. I think this is due to all the stretching they do when breaking in.

What’s more, I noticed that they were considerably flattened where they rested on the saddle. This is not something that happens with gut bass strings. For one, the slots the strings rest in in a bass bridge are rounded. Also, gut ukulele strings are much more delicate than bass strings (obviously). I believe the combination of stretching that decreased the string gauge and running them over a flat ridge (like a compensated bone saddle) was the cause of my intonation issue. At this tiny scale, intonation can be quite finicky. I wonder if this was ever an problem with Vaudeville players at the turn of the century. There wasn’t a whole lot of arpeggiated finger-picking goin on back then. Maybe that was out of necessity.

This gives me some ideas about how one might properly set up a ukulele for gut strings! For now, though, I can’t recommend gut ukulele strings to any players who intend to play anything above first position—at least not with the Aquila gut strings I used.

I’ll update the previous post with my findings.