Restringing a Ukulele with Fishing Line

Having put good strings on my good ukulele, and great strings on my great ukulele, I thought I’d put comically cheap strings on my cheap ukulele. And what better way to get a plinky-dinky cheap sound than fishing line?

One problem is, fishing line isn’t actually all that cheap. Because it’s hard to find it in short lengths. Sure, you could pay a few bucks for a 500-yard spool … but you’ll never use that much line (unless you actually go fishing), and more importantly, you’d have to get four reels, because the strings are all different sizes. So two options seemed feasible: grotesquely cheap fishing line, or better quality fishing line bought by the yard.

My first stop was the Bass Pro Shop, because they’re practically right next door. Unfortunately, despite being huge and intimidating, they didn’t sell any line by the yard, and their cheapest stuff ($5 for a spool) didn’t come in the right sizes. I moved on to Sports Authority, where I found the cheapest of the cheap stuff ($2.50 for that 500-yard spool) in the right sizes. Still, that meant putting down ten bucks for line that didn’t end up sounding all that great. On the plus side, I have fishing line for years now. Anyone want to string some beads?

I used the super-cheap stuff to string my uke (as seen in the previous photodump post, and wasn’t thrilled with the sound, but it was tolerable.

THEN, I happened upon a Dick’s Sporting Goods. Which I’d forgotten about completely, and only noticed because it’s next to the giant new liquor store near our house. So after buying my booze (and sampling a really nice Irish whiskey), I sauntered over to Dick’s.

The fishing stuff is in the same section as the guns. I was especially taken by the little pink one on the top shelf. It’s the kind of weapon Hello Kitty would use.

Not only did they have spools of better-quality fishing line, they also sold it by the yard. For cheap! I totally perplexed the guy behind the counter when I asked for a mere 5 yards in each size, but he was game to go to the back room where they keep the gigantic spools and cut me some.

The four sizes I got are: 30-pound, 40-pound, 50-pound, and 60-pound test. All those mean is that they’re tested to support that heavy of a load without breaking. I did some research and checked the pound-test to the standard measurement of uke strings, which is inches in diameter. And really, having put these strings on and tweaked the tuning a bit, you could probably get away with only two or three weights of line.

Anyhoo, the nice guy at the Dick’s gave me five yards each of 30, 40, 50, and 60, and told me to not even bother stopping by the registers, since it was such a small amount. And truly, going by their price charts, my twenty yards of line would have cost roughly 50¢.

Let’s also take a moment and discuss the material. There appear to be three basic kinds of fishing line. One is more of a braided string, so that’s useless for our purposes. The others are monofilament and fluorocarbon. Monofilament is cheaper, and that’s what I got (although it appears to be a decent quality monofilament). Fluorocarbon is the really good stuff, and will run you $20 or more for a small spool of the really high-quality stuff. So if you can find a place that will sell you fluorocarbon by the yard, jump on it.

Onward! I took off the old strings from my little uke and laid out the various sizes of line.

And yes, that is a cat’s tail in the upper corner.

We had to leave that shelf empty for the cats, so they could saunter between my desk and Scott’s. They love hanging out there, because they can get petted by both of us at the same time.

SO. I used the smallest line for the highest note, and so on down the line. But I started stringing with the second-smallest line (the 40-pound test) because that’s the string at the top of the ukulele. The bottom-most string is the highest note (A), while this topmost string is the G just below that A.

Here you can tell that it’s a cheap ukulele — you put knots in the strings and slot them into holes. (Edit: So apparently, some of the higher-end ukes use that knotting system? But I’ve only seen it on the really cheap ones. Live and learn.)

For the sake of comparison, a higher-quality ukulele doesn’t have those knot-holes; you have to feed the strings all the way through and wrap them back over themselves. Here’s my nicest uke, strung with my nicest strings, so you can see the difference.

So, you put the knot in the hole, pull the string over the bridge, lay it in the little groove up on the nut, and then you have to wind the string around the tuning peg. Again, there’s a difference between cheap and not-cheap ukes. On this cheap one, the hole in the tuning peg where you secure your string is in the middle.

While on my nicer ukulele, the hole is nearer to the top.

At any rate, with either one, you want to wrap the string around the peg a few times, then feed it through the hole. With the thinner strings, I then fed it through the hole a second time, for security. But as you can see two photos up, I didn’t wind the string starting at the very base of the peg; I left about a string’s width at the bottom. That’s so when you tighten the string, there’s still a place for that string to go. I did the same thing with the nicer uke, and as you can see, when it’s fully tuned up the string fills the peg all the way down to the bottom.

I finished with the rest of the strings, which went pretty quick. For the record, G=40-lb, C=60-lb, E=50-lb, and A=30-lb. You could probably do the G and A both with either the 40-lb or the 30-lb; one would just feel a little tighter or looser than the other. But I like the feel of the strings using all four sizes.

Now comes the tedious part — the constant stretching and re-tuning as the strings settle in. I’m tuning everything a little sharp, and pulling gently sideways on the strings to stretch them out.

Also, if I had to do this with a pitch pipe, I’d probably go nuts. Thank goodness for my little tuner. As you can see, I tuned a little bit sharp — by the end of a song, the string ended up on the flat side anyway. But since I have a penchant for playing dour and depressing songs on the uke, it’s kind of hilarious as it slowly gets flatter and more sour during a song. “Famous Blue Raincoat” has probably never sounded quite as chipper, yet quite as bleak.

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12 Comments

  1. Fluorocarbon isn’t necessarily better than monofilament, and a pro fisherman would likely have each spooled on different rods/reels so that they’re ready to use for the situations where they excel. But on to your application… Fluorocarbon stretches much less than monofilament (when fishing), so it might be a superior choice for you. I don’t know if there’s tons of info about this online, but the one site I scanned didn’t mention it.

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  2. Can you do sound on a blog? FBR with a flat uke would really be something special to hear….

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    missy Reply:

    I’m sure I could, but I haven’t bothered to figure it out yet; I don’t think my skills are quite at the level for public performance. 🙂

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  3. My fav Irish whiskey is “Paddy Irish Whiskey”. It was a Ireland only for a long time but now being imported. Its a lite flavor, so less harsh than a Bushmills.
    http://www.paddy.ie/

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    missy Reply:

    The one I got, which they were doing samples of, is Finnegan. Never heard of it before, but it was quite good.

    I also got a small bottle of Crown Royal; we needed a small drawstring bag, and we’d never actually tried CR, so it’s two birds with one boozy stone.

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  4. My ukulele luthier friend uses fluorocarbon fishing line on all the ukuleles he makes. It’s pretty much the same as Worth strings.
    Oh! And when I do a string change I always just tune it up to D before going to bed. Next day: strings are stretched.

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  5. this is a pretty interesting post. is there any tracks or videos you have of a uke being played with the fishing line? great post keep u pthe hard work.

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  6. Just an FYI: the bridge that only requires a knot is not for “cheap ukuleles.” In fact, most of the great ukes of the past and present use that style: Martin, Kamaka. The ukes that use classical guitar tying are not necessarily higher quality. It all depends. Lot’s of cheap ukes use the second method-in fact, most cheap ukes I have are ted that way.

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    missy Reply:

    Interesting! I suppose I haven’t been exposed to the really high quality instruments — even the music store nearby that carries the largest selection of ukes only carries models up to about $250.00. I’ve never put my hands on a truly top-tier ukulele.

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  7. Hi, tks for the info, have you tuned the G string to a low G tuning and if so what lb. line did you use? Tk you ,TC

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    missy Reply:

    No, this was a high–G tuning. I’m not sure what weight would get the low. Although I did get a single Aquila red low-G string by mail order for one of my other ukes — only a couple of bucks, and it sounds fantastic.

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  8. I’ve also been using this stuff for years – I use Seaguar Blue Label fluorocabon lines. It’s allegedly what a number of very high end luthiers use on their instruments!

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