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Hello everyone,

I have an electric tenor guitar and an electric tenor ukulele, both solid body. In most aspects, they are very similar to electric guitars, but they have only four strings and the scale length is different (23" and 17" respectively). I tune them both in the so-called Chicago tuning, which is the same as the four top strings of a guitar in standard tuning (DGBE).

Because the scale length is shorter than a standard size guitar, the string gauges have to be thicker to get the same tension as on a guitar (when the strings are tuned to the same notes). Especially on the tenor uke, the gauges I have been using are quite thick (three of the four strings are wound). I recently decided to try to reduce the fret noise by changing as many strings as possible to unwound strings. I put together two string sets from available D'Addarion single strings with a tension somewhere in between what corresponds to a 009 set and a 010 set for a standard electric guitar. That resulted in PL026-PL019-PL0135-PL0095 (for the tenor guitar) and NW038-PL026-PL018-PL013 (for the tenor uke). PL is D'Addario's code for "plain" and NW is "nickel wound".

I have tried only the tenor uke set so far, since the tenor guitar is not with me right now, and it kind of works. The fret noise is reduced considerably with only one string out of four being wound, the overall sound and playability are quite good. But I have some problems with the G-string (PL026), which I guess is the thickest unwound gauge there is. It takes some time to bend at the saddle and "settle" because of the thickness, but I can live with this. Also, I had to do some radical adjustments to the action and intonation, again not a deal breaker. My real problem is with the tone produced by the string:

1) I'm getting a weird sound from the G-string, kind of hollow and bell-like. It's as if there were an overtone unrelated to the fundamental that was accompanying the sound, the volume being approximately half that of the fundamental. A little like a ring modulator low in the mix.

2) When playing flageolets, the G-string sounds noticeably less clear than the other strings. Also, it is more difficult to find the "sweet spot".

3) The sustain of the G-string is noticeably shorter than the other strings. Instead of of ringing out like the other strings, it quickly decays into chaotic overtones.

All three observations above are a lot less significant when playing chords. But when playing melodies and arpeggios, the G-string stands out in an unpleasant way. I have never tried using an unwound string of this gauge before, so I am unsure whether that is simply the sound of such a thick string and I will have to take it or leave it, or if there is something I am doing wrong or something I could do to improve the tone.

Does anybody have experience with these problems and/or some ideas about the cause and solution? Any input is appreciated, thanks! :-)

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The string tension for your nominal pitches over the 17" scale length seem quite low:

Capture1.PNG

That's nearly the same gauges for a typical 13-56 acoustic set (ignoring the wound 3rd string), and over a scale length of 25", that's barely half the tension:

Capture2.PNG

My gut feel is that you're not getting enough tension to get the string up to its optimum sweet spot for its intended pitch (look up String Inharmonicity), and the thicker plain 3rd is suffering the most due to its high mass and short scale length. I would have thought you'd have noticed other problems too, such as very poor intonation and extreme sensitivity to pitch variation when doing vibrato and bends.

What gauges and materials does the tenor uke normally get string with? Could you go back to your previous PL-NW-NW-NW string configuration but substitute flatwounds for the three wound strings to avoid the string noise problems you were experiencing before?

  • Thanks 1

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Hello Curtisa,

Thanks for your very detailed answer and the Wikipedia link. Yes, my first thought was to use flatwound strings, however, they are very hard to come by here in Europe and also very expensive. I could cannibalize existing string sets with flatwounds, but it would simply become too expensive in the end.

There are no strings sets for electric uke available on the market, at least I've never seen one. Probably because it's still such a rare instrument, most uke players prefer nylon strings. Another issue is that there is no standard tuning for ukes larger than concert and soprano. Some tune GCEA, some tune DGBE, some tune in between. The reason my choice of strings seems to give a non-consistent tension is because I sometimes tune differently: CGCE for slide, DGCF for jazz & bossa, CGCG and CFCF also good for slide, CGCF for oriental music etc. So the string gauges I chose are all in the neighbourhood of 15 lb, plus minus depending on the current tuning. I always refer to my tuning as Chicago (DGBE) as a point of reference that is easy to relate to for other uke players as well as guitarist, but I actually play some of the other tunings more often.

Most electric uke players will simply cannibalize an electric guitar string set, which is what I did before. However, I did not get the exact gauges that I wanted and also the overall tension was too high for my taste (20 lb, similar to an electric guitar with 011's). So I wanted to put together a custom set with the D'Addario singles to get a more equalized tension across the strings, as well as more bendability and less calluses. I went for 15 lb, which I would consider "the middle road", since it's right between the tension of a set of 009's and a set of 010's on a standard size electric guitar. You compare with a set of 013's, but I've never seen such a set for electric guitar, sounds more like in the territory of acoustic guitars. It would be very hard to pitch bend indeed, and I don't think the neck of my uke would hold up (already 20 lb was quite a strain).

Anyway, the strings I put on do not feel wobbly at all, no intonation problems or anything. In fact, they sound a lot better that the 20 lb set I was using before, and are a lot easier to play. Only the 026 presents the above problems. The string actually feels like it has a higher tension than the 032w I was using before, although this is obviously not the case. However, this feeling of tension in the string might actually be stiffness, as indicated in the Wikipedia article! When looking more closely on the string, I can see that it kind of arches slightly over the nut as well as the saddle, where the other strings are kind of "breaking" at an angle. This could mean, that the string is not swinging freely, but is being restricted by a spring-like tension at both ends. Hence the chaotic bell-like overtones, or "inharmonicity", as the term is in Wikipedia.

After reading the Wikipedia article, I am convinced that the problem is simply the thickness and stiffness of the string. Here is one quote from the article: "For instance, a very thick string behaves less as an ideal string and more like a cylinder (a tube of mass), which has natural resonances that are not whole number multiples of the fundamental frequency."

The PL026 would probably work a lot better on a standard size guitar or on my tenor guitar at the same tension (15 lb), since scale length is also a factor in producing inharmonicity. So while I have not solved my problem yet, at least now I know why that particular string does not work on my uke. Thanks! :-D

Maybe I'll try reducing the tension even more, a PL024 or PL022 might do the job. I'll keep looking for the flatwounds (CG) also, but so far I have found them only at exhorbitant prices: 5-8€ per string + 20€ shipping (plus they don't even have all the gauges available)! What to do... :-/

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On 9/16/2017 at 11:49 PM, bentstavanger said:

You compare with a set of 013's, but I've never seen such a set for electric guitar, sounds more like in the territory of acoustic guitars. It would be very hard to pitch bend indeed, and I don't think the neck of my uke would hold up (already 20 lb was quite a strain).

My comparison with the 013s was only to illustrate the effect of stringing (nearly) the same set of top 4 strings over a longer scale length for the same pitch. The NW026 3rd on a "normal" guitar sounds...well...normal, but the PL026 over the shorter scale length causes problems with tone due to the higher mass and lower tension.

Lower tension (PL024? PL022?) may also introduce other problems that you'll want to avoid - "squishier" feel, other tonal deficiencies such as "rubber banding". Your only recourse may simply be to lower the mass while keeping the tension up, ie, use a wound string of some type. Maybe a special instrument will simply demand a special string set, with the consequence of a special price tag attached to the strings?

On the plus side, flat wound strings should last a bit longer before sounding noticeably duller than the equivalent round wounds, so perhaps the increase in longevity can justify the increase in price? D'Addario have a flatwound set (ECG26) that seems to go for about $11US on some online string supplier sites (just throw away the 5th and 6th strings from the pack). If you buy in bulk and share the shipping with some friends it is probably pretty good value.

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On 9/15/2017 at 10:07 PM, curtisa said:

The string tension for your nominal pitches over the 17" scale length seem quite low:

Capture1.PNG

That's nearly the same gauges for a typical 13-56 acoustic set (ignoring the wound 3rd string), and over a scale length of 25", that's barely half the tension:

Capture2.PNG

My gut feel is that you're not getting enough tension to get the string up to its optimum sweet spot for its intended pitch (look up String Inharmonicity), and the thicker plain 3rd is suffering the most due to its high mass and short scale length. I would have thought you'd have noticed other problems too, such as very poor intonation and extreme sensitivity to pitch variation when doing vibrato and bends.

What gauges and materials does the tenor uke normally get string with? Could you go back to your previous PL-NW-NW-NW string configuration but substitute flatwounds for the three wound strings to avoid the string noise problems you were experiencing before?

Curtisa, I haven't been on the forum in a while.  I noticed this calculator for string tension you posted.  Is that a new forum app, or your own design? Thanks for the info in advance Sir.

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