The Great Fishing Line Conspiracy — Exposed

If you want to get a heated discussion going, just ask someone which are the best ukulele strings. There will be dozens of brands, bad experiences and “swear by” statements. Invariably someone will state that fishing line by the roll is the best and that it is just the same as the best strings and for a fraction of the cost.

So, is this possible?

Is there a worldwide conspiracy of string manufacturers getting rich by cutting up bulk fishing line filament?

Do they seek world domination?

A ukulele string’s principal purpose is to respond to some external action and vibrate creating a pleasing sound. That vibration excites the instrument soundboard (predominantly) to generate more volume. And it is this response that is the pleasing sound we seek. If we have a pickup installed, the string vibration and the instrument vibration will be detected and converted to an electrical signal for amplification and modification.

Ukulele strings are usually plucked to excite the string. But they could be bowed, or respond sympathetically to a nearby vibration. Acoustic feedback is a thing! One “party trick” is the performer picking strings with their teeth! Once excited the string will try to vibrate in accordance with well-known and understood rules of physics. It is useful to understand what this means.

The string is fixed at either end — at the tuner, the nut, the bridge and the tie or bridge pin (4 places). Most players will seek to excite the string between the nut and the bridge. When the string is excited the vibrations created will travel along the string to the fixed end points, be reflected and generate a standing wave. This is the fundamental frequency. It is transmitted to the instrument to create the sound you hear.

HARMONICS?

You might also hear references to harmonics. These are locations along the string that if touched will allow the string to continue to vibrate, but at a frequency that is an integral multiple of the fundamental frequency. Huh! Too complex?

OK, it’s that beautiful ring that the best players use to accent special parts of the melody. Harmonics are important, and everyone plays them every time a string is plucked. Every string vibrates in a complex manner consisting of the fundamental frequency and multiple overtones with various intensities. This is what creates the unique sound of the instrument. It applies to all musical instruments — strings, organ pipes, brass instruments etc.

With practice, a ukulele player can touch that critical point, lightly fretting the string and allowing it to ring freely without being fretted — so the whole string is vibrating as if it were half as long (for the most common harmonic) and a pure sweet note is generated.

AHA!

So, we can see that the way the string vibrates, and its fundamental frequency, are critical to the tone of the instrument. But the way the instrument responds to vibration is also essential. This is nothing new to any good luthier!

We won’t discuss the connection between string and instrument here, other than to state that it must be lossless, so the maximum energy from the string is transmitted to the instrument.

Consequently, strings are critically important to the sound of your ukulele, and we now know that the frequency (and overtones) are the critical components for a good sound.

FREQUENCY, PITCH … TUNING

What then determines the frequency and hence likely overtones of a string?
We can determine the fundamental frequency of any string with a simple equation. (As follows — but don’t sweat it! All we are interested in is the observations following the equation. )

f = (1/2L)*√(T/μ) where
• f is the frequency in hertz (Hz) or cycles per second
• T is the string tension in gm-cm/s²
• L is the length of the string in centimetres (cm)
• μ is the linear density or mass per unit length of the string in gm/cm
• √(T/μ) is the square root of T divided by μ in seconds

Note: Typically, tension would be in newtons, length in meters and linear density in kg/m, but those units are inconvenient for calculations with strings.

Thus, the smaller units are used.

This shows us:

  1. Increase the tension — increase the frequency. You knew that, right? That’s how you tune the ukulele!
  2. Longer string — lower frequency. You knew that too, but you are constrained to the length of your instrument for the lowest pitch. Of course, you create a shorter string when you fret it and the pitch increases.
  3. String MASS PER UNIT OF LENGTH — now that is interesting! We all know that the lowest pitch strings are the largest diameter. But the string diameter is not relevant! It might increase the mass of the string per unit of length, i.e. fatter string – more mass per unit length.
  4. String colour — not relevant … that was really obvious! Except, if it is evidence of a particular filler in the string material.

UNIFORM DENSITY NEEDED

I’ll leave you to contemplate the relationship between string tension, mass, and the design pitch of the string. But, if the mass per unit length is important, it follows that variations in mass ALONG the length of the string are also important, i.e. if the string has heavy and light spots due to non-uniform density, or varying diameter that leads to this variation, it will have inconsistent sound.

Here we can see a significant difference between strings manufactured for musical instruments and fishing line. Fishing line is manufactured for consistent breaking strain. The product parameters are diameter and test breaking strain, but diameter variations and mass per unit length variations are not important to this manufacturer.

Momoi (Fishing Line) manufacture fluorocarbon filament in house. They claim it is a hard-type fluorocarbon, with high abrasion resistance and optical refraction similar to water. It has hardness and durability required for fishing at sea and is also waterproof. None of which are of importance as an instrument string. Fishing line can vary in diameter (and hence density) and will be acceptable to the manufacturer if it passes the breaking strain quality control.

Manufacturers of highest quality musical instrument strings ensure that the strings are of uniform density along the length so that you get a consistency of sound quality and volume of the fundamental frequencies and the overtones. They also endeavour to increase that density by using special materials, or adding fillers to the base material. Neither of these parameters are a significant part of the fishing line manufacturing process.

COLOUR

Is colour relevant? No, except where it reflects compounds included in the string material and hence the actual density of the string.

GENUINE vs FAKE

In the case of Aquila, they extrude all of the material for their strings ‘in-house’. Aquila recently advised that original Aquila strings are pearl-coloured and that white strings (since 2019) are fake. This implies that many other instrument string brands may be outsourced production! It does not mean that their strings are always lower quality, but they might be.

INSTRUMENT STRINGS NOT MADE OF FLUOROCARBON?

Are there different materials used for strings then?

Yes, indeed there are. Aquila make several different strings and publish excellent technical details.

They currently include:

  • Sugar — brighter than Fluorocarbon, a bioplastic derived from sugar cane with outstanding sustain and power.
  • Red Series — Super bright and superior to fluorocarbon, strings are filled with a metal powder to increase density. Each string is created with a unique blend of filler to create a matched set. Strings within a set vary in colour demonstrating this. You’ll also find an unwound low G available in this set. So, if you like Low G and don’t like the sound of your fingers sliding along the wound string this Low G might interest you. (I use these).
  • New Nylgut — similar to gut (traditional string material) but brighter than nylon and warmer than fluorocarbon. A warning from Aquila is that the strings are liable to damage like gut and to ensure that there are no sharp edges on bridge or nut grooves as they might break. This is good practice for all strings. They recommend ensuring no sharp edges by sanding off with 600 grit sandpaper. Can’t imagine this has anything to do with people who experience early string breakages!!!!
  • Super Nylgut — also similar to gut, brighter than nylon and less bright than Fluorocarbon. These strings have a softness to your fingers, but are less prone to damage by capo, bridge, or sharp frets. (I use these too.)
  • Lava Series — similar to gut, brighter than nylon and warmer than Fluorocarbon. OK, so colour might mean something to you. Their grey/black strings are similar to Super Nylgut and inspired by Hawaii.
  • Bionylon — warm mellow, round sound for sweetness and expressiveness. 63% plant derivative (castor oil) and low carbon emissions from manufacture if that’s an important selection parameter.
  • Genuine Gut — hand made and will take you to the roaring twenties in style. These are not modern strings, but considered to be authentic to strings of the 1930s. If you have a vintage ukulele, and play songs of the era, these should be in your kit – but make certain there are no sharp edges and expect a shorter life.
  • Kids Strings — educational strings similar to New Nylgut but coloured for educational ukulele as in an international educational criterion since the 1960s.
  • AGxAQ — warm mellow, round and full with great expressiveness – a sound ideal for appreciation in a concert hall ( curated by Aldrine Guerrero) – Made with a special recipe — and in Mint Green.

COMPETITION

Isn’t this article biased towards Aquila?

What about the other brands … ?

Biased … well in as much that Aquila does publicly provide considerable product details and undertake constant R&D and extrude all strings in-house, and have an exceptionally large range … maybe. Read up on them at Aquila Corde Amoniche.

But, there certainly are other good string manufacturers.

D’Addario

D’Addario make excellent strings from nylon and fluorocarbon. Jake Shimabukuro uses D’Addario strings. Their Nyltech strings are proprietary formulations intended to emulate natural gut strings. Pro-Arte Nylon are clear nylon strings. Pro-Arte Rectified strings are black nylon and claim a warm dark traditional tone. Pro-Arte Carbon are essentially a fluorocarbon string. The material of the Pro-Art Titanium is unclear — it is not titanium tho’ — but is claimed to give a bright treble contemporary tone. These were the strings that Aldrine Guerrero used before he curated the AGxAQ strings with Aquila.

Worth

Worth makes very good strings. All strings are fluorocarbon. So, you can compare them to the Aquila descriptions above. Yes, it is fluorocarbon that is the material often used for fishing line. Worth is a Japanese company.

GHS

GHS produce fluorocarbon and nylon strings, and have some ukulele sets curated by Craig & Sarah. They also produce some custom wire wound strings which are combined with Aquila Super Nylgut for one of the Hawaiian “K” ukulele ( check the first image 😊). Their prime market tho’ is steel strings (guitar etc) which they do well.

Martin & Co

Martin & Co also make nylon, fluorocarbon and “Polygut” string sets.

FISHING LINE OR NOT?

But the question is: Fishing line… or not? Is there a movement dominating the world in ukulele strings? Are all these discussions about strings pointless? Should we take our ukulele fishing and use bulk fishing line for strings?

There is clear objective evidence that using fishing line for ukulele strings will not produce results as good as properly manufactured uniform density ukulele strings. I believe the clearest evidence is the variability in density that will produce randomly variable sound.

There are multiple options for good instrument strings with different sound characteristics and price points.

Consider trying alternatives if you are seeking a good sound. Cut the costs by pooling purchasing and buy 3 or more sets.

Don’t be afraid of splashing a little cash on good strings for a cheap ukulele, it CAN give you a better sound. Even the LARK (pictured right) sounds better with a good set of ukulele strings.

But don’t forget that even the best ukulele strings are likely to break if there are sharp edges on the bridge or nut grooves. (I have never broken a string at nut or bridge!)

CONSPIRACY

As for the existence of a conspiracy seeking world domination by ukulele string manufacturers over fishing line manufacturers?

This is pretty much like most conspiracy theories… 😊

The most important rule! The strings on your instrument must satisfy your ear. Someone else’s favourite is not necessarily going to be yours.

Be patient and allow the strings to bed in, stretch a little and get used to the sound before you make your decision.

LAST WORD

As for me, fishing line is for fishing….

Apologies to Tahitian Ukulele Lovers – Apparently 30lb fluoro green monofilament is mandatory for the 8 string Tahitian Ukulele.

How to Build a Tahitian Ukulele : 17 Steps (with Pictures) – Instructables

No ukulele harmed during research for this article.

EDITOR’S INVITATION