Stringing the Irish Bouzouki

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Knowing how to string your instrument is an essential skill that every musician needs to learn. The materials that strings are made from will wear down over time. Sometimes the string will unexpectedly snap during playing forcing you to replace it but generally musicians decide themselves that strings need replaced through inspection and feel.

Beginners generally view replacing strings as a daunting task because of their uncertainty and fear of damaging a new instrument. Many beginners end up having the local music shop string the instrument for them which is understandable on the day the instrument is first purchased but there is little to no need to return to them just to have it done. Particularly if they charge for such a simple service.

The following sections will cover how to string an instrument of the Irish Bouzouki family (CBOM - cittern, bouzouki, octave mandola/mandolin) and the different options available when buying strings such as material, gauge and different string ends.

Stringing the instrument:

When changing strings there is only one safety rule to follow:

DO NOT cut the strings while they are fully tuned.

Doing this would cause a very sudden change of tension on the neck of the instrument. It poses a slight risk of damaging the instrument itself but the real danger is that the string becomes an unpredictable high-speed metal whip. So simply never do it.

There are arguments as to whether you should take all the strings off your instrument at once when replacing them or replace them only one at a time. The theory is that changing one string at a time minimises the overall difference in tension on the neck. The theory makes a little sense but changing one string at a time also means that you don't have access to the full fretboard if you want to clean it or apply some form of lotion. If you have the time and patience then try and change one string at a time but generally don't worry about it too much.

How to:

The first step is to remove the metal plate covering the tailpiece of your instrument. It might require a little pressure to lift off if it's the first time it has been moved. Figure 1 shows the removed tailpiece cover and the ends of each string.

Figure 1: Tailpiece cover removed

At the top of the instrument are tuning pegs. Turn the peg in the direction that causes the string to become slack. Continue unwinding until the string becomes loose enough that is can be removed by hand.

With the old string removed find your new string and attach one end at the tailpiece. The tailpiece accepts either loop-end or ball-end strings depending on your instrument.

Next, bring the end of the new string past the tuning peg and then down through the hole. The direction is shown in Figure 2. Once the string has been fed through the hole bring the string clockwise, underneath and then over the other part of the string. Pull tight and this creates a tight knot. The direction to follow with the string can be seen in Figure 3. This method is said to improve tuning stability of the instrument.

Figure 2: Direction to feed string into tuning peg
Figure 3: Direction to bring string to create a knot

The final step is to turn the tuning peg until the string begins to tighten. At this point the string has now been replaced and it just needs to be brought to pitch. This process is repeated for every string and at that point you have successfully changed the strings yourself. The next lesson will cover how to tune the instrument to pitch.

String types and characteristics:

There are many options when it comes to choosing strings for your instrument. There is no definitive answer to "what strings should I use?" because every small change in string specification impacts the overall tone of your instrument and playing. As such, the "right" strings are simply personal preference.

This section covers the certain specifications behind strings and how they might impact your tone or playability. Through time and experimentation you will find the strings that are right for you.

String Gauge:

String gauge refers to the overall thickness of the string. The measurement is made to 1/1000 of an inch and while this number may seem incredibly small the fingers and ears are able to detect these changes. Going up in notches of 1/1000 has significant impact on the tonality and playability of an instrument. The general rule of thumb is that thicker strings provide fuller, louder and "better" sounding tones. However, playing melodies and pushing down on chords with an instrument using particularly thick strings (14/1000 or greater) can cause fatigue and pain in the fingers. Finding the right balance is crucial. For beginners, starting with a light string gauge is recommended to minimise pain and ease the process of building calluses.

Strings are normally sold in packets allowing you to replace all your strings. The string gauge for every string in the packet is based off the thinnest string. "11's" refer to a pack of strings with the thinnest string in the pack being 11. This means that the packet itself can end up dictating to you the string gauge of all the other strings. The relationship between sizes of each string also varies by brand.

It can sometimes be important to note that instruments are set-up and adjusted at the factory or by a luthier to a specific set of string gauges. It is worth finding out this information as changing between different weights impacts the overall tension being placed on your instruments neck and in certain cases might require a new set-up so that instrument works efficiently.

String Material:

The material of each string might be the specification that provides the biggest significant changes in tonality. String manufacturers provide a variety of options such as phosphor bronze and nickel but there are some companies producing alloys such as 80/20 bronze and others experimenting with technology to coat strings in attempts to slow down the corrosion process and ageing of strings.

A very general rule of thumb as to the tonality each material provides would be as follows:

As with every string specification this is another personal preference that based on the sheer number of variations available might take years of experimenting to decide on a favourite.

String Types:

Another specification with a significant impact on the tone of an instrument is the option between stringing in your instrument in an octave or unison/double strung manner.

A set of strings that are unison strung means that you receive 4 pairs of the same gauge strings. For example, an Irish Bouzouki with a set of unison strung 11's tuned to standard pitch will be:

A set of strings that are octave strung means that the two lowest pitched (thickest) strings are paired with a thinner string to create a unique chorusing tonality from the instrument. For example, an Irish Bouzouki with a set of octave strung 11's tuned to standard pitch will be:

Important to note is that if an instrument comes from the factory or luthier with octave strings already on then switching to unison strings at a later date may require the instrument to be set-up professionally as the nut at the top of the instrument may not have been recessed to fit the thicker strings.

String Ends:

The specific end used on a string is likely to have little to zero impact on tonality of your instrument but is vital to know to ensure that the strings work at all with your tailpiece. Strings come with either a loop-end, ball-end and sometimes a dual (ball/loop combo).

The type of end you require depends on the tailpiece of the instrument. Luckily, it is easy to distinguish. If you look at the tailpiece and there are little tags sticking up then the instrument accepts loop-end strings. This is the case for the instrument shown in Figure 1 above. The loop itself latches onto the little tags. Otherwise, if the tags are shaped more like a little enclosure with a small gap in the middle then this is for ball-end strings.

The dual ball/loop-end combos that are sometimes available provide peace of mind when it comes to deciding. However, they can sometimes cost extra and considering how easy it is to determine which kind you need you may as well get the correct end outright.