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25 May 2015

Experiments in DIY Instrument Strings

I got into some interesting research yesterday wondering whether it would be possible to use fishing leader line to string up my banjo. The answer of course is yes, but I was wondering how I went about figuring out which line to use. I'm going to share some of my musings...

2 or 3 years ago I posted this excerpt from Pete Seeger's book "How to play the 5-string Banjo (1961)" where he talks about using fishing leader to string banjos. I told you at the time that I would try this out and I'm close to being true to my word. Pete gives us a few great hints, but there is a little more to this than he lets on about.

(Tippet/Leader size chart courtesy of The Fly Fishing Basics)

Yesterday morning I was in a bit of a fugue as I picked up my Highwayman banjo to discover that the 5th string had snapped. This, after only a matter of days since the 1st string had snapped. It's not happening all that often.. just enough to annoy me. It's consistently at the tail end so I definitely need to do a little work there to smooth things off a little. The thing is, it's the same bloody strings that are snapping and I tend to buy sets. You can no doubt see the quandary.

By happy chance I stumbled across an article at Got A Ukulele where Barry Maz was talking about stringing his ukes up with fishing leader. He refers to another article by wolfwithane that I think might have been his inspiration. There's lots of information on both the pages along with links for potential leader supplies. This was all I needed to pick up the baton.

Both Barry and Wolf have opted for the American Seaguar leader strings (which I think are manufactured in Japan). Here's a picture of the type of reel they are buying. They're both opting for line that is fluorocarbon rather than any of the monofilament products. Actually, there is no reason why both shouldn't work. All I'll add here is to make sure that you don't buy any tapered line for obvious reasons.

The biggest problem I can see with using fishing line is not whether it will work, but rather which one to use. Although both instrument strings and fishing leader are manufactured in the same way - in many cases in the same factories - there is a distinct lack of consensus on how to describe the end product. Add to the mix a difference in units of measure and we have a real recipe for disaster.

Being a player rather than a fisher, I'm more used to referring to strings by their gauge, so you might have heard me talking about a set of 11s which is a fairly middle-of-the-road gauge for steel string standard-tuned guitar starting with an 0.011 inch diameter 1st string.

Fishing line tends to be measured primarily by its expected breaking tension, usually measured in pounds. The bigger the number, the stronger the line, the bigger the fish! Having done a bit of googling on the topic, I reckon that you're probably going to be safe with anything upwards of 15lb for any fishing leader string. The thing that will make more of  difference will be the actual diameter of the string.

I like the gauge of this set of La Bella "No 17" banjo strings, so this is my baseline for the string sizes I need. Frustratingly, La Bella don't advertise the individual string gauges for their sets. No matter, I think they are:

Using this information, my next challenge was to see if there were many options for the different string diameters and I'm pleased to announce that there are a number from a selection of different suppliers. Remember that I'm starting with the 1st and 5th strings for this experiment so this is the one that got the most attention.

Here's the reel I went for in the end. The line is apparently "invisible". Let's hope not else I'll have a whole new set of problems to contend with! ;-)

Will this line sound like it should? We'll just have to wait and see!

Stay tuned! 


  1. All my ukes are stringed with Seaguar leader, or a similar brand. For gCEA I use the breaking strengths 40-80-60-30. I tune all sizes the same, so the tension is greater on the larger ones, and quite floppy on the piccolos which are 280 mm scale length. Some people tune them to D or even E, but I can't be arsed transposing on the fly.

    1. That's interesting Sven. Try as I might, I couldn't find any information on what sort of tension a typical set of strings on a uke might exert. I'm guessing taking neck length/width/number of strings into account, it has to be close to a guitar. But like you say, there are "right" strings to fit depending upon what tuning you want. Are you thinking the breaking strength is the key here?

  2. Wolfwithane was part of my inspiration, but mainly a couple of well regarded ukulele luthiers who ship all their instruments with Seaguar Blue Label. If it's good enough for them!

  3. Interesting, I never thought of the possibility of using fishing lines as uke strings. I'm sure there will be differences in tone based on the different lines. Fun experiment!