One thing that sets us apart from anyone else offering Ukulele strings is our unique rating system for set tensions. However, we need to clarify the use of the word “tension”. When we use that word, we mean what it is generally taken to mean: how tight or loose a set feels. Orchestral strings and Guitar sets are for the most part called out in a way that indicates the kind of tension to expect using a fixed note tuning. They often use terms such as “Normal” or “Hard”. One other way to look at tensions, however, is through each strings' "Pound/Force", that is the amount of pull that each string will have at rest when tuned to a given note on a given scale length. We looked at the possibility of calculating and publishing lb/force for our sets and decided against it. It just doesn't seem that useful. First, no one really knows what an ideal lb/force on an Ukulele should be in the first place. That alone makes that data useless. David "Kawika" Hurd is the Ukulele's foremost luthier/technician, and he did actually calculate what he thought would be a good average. It is, however, an estimate based on his particular construction. Aquila and D'Addario are the only two companies I know of that supply lb/force data; their lb/force levels aren’t very close to each other, and neither of them are at Kawika's levels (though one is much closer than the other). Now consider that even if you were to use lb/force as a point of reference, only those two companies would give you anything to compare to. And finally, remember that “tension” in this limited “lb/force”, scientific meaning, has little to do with how the strings will feel; in other words, “lb/force” has little to do with “tension” as most folks use that word. We discussed that topic in another Tips letter, here:Don’t try to use guitar lb/force to judge an Ukulele set either. Adequate force is related in part to soundboard size and scale length, and of course not only are Ukuleles different from Guitars in that respect, but the sizes and lengths also vary throughout the different members of the Ukulele family themselves. And even instruments of the same size and scale will react differently to force based on the way they are built and braced. Those elements are also more variable on Ukuleles than on a typical guitar.Our system is, of course, subjective. We rate sets for more or less tension based on our view of what a typical high, medium or low tension should be in a given situation. One thing that’s often forgotten is that strings themselves have a range at which they perform best. Too tight or too loose and they lose life. That ideal range is not a measurable as it will vary depending on the flexibility of the string material. And as discussed in the link above, the use of lb/force data from those select few makers today is most likely a carry-over from steel strung instruments where that information can be at least somewhat helpful. It’s doubtful you can find any orchestral player, or classical concert guitar player, for that matter, trying to “calculate” their string sets – they know in the end that achieving what they’re looking for in sound and even in feel is a process beyond what lb/force calculation can provide.So lb/force data is deceptive and simply calling a set “Normal”, or in our case “Medium” is admittedly vague. But how can a subjective system work? In our case we’ve tried to put together a system that neither deceives nor involves outright guesswork. And while it won’t be “scientifically exact” in all aspects, we think you’ll be surprised at how “usable” such a system can be. You’ve likely seen the brief outline of how it works on the String Sets page. But if you’re still a bit uncertain, or want a few “Tips” on how to make it work really well for you, then let’s now take a more detailed look at how it functions. ************************************First, note our string sets don’t use the typical terms like “Normal” and “Hard”. That’s because those terms refer to tensions at a fixed tuning. With Ukuleles you can use the same set for different tunings on different scales or keep the same tuning and just get different tensions with that same set on various scale lengths. So our sets have names like “Medium”, “Light Heavy”, etc. These names refer “generally” to the girth of the strings in relation to a set of similar material. When we run into a situation like we have with our relatively thin flat wound CM set, we put it in with traditional material that produces the same feel, so in a case like that, we disregard the girth and call it a “Heavy Medium”. But a typical “Medium” set, for example, can have a high tension at one tuning on one scale and a light tension in the same tuning on another scale. We’ve discussed at length the advantages (sometimes) of expanding your tunings in the “Tuning Your Ukulele” series, but in a bit, you’ll see how rating our strings for various tunings is what makes the tension charts such good tools, even if you only use one tuning. ****************************************The tension charts are made up of a series of boxes, each showing our rating for that set in a certain tuning on a certain scale. The first box illustration is what we rate as a normal tension for a given set / scale / tuning; the black dot is dead in the middle of the Green zone. If the dot is toward the Blue, the tension will be lower; toward the Red it will be higher.Folks often ask if we feel a set will have too much tension for a given situation. You won’t see us ever showing a set with a dot in the Red zone. In that case, we feel the tension could be dangerous. But if a set is rated anywhere in a coloured box, feel free to use it on any instrument in normal condition; the one caveat would be selecting a set close to the Red for a delicate vintage instrument.On the other end, we used to do the same thing for strings that would be in the Blue zone – that is never show a dot in that area. Our customers have convinced us to change that. While a Blue zone tuning would obviously not damage your instrument, once a string falls below a certain optimal tension, it doesn't perform as well. We have always wanted to recommend strings be used in their range of optimal performance. But because of issues with a lack of hand strength or injury, some customers need to put other considerations above optimal performance. It's obviously better to play at less than peak performance that not to play at all. Therefore, on occasion you’ll see ratings dip just into the Blue zone. When you see that sort of rating it will mean that while the tension may not be optimal for performance, it will still have a “playable” tension. Anything outside those parameters gets the Grey “Not Recommended” box. That’s when you stay away from use entirely in the scale/tuning indicated. ****************************************So there you have the way we lay out our Tension Guide. Now how can it work best in helping you with your selections? In picking your first set of Southcoast strings, find the page with the form(s) you want: Ukulele Reentrant, Linear, etc. and then find the sets that can be used for the scale of your instrument and the tuning you prefer. If you’d like some insight into forms, tunings, and how to get the best out of your instrument in whatever circumstance is important to you, then see the series on the Tips page called “Tuning Your Ukulele”Now check the description of the sets that have met your criteria for scale and tuning. You may have a choice of material: for example wound versus plain sets; also an indication of tone may be given, as in softer or brighter sounding sets. But then back to the principle question of this letter, how do you pick a good tension with these subjective ratings?We think our outlook on normal tensions fits most folk’s ideas, but we also realize some will have a different feeling. In the latter case, it may not be the first set that hits the mark, but the second. But now, let’s finalize your “first purchase” selection. If you feel your tension preferences are fairly normal, then select a set with the dot at or close to the centre. If you feel you like higher or lower tension, then select a set with the dot closer to the Red or Blue. Hopefully you hit the mark the first time out. But let’s say your first selection arrives and you think you could have done better. You may be tied down to a fixed note tuning, for example, and decide you’d like slightly less tension. Or maybe you decide your instrument may respond better with a bit more force. Whatever adjustment you want to make, your first set serves as your reference. Now we’ll see how the ratings for different tunings can guide you to your next choice. ****************************************For our example, we’ll say that your first purchase was a standard Medium Gauge Ukulele set with no wound strings: the MU-NW. You want to use it in fixed note C tuning on a typical Tenor length scale: around 17”. Here’s the tension chart for that set, and you selected it knowing that it would have a somewhat higher than normal tension. But now let’s say you’d like to try a set with a bit more relaxed feel. If you have a lightly built Tenor, you may feel it doesn’t need all the force that a heavily gloss finished, guitar braced Tenor needs, or maybe you have a “longneck (17” scale)” Concert body that doesn’t need that much force to drive the smaller soundboard to begin with. You look at the standard Light Medium set, the LMU-NWs and see they’re rated for less tension at that scale & tuning. But now you’re wondering “how much less tension does that lower dot represent?” Here’s how to get a good idea using your MU set.Go back to the first chart, and notice that if you tune the MU set down to B flat, then it also is rated as somewhat lower than normal tension. As a matter of fact, it’s rated just barely below where the Light Medium rating is for C tuning @ 17”. So simply tune your MUs down to B flat. A chart with an octave of standard fixed note tunings can be found here:Tunings: a handy guide & referenceNow you have a very close approximation of what a Light Medium set tuned to C on your 17” scale will feel like. The Light Medium gauge set in C tuning will be just a very little bit higher in tension than your Medium gauge set in B flat. It’s actually a better clue as to what to expect than with lb/force numbers, as you aren’t guessing “how much less tension will 14lb rather than 16lb actually feel like?” One additional comment on moving up or down in tension. If, as in this example, you’re moving to another set with the same sort of material, a move down to lighter gauges will also mean a slightly brighter, clearer sound, while a move up to heavier gauges will give a slightly softer, warmer tone. ****************************************So there you have it: our system in more detail, and some Tips on how to get the best use out of it. As we mentioned starting out, this system is indeed subjective, but we feel it’s by far the best way to select strings, given the properties unaccounted for in lb/force numbers, and the “only other option”. That “other option” is what most folks have to resort to: simply buying set after set, hoping to accidentally hit on the one that works for them. In either case it’s an expensive way to go about things, as the first option is likely to mislead you as often as not, and the second option is just blind guesswork. We’d like to cut that experimentation down for you, and of course we think we offer superior quality sets to begin with. With our unparalleled selection of tone and tension coupled with this rating system and a bit of reflection on your part, most of the time we can give you what you and your instrument need with your initial purchase. If not, we feel our system can almost always give it to you the next time around. There will always be some experimentation in stringing any instrument, but this system gives you a much clearer path to your best outcome than either of the other approaches.