Tuesday, May 19, 2020

String Theories!

When it comes to setting up your instrument, one of the most critical choices that you will make is “What kind of string should I choose?” Different types of strings are suited better for different skill levels of players, as well as the type of music that you will be playing. While the decision is ultimately a very personal one, you should absolutely consult with your teachers(s), as they will have insights and experience to further guide you in proper string selection.

The earliest violins (and other stringed instruments) used strings that were literally made from animal gut that was stretched, dried, and twisted to form a string. The term “catgut” is often used to describe this type of string, but no evidence exists that cats were ever used as the raw material. The most common animal used for string material was sheep. The first major technological advancement in string production came when luthiers began winding gut strings with thin layers of metal, often silver. The combination of metal and gut made the string denser and allowed it to be thinner while still increasing tonal production. 
The “G” string was the first to be commonly wound, but violinists shifted to wound and all metal (often steel) “E” strings soon thereafter. Then (as now!) the “E” string was very prone to breaking, and the added strength of the wound “E” string was a significant advantage.

In modern instruments, there are three basic types of string available today: gut, synthetic, and steel. Nearly all modern strings are wound with a thin layer of steel. These terms refer to the core of the string.

Steel core strings are the thinnest type of string available, and provide a simple, focused sound, with quick response. Steel strings holds their pitch quite well and are the least affected by changes in temperature and humidity. Because of these characteristics, they are well suited to beginning players, and often found on rental and/or “student” level instruments. Musicians who play rock, jazz, and country, as well as “fiddlers” often use steel-core strings as well. At Germantown Violin Co, our Wilhelm and Gafiano model violins and violas are setup with D’Addario Prelude steel-core strings. Our Patricio celli and basses are set up with Helicore steel-core strings, also from D’Addario. Other common steel core brands include Red Label Super-Sensitive and Chromcor by Pirastro.

Synthetic core strings have a core of synthetic material, often nylon and other composite fibers, wound with steel. The overall purpose of a synthetic string is to attempt to blend the tonal qualities of gut strings with the durability and reliability of steel. As such, they tend to produce a richer, fuller tone and are capable of more subtle tonal effects than steel. They hold their pitch quite well but need more adjustments than steel strings. Because of this combination of desirable tonal qualities and stability/durability, synthetic core strings are the most popular type of string sold today. At Germantown Violin Co, our Alfredo violin is setup with Thomastik Dominant synthetic core strings, while the Maestro is setup with Evah Pirazzi from Pirastro. Other popular strings include Infeld Blue & Red from Thomastik, and Pro-Arte from D’Addario.

Gut strings provide a very warm and rich tone quality. They also produce a very complex tone producing many overtones when played. Because gut strings are the “original” violin string, they are viewed as the gold standard, and their tone quality it what synthetic strings strive to achieve. Gut strings are available as pure (unwound) or wound with various metals. Gut strings are often used on instruments with Baroque setups, as that was the period when gut strings were in use. Because they are literally made from organic material, gut strings are extremely sensitive to environmental changes, and require constant tuning and adjustment. They also take the longest to “play in.” For these reasons, gut strings are usually not recommended for beginners and school-aged musicians.
Popular brands of gut strings include Chorda, Eudoxa, Oliv, and Passione, all produced by Pirastro.

While there is a dizzying array of string brands, packaging, colors, names, etc., it is important to remember that all commercially available strings fall into one of three broad categories: Steel, synthetic, and gut. I Make sure to work with your instructor to help you match the right string to your skill level and literature preference, and you will be sounding your best!