Stop guessing and start searching for the strings which are perfect for your violin.
When it comes to violin strings, there are at least two types of violinists: those who are contented of the type string that they have been using for years and those who are in constant search for the string that would improve the playability and sound of their instrument. In this present age, multiple options are available for string players when it comes to choosing different types of violin strings. Examples are the variety of E strings plated with different materials like silver, platinum, gold and other materials. It’s quite unrealistic trying to find your “dream string” and to try every string that you can find in the market won’t seem to work. However, you can educate yourself a bit to quickly guess the sound of the string based on your knowledge of the qualities of each brand. This involves their string tension, type of winding and core materials and the playing and tonal qualities.
Of course, you can also talk to other musicians and learn about their preferences and experiences which are extremely helpful. This can help improve your knowledge about the variety of strings, but you should keep in mind that every stringed instrument possesses a unique sound characteristic. Another thing, changing to a new brand of strings does guarantee a significant change in the playability and tone of the musical instrument.
Types of Core Materials
The Gut Core – these types of strings are used in the early period of violin era. Gut strings are characterized by the richness of their overtone and complexity of its tonal qualities. Its tensions are lower than the standard synthetic strings or steel strings. Gut strings are commonly made from the intestines of the sheep. Due to the characteristics and construction of its material, the string has a winding method and low tensions resulting in increased flexibility and slower response. So, to finesse the sound that is coming out from their instrument, the player needs to exert more effort on the bow. Frequent tuning is also is necessary for gut strings especially if the room temperature changes rapidly, like stepping out from a performance on stage where the lightings are hot.
The Steel Core – At the beginning of the 20th century, the steel E string was first introduced to string players. After that, other types of steel core strings and a variety of windings followed. The typical material used is chrome steel. The widespread use of steel E became so popular that even cellists would quickly shift to steel core strings. Generally, steel string provides brilliant, focused and clear tone with a quick response. However, it doesn’t have the deep tonal complexity which you can find in gut strings.
Violin players would generally prefer other string types, but not the fiddlers. They would love to have steel core strings on their fiddle. This type of string is also ideal and frequently used for fractional size instruments. They are generally one of the cheapest strings in the market.
There are three different types of violin E strings: the wrapped steel, the plane steel, and the plated steel. The Plain E is the original among these three types. In the past years, several E strings were introduced with plated materials like gold, platinum, and tin. An example of that is the gold-plated E string which produces a pure, brilliant and clear sound. However, gold plating tends to wear off quickly creating a whistling sound on some instruments when playing the A string going to the open E.
The steel core E string is usually wrapped with chrome steel. Compared to unwound E strings, they tend to have lesser brilliance and edge causing them to have a slightly mellower and warmer tone, but with a slower response. Choosing this type of string is perfect for those who have a very shrilling E string or those with an instrument that tends to whistle when playing A down to the open E quickly. The Kaplan Solutions E from D’Addario is highly recommended in this particular situation.
The Synthetic Core – Thomastik-Infeld, a string making company in Austria, introduced the Dominant strings. Its core’s material is made from a type of nylon called Petrol. Instantly they become great success leading others to say that the violin playing has changed forever because of the Dominant strings. When it comes to its pitch, the synthetic core has more stability compared to the gut core. Although it has some gut-like qualities, its tone is more focused with lesser complex overtones. To provide more complexity of sound, other string players use a combination of different synthetic materials which they commonly call the composite core, a trend that has been going on for the last 15 years. Although the sound is not quite as similar to the gut strings, the tonal characteristic of these newer strings is more interestingly sophisticated.
The String Gauge
The string’s gauge is the measurement of the diameter or the thickness of the violin’s string. It’s entirely different from string tension, although they were often used interchangeably. One of its best examples is the unwound gut strings. Though gut string’s tension will be lower, it has to be thicker than other types of strings. The tuning of its pitch is similar to the synthetic and steel core strings. Because gut strings are thicker and broader, players who switched to this type of string would have to go to a luthier to adjust the slots on the nut and bridge of their instrument to accommodate the string’s thicker gauge.
Basically, when you go shopping for strings, you will get three gauges of the same string. Therefore understanding the differences between each type is quite very helpful. The “dolce” or “weich,” the name that is sometimes used for the thinner gauge string is more responsive and has a brighter tone with a lower volume and tension compared to medium gauge string of the same type. On the other hand, the “stark, forte” which is the thicker type of gauge string has a darker and less responsive tone, quite the opposite of the thinner variety.
The String Tension
As what we have mentioned before, string tension and string gauge are often being confused with each other. Distinct as it may be, string tension plays a crucial role in determining the differences in tones between different varieties of strings. Tension and gauge are quite related when it comes to specific types of strings, but they are entirely distinct.
Similar to gauges, you can also find three different types of tensions available in the string shop: heavy, medium and light. The average tension of the gut string is quite lower compared to that of either the steel or synthetic core strings. You can feel the tension under your fingers as well as the flexibility of the strings which makes it easier to press down, feeling them as they roll. The tension of the synthetic-core strings is higher compared to the gut-core strings, coupled with a warmer and darker sound (e.g., Pirastro Evah Pirazzi) in which the tension is slightly lower. However, other synthetic-core strings like the Thomastik Infeld Blue vs. Infeld Red are some of the exemptions although their tensions are almost identical. Among other strings, the steel-core strings are better when it comes to tuning up to a higher tension.
The best way to experiment with different strings is to first start with medium size gauge strings then if necessary, go to a different gauge. A word of caution: setting up higher tension on some instruments might choke the sound.
In recent years, string winding has become popular that many manufacturers are offering exotic and interesting materials for winding. They do this mostly on steel-core strings. Manufacturers will change the response of the string if there are alternations with heavier materials such as tungsten in the elements of the string. The result causes the string to have high tension, becoming thinner than those made from metals like aluminum and silver which has less density.
The chemistry of the player can also be an essential factor for choosing strings. Strings that are wounded with aluminum might corrode on players that have acidic perspiration. Development of rough grey surface on the wrappings would quickly manifest. Other kinds of wrappings like the silver wrapped D string don’t have this kind of condition so players with acidic perspiration problem can significantly benefit from this.
How to Match the Strings with your Needs
Every stringed instrument like viola, violin, cello, and bass possesses individual tonal characteristics that experts such as a skillful luthier can make significant improvements. Experimenting with different types of strings is also helpful for fine-tuning properly adjusted instruments.
But before you start your experimentation, it would be best to answer these few questions concerning your current sound: What is the character of the sound of your instrument? What kind of string are you currently using? What is your most preferred sound?
After addressing these three key questions, you can then use these guidelines to help you acquire the kind of sound you are looking for.
For intensely bright instruments, it is best to choose strings that possess a warmer and darker characteristic. Trying something that has a synthetic core like the Thomastik’s Infeld Red, Pirastro’s Obligato or Violino, Vision Solo strings, or the Aricore brand is also great. The Pirastro Eudoxa is perfect for those who would prefer to have gut strings. The most brilliant among all these is the Eva Pirazzis by Pirastro, but they are warmer than other types of bright strings.
The D’Addario Pro-Arté or Super Sensitive Octava strings are perfect for those who are on a budget. Though they lack character and complexity of tone, students with inexpensive instruments will still find them useful. If your violin comes to the point of having a shrill sound due to intense brightness, the Larsen Tzigane, a low tension string is best for toning down the instrument’s harsh sound.
On the other hand, the brilliant string can give so much benefit from instruments with a very dark tonal characteristic. The best examples are; Thomastik’s Vision, Pirastro’s Tonica, Infeld Blue, Wondertone Solo, and Dominant strings. For those whose favorite are gut strings, you can try the new Pirastro Passione Solo or the Olive. Steel core enthusiasts might want to try the D’Addario’s stranded steel-core Helicores.
For unfocused and unclear instruments, brilliant strings in light gauge versions that can help too dull and dark instruments will also help to focus instruments with squashy core sound. Those with more volume were frequently sought by players, and on some occasions, those with less volume. It seems that different strings could not offer much difference in volume. But in your perception, the brilliant and focused strings sound louder under the ear so they may project better.
Is it right to mix strings?
Essentially, a violin with a well-balanced four strings is an ideal instrument. No string should stand out or come out less that encourages comparison with others. However, the sad reality, string players would usually mix and match different strings in hopes that they would get the best sound out of their instrument.
For many years, violinists and violists used similar kind of strings on the lower three strings, and would sometimes use a different string on the top. For example, the violinists’ standard set up would be using the Thomastik Dominant for their A, D, and G string, and for the E string, they would use Pirastro Gold-Label. For the violists, they used D, G, and C Dominant strings and a Jargar or Larsen for the A string. However, with so many new strings being introduced, a lot of changes occur, which opens the door for more experimentation to achieve the desired sound. However, striking a balance requires more than just changing the strings.
An unbalanced instrument requires proper adjustments in which only a qualified luthier can do. Sometimes, you can see some difference by just moving the soundpost. If changing of strings is your first options to put your instrument at the right balance, find the offending string first and try a different gauge on it. Thomastik had given players the best option to help balance their instrument by mixing and matching their Infeld Red (which is darker) and Blue strings (which is more brilliant). Always keep in mind that mixing different string brands and different string types can affect the sound of the other strings because of the difference in tension. You will also find it very distracting to see and feel the actual difference of the string’s thickness.
For the cellists, things are slightly different; they would often mix and match more often than others. The string set up that consists of C and G Thomastik Spirocore Tungsten and A and D Jargar is their most favorite set up for years, although some cellists would prefer Larsen on the upper strings. You can get good brilliance on this setup. You can also try the new Kaplan solutions if you want a complete warmer set which came from D’Addario or Pirastro’s Evah Pirazzi.
String’s lifespan: The right time to change
It’s entirely reasonable to ask which string would last longer, as you consider the string’s price. It’s quite tricky to find a string that would last longer than others. The most important is the way you play the strings, and how the strings affect your body chemistry. The necessity to change strings can either be after a couple of months or after a year depending on your technique and perspiration. Whatever your condition, wiping off your strings always is very important after every playing session. Another important note is that strings will eventually deteriorate. Their core will also wear out; the sound will gradually lose its quality, becoming dull and eventually dies out. However, such changes will not be noticed until your next changing of strings because the changing process is slow.
Indeed the task of changing strings is very complex which leads you to a question: what is the best string? The answer, there is none. Only the string that perfectly matches you and your instrument is for you the best string. So the first thing to consider is not the string but your needs and the options you prefer.