By Richard Ward
Some violinists stick with the strings they’ve been using for years, while others constantly seek different strings that might improve their instrument’s sound or make playing easier. These days, string players face a multitude of choices when it comes to picking violin strings, including a cavalcade of E strings that come plated in platinum, gold, and silver, among other materials. Trying every available string on the market to find your dream strings is probably unrealistic, but you can make an educated guess about a string’s sound if you understand some of the qualities of its core and winding materials, string tension, and the general tonal and playing qualities of each brand.
This guide from Strings magazine explores a few key considerations for selecting the best violin strings for you:
- Core Material, Tension & Gauge
- Matching the Strings to Your Needs
- Should You Mix Strings?
- Lifetime of a String: When to Make a Change
Of course, talking to other musicians about their experiences and preferences is also helpful in building your knowledge about different strings, but keep in mind, each instrument has its own characteristic sound. And while your violin can be adjusted and tweaked, changing to a new brand of strings alone probably won’t make a huge change in the tone or playability of your instrument.
Core Material, Tension & Gauge
These are the original type of strings and their design goes back several centuries. Typically made from sheep intestines, gut strings are lower tension than synthetic- or steel-core strings and have a complex tone that is rich with overtones. Because of the low tension and winding method, they are more pliable under the fingers than other strings, tend to have slower response, and require players to finesse the sound from their instruments with the bow. Gut-core strings also need more frequent tuning, especially if there is a rapid change in room temperature, like stepping under hot stage lights.
The steel E string was introduced for violins at the beginning of the 20th century and was followed by the other steel-core strings and various windings, usually chrome steel. The steel E quickly became widely used and cellists took to steel-core strings fairly quickly. In general, steel strings have a quick response and a clear, focused, brilliant tone. But, don’t expect a great deal of depth and tonal complexity from steel-core strings.
Normally, classical players prefer other types of strings, but others, such as fiddlers, tend to prefer steel-core strings. They’re also widely used on fractional-size instruments. Generally, they are the least expensive strings on the market.
The violin E strings are available in three different types: plain steel, plated steel, and wrapped steel. The original is the plain steel E. In recent years, a number of steel E strings plated with various materials like tin, gold, and platinum have been introduced. The gold-plated steel E, for example, has a brilliant, clear, pure sound that many like, though they do tend to wear out quickly (the gold-plating wears off, and some instruments tend to whistle when going from the A to open E).
The wrapped E has a steel core, usually with a chrome steel wrapping, and tends to have less edge and brilliance than unwound E strings, leaving them a bit warmer and mellower, but slower in response. They might be a good choice for someone who finds steel E strings too shrill or for instruments that tend to whistle when going quickly from the A to an open E. In a situation like this, I recommend the Kaplan Solutions E from D’Addario.
About 40 years ago, the Austrian string-making company Thomastik-Infeld introduced Dominant strings with a core made of Perlon (a type of nylon). They were an instant success, and some would say that Dominant strings changed violin playing forever. Synthetic core is much more stable in pitch than gut. Though “gut-like,” they tend to have a more focused tone with fewer complex overtones. In the last 15 years, other core materials have been used that combine different synthetic materials for a more complex sound, thus the commonly used term “composite” core. While not quite sounding “just like gut,” these newer strings have interesting and sophisticated tonal characteristics.
Though often used interchangeably with string tension, a string’s gauge, or width, is different altogether. Unwound gut strings are a great example of this. Tuned at the same pitch as a steel- or synthetic-core string, a gut string will need to be thicker than other types of strings, even though its tension will be lower. Players who switch to a wider type of string, like gut, may need to have a luthier widen the slots on their instrument’s bridge and nut to accommodate the thicker gauge of the strings.
Still, at a basic level, when shopping for strings, you will be confronted with three gauges of the same string and it’s helpful to understand the differences. Compared to a medium gauge set of the same make of string, a thinner (also sometimes called “weich” or “dolce”) string will be lower tension, with a brighter, more responsive tone, but it will be lower in volume. A thicker (“stark,” “forte”) string, will do just the opposite, giving you a darker tone, but with a slower response.
Though it’s one of the biggest factors determining the tonal differences between different types of strings, string tension is often confused with string gauge. Within specific types of strings, tension and gauge are related, but they are not the same.
Almost all strings, even the least expensive student strings, are available in different tensions: light, medium, and heavy. Gut-core strings tend to have a lower average tension than either synthetic- or steel-core strings. You can feel that lower tension as pliability under the fingers—the strings are easier to press down and you can feel them roll. Synthetic-core strings have a higher tension than gut-core strings, with the darker, warmer-sounding strings (e.g., Pirastro Evah Pirazzi) tending to have a slightly lower tension, although there are some exceptions to this (Thomastik Infeld Blue vs. Infeld Red, which have almost identical tensions). Steel-core strings tune up to a higher tension better than any other types.
When experimenting with different strings, it’s usually best to begin with medium-gauge strings first and then go to a different gauge only if necessary. On some instruments, the higher tension can actually choke the sound.
String winding In recent years, a number of string manufacturers have offered interesting and exotic winding materials, especially for steel-core strings. Altering the winding material allows manufacturers to change the string’s response and tension with such heavier materials as tungsten, resulting in a high-tension string that is thinner than one made from a less dense metal, like aluminum or silver.
A player’s chemistry may also be a factor in choosing strings. Some players, with acidic perspiration, will find that their sweat tends to corrode aluminum-wound strings. The wrapping quickly develops a rough gray surface, which usually doesn’t happen with other kinds of wrappings. Those players might want to try a silver wrapped D, for example.
Matching the Strings to Your Needs
Each violin, viola, cello, or bass has its own tonal characteristics that may be improved by a skilled luthier. If you would like to fine-tune the sound of your properly adjusted instrument, you may want to experiment with different strings.
Before you begin experimenting, you may want to answer a few questions about your current sound. What is your instrument’s characteristic sound? What strings you are using now? What sound do you want to hear?
Once you’ve addressed these questions, you can use the following guide to get the sound you’re seeking.
If your instrument is too bright, you may want a string that has darker, warmer characteristics. You may want to try something with a synthetic core, like Pirastro’s Obligato or Violino, or the Aricore brand, or Thomastik’s Infeld Red or Vision Solo strings. If you want gut-core strings, consider Pirastro Eudoxa. Pirastro’s popular Evah Pirazzi strings are more brilliant than these others, but still have some warmth compared to the more brilliant strings.
If you are on a budget, try D’Addario Pro-Arté or Super Sensitive Octava strings. While lacking in complexity and character of tone, these can be useful on inexpensive student instruments. If your violin is bright to the point of sounding shrill, a low-tension string, like Larsen Tzigane, may tone down a harsh-sounding instrument.
An instrument that’s too dark may benefit from a brilliant string, like Thomastik’s Vision, Infeld Blue, or Dominant strings, or Pirastro’s Tonica or Wondertone Solo. Gut-string fans may want to look at the new Pirastro Passione Solo or the Oliv. If steel-core strings are your preference, try D’Addario’s stranded steel-core Helicores.
If your instrument is unclear or unfocused, light-gauge versions of the brilliant strings that can help an instrument that’s too dark or dull will usually help focus an instrument with a mushy core sound. Players are frequently looking for more (or occasionally less) volume. Different strings don’t seem to offer much volume difference, but you perceive brilliant, focused strings as sounding louder under the ear and they may project better.
Should You Mix Violin Strings?
The ideal instrument is balanced on all four strings, with no single string jumping out in comparison to the others. Sadly, the reality is different, leading many string players to mix and match strings to get the best sound out of the instrument.
For years, many violinists and violists used the same kind of string for the three lower strings, sometimes using a different top string. For instance, a standard setup was Thomastik Dominant A, D, and G, and a Pirastro Gold-Label E. Violists have used Dominant D, G, and C, with a Jargar (or Larsen) A. But this has changed with the introduction of so many new strings, so experiment to find the best match for your desired sound. However, strings alone don’t determine the balance.
If you have an unbalanced instrument, the first step should be taking it to a qualified luthier for an adjustment. Sometimes, just moving the soundpost can make a difference. If you want to solve a balance problem by changing strings, start first by trying a different gauge on the offending string. Thomastik introduced the Infeld Red and Blue strings (red=darker, blue=more brilliant) with the idea that you can mix and match them to get a proper balance. Keep in mind that if you mix different brands and types of strings, a difference in tension might affect the sound of the other strings as well. You may also find the difference in actual thickness of strings to be distracting.
Things are a bit different for cellists, who seem to mix and match strings far more often than other string players. For a long time, a favorite set up was Jargar A and D with Thomastik Spirocore Tungsten G and C, though some cellists opt for Larsens on the upper strings. This setup is fairly brilliant. If you want a complete set that is warmer, you can try the new Kaplan Solutions from D’Addario or Pirastro’s Evah Pirazzi.
Lifetime of a Violin String: When to Make a Change
Which strings last longer? Given the price of strings, it’s a reasonable question. It doesn’t seem like any one type of string lasts longer. What seems to be most important is how you play on the strings and how your body chemistry affects them. Depending on your sweat and technique, you may need to change strings every couple of months, or perhaps, once a year. Either way, you should wipe off the strings after every playing session. Also, remember, strings deteriorate, the core fatigues, and the sound gradually becomes more dull and dead. The process is so slow that you usually don’t realize it until you change strings.
Choosing strings can be very complex, and you may wonder: what’s the best string? The answer is that there is no best string—there’s only the best string for you and your instrument, so consider your needs and examine your options.
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The complete edition of the Care & Repair of Violin or Viola series from Strings magazine gives you a library of video and written instruction that will provide you with extensive knowledge that will help you understand your instrument and, in turn, be a more informed owner and user of stringed instruments and bows.