The tone and feel of a string is highly personal, so it pays to keep an open mind in your search for great sound
The good news in the string world is that players have more choices than ever, and a string probably exists that can improve the sound and playability of your instrument. Because there is no single ideal string that works for all instruments, however, finding the right string can be a daunting task. The best string for you depends on your instrument, your playing style, and your own personal preferences.
Recommendations from teachers, colleagues, and friends are all good starting points in your search for new string ideas. However, their choices may not be optimal for you or your instrument. In addition, limiting your choices by only using strings of a certain kind of core material, for instance, may prevent you from discovering new possibilities, especially with the many new strings that have been introduced in the last few years.
Finding your optimal string requires patience (and an investment), but the potential rewards are worth it, so experiment and keep an open mind.
Many players insist on a particular material for a specific string, such as tungsten for a C string. While materials have the largest influences on string sound and behavior, the way the material is used can be just as important. Two different tungsten-wound strings can sound and respond very differently because of differences in the size and characteristics of the tungsten wire, the core construction, or the other windings. Therefore, I always recommend that players shouldn’t pay excessive attention to specific materials. Instead, I encourage players to focus on the actual result with their own instrument—that’s always the most important factor.
Although string sound is important, bowing response can be just as important. Different strings will feel very different to the player, and any improvements in sound will always require some changes in bowing technique and playing style. That’s one reason why selecting a string is such a highly personal choice: some players are much more willing to adapt their playing style to a different string, while others find comfort in the familiar. The decision comes down to whether the ultimate rewards of tone and feel are worth the changes in your playing style.
Playing and bowing styles have evolved over time and the most significant trend over the past century is the use of more bow force and playing closer to the bridge (which allows the use of more bow force), rather than the use of bow speed. The great players of the early-20th century bowed farther away from the bridge and used a lot more bow speed than players use today. String technology has played an important role in this evolution because natural gut strings, which players were using back then, lack the torsional stiffness (resistance to twisting) that allows playing close to the bridge with powerful bow forces.
For violin, string makers can create strings with sufficient torsional stiffness by using synthetic cores and two metal wraps. Cello strings, however, need steel-cores to achieve the torsional stiffness required by today’s musicians, and so most modern cellists use solid-steel-core strings for the A and D strings, and stranded-steel-core strings for the G and C strings.
Steel-core strings, however, can sound overly bright and edgy when new. This is because metal core strings have less natural damping compared to natural gut-core strings. Damping is the physical property of how quickly vibrations die away. Strings with low damping sound bright, like most guitar strings. When a musician plays on a set of strings, her sweat accelerates the corrosion inside of the strings, which increases damping. Dead skin cells also mix with sweat, creating a damping compound that works its way in between the windings and into the strings. This is one of the main things that happen to a string during its breaking-in process. In recent years, several string manufacturers have created effective damping compounds, which they add to the inside of strings to reduce or eliminate the break-in period, and allow the design of warm-sounding steel-core strings. In particular, this has allowed the design of very high-tension cello A strings that do not sound excessively bright or strident.
For violas, the most significant development in the past generation has been the introduction of high-tension, highly damped A strings. Traditionally, the viola was an ensemble instrument, but soloists longed for a powerful, projecting top string. The tension of a natural gut- or synthetic-core viola A string could be increased only by a limited amount. Wound steel-core A strings could be made to higher tensions, but the sound resembled a steel violin E string. The string manufacturers that figured out how to make a high tension, but warm sounding, solid-steel-core cello A string applied the same technology to viola A strings, and now these are the standard strings for most violists.
You’ll see the widest variety of string technology in the bass world because it has the widest range of playing styles. At one extreme is orchestral playing, where a warm, mellow, but powerful sound is required, and the ability to blend in is highly prized. Highly damped, stranded steel-core strings are the most popular choices here. At the other extreme are predominately pizzicato players, and there are bass strings using different materials and technologies to suit every style of playing. Many synthetic-core strings try to emulate the pizzicato sound of traditional gut strings, which have a big, fat initial attack.
For players who play very rapid pizzicatos, there are strings, typically with stranded steel-cores, which can be plucked quickly and have a quick decay after the initial attack. There are also strings suitable for both arco and pizzicato—sometimes labeled as “hybrid” strings—while other arco or pizzicato strings still work well for both.
Many players seem to lament the present emphasis on power at the expense of tonal quality and variety from strings. However, there is evidence that the pendulum is swinging back. Many of today’s players want more tonal variety and texture in their string sound without sacrificing power and projection. String manufacturers are responding with new strings to meet this demand, so be open minded and willing to try new strings. You may be rewarded with a better-sounding and easier-playing instrument—without having to buy a new instrument!
Fan-Chia Tao is an avid chamber violinist and the director of R&D for D’Addario. & Co.