At some point in your stringed instrument playing career, you might start thinking about the strings on your violin. More specifically, the sound your instrument produces, using your current ‘rig’.
As you advance, tackling more complex pieces of music, greater demands will be made not only on the bow itself, but on the responsiveness of each string or combination of strings. Allegro or adagio styles will evoke different emotions and moods. Bach’s Violin Concerto in A Minor requires the execution of short, fast combinations of emphasis and smooth transitions between strings, compared to Bach’s more evocative Violin Concerto No.2- Adagio from the Brandenburg Concerto; a slow moving, thought provoking piece of music requiring a greater depth of sound.
While the type of violin string remains a personal preference, the actual composition of strings makes a huge difference in the sound a violin produces; even the duration with which they remain in tune. Strings made from gut, for example, require a considerable amount to time to ‘stretch out’, making these strings a challenging option for brand new violinists. Becoming well acquainted with your local authority in string instrument repair, or Luthier is a good idea for the serious violinist. A good luthier is capable of guiding your choice based upon current ability, violin style and overall budget.
String gauge; the thickness of each string needed to produce the desired sound, and the type of wood used on your violin, are other factors contributing to string quality. To help get you started, we have put together a basic guide breaking down the three main string types and their best uses for your playing needs.
Dating from around late 19th century, early 20th century, steel strings offer a reasonably priced, practical option for the beginning player. Unfortunately, these are the strings most notable for the infamous ‘scratchy’ and often ear splitting tones produced by young string players. Favored by beginning violinists, these strings are more economical than their gut or synthetic counterparts and require less maintenance. Less maintenance, enables the instrument to remain in tune for a longer period, making them easier to handle for those learning the technical requirements of the violin. Generally, these strings are not the preferred option for experienced classical violin players and for the advancing players intent on moving through the ranks. They are however, a great option for the budget conscious beginner not concerned with producing the complex range of deeper tones and sounds of synthetic or gut strings.
Answering the demand for that sweet spot between a basic and more advanced string with greater complexity, wrapped steel strings have emerged onto the market place. These tin, gold and even platinum wrapped strings allow the musician to experience a more advanced tone when compared with straight steel. However. some of the plating on the strings tend to wear off over time. Some of these strings have been criticized for producing a whistling sound when transitioning between notes.
Around for about forty years, these strings are popular with both beginner players looking for a long term partnership with their violin, and professional players wanting a better ‘out of the box’ playing experience than high maintenance gut which can respond negatively to climate changes.
Initially produced by the Austrian, Thomastik Infield, the soft to the touch, synthetic Dominants are known for a reliable pitch that produces a pleasant, warm tone. Since the original strings produced by Thomastik,, other manufacturers have developed strings using assorted high-tech nylons and composite materials.
Until the widespread development of steel and subsequent nylon, string instruments were made from sheep gut. Gut strings are still used today by some musicians, notably Baroque musicians. Known for producing rich, warm and complex tones and overtones, the challenge with these strings is the required maintenance; requiring greater stretching. As mentioned earlier, these strings can also be reactive to changing weather conditions, presenting possible issues for touring musicians.
When all is said and done; while clearly there are a greater variety of strings on the market than previously available, you are the best judge. Think about how you want your violin to sound, and discuss this with both your violin teacher and your luthier- violin expert.
If playing Blue Grass on a ‘fiddle’ is the music you prefer, then possibly steel string may be the way to go; the style of music being ‘thinner’ with clearer tones.
However, if you are a lover of classical music, chances are, you demand the intonation and mood changes of classical music. For this reason, at some point you’re likely to desire the smoother, more tonally responsive nylon. or even the high maintenance gut strings.
Remember to ask..ask..ask! There are so many types of strings available on the market, it can be confusing. Your string instrument expert will be able to best advise you. He or she will assess your instrument and help select the most suitable strings for your particular instrument and playing goals.
Look for future posts on string gauge and the varieties of string manufacturers.