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How to Choose Violin Strings

How to Choose Violin Strings

By Joanne Garcia

Gut, synthetic, aluminum, silver, gold-plated, high-tension, thick, thin, so many options and so many choices. Some players find a brand they like and stick with it, others are constantly searching for the ideal strings for their instrument. Increasing your knowledge of strings will help you choose a string that is more likely to work with your instrument. Learning a little about core material, gauge, and tension will help you find a string that will help your instrument sound its best.

Budget

A major consideration is your budget.  How much are you willing to spend on strings?  The least expensive strings are steel, followed by synthetic, gut strings tend to carry the highest price tag.  This core material is then wound with metal, such as aluminum or silver, or plated in another metal, such as gold, tin or even platinum.  Some individuals have acidic perspiration and corrode and discolor aluminum strings.  Although the cost may be higher, it may be worth their while to use silver strings and get more life from them.  Manufacturing violin strings is complex and many different types of material are used.  A higher price doesn’t necessarily mean it will work best on your instrument or sound better than a lower cost string.

Material

Gut strings have a low-tension and produce a warm, rich sound, full of beautiful overtones.  In my opinion, the sound produced by gut strings is what all the others strive to achieve.  However, playing on gut strings comes with many disadvantages.  They are not as responsive as synthetic strings, cost more, are very susceptible to changes in temperature, and don’t last as long as others.  They aren’t as loud and powerful as synthetic strings made today and may not work for soloists in large concert halls.  Furthermore, they can be more difficult to play on because they respond differently than other strings.  Some players object to the fact that they are made from animals.  Nevertheless, these strings were used for hundreds of years.  In fact, they were the norm for seasoned players until about forty years ago when Thomastik introduced Dominant.  Dominant violin strings have a synthetic core, ‘Perlon’, which is similar to nylon.  These life changing strings produce a sound similar to gut, cost less, last longer, and easily maintain their pitch.  Dominant strings are reliable, tend to sound very good on most instruments, and are widely used by players at all levels.  More recently, Thomastik introduced Dominant Pro, another fabulous string that we like to think of as Dominant 2.0, an improved version!   Dominant strings can sound slightly raspy, especially when new, but they do seem to work well on any violin.  Dominant Pro strings produce a bit of a cleaner sound.  Steel strings are the least expensive and usually the string of choice for beginners, fiddlers, some rock and jazz musicians.  They are very responsive, last a long time, and have a brilliant tonal quality, albeit somewhat tinny.

What about the E?

Violinists often like to use a different E string than the one included in their set.  This helps to tweak the balance of their sound.  E strings may be plain steel or plated, wound or unwound. Look closely at an E string, if it has a smooth surface, it is unwound.  If it has tiny ridges, it is wrapped in a different material. Plated strings may be gold, tin, or even platinum, over a core material, usually steel.  Frequently, a whistle may be heard when crossing over to the E string.  Players learn to adapt to their bow and instrument to make this happen infrequently.  If it’s problematic, wrapped E strings, such as D’Addario’s Kaplan Non-Whistling, would be a string to try.  Rondo Gold, a recent introduction to Thomastik’s line up, comes with two plated E strings, one tin and one gold.  This extends the life of the set and gives you the chance to try two different E strings.  Lenzner Goldbrokat is an inexpensive string available in various gauges that is another viable option for a different E string.  Keep in mind that changing an E string can make all of your strings sound different.  Whichever E string you chose, you may want to keep in mind that it will wear out faster than the others.  Replacing your E string more frequently, may breathe new life into your sound.  Maybe consider replacing your E string halfway through the time you’re keeping your set of strings.  If you change your strings every six months, replace the E every three.  

String Gauge

Gauge is another element of strings.  The gauge of the string is how thick it is and is unrelated to tension.  A gut string tends to be wider than steel or synthetic and has a lower tension.  There are thin, medium, thick, and sometimes, extra thick gauged strings.  A thin string will not produce as bold and loud sound as a thick.  If you have a very powerful instrument and you are playing chamber music, maybe you would like to try a medium or even a thin or ‘dolce’ string.  You may consider a medium gauge string as a starting point and go up or down the next time you change strings.

We often recommend the thicker gauge strings to our customers who seek a more robust, round sound with a bit more color.  Please note, you may not see the difference in gauge but your luthier will.  A thick string may not sit properly in the groove at the nut or bridge.  In some cases, the string will snag, possibly unravel, or break.  The string needs to be the correct width and it needs to slide across the nut as you tune.  Seek advice if you have questions. 

String Tension

String tension is a little more difficult to explain.  It is the force placed on a string between the peg and the tailpiece.  Tension can be light, medium, or heavy.  Think of it as elasticity, how difficult is it to stretch the string to pitch.  Lower tension strings are easier to press down, you can feel them flex.  A general rule of thumb is that darker, warmer brands of strings have a lower tension.  Alphayue violin strings, a very suitable string for students, have a synthetic core, are available in medium gauge, medium tension, are relatively inexpensive and produce a very good sound.  They are easy to play on.  A lower tension string tends to produce a warmer sound.  For example, Obligato violin strings are loved for their warm, rich tonal quality.  They have a lower tension than Dominant and feel more flexible and comfortable under the fingers but they tend to be slightly slower to respond.  Gut strings have low tension and aren’t as easy to play on, part of the reason they are not recommended for beginners.

When Should I Change my Strings?

This is one of the most common questions we are asked by our customers.  One customer came in and proudly announced that he was in his second year of college and had the same set of strings since fifth grade, when he moved up to a full-size violin.  Student steel strings last a very long time but not from fifth grade to college.  Another customer replaces his strings every three weeks.  While there is no exact science, think about how much you play and what style music you’re working on.  If you’re practicing chords or a piece that is hard on the bow and strings, something with excessive force, your strings will wear out faster.  Our general rule of thumb is if you’re playing about ten hours a week, you should change your strings every nine months, about every 300 hours.  If you are a casual player and average a half hour each day, you could change your strings about once a year.  Change your strings when it’s convenient.  Proper planning will give you time to break in a new set after or well before a performance.  

Old strings may not hold their pitch, the octave harmonic may not be true. They won’t ring nicely.  Place your third finger on your A string and look to see if your D is vibrating.  That sympathetic vibration helps the tone sound rich and often goes away or diminishes as the strings age.  Your left hand might notice the tension is different, or feels weird.  You may notice when shifting into third or fifth position that the string feels dead or saggy.  Look at the color of your strings.  Old strings will show signs of wear, may be discolored and or even begin to unravel.

The only downside to a new set of strings is the cost.  From the moment you install your strings, they start to age. They are stretched to pitch, played on, pressed on, for hours at a time.  The core starts to break down and at some point, the sound just dies.  It’s not abrupt, but subtle.  In fact, you may not notice it until you put new strings on and ask yourself why you’ve waited so long.  When you play on old, aging strings, you may press harder, trying to get the sound you want, which can lead to strain or injury.  When you put your instrument away, wipe them down and check to see if the winding is unraveling or damaged.  It is not pleasant to have a string break while playing.  Strings coated in sweat, oil, rosin, will not perform their best. 

Choosing a String or Set of Strings

Now that you have some knowledge under your belt, listen carefully and think about what sound you want.  If you love your instrument, you’ll want to get the best sound you can out of it.  You should discuss this with your luthier, who will ensure that your instrument is properly adjusted.  Sometimes, a quick tap to the soundpost will open up your sound.  Listen for balance.  If you have a very bright sounding instrument, seek a darker sounding string, and vice versa.  Do you want your tone to be more warm or more brilliant?  Is it as focused or broad as you would like?  

Beginners should play on student strings.  If you are a beginner, ask your luthier to recommend a good string.  Good quality steel strings that hold their pitch work best for beginners.  This will help them develop their aural skills and also help them learn where to place their fingers on the fingerboard.  Steel strings, such as Alphayue, are a good student string.  

If you are an advancing student, on a budget and want a good sounding string, Dominant, Dominant Pro, Tonica, Helicore, or Zyex are some brands of strings that you might want to try. A Pirastro Gold Label E string will add only a few dollars to your purchase and you can keep the one from the set as a spare.  Professional players play on some of these brands due to their ability to hold pitch, excellent tonal quality and versatility. Another affordable choice is Vision, Vision Solo or Vision Titanium Orchestra. Vision Titanium Orchestra tend to be the warmer sounding of the Vision family of violin strings.  Vision Solo strings are more brilliant and robust while Vision has a more subtle sound.

Violin string sets priced at or over $100 have different tonal qualities, life span, are sometimes available in different gauges.  The bottom line is that the only way to see if you like a set of strings is if you try them.  Do keep in mind that mixing and matching may not be in your best interest.  If you break your A string in a concert and your stand partner hands you an unfamiliar brand, it will affect the sound of your whole instrument.  String sets are designed to work together.  As you advance, you will be able to pull different colors from your instrument and strings.  Evah Pirazzi is another very popular brand.  They are professional quality strings with a bright sound, very suitable for soloists.  Evah Pirazzi Gold are slightly warmer and are also widely used by advanced students and professionals. Peter Infeld and Evah Pirazzi have a focused sound, a zing that will project like a bullet.  Rondo produces a tone that tends to fan out.    

Conclusion

Most of us don’t have the thousands of dollars required to test thirty brands of strings.  When selecting strings, consider your budget, your ability, and the sound you’re seeking.  Think about core material, whistling E, your ability level and the sound you want.  Think about what you’re using now and what you would like to change.  You may even want to take notes about what you like and dislike about your present set.  Keep your notes in your case and use them next time it’s time to purchase. 

Call us or stop in for a consultation.  While no one can tell how a set of strings may sound on your violin, we can make recommendations based on our discussion with you. 

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