Violinists spend a lot of time thinking about their strings, wondering how often to replace them and how to get the best sound from their strings. In this article we are going to take a look at the material violin strings are made from, how they are made, and which type of strings you should choose.
History of Violin Strings
The history of the violin string started around 300 years ago, when the strings for the majority of bowed instruments such as the harp, cello, and violin, were all made from animal intestines. Although you may have heard of the term “catgut” strings, violin strings were never made from the intestines of the cat; they were actually made from sheep’s intestines. Gut strings are stretched, dried, and twisted expertly in order to create a tone that is resonant, expressive, and rich.
The quality of gut strings improved over the decades, the goal of the manufacturer being to manufacture strings that are resonant but also flexible enough so that they can vibrate. Without the correct amount of mass, the sound produced by strings is hollow and weak; when the strings are not flexible enough, the harmonics won’t be in tune. Gut strings are still used to this day, mostly by professional and advanced players. Gut strings aren’t the best option for the majority of violinists as they are temperamental and fragile and can break more easily than their synthetic core and steel counterparts.
When answering the question “what are violin strings made of” it is important to note that modern strings can be made from a range of different materials. There are indeed three different cores for modern violin strings, these being gut, synthetic polymer, and steel. Depending on the manufacturer of the strings, there can be some variants with the cores of your violin strings. For example, steel core strings may be made up of several strands of steel twisted or braided together, or they may be made up of a solid steel core.
Once the core of the violin string is created, it is then wound with various types of metals. Once again, there are various ways the strings are wound, and the number of layers of wounds depends on the desired sound effect of the strings. Strings that are designed to have a high pitch are wound less than lower-pitched strings. The type of metal used in the winding and the number of layers also affect the brightness and warmth of the sound produced. Bass strings can have up to five or sometimes more layers of metal spun around their core.
Automation of Violin String Production
As well as answering the question “what are violin strings made of” it is important to address the question of how they are made. In the past, they were made by hand, but like almost everything, there are now machines that are used for the production of violin strings. The automation process allows one single machine to make up to 7000 strings each day. Of course, human intervention is necessary for maintaining these machines and for reloading and re-threading.
It takes just a couple of weeks for someone to be trained to use a machine for the making of violin strings; however, to become a master string maker takes years. In a manufacturing plant for violin strings, you will find hundreds of different spools of metal in various sizes. Of these, some will be flattened before being made into strings; others will remain wound. Strings are flattened by a flattening machine, a finishing product is used to ensure that the finished strings don’t become brittle after being flattened.
Beads, Knots, Plain, or Colored Silk
The finishing process for violin strings involves the wires that are left at the ends being splayed out. At this point, the string may be wound at one end or at both ends. This process is known as silking. Colors are used here to identify the type of string it is as well as its manufacturer and brand. Alternatively, some strings are looped or knotted at the end. This process is used for the smaller E string and for gut-core strings. Other ways of securing the end of the string are with beads or knots. At this point, a compound is sometimes applied to the string to dampen it and make it ready for play.
Choosing the Best Violin Strings
Some violinists will find one type of string they like and stick with them, whereas others are constantly seeking improvements and are on the lookout for new and better strings that play more easily and sound better. There is a multitude of choices to be made when choosing the strings for your instrument. Trying every string on the market to find the one you like most is obviously not a realistic approach. You can however make an educated guess of how a string will sound as long as you understand a little about string tension, tone, and the different materials for the core of your strings.
Core Material, Gauge, and Tension
Gut Core Strings
Gut core strings are the original strings used for violins, made from sheep intestines. They are lower tension than synthetic or steel strings and have a tone that is both rich and complex. As they are less tense, they are more pliable and have a slower response. For this reason, they are best used by professionals that have a lot of finesse and experience. Gut strings also need re-tuning when there is a change in temperature, and go out of tune far more easily than synthetic or steel strings.
Steel Core Strings
Steel core strings were first used at the start of the 20th century, the E string being the first string manufactured with a steel core. This was followed by more steel-core strings with various windings that became popular very quickly amongst violinists. Steel strings have a clear and focused tone and have a quick response. On the other hand, they don’t provide a great deal of depth, something that the more experienced musician often looks for. Fiddlers are known to prefer steel core strings, these strings being the most economical type you can find on the market.
The E string is available in plain, plated, or wrapped steel, the original E string being made from plain steel. In recent years, however, steel strings have been introduced that are plated in materials such as platinum, gold, and tin. Gold-plated strings produce a sound that is clear, pure, and simply brilliant; the downside to gold-plated strings however is that the plating wears off quite quickly.
Synthetic Core Strings
Synthetic violin strings were introduced in Austria around 40 years ago. These strings, made by Thomastik-Infeld were made with a nylon core (Perlon). This type of string was an immediate success and would change the world of violin playing forever. Synthetic strings are a lot more stable than gut strings and have fewer complex overtones. In the past decade, more materials have been used for the manufacture of synthetic core strings, their popularity forever increasing.
Choosing Violin Strings: String Gauge
The string gauge is often used interchangeably with string tension. However, the width or gauge of a string is actually completely different. A good example of this is the unwound gut string. A gut string needs to be thicker than other string types and with lower tension, even though it is tuned at the same pitch. It may be necessary to make adjustments to the bridge of your guitar in order to accommodate wider strings.
When shopping for strings, you will find 3 different gauges to choose from. You will find medium gauge strings and thinner stringers that are referred to as “dolce” that are lower tension. These dolce strings are more responsive and produce a brighter tone; they are however lower in volume; thicker strings, known as “forte” or “stark are the exact opposite, giving a slow response and a darker tone.
String tension is often confused with string gauge. Although the two are related, they are not the same. Almost all strings, even the cheapest ones, are available in light, medium, and heavy tension. Light tension strings are more pliable and are easier to press down. If you choose synthetic strings, they will have a higher tension than gut-core strings. Steel-core strings tune-up to higher tensions better than gut-core or synthetic strings. As a beginner, it’s a good idea to start off with medium tension and gauge strings. The type of strings you choose will also depend on personal preference. If you find that your hands sweat a lot when playing, aluminum-wound strings won’t be suitable as they will corrode easily.
Matching Strings to your Needs
To fine-tune your individual instrument, you may like to experiment with different strings. You may like to ask yourself questions such as what sound you want to hear, the strings you are currently using, and the characteristic sound of your instrument. Once you can answer these questions, you can start matching the strings to your needs.
If you are looking for a darker sound for your violin, you might like to choose synthetic strings such as the Red or Vision Solo strings available from the Thomastik Infeld range. If you are on a budget, D’Addario Pro-Arté strings could be perfect for you. Although these lack the complexity of tone of more expensive strings, they are perfect for students and beginners. If on the other hand, you want a string that will produce a less bright sound, you may like to tone down your instrument with low-tension gut-core strings. For instruments that are unfocused or unclear, you may like to choose a light-gauge strung that will help focus your violin.
What are Violin Strings Made Of FAQs
Q: Can I Mix and Match Strings?
The ideal instrument should have four balanced strings. No one string should jump out in comparison to the others, although many people mix and match strings in a bid to get the best sound from their instrument. It is common to find a violinist who will use the same kind of string for the 3 lower strings and a different top string. If your instrument is unbiased, before trying to mix and match strings, ask a qualified luthier for an adjustment.
Q: How much do the Strings of My Instrument Affect the Sound?
There are dozens of factors that contribute to the sound made by your instrument. Strings are one of the most important of these and can have a large effect on the sound produced. However, changing your strings will not fundamentally change the sound characteristics that are related to the way your instrument is constructed. A high-quality set of sounds will improve the sound quality of a cheap violin, but only marginally. When poor-quality strings are used on a high-end instrument, they will have a detrimental effect on the sound quality. As a guide, use the best quality strings that you can afford.
Q: What Makes One String Sound Different From the Next?
The different sounds of strings can be due to many different factors. The material used for the string is probably the most important of these. Gut strings are lower-tension and will make a completely different sound than metal-bound synthetic strings. The material used affects not just the sound made, but the quality of the sound. The most expensive strings produce the best sound quality, but as we mentioned before, for the very best sound, you will need a high-quality instrument as well as expensive strings if you want to produce the very best sound.
Gut strings produce the warmest sound, but also have the most complex overtones. For this reason, there are not ideally suited to beginners. Steel core and synthetic strings produce a more focused and bright sound and are great for beginners due to their quick response. The sound produced by your strings is also affected by the type of metal they are wound in, and even the production process used can have an effect on the sound produced.
Q: How often do I Need to Change My Strings?
There is no one answer to this question, as the amount of time you play your instrument each day or week will affect how often you need to change your strings. Wear and tear on strings is common due to their tension, and also due to sweat and friction from your hands. A professional may change his string once a month or more frequently, whereas a student who practices for 1 hour each day will only really need to change his strings every 6 months. If your strings are starting to look worn, it is a good indication that it is time to change them. If the sound of your instrument changes and begins to sound tinny, this could be another indication that it’s time to invest in some new strings.
Q: What Should I Do With My Old Strings?
If your old strings aren’t snapped or broken, keep them for backups. Accidents can happen, and it’s handy to have a spare of each string. If you are building up a big collection of old strings, you may like to check for any recycling programs nearby. The parts used for the manufacture of your strings can be recycled, so you should never just throw them in the garbage.
Q: What String Set is the Best?
Once again, there is no one clear answer to this question. What works well for one person may not for the next. A beginner has a completely different set of needs than a professional violinist. As a student, you can experiment with different strings until you find a set that you are comfortable with and that fits your budget.
Q: Do Violin Strings Break Easily?
If you have been playing the violin for some time, no doubt you have experienced a snapped string at some point. Constant changes in temperature and over-tightening can both course your strings to snap and can incorrectly re-stringing your instrument.
Violin strings can be found made from sheep intestine, steel, or synthetic materials. However, it is not just the core of your violin strings that can differ from one instrument to the next. Violin strings are wound with different types of metal and can even be gold-plated. The enormous amount of different string types and manufacturing methods just go to show how popular the violin is, and how each individual violinist likes to personalize his instrument to meet his needs.