Guide to choosing and using strings for violins, violas and cellos

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With the large selection of strings available nowadays, it is becoming increasingly difficult for a string player to choose the right strings for his/her needs. And with rising costs and economic woes experimentation is also not a realistic approach. I came across this guide that might be useful to narrow down your list of potential string choices. This article is by Richard Ward of Ifshin Violins in Berkeley California.  It first appeared in Strings Magazine several years ago and has been updated and posted on the Ifshin Violins site at http://www.ifshinviolins.com/features_guide.html

Introduction

Many musicians and students are amazed and sometimes bewildered by the large number of strings available for the violin, viola, cello and bass. We are offering this information to answer some of the basic questions about choosing strings. We hope that this offering is of help. Each different type of string has its own special characteristics, which can change the sound of your instrument. These characteristics can make subtle (and sometimes not so subtle) changes in the quality, playability, volume and responsiveness of the instrument. In some cases, changing one or more strings can improve a weakness in a specific part of the range of the instrument. Some instruments respond best to a certain kind of string and less well with other types.

Each instrument has its own personal characteristics. A string that works well with one instrument may not produce the best sound with another brand. There is also a vast number of playing styles that dictate string choice. A classical violinist might choose strings that would be unsuitable for a bluegrass fiddler. A jazz bass player who plays mostly pizzicato would like a string that symphony bassists would find difficult to use.

For centuries, all musical strings were made of sheep gut (not cat gut, as many believe). By the 16th. Century the lower, thicker strings were wrapped with silver wire to reduce mass. Today, almost all gut strings are wrapped with aluminum or silver. In the early 20th. Century, all metal strings were introduced to improve stability in pitch and durability. Steel E strings for the violin became popular, primarily because gut E strings broke so quickly. About 20 years ago, strings with nylon cores were introduced. They share many of the tonal qualities of gut strings but are much more stable in pitch as compared to gut strings, which need constant tuning. Today, perlon core strings are the most popular strings among students and classical players.

Gut Core Strings

 

Many classical musicians still prefer gut strings for their warm sound, full of complexity with rich overtones. When you play on a gut string, you can hear much more than just a simple uncomplicated tone. The response is a bit slower than synthetic core strings, and has a lower tension, giving them a pliable feel under the fingers. Musicians who perform early music on instruments set up in the Baroque style wouldn't think of using anything else but gut strings.

There are however, some problems with gut strings, the most troubling of these is the gut string's instability in pitch. Gut strings go out of tune frequently. For the first week or so after installation, they must be tuned constantly while they stretch. They also are very sensitive to changes in temperature and humidity. In addition, they are more expensive than most other strings. We would hesitate to recommend a gut string to a beginning or even intermediate student because of these characteristics. 

Steel Core Strings

Steel core strings came into existence partially because of the drawbacks of gut strings and as a concession to beginning students. Steel core strings are very stable in pitch, even when first installed. They also have a sound that is very different from gut strings. They all tend to have a sound that is simple, clear, direct, pure, and usually a bit hard with few overtones and no real complexity. Often they are bright and a bit thin sounding. This quality is not as pronounced in the cello where all metal strings are more standard. Non-classical players, especially country and folk fiddlers, as well as many jazz musicians often prefer steel strings. They also work well with small size, inexpensive student instruments. In addition, most bass players use steel core strings.

There have been some interesting changes in the construction of steel strings and these changes have been of particular interest to cellists. Steel cores (usually thin fibers of roped or spiraled steel) are now wrapped with a variety of metals such as aluminum, chrome steel, tungsten, silver and most recently, titanium. These changes in technology have allowed manufacturers to produce strings with more sophisticated sounds. When we discuss different brands, we will go into more detail about these different materials and their unique sound.

Synthetic Core Strings

Over the last 25 years more and more musicians have switched from gut to synthetic core strings. The more common synthetic used is Perlon, a kind of nylon. These strings share many of the tonal characteristics of gut strings but are much more stable in pitch and generally have a faster response. They need to be tuned far less often, and "play in" only after a day or two rather than the usual week that it takes for gut strings to stabilize. Since the core is synthetic, this type of string can be more consistent in quality than gut, but they do lack some of the complexity of sound that gut strings have. Because of this, some musicians prefer to continue using gut strings. Today there is a large variety of synthetic core strings on the market, each with their own special characteristics. 

String Gauge

Almost all strings are available in different thickness or gauges, for example Thomastik Dominants, which are available in stark (thick), mittel (medium), and weich (thin). Pirastro Eudoxa, Olive and Kaplan Golden Spiral gut strings come in a variety of gauges indicated by gauge numbers. The majority of string players use the medium gauges. In general a thicker than normal string will require more tension in order to bring it up to pitch. This increase in tension will produce more volume and sometimes a fuller sound but with a slower response. A thinner string requires less tension and will give a faster response, but with less volume and a thinner, slightly more focused sound.

What gauge string you choose will depend on the qualities of the particular instrument you are playing. A violin may need a thicker string to give it more "punch" or power, or more fullness of sound. Yet on other instruments, those thick strings will choke the sound and make it unresponsive and dull. On the other hand, a thinner string might help an instrument with a dull, unfocused, fuzzy sound but might sound shrill and thin on others. We must stress that every instrument responds differently to different strings. The only way to determine the optimum string for you is to try a variety of strings on your own instrument.


Qualities Of The Most Popular Strings 

1. Gut Strings

Pirastro - Olive These premium strings have a brilliant sound with rich complex overtones and a relatively fast response. The Olive E is gold-plated and has an unusually pure, clear and brilliant sound.

Pirastro- Eudoxa One of the most popular of strings before the introduction of synthetic core strings, the Eudoxa has a warm, mellow sound with a slower response than the Olive or synthetic core strings. Great on some older instruments, they can be a bit dull on others.

Pirastro - Gold Label An economy gut string with a sound mid way between the other Pirastro gut strings. Available only in medium gauge. The violin E string is popular for its brilliance.

Kaplan - Golden Spiral and Golden Spiral Solo We find these strings to be similar in sound to the Gold Label, with the solo version being brighter in sound. Economically priced.


 2. Synthetic Core Strings

Pirastro - Evah Pirazzi A recent addition to the ever-growing assortment of high-tech strings, the Evah Pirazzi joins the Obligato in Pirastro's lineup of composite core strings. These excellent strings have a brilliant sound as compared to the darker Obligato. When they were announced I thought that they might sound similar to the venerable Olive strings but they really have their own sound. They are brilliant with a nice silvery sound and plenty of depth. I have been using these strings for a while and am very enthusiastic. I do find that they take longer to settle in than other synthetic strings, usually four to five days, so give them a chance.

Pirastro - Obligato These strings are among the latest of the new generation synthetic core strings, using a composite material rather than nylon (perlon). They have a good sound somewhat similar to Eudoxa gut core strings but with a quicker response and slightly less complexity. When I tried them on my own violins I found the sound rather dull at first, but they seemed to "perk-up" rather quickly. The set is supplied with a silver-wound D that I found too bright for the rest of the strings. You may want to try the aluminum wound D instead. I also found the gold-plated E a bit too bright for the rest of the set. Of all the synthetic core strings, the Obligato is closest in sound to gut core strings. Within the last year Pirastro introduced Obligato for viola, cello and bass. The cello strings seem to be an excellent choice for an instrument that is a bit too shrill. In a surprise move the bass Obligato strings have a list price about $20.00 lower than the cello strings, making their price slightly higher than D'Addario Helicore and Thomastik Spirocore.

Pirastro - Violino This new string was introduced as a "student" string which is curious because they are priced higher than the Pirastro Tonica strings. After some experimentation I understood why Pirastro is marketing them the way they are. The Violino has a warm, full tone that seems to work well with new student instruments, especially those of European origin, with bright, somewhat hard tone. These strings seem to take away some of the "edge".

Pirastro - Tonica Over the past few years these strings have become very popular with many musicians. Their sound is slightly warmer and somewhat fuller than the Dominant strings and they seem to have more complex overtones. Their break-in time is very short and they seem to have a longer playing life. We set up many of our violins with these fine strings. Also available for viola.

Pirastro - Aricore This was Pirastro 's first synthetic core string. The tone is quite warm and dark with very little edge to the sound. While they can sound very dull on some instruments, they may be a good choice for an instrument that has a shrill and hard tone. I find them to have the darkest sound of any synthetic string on the market. The D, G and C are popular with a number of cellists who want a warmer, darker sound.

Pirastro - Synoxa Very similar to the Dominant strings in brilliance, but with more clarity and focus. The cello G and C silver work well with a steel A and D like Jarger and Larsen.

Pirastro - Wondertone Solo These new composite core strings have a clarity and focus a bit different from most other Pirastro strings, perhaps closer in sound to the Thomastik Infeld Blue strings. They tend towards brilliance similar to the Evah Pirazzi.

Thomastik - Infeld Red and Blue Thomastik's first new violin strings in over 20 years, these two strings were introduced together. The Infeld Red has a darker, warmer tone and the Infeld Blue is more brilliant in sound. They are designed so that you can mix and match them on your violin to get the balance you need. The tension is the same for either set. I found the Blue set to have a brilliant sound like the Dominant but with more character. I also found that they break in quicker and don't have a metallic edginess when new. The Infeld Reds are warmer and darker in tone but not dramatically so. The difference is subtler than the difference between Pirastro's Obligato and Evah Pirazzi.

Thomastik - Dominant The original synthetic core string, made with Perlon. Dominant strings are bright and responsive and are by far the most popular. When new, Dominant strings have a metallic edge, which fades after a few days of playing.

Thomastik - Vision These high-tech composite core strings have a brilliance and focus similar to the Dominant strings but with a bit more character and a shorter break in time than conventional perlon strings. The stark (thick) versions of these strings have more warmth with only a very slight loss in responsiveness. We have found them useful on smaller size violas, giving a bit more power and edge.

Thomastik - Vision Titanium Solo These strings were enthusiastically received when they were first introduced as Vision Titanium. They have a great deal of power and "sizzle" giving a new life to many violins, especially those that are a bit weak and dull. They can, however, overpower some instruments. At this time the Vision Titanium strings are only available for violin. The E string is titanium plated and has the distinction of being the most expensive on the market.

Thomastik - Vision Titanium Orchestra The latest string in the Vision series shares many characteristics of Titanium Solo, but with a bit warmer sound.

Corelli - Crystal Like the Aricore strings, these strings have a relatively dark, warm sound. Unlike the Aricore strings they do have more edge or punch, which makes them sound a bit brighter and more focused.

Corelli - Alliance These premium priced strings have a kevlar core. Their sound has more brilliance than the Corelli Crystal along with a with richness and complexity. Alliance strings also seem to have a longer life than most other synthetic strings.

 

Larsen - Tzigane These strings are quite unusual and take some getting used to. They are advertised as being lower in tension than other synthetic core strings and can sound dull and "flabby" on some instruments. I did try them on a violin with a very hard, shrill tone and the sound was improved a great deal. These strings are currently available for violin only.

Larsen (violin and viola) The Larsen cello strings have been around for some time but until recently they never made violin strings. The sound is big, brilliant, and slightly darker than Dominants, with an interesting metallic edge that gives the sound power and punch. The tone also has depth and complexity. The price is high, but a number of musicians feel they are worth the money. Some players have been disappointed by a relatively short life span of these strings. The newest addition from Larsen is the rest of the viola set, a D, G & C with a synthtic core.

D'Addario - Zyex When they were introduced, these strings were promoted as sounding closest to gut-core strings of any man-made strings. I don't fully agree. To me they have a brilliant, very focused sound, but without a great deal of complexity. They are very stable in pitch. One Bay Area professional violinist told us that he didn't even need to tune his violin for several weeks while using the Zyex strings.

3. Steel Core Strings

Thomastik - Spirocore A bright sounding string with some edge. They are especially popular with cellists who need a great deal of brilliance. The cello G and C tungsten are high-tension strings with a big sound. The silver G and C have less of an edge to their sound. Spirocore bass strings are the most popular with musicians who play mostly pizzicato.

Thomastik - Ropecore Dark, warm tone. They can sound a bit dull on some instruments.

Pirastro - Chromcor A bright string, excellent for inexpensive student instruments, especially of small size.

Pirastro - Chromcor Plus Available for cello in A and D and viola A. These strings have a more sophisticated sound than the regular Chromcor.

Pirastro - Permanent A high quality string for viola and cello with a clear, powerful sound. The A is especially good to match with gut strings.

Pirastro - Flexocor A high quality string for viola, cello and bass with a warm sound. This A is also good to match with gut strings. The Flexocor bass strings are popular with classical players.

Pirastro - Flexocor/Permanent These new steel core strings for violin are somewhat similar to the Helicore strings, but with a darker, warmer sound.

Pirastro - Piranito Our recommendation for those looking for an inexpensive string for student instruments.

D'Addario - Helicore This string has become very popular. It has a warm sound, unusual for a steel core string. Cellists and violists especially like the G and C strings. Violinists who play electric instruments have taken to these strings, and there is a new 5-string set available packaged with a low C. The Helicore bass strings are getting good reviews. They are available in Orchestra, Pizzicato and Hybrid. The Hybrid is for players who want both a good bowing response and a good pizzicato response. The Pizzicato is for the player who plays primarily or solely without a bow. The Orchestra version is for players who primarily bow.

Jargar These strings have been popular for many decades, especially with cellists who have made the Jargar A the string of choice. The G and C strings are also available with silver winding for a brighter, more brilliant sound. Jargars have a warm sound when compared to most other all-metal strings.

Larsen (viola and cello) These premium priced strings were introduced only a few years ago and have become popular with cellists for their pure, clear sound. The Larsen "Solo Edition" strings have a brighter, more brilliant sound. Available as A, D, G and C (tungsten) for cello and A for viola. (Note the new synthetic core D, G & C viola strings mentioned in earlier.)

Prim These inexpensive, bright strings have an edge to their sound that is popular with fiddlers and some cellists.

Supersensitive - Red Label Low price and durability make these strings popular with many school systems.

We hope that the above descriptions will assist you in making a choice of strings for your instrument. However, we must stress that the only way to choose the correct string is to try a variety of brands and gauges. Each and every instrument responds differently to different types of strings.

 

 

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e-mail: albertus@bekkerviolins.com