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Strings: A Primer

With so many different types of strings available, it's a good idea to inform yourself before making a choice on your next set. Individual preference is an important factor, but the characteristics of each individual type of string will also play a crucial role in your decisions. Your goal should be to find strings that suit your tastes as well as the tonal qualities of your instrument.

Where Should I Start?

Strings typically are made from one of four go-to materials: solid steel, rope or cable-core steel, synthetic and gut. With these different materials come different traits, and each has its pros and cons.

A broad assortment of secondary materials may be used for the outer wrapping of the strings. Some examples are nylon, aluminum, chrome, steel (plain, stainless or tinned), tungsten, silver, nickel-silver, silver plate and gold. Not only do these influence the sound, they also provide a different tactile feel to the strings. Corrosion and wear from the player's fingers will also cause differing effects in different materials.

Some factors to take into account when choosing strings are the design, age and unique characteristics of your instrument, and the specific tone and response that you are looking for. In many cases, musicians like to use a mixture of different string types and gauges in order to achieve a certain desired effect. Take note that gauge alone is not an effective indicator of weight or tension—the material also has to be taken into account. For example, gut strings are always thicker than similar steel strings, and silver-wound strings will be thinner than aluminum.

Read on for an overview of some of the most commonly-used types of strings.

Steel Core

These strings are frequently pre-fitted to new instruments due to their economy, brilliant volume and quick break-in time. The outer wrapping that surrounds the steel core may be stainless steel, chrome, steel, nickel-silver or aluminum, depending on the strings.

Some advantages of steel core strings:

  1. Increased lifespan when compared to gut or synthetic core.
  2. Impervious to temperature and humidity changes that can affect pitch retention and longevity in some strings.
  3. Easy to obtain a bright, loud response.

Rope or Spiral Core

Designed to blend some of the musical advantages of gut with the volume and ruggedness of steel core strings, rope and spiral (A.K.A. cable) core strings have a center of fine wire strands twisted into a bundle. Atop that wire, a flat-wrapped layer of chrome steel, nickel-silver, silver or tungsten forms a resilient outer sheath.

Some advantages of rope or spiral core strings:

  1. Considerably more durable than gut core.
  2. Not affected by humidity and temperature differences.
  3. Improved flexibility over steel core strings in response and range.

Synthetic Core

Most strings of this type use nylon composites for the core. These might go by names like perlon, synlon, PET synthetic or simply nylon core. They are characterized by an overall brighter response with good focus. Synthetic core strings are also capable of subtlety and warmth akin to gut strings without the sensitive nature of gut. Since natural gut can shrink and swell in different temperatures and humidity levels, those strings may see their windings loosen and their pitch deteriorate over time. By contrast, a synthetic core string is practically immune to environmental influences, which allows it to last quite a bit longer. Outer wrap materials for synthetic core strings are usually flat-wrapped aluminum, silver plate, nickel-silver or silver.

Some advantages of synthetic core strings:

  1. Excellent durability compared to gut strings.
  2. Not impacted by temperature or humidity.
  3. Better than steel or rope core strings at delivering gut-like response and performance.

Gut

Directly descended from the initial strings first used on musical instruments, gut core strings are the oldest variety. These were the kind of strings furnished on original Amati, Stradivari and Guarneri instruments.

Sheep gut is one of the earliest-mentioned string materials in musical history. As far back as 1500 B.C., the Egyptians were familiar with the process of making gut strings, as evidenced by ancient instruments that have been discovered from that era. Luthiers would sometimes use other materials like tendons and horsehair, but gut was the string of choice for centuries.

Most often, these were in the form of twisted gut strings, which were widely used right up to the mid-17th century (Stradivari's time), at which point metal-wound strings were beginning to come onto the scene. The copper-wound strings of that century eventually evolved, replacing the copper with more modern metals to become the metal-wound gut strings still used today.

Violinists are particularly known for preferring gut core strings on all except the E-string (which is typically fitted with a plain or wound solid steel core string), and although many musicians are making the move to perlon, others still swear by natural gut. This is doubly true for period performers, since gut core strings give the most authentic sound for Baroque and Classical pieces.

Some advantages of gut core strings:

  1. Superior feel and flexibility.
  2. Tone has warmth and brilliance but is not harsh.
  3. Highly sensitive and subtle response.

A Few Additional Notes:

  • Within a given tuning, tension increases proportionally with thickness. Higher tension tends to make a string louder, but take care—it can have a negative impact on the tone.
  • Silver-wound strings have smaller diameters than other materials. For example, it is entirely possible for a violin G-string wound in silver to be thinner than an aluminum-wound D-string for the same instrument.
  • Instruments in 3/4 scale can safely be outfitted with 4/4 size strings, although 3/4-specific strings will be a bit thinner. The same applies as you go down the scale—i.e. 3/4 strings will work on a 1/2 instrument, 1/4 will work with a 1/8 instrument, etc.
  • You may use a large 4/4 viola tailpiece and its built-in tuners for a 1/10 scale cello, as long as the strings have the necessary small ball-ends.
  • For a thinner gauge, it is acceptable to substitute solo bass strings in place of orchestra bass strings.
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