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There is a bewildering choice of violin, viola and cello strings on the market today and it continues to expand as new technologies and materials are used to improve performance. Here's a basic guide to which strings to use and why.

First principles

Strings behave fairly predictably according to simple physical laws. The pitch (i.e. sound frequency produced) is determined by the string's mass and tension. The same string will produce a higher or lower pitch as the tension is respectively increased or reduced. The greater the string's mass, the lower its pitch at a given tension. In most cases a string's mass is relative to its gauge (i.e. diameter).

The ideal is to have equal tension in each string. And this is why strings come covered with metal windings made of silver, tungsten, chrome, aluminium and so on. The metal increases the mass so it is possible to employ very similar tension in each of the strings in spite of them varying in pitch from the lowest to the highest by almost two octaves. An added benefit of metal coverings is that the string's core (gut or synthetic) is protected from the wear and tear caused by bow and fingers.

 

Materials and properties

There are three basic string materials used in a string's core; steel, gut and synthetic. Steel strings include a number of metal alloys; most synthetic strings are nylon based; and the traditional gut strings are made from sheep gut. (The violin E string is almost always steel for the simple reason that no other material is strong enough at such a narrow gauge.)

 

Gut versus synthetics

Gut and synthetic have the natural property of dampening high frequency noise which gives a softer, more warm sound than that of steel strings, whose different pattern of overtone production results in a more strident sound. Another advantage of gut and synthetic strings is that their higher elasticity makes them easier to tune because a much greater difference in tension is required to produce a given pitch change than with steel strings. Consequently it is easier to tune gut and synthetic strings precisely, even using the pegs, whereas steel strings really need to be tuned using fine tuners or adjusters.

The downside of gut and many synthetic strings is that they are less stable and have a shorter lifespan than steel strings. They behave like a highly viscous fluid, flowing in the direction of the string's tension until they eventually break at the weakest point. Long before they break, however, they are likely to become tonally compromised, something that happens gradually and isn't always noticed. The viscous distortion of the string doesn't happen either uniformly along its length or in an identical manner from one string to the next. After a while such strings no longer remain 'true', that is, any two adjacent strings no longer give perfect fifths when stopped adjacently at random points along the fingerboard, even though the open strings may be correctly tuned.

The best way to test for this distortion, having correctly tuned the open fifths, is to stop adjacent pairs of strings with a pencil or pen, ensuring that the strings are clamped down firmly to the fingerboard and that the pencil is exactly parallel to the bridge. If false intervals are produced then one or both of the strings is worn out and needs to be replaced. Better still, a player should pre-empt this eventuality by changing strings regularly once they have established from experience the expected useful lifespan of a given make.

A hazard peculiar to gut strings is their propensity to react to sudden changes in humidity which causes the strings to go out of tune. Very dry environments are particularly problematic, as the strings can dry out and break. Synthetic strings not greatly affected by humidity. Indeed the most advanced synthetic strings available now are so efficient, having largely solved the issues of distortion and stability that it is hard to see a long-term future for gut strings as a mainstream option except among period instrument players.

 

Steel

Besides being less tonally attractive in most people's opinion, steel strings have other disadvantages. Because steel strings work at a higher tension than other types, the bridge height must be lower to moderate the pressure on it and to reduce the distance that the player must depress the strings onto the fingerboard. This lower 'action' leaves an instrument more prone to fingerboard buzzing because the angle at which the stopped string lifts off from the board is reduced. Hence the fingerboard must not only be very accurately shot but it will need maintaining more frequently too.

Not surprisingly, the majority of violinists and violists use gut and synthetic strings; the increasingly marginal disadvantages of synthetic strings in particular are heavily outweighed by the disadvantages of steel strings.

 

Cello strings

Most cello strings, unlike those for violin and viola, use steel cores. This is because the stronger sound of the steel string is advantageous at the lower cello pitch, the higher and less filtered overtones making for a more precise tone. Without this acoustical bias provided by the metal strings, the lower notes of a cello can sound indistinct, especially with the demands of modern performance in mind. Besides this, a lower tension gut or synthetic string is often considered too "flabby" when compared to their steel counterparts. Violins and to a slightly lesser extent violas, have a much higher pitch level by design and therefore don't usually require the high frequency acoustical boost that a cello requires to project its sound.

The advances in steel string design and production, in particular cello strings (although there is now also a small number of high performance steel viola strings available) have been far reaching in recent years. There is undoubtedly more to come but for the time being the polarisation between synthetic and steel, upper stringed instruments and their cello (and bass) counterparts seems set to continue.

 

Tensions and gauges

Many strings are sold in a variety of tension and gauge options. Most players buy the "medium" variety, sometimes unaware that there is an alternative. If alternative tensions and gauges are offered, there are usually three. (Pirastro Eudoxa and Olive strings are the only ones available in seven gauges - see below.) Different names employed by the different makersmanufacturers but they all correspond to the notion of higher tension - medium tension - lower tension. Examples of variations on this theme are: forte-medium-dolce (Jargar); strong-medium-soft (Larsen); stark-mittel-weich (Dominant); blue-red (Thomastik Infeld); high tension-medium tension-light tension (Golden Spiral); thick-medium-thin (Hill); soloist-chamber (Prim). From the examples of the Golden Spiral and Hill strings the simple correlation between gauge and tension can be seen; the thicker the gauge the higher the tension.

 

Strings properties table

The table below is not exhaustive, it just gives a general overview of what is available as a starting point.

Abbreviations used: vln (violin), vla (viola), vcl ('cello)

String Name Properties Approx
Cost
per set
Silking colours
Larsen; vcl

Tungsten alloy, 3 tensions. 'Solo' variants of A, D & G.

C & G also available with a new wire core claiming to more faithfully reproduce the virtues of gut strings. See the larsen website for more http://www.larsenstrings.com/

£171
 
Larsen; vla

Synthetic core. G & C are silver wound.

£84  
Larsen; vln

Synthetic core, aluminium wound A & D, silver wound G.

£49  
Jargar; vln/vla/vcl

Steel core, silver wound G and C variants ("silver sound")
(vn/vla/vcl).

£40/ 51/ 97  
Thomastik Dominant;
vln/vla/vcl

Synthetic core, aluminium wound, silver wound vln D variant (vn/vla); cello, chrome wound, silver wound G & C variants; all sizes http://www.thomastik-infeld.com/

£38/ 62/ 116  
Thomastik Precision Steel; vln

Steel core, aluminium, chrome & silver coverings; ba, chrome wound; all sizes

£24  
Thomastik Spirocore; vln/vla/vcl

Steel rope core, aluminium & chrome coverings, silver & wolfram variants for vla C & vcl C & G.

£40/53/ 91  

Thomastik Octav

vln

£95  
Thomastik Infeld Red and Blue labels; vln Synthetic core, silver wound G. Red set E available in stainless steel or goldplated; Blue set has tinplated carbon steel E. Red produces a darker sound on most violins, Blue will tend to emphasise an instrument's brilliance. Available in 4/4 and 3/4. Red £45 Blue £39  
Thomastik Vision & Vision Titanium vln Thomastik's latest offering. The Vision string is intended as an all rounder and are mix 'n matchable with most medium tension synthetic core strings and have a quick play-in time. The Vision Titanium is promoted as a soloist's string. Distinctive in that they use a titanium alloy ball end which reduces the muting effect of a heavier ball at the tail-piece. Wolfnotes may also be ameliorated. Mix n' matchable with most synthetic core and strong/rigid gut core strings. Tin plated E (Vision); titanium coated E (Vision Titanium); aluminium A covering, silver D & G.

£27

£47

Thomastik Superflexible; vln/vla/vcl Steel rope core, chrome, aluminium, silver & tungsten wound; vln/vcl & ba in all sizes £30/ 40/ 74
Pirastro Oliv; vln/vla/vcl Gut core, with coverings of aluminium, silver and gold in various combinations; ba strings chrome covered. Available in between 2 & 5 gauges including rigid variant. £89/ 112/ 170
Pirastro Eudoxa; vln/vla/vcl Gut core, aluminium and silver coverings, chrome on ba strings; available in between 2 & 5 gauges including rigid variant. £56/ 93/ 165
Pirastro Evah Pirazzi vln/vla/vcl Pirastro's latest aimed at the gut string user/soloist looking for the considerable advantages of the synthetic "multi-filament" core whilst retaining a "gut sonority". Quick play-in time. The cello strings feature a steel rope core.

£70/85/180

 

Pirastro Gold; vln/vla/vcl Gut core, aluminium coverings, silver covered G & C strings. £49/83/145
Pirastro Obligato; vln/vla/vcl Synthetic core; coverings: vn: gold/steel E, aluminium A, silver D & G; vla: steel/aluminium A, silver D & G, wolfram C; vcl: steel/chrome A & D, tungsten G & C. £67/ 83/ 153
Pirastro Tonica; vln/vla Synthetic core, aluminium covering, silver covering on G & C strings. Vln available in all sizes. £45/73

Pirastro Synoxa; vln/vla/vcl Synthetic core, aluminium covering, silver covering on G & C strings. Medium gauge only. £44/69/108
Pirastro Aricore; vln/vla/vcl Synthetic core, aluminium covering, silver covering on G & C strings; 3 gauges.

Lower tension string with bias towards the warmer, darker end of an instrument's tonal spectrum.
£46/58/103
Eudoxa-Aricore; vln A & vla A only Synthetic core, aluminium covering £11/13
Pirastro Chromcor; vln/vla/vcl Chromesteel core, chromesteel covering; 3 gauges and available in a range of sizes £30/45/ 75
Pirastro Piranito; vln/vla/vcl Steel core, chrome-steel covering; all sizes (va: 2 sizes) £23/ 39/ 65
Pirastro Permanent; vcl Carbon-steel and rope core, chrome-steel & tungsten coverings; 3 tensions. Cello has 'solo' variant set (£126). £170
Pirastro Flexocor; vln Steel-rope core, chrome-steel & steel coverings. Ba also in 'Original Flexocor' 'Flat Chrome' and 'Original Flat Chrome' variants £48
Pirastro No.1 'Universal' violin E string Claims 'non-whistling' properties. £7
Pirastro Violino; vln £43
Pirastro Jazzer; ba Steel rope core, chrome-steel covering (designed to facilitate pizzicato) £168
Corelli Alliance Vivace; vln/vla Synthetic core using the 'Alliance KF' composite fibre with aluminium, silver and tungsten (va C) coverings
http://www.savarez.fr/anglais/index.html
£56/81
Corelli Crystal; vln/vla Synthetic 'Stabilon' core, aluminium, silver & tungsten coverings; range of sizes (va: standard, 14"/12"/10"). £30/48
Corelli New Concept; vcl Steel & spiral-steel core, aluminium & tungsten coverings. £95
Corelli Innovation: ba 'H' and 'B' variants £67/74
Hill; vln E only Steel (plain only), 3 gauges. £3
D'addario Zyex;vln/vla Composite fibre core, with up to 1/3 less tension compared to perlon/nylon core strings.Aluminium wound A, Aluminium or Silver wound D, Silver wound G. Light, medium & heavy tensions. 4/4 only. http://www.daddario.com/ £39/£43 Ball ends: light tension, mint green+diagonal blue stripe; medium, rose pink+diagonal blue stripe; heavy, lupin blue+diagonal blue stripe.

Peg ends:E, racing green; A,black; D aluminium, mustard yellow; D silver, marine blue; G burnt red.

D'addario Helicore; vln/vla/vcl/ba Multi-strand twisted steel core strings with damping resins under selected windings which results in a sound much warmer and richer than steel strings of the past. Particularly stable tuning and long life. Wound with aluminium, titanium,silver, tungsten (vla & vcl) & nickel (ba). 4/4 vn, long scale vla (16"+) & 4/4 vcl in light, medium & heavy tensions. All fractional violin sizes (3/4 -1/16) and medium scale vla strings (under 16"), medium tension only. £31/ 43/ 104/ 117  
D'addario Pro Arte; vln/vla/vcl Synthetic core, aluminium, silver & tungsten coverings; all sizes £24/38/81

 

D'addario Prelude; vln/vla/vcl Steel core, nickel and aluminium coverings; all sizes £15/24/50  
D'addario Golden Spiral; vln Gut core, aluminium & silver coverings, solo A & E variants £40  
D'addario 'Solutions' violin E 'Non-whistling' E string £6  

 

Official repairer for the Benslow Music Trust

 
 
Evans-Pughe Strings of Hitchin Ltd, 24 Bucklersbury, Hitchin, Herts, UK. SG5 1BG Tel: +44(0)1462-426012 Fax: +44(0)1462-426013
Opening hours: 9.30am-5.30pm (Mon-Sat)