Choosing the right cello strings
Choosing the most suitable cello strings for your instrument can be an arduous task. You might ask yourself: do I need steel or synthetic strings? Medium, heavy or light gauge (thickness)? As you may imagine, trying out many strings to find the perfect set would be a very expensive undertaking. This article tries to shed some light on different strings and what they can do for you, your audiences and your cello. What is perceived as a quality sound is subjective, and therefore any assessment of strings and their qualities is bound to be somewhat subjective. However, it appears that the findings as highlighted in this article, are shared by many cello players. Therefore, this overview could potentially save you time and money if you make a more informed decision after reading it.
1. String gauge
Many string labels come in three versions: light, medium and strong. Most importers of strings focus on the medium gauge as it is by far the most popular version. Both light and strong are often not available, and in most cases, unnecessary.
Light versions feel perhaps more comfortable under the left hand as less pressure is required to make a decent contact with the finger board. The down side of the thinner string is that it produces a weaker sound.
The strong (heavy) versions produce a loud and defined sound, however the draw back of the heavier gauge strings is that the string’s response time to the friction of the bow is slower as more mass has to be put into motion, and to cope with the action is tougher for the left hand.
Medium gauge strings are the most popular among cellists, because they give you the best of both worlds. They are perfect for people looking for a satisfactory sound, with a relatively easy action for the left hand, and a good, adequately quick response when triggering the sound by means of pulling the bow across the strings with your right arm and hand.
2. Material of the string’s core
Steel, Synthetic, or Gut?
Gut strings used to be the choice of professional cellists and advanced students. Gut strings were the first strings ever used and are made from the gut of a sheep. Pure gut strings are used by instrumentalists who wish to authentically play the baroque (1600-1760) or renaissance (1400-1600) way. They are temperamental in terms of staying in tune at the best of times and lack in projection (volume) for today’s standards. That being said, the tone they give is probably the warmest, sweetest, most complex sound you can achieve.
If your plan is to be a historically informed performer, then these strings would be great to try. For modern use, gut strings are wound with some metal such as aluminum or silver. Professional cellists who love the warmth of gut core strings recommend the Passione Solo by Pirastro. They are said to be the easiest to keep in tune, while creating a very warm and vibrant sound. Pirastro is the biggest producer of gut core strings with several different varieties. The two top strings of Pirastro’s ‘Chorda’ label are plain gut whereas the two lower strings are wound with silver. Their other labels are suitable for today’s needs – they are all wound with metal, and are called ‘Eudoxa,’ ‘Oliv,’ ‘Passione’ and ‘Gold Label.’
Synthetic core strings
Synthetic core strings have gradually become more popular since Thomastik-Infeld developed the Dominant strings in the 1970’s. The main materials used to create synthetic strings are Nylon, Person and other ‘composite’ fibers (plastics), the most common being Perlon and Kevlar.
Synthetic strings were created to emulate the gut string sound while avoiding the issues associated with gut – most notably tuning issues with changes in temperature. In the beginning, almost nobody was keen to leave the gut string behind, but eventually, the advantages convinced string players to such an extent that synthetic core strings are now the most popular string type among mainstream classical musicians, at least in the violin/viola world. For today’s cellists, steel core strings are the most popular type. Those cellists who choose synthetic core strings are likely to consider the following labels: Dominant strings (by Thomastik-Infeld), Obligato strings or Evah Pirazzi strings (by Pirastro).
Steel core strings
The most popular option for cellists is steel core strings. Steel strings started out as a cheap alternative to gut strings and the sound of plain steel strings is quite different to the sound of gut strings. Steel produces a bright, cut-throat sound. The upside is that steel strings will rarely go out of tune. Due to this, at first they were very popular strings for beginning students.
The string producers began to develop different materials to wind around the steel core, and with this development, the sound became more refined and noble, and it had greater depth and complexity. At the same time, they maintained the volume (projection) of sound and thus became more popular with performing cellists.
Today’s top steel-core cello strings show a consistent pitch, a big sound, with warm and silky layers of tone.
Materials used for the winding around the string’s core
The best of every string players world, there are many different types of material used to wind around the cores (gut core, synthetic core and steel core), and these make a big difference to the sound of the string. The main materials for winding cello strings are chrome steel, silver, tungsten and aluminum (aluminum mainly for some gut core strings) – each producing a different sound quality. This is where you need to consider the kind of sound you wish to achieve.
Chrome is the cheapest of the materials, and some famous companies produce chrome steel, silver and tungsten wound steel strings for G and C cello strings, and chrome wound steel strings for the upper strings A and D.
Silver wound steel strings are known to create a very warm, silvery tone that has a most beautiful quality to it. Consider using a silver wound G or C string, if the Chrome or Tungsten wound G or C string sounds too harsh for your taste. Silver is slightly less loud compared to Tungsten, but the ‘silver sound’ may well carry over a large distance. Some labels include a silver-wound D string as well. Silver is too heavy for the A string.
Tungsten wound strings are the strongest on the market, producing a big, boisterous sound, capable of reaching the audiences whose seat is in the last row of larger concert halls. Tungsten may sound slightly ‘abrasive’ under the ear, but by the time the sound reaches the first row of the audience, that seeming harshness is usually gone. Tungsten has a heavier specific weight than Chrome and Silver. Therefore, the strings are thinner than those made of Chrome or Silver. Because of its weight, Tungsten is only used for the G and C strings. Tungsten is costlier than Silver, and Silver is more costly than Chrome. Tungsten strings are about three or four times the price of Chrome strings and almost twice as costly as Silver strings.
The three most popular cello string brands for today’s cellists:
Larsen A and D strings are made of Chrome wound steel, G and C strings are made of Tungsten wound steel.
There are three versions, and each of these versions is offered in up to three different thicknesses (gauges): soft, medium and strong. As mentioned before, the medium gauge is reliably available from string stores.
The versions are as follows:
Larsen’s Chrome wound A and D strings come in Standard, Solo and Magnacore. Standard and Solo A and D come in all three gauges, whereas the Magnacore A and D is only available in Medium and Strong.
Larsen’s Tungsten wound G and C strings are available Standard and Magnacore. Both versions are available in medium and strong. Interestingly, the strong (with yellow coding) Larsen C string breaks easily in the peg box if not sufficient space is allocated for the loops around the C peg.
A full set of regular Larsen strings is popular for 1/4-3/4 cellos. Some consider these to be the best strings for small cellos.
The most popular strings for professional cellists (for full size cellos) would be the Larsen Solo A and Solo D strings.
However, some cellists find that the regular G and C strings lack projection. The strong gauge tries to achieve a better projection but the string is, indeed, rather thick and easily breakable in the peg box if one is not careful when stringing the cello.
The Larsen Magnacore G and C strings are probably the best choice for people who do not like to mix brands. The medium gauge Maganacore G and C strings and the strong gauge may be the way to go for some.
Others choose a whole set of medium Magnacore strings for their cello. However, very often you will find only the A and D strings are Larsen.
Spirocore by Thomastik-Infeld
Next for discussion are Thomastik-Infeld Spirocore strings. They mey be made in all three gauges, but for over 20 years, Animato Strings did not have a single request for gauges other than medium.
The Spirocore A and D strings are Chrome wound whereas for the G and C strings are three winding options: Chrome, Silver and Tungsten. You find that Larsen or Jargar A and D strings are often combined with Spirocore G and C strings. This is because the Spirocore G and C strings produce a massive vibrancy and projection that achieves a rich and full sounding bass that could carry the sound further than perhaps most other strings.
There are two types of Jargar strings, namely Regular and Superior. Regular Jargar strings are very affordable and sound great for beginning and advanced students. Even some seasoned professionals may choose these strings, particularly orchestral players as regular Jargar strings have a great sound without being too overbearing. The superior set is aimed to compete with the very best in soloistic cello strings. The price tag is accordingly. As the superior strings are new on the marked we need to do more testing before sharing a recommendation.
Animato Strings’ Recommendation for a Great Combination to Achieve the Best Sound for Most Good Cellos:
Larsen Solo A, Larsen Magnacore D, Spirocore Tungsten wound G and C.
For a more mellow sound:
Medium Larsen A, Magnacore D, Spirocore Silver would G and C.
For a less expensive combination:
Medium Larsen or Regular Jargar A and D, Spirocore Chrome wound G and C.
One thing to note is that every cello produces a different sound compared to the next cello. Therfore, cellos may have their specific characteristics that would benefit from a particular combination of strings.
In virtually all cases, the Animato recommends Larsen for A and D and Spirocore for G and C. It is best to match the versions of these strings with the needs of the cello to extract the best possible sound. Animato Strings is more than happy to suggest a combination for your cello if it is available for assessment.
Below is a selection of string brands, grouped according to the core material:
Gut string brands worth noting:
The sound of gut strings, however less of a tuning issue. The core of the string has been stabilized so that they are more like a synthetic string in regards to durability and tuning issues.
The upper strings from this type are used more often for their bright sound. Cost effective, and a great medium level sound.
Longer response time, and less projection, however the sound quality is beautiful with a warm and mellow sound.
These type of strings have very low tension so they have a fair amount of projection, and produce a warm and complex sound
For Synthetic-core strings here are some brands worth noting:
Resembling gut strings in sound, these strings are popular for cellists who want a richer sound (particularly the lower strings)
Quick response time, similar sound to gut – great idea for a cello that seems to have a very bright sound – can create a warm silky sound.
These strings have a brilliant sound and crystal clear clarity. A recommended combination is using these strings for the lower strings pairing with Steel-core upper strings
These strings are aimed at students, they are an affordable string with a warm moderate sound.
Dominant strings are less popular for cello than for violin and viola. Apart from acoustic uses, some cellists use them for electric instruments as they are comfortably soft and responsive. The modest projection can be compensated by increasing the output through the amplifier.
For Steel-core strings here are some brands worth noting:
Chromcor and Chromcor Plus
These strings have a particularly long life, making them more suitable for electric instruments. They are reasonably priced and produce a clear sound. Chromcor Plus are similar however have a murkier and darker overall sound. They are known however for their pitch stability.
Eva Pirazzi and Evah Pirazzi Gold
With a great projection and response action, these strings have become quite popular due to the quality of the sound they produce while also maintaining pitch very well. The Gold, have an added Shine to the sound which lots of players love – added to that is that they have no metallic after sound that some steel strings seem to have.
Great to maintain under extreme weather changes, these strings are very durable and have a great big sound.
Spirocore – As explained above.
Belcanto and Belcanto Gold
– These strings are soft and capable with a great response time. Used mostly by players who need a good string for both arco (bowing) and pizzicato (plucking) as in Jazz for example.
These strings are great for electric instruments as well and boast a warm sound quality with great durabilityKaplan
These strings are popular among the orchestral musician as the set is very balanced within the four strings and offers a rich blended sound.
Less expensive strings with a fine sound but less volume, compared to some dearer strings. Apart from a light and medium version, they also have an orchestral version (strong), producing more volume, compared to the light and medium versions.