Like the bow, the strings of the violin have not recieved their due. Their affect on tone and sound is incredibly profound, as is the history of their development. A player needs to be aware of the wide variance that a change of strings can bring to their instrument. Different strings suit different instruments, and different strings suit different genres. It really comes down to being aware of the choices availible and your own individual style. Whereas in the classical period of the instrument there was only the "gut" strings (made of sheep's gut not cat gut as legend would have it) there are now two additional varieties.
The synthetic core string is a happy medium compared to the rich sound of the gut string versus the durability and inexpensive nature of the steel core string. They offer improved stability of pitch compared to gut core strings, with less expense while still offering strong projection. In addition to this compared to the gut string, the synthetic core are not affected by ambient humidity to the same degree. By virtue of their synthetic nature there is a wide spectrum of sound qualities to choose from. From its starting point forty years ago by the Austrian string company Thomastik-Infeld with the Dominant line of string there is constant innovation in this field. Initially using Perlon (a type of Nylon), now there is a growing trend of "composite" sythetic strings which are further developing the type of sound possible from this type of string. While some would critique their lack of complexity, it is an excellent string for beginners to experiment with as they also do not need tuning as regularily.
The unwound synthetic string. Note its core of nylon and the technique used to overlap the winding.
Steel strings are unfairly maligned as "beginners strings". This is due to their durable, long lasting nature and quick response. They are also among the cheapest varities of string, which lends to the mistaken idea that they are "cheap and nasty". Granted, if you are looking purely for economy they are unrivalled but they do have their own unique strengths. In order to produce a bolder sound for the fractionally sized student instruments it is common to use steel string to improve sound output. Compared to the other two varieties they have a brief settling period in addition to a strong and stable pitch. They are also especially favored for different musical genres from jazz and bluegrass to contemporary rock music.
Finally the gut string, the original and some would say the best. They certainly posses a dark and rich tone in comparison to the other types, with the most complex overtones. However as mentioned earlier they are incredibly sensitive to changes in humidity and have the shortest lifespan of all options. Tuning and tonality are also fraught with frustration as they need at least a week to tune and break them in. The inexact nature of the organic fibre makes replicating the desired sound a trial and error process. In addition to this they are the most expensive of all string options with the greatest difficulty in response while playing. With this in mind unless recommended by your teacher or it is your personal preference it would not be recommended for beginners.
A close up of gut strings. The look and texture of each string varies widely as you can see due to their organic origin.
There are also another couple of factors that affect the playing qualities of the strings. The gauge and tension of a string affect its function. Although used interchangeably by some they refer to two different factors. The gauge is the physical thickness of the string itself, which varies depending on the type of string in order to achieve the correct tone. A gut strings pitch at the same level as a steel core will have a widely different gauge due to the different materials. It affects the response and sound of the string primarily, with a thinner string possessing a brighter tone with easier response action. Conversely a thicker gauge string will have darker tone but a slower response. Tension essentially refers to the correct force used to maintain tune on the string. Different manufacturers have different settings, but broadly there are three varieties: light, medium and heavy. Generally starting out on medium tension is the best route, then changing if nessecary. The core has a major effect on this, as does the instrument.
The winding upon the core can add to the sound or plane out the flaws in the choice of core.
- Titanium is both lightweight so not to affect response and imparts a warmer tone.
- Carbon Steel is extremely durable and adds a very bright tonal quality.
- Chrome Steel gives a more moderate brightness in addition to easy response and durability.
- Tungsten is primarily used to increase the volume when applied to the core.
- Gold-plating is employed normally on the violin E string to add a sweet nature to bright tones.
- Aluminum has a warmer sound compared to the brightness of carbon or chromed steel. It does have the shortest lifespan of the winding materials however as the sweat from the players hands will gradually corrode it.
There is an incredible range of strings availible commercially at a wide range of pricing and purpose. We here at Animato have commissioned the Maestro String Set for Violin (also availible for the viola and cello). They represent excellent quality balanced with the right price. Capable of producing a rich, warm sound with good projection in most circumstances, they also boast an easy response and dynamic range. Please try them yourself if you happen to be in store. We think you will agree that they are excellent value for money and stand well against the more expensive European alternatives.
As an afterthough, your strings will last much longer with proper cleaning and tuning!