The correct choice of violin, viola and cello string is probably the most important, and difficult, decision any instrumentalist has to make.
If there were one string that was generally considered to be better than the rest, or if it were simply a matter of economics then the choice would be relatively simple. But life is rarely like that and whilst, as in most things, you get what you pay for, this does not mean that the dearest strings are best for you or your instrument.
The tonal quality of your instrument, style of playing, and even type of music played will all have an influence on your final choice.
Fiddlers, for example will usually plump for a bright string with good projection that ‘rings’ well, but might well look for something softer and warmer if accompanying song. Similarly whilst most classical musicians might well opt for a string that is warm and full of overtones, the choice of a soloist might well differ from that of a string quartet player whose need to blend with the rest of the ensemble is greater.
This gives a few pointers, but, again the best choice will depend on the individual instrument. A gut string which sounds warm and full bodied on one fiddle can sound quite dull on another. Likewise a bright metal string may sound thin and ‘tinny’ on another.
Even the finest professionals don’t have all the answers, so you are not alone, but the following may help:
First, if you are novice, in receipt of your first factory made violin from the far east, then you should replace the supplied strings at the earliest opportunity. You may find a use for them in the garden, for that is all they are worth, and ANY string on these pages will immediately make your playing sound 4-5 times better. It is well worth taking your instrument to a professional luthier and getting the bridge set up at the same time, as this will also make a considerable difference.
If you are a student then your tutor should be able to guide you on choice, but bear in mind that his or her choice of string for their instrument may not be best strings for yours.
So, just where do you go from here?
There are basically three types of string to consider, based on their core: Gut, synthetic and metal.
Most of these cores are then wound with another material (often aluminium) which depending on their construction and will produce slightly differing qualities.
Gut Core Strings.
Until the end of the 19th Century all strings were produced this way.
Gut strings tend to be rich, warm and full bodied with complex overtones, and for this reason they are still the preferred choice of many classical musicians.
Windings are various, but unwound strings are still available and are favoured by baroque musicians seeking an authentic sound.
They are, however, particularly sensitive to temperature and humidity, and the player must be prepared to tune frequently. They are also less responsive to the bow and can produce a slight ‘catch’, and are best played with a softer, more ‘sticky rosin.
In experienced hands the sound produced can be rich and rewarding, but are best avoided by the student.
Metal Core Strings.
When first introduced metal core strings must have been a sensation.
Loud, bright, very responsive and easy to play, they are also very stable and will stay in tune for long periods. They also tend to be relatively inexpensive, and this, coupled with the qualities mentioned above makes them an obvious choice for students.
They lack the more complex tonal qualities of gut strings, but should not be dismissed out of hand because of this, and many players, particularly fiddlers, prefer the harder edged note they produce. They have the ability to make a ‘dull’ instrument sound bright, but perhaps their least satisfying quality is the thin ‘tinny’ sound often produced by upper strings.
Synthetic Core Strings.
When Dr. Thomastik developed the first synthetic strings in the mid 60’s, (Dominant), he promised a string which was stable, bright and responsive with all the tonal qualities of gut. Well, he didn't quite make it on the latter count, but he did produce a very remarkable string which, perhaps more than any other, performs well on most instruments and with most styles. Today, almost 40 years on ‘Dominant’ is still the most popular brand on the market and has spawned a whole generation of synthetic strings all of which share similar qualities and have their devotees.
Of the more recent additions to this market, Larsen strings appear to be gaining a popularity, particularly with cellists.
Pirastro’s ‘Evah Pirazzi’ has also received fulsome praise from those who have tried it.
A Note on Gauges and Special Strings.
Many players seem quite unaware that many of the most popular strings are available in different gauges. Presumably this is because their local supplier does not offer the choice.
Most will, in any case, be quite happy with a medium gauge, but rather than change brand to another string to correct a particular over or under performance on a set of strings with which you are otherwise happy, it may well be worth looking at a softer or harder gauge.
Similarly many ranges offer alternative windings (often tungsten or silver) on lower strings, most of which have enhanced tonal qualities.
As well as stocking most of these variants, Stringmail also maintains a healthy selection of smaller sizes in many ranges. These are specially sized and gauged to produce the best results from these instruments, and fitting full size strings will not give you the same results and we therefore do not recommend doing so.
All of the strings offered by Stringmail are top class branded products by world renowned manufacturers. They all have a place in the market and each has its devotees.
It would therefore be invidious and perhaps foolhardy for us to try and guess what is right for each and every player and instrument.
If you are new to string playing we can at least offer some suggestions to get you started; and are happy to recommend Thomastik Precision as a suprisingly good value choice. There are cheaper strings on the market, but we prefer not to stock these.
If your budget can afford a little more then we suggest you try Dominant and give yourself the added confidence that your choice is shared by many of the top professionals. You may then further refine your choice as you see fit. Both these strings are available in smaller sizes.
To all players we say: Listen to your instrument. Is it producing the sound you wish? Are there any weak areas that might be improved?
Most players settle on their chosen string after a relatively short trial period of a very limited number of strings, thus perhaps not realising the full potential of their instrument.
Don’t be afraid to experiment!
We at Stringmail welcome your specific string inquiries. We do not guarantee to have all the answers but will do our best give you the best advice available as speedily as possible
Some Simple Tips to keep your Strings in Top Condition
Treat your new strings as you would your instrument. Strings are best in a clean dry environment free from excesses of humidity and temperature change.
Keep your Strings Clean.
Excess rosin, moisture (sweat from fingers!) and other extraneous material build up between the windings will not only make them sound dull but also make them brittle and more prone to breakage. Proprietary cleaners are available, but alcohol is cheaper and just as effective. But take care, ANY alcohol coming into contact with the varnish of your instrument will have disastrous results. You may wish to consider sliding a piece of stiff card or other barrier under the strings to avoid even the slightest brush of your impregnated cloth.
Cleaning is best done after every session and for best results the whole string should be treated.
Regular cleaning in this way will keep your strings sounding sweeter for much longer.
Excess resin should also be removed from your bow with a soft dry cloth at the same time.
Tightening strings produces tension and friction on your strings at the contact points. You can ease the effects of this by rubbing a little graphite (soft lead pencil) in the string grooves on the bridge and nut.
Pretty obvious, but worth repeating, when changing a set of strings always start with the lowest strings and complete one string at a time. This eases the effects of violent tension change on the instrument and should make it easier to retune. You will also avoid the embarrassment of a fallen sound post.
Always remember to check for pulling on the bridge when tightening. The graphite should help things slide nicely into place.