There are no universal strings for everyone. The point is to find strings that complement the quality of your instrument and playing style. Each type of string has specific characteristics that can change the sound of the instrument.
These characteristics can make subtle changes in sound quality, playing convenience, instrument response. On the other hand, each instrument has its characteristics and therefore can react better or worse to certain types of strings. All in all, strings that respond well to one instrument do not have to make a good sound on another.
There is also an immense number of playing styles that dictate the choice of strings. A classical violinist can choose strings that are completely unsuitable for a folk musician. The jazz bassist, who plays mostly pizzicato, will choose strings that will make it difficult for the symphonic bassist to play.
But how do you treat violin strings when not playing? Do you need to loosen them?
Most musicians don’t recommend removing the bridge or loosening the strings too frequently. If you do it every day, you could dislodge the soundpost, and you will need a pro to reset it. However, you should loosen the bow hair when you store the bow, as they wear out quickly under constant tension.
To help you along, we’ve put together a list of essential tips, along with the key info on types and characteristics of different violin strings.
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Violin Strings – Types and Key Features
For centuries, all musical strings had been made from sheep’s intestines. Since the 16th century, thinner strings have been wrapped with silver wire. Today, almost all gut strings are wrapped with aluminum or silver.
In the early years of the 20th century, metal strings were introduced that improved tone stability and extended durability. Steel violin E strings became very popular, primarily due to the frequent cracking of the gut E string.
In the following text, you will learn about the different types of violin strings.
Gut Core Strings
Many classical musicians still prefer gut strings because of their warm sound, complexity, and rich mid-tones. When you play the gut strings, you can hear much more than just a simple tone. Musicians who perform early music on instruments tuned in the Baroque style use exclusively gut strings.
However, there are certain downsides to using gut strings, such as their instability. They need frequent tuning, especially in the first week after installation due to their stretching.
They are also very sensitive to temperature and humidity changes. Furthermore, they are more expensive than most other strings. Due to all these characteristics, they are not recommended for beginners or even students.
Steel Core Strings
Strings with a steel core became widely used partly due to the stretching of gut strings and as a concession to beginners. They have a very stable tone, immediately after installation.
Besides, they have a sound completely different from gut strings. And a tendency towards pure, crystalline, simple sound and usually a little harder with only a few mid-tones and without complexity. These qualities are not crucial for the cello, where metal strings are the standard.
Steel core strings are often used by non-classical musicians, especially folk violinists, and also by many jazz musicians. They also work well with smaller, cheaper student instruments. Furthermore, most bassists use steel strings.
There are also very interesting changes in the construction of steel strings that arouse special interest in cellists. The steel core (usually thin fibers of longitudinal or spiral steel) is now coated with various metals such as aluminum, chrome-steel, tungsten, silver, and most often titanium.
These changes in technology allow manufacturers to produce strings with more sophisticated sound.
Synthetic Core Strings
Since about 30 years ago, more and more musicians have been switching from gut strings to synthetic ones. Most of them are perlon-core strings. For example, Synoxa by Pirastro has been designed as an alternative to Pirastro gut strings. They provide a similar warmth and colorful tone quality to gut ones, with a shorter break-in period.
These strings have many tonal characteristics of gut strings, but with a much more stable tone. Composite-Core Strings represent the latest advancement in string technology. These synthetic strings are made with new types of synthetic materials. They are also combined in new ways to create denser, stronger strings, highly resistant to temperature and humidity changes.
Synthetic core strings are more stable in quality but they have some shortcomings in the complexity of the sound. Because of this, some musicians still prefer gut strings. There are a large number of different synthetic strings on the market today, each with its specific characteristics.
String gauge or width is often used interchangeably with string tension but is significantly different. A good example of this is unwound gut strings. If you tune a gut string at the same pitch as steel- or synthetic-core string, it will need to be thicker, though its tension will be lower.
You may decide to switch to wider strings, like gut ones. But you may also need to have a luthier widen the slots on your instrument’s bridge and nut to accommodate the thicker gauge of these strings.
However, when you shop for strings, you should know that there are three gauges of the same string. To help you understand the difference, these gauges include:
- Thinner strings (also known as weich or dolce) – lower tension strings, low in volume, with a brighter, more responsive tone.
- Medium (mittel) strings.
- Thick (stark or forte) strings – a darker tone, with a slower response.
Almost all strings are available in different thicknesses. This may be one of the key factors determining the tonal differences between different types of strings. It is closely related to gauge, but they are not the same.
Strings are available in different tensions: heavy, medium, and light. Synthetic- or steel-core strings typically have a higher average tension than gut-core strings. This lower tension of gut strings is felt as pliability under the fingers. They are easier to press down and you can feel them roll.
Synthetic-core strings have a higher tension. The darker, warmer-sounding tend to have a slightly lower tension, although there are exceptions. Finally, steel-core strings tend to have higher tension than other types of strings.
You should begin with medium-gauge strings first and then switch to different type if there’s a need for it. You can actually choke the sound on some instruments if you opt for higher tension.
Most musicians use medium-gauge strings. In general, thicker strings require more tension to reach the desired pitch. This tension produces a louder and sometimes fuller sound, but with a slower reaction. Thinner strings require less tension and react faster, but with less volume and thinner sound.
The choice of string gauge depends on the quality of each instrument. Violins need thicker strings to give them the fullness of sound, while with other instruments these strings will muffle the sound and make it dull. In contrast, thinner strings can help an instrument with unfocused, fuzzy sound.
Each instrument responds differently to different strings. The only way to determine the optimal strings is to try different types on your instrument.
Taking Care of Your Violin and Your Strings
Some musicians believe that you should loosen the strings to reduce tension on the violin. Maybe not all the way, but at least down about an octave or so. It depends on several factors, including the instrument’s construction, temperature, and humidity.
If left in unfavorable conditions, fully tightened strings can result in the seams at the tail block spreading. This may let the tailpiece pull forward and warp the wood of the sides and top at the end button.
Therefore, you should make sure not to expose your instrument to frequent and large variations in temperature and humidity. A serious problem may be caused by a breach or a crease on the table or back of a violin, reducing its value, musicality, and playability. And it should be handled by a professional.
This should be your major concern when storing a violin or a bow.
If the conditions are too dry and too hot, the plates are at the biggest risk. Conversely, if it’s too wet, the soundpost may not be stable enough and stretches due to humidity. Ungluing of a plate from a side may not be too serious but requires professional care from a luthier.
Therefore, your violin should be stored in the most stable place. Especially with respect to temperature and humidity. If that’s the case, you may loosen your strings a bit when storing the instrument for a long time.
If your strings are of the strong tension type, you should get informed about the hygrometry of your place.
Loosening the Strings – Yes or No?
Loosening your strings between playing may affect the bridge. You should know that only professionals can set up the bridge as it needs to be 90° against the body of the violin. If you stretch your strings too often, they will tend to loosen up more, especially when in playing ‘mode’. And as you know, violin strings need to be tight when you’re playing the instrument.
Also, the bridge may get warped faster, which is why the best idea may be to leave them alone. Stretching and loosening your strings constantly may weaken them. Furthermore, stressing and relaxing may confuse the wood in your instrument.
On the other hand, stability is highly recommended for strings and wood. Loosening strings between every practice will make you spend most of your time retuning while playing. And make the wood constantly adjust to it. Possible results? Lots of opened seams and cracks and fallen soundposts.
Therefore, you should not loosen strings after regular playing. However, if you plan to store the instrument for a while, loosening the strings a bit may be a good idea.
If you want to learn more about string instruments, you should check out our other music guides.