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String Guide

In this guide we’ll cover the various strings on the market. Core material, gauge and tension react with every violin in a unique way, potentially causing an instrument to sound brighter, darker, or warmer. For the average beginner to intermediate violinist, a synthetic core and medium gauge string is recommended, as these are the most ‘neutral’/balanced strings, i.e. they allow the natural sound of the violin to shine through without too much changes.

Introduction

String players face a multitude of choices when it comes to choosing violin strings, not to mention a mind-boggling number of E strings that come plated in gold, silver, platinum and other materials. The best way to fully understand how a string sounds would be to install and play it on your violin. However this is of course a time-consuming and costly effort considering the number of choices on the market. Finding your dream strings this way is thus probably unrealistic, but you can make an educated guess about how a string would sound if you understand its basic qualities which alter the tone, volume and responsiveness of your violin, such as its gauge, core and winding materials, as well as tension.

An important thing to keep in mind is that different brands of strings merely slightly modify your violin’s sound to have more or less that of a certain characteristic, and the core tone and playability of your instrument will still shine through.

Gauge

The word gauge is used to measure the thickness of the string, and this correlates with the tension (the amount of weight) that the string places on the instrument. Different gauges influence the tone produced by the instrument. Thicker strings ( sometimes also referred to as ‘stark’, ‘forte’) have higher tension, and will produce a louder and more powerful sound, however it may result in a ‘dead’ sound if the tension is too high for that instrument. On the other hand, thinner strings (also known as ‘weich’ or ‘dolce’) have a lower tension and tend to be brighter and more responsive.

It is generally best to start with a medium gauge first and only move to a different gauge if necessary, as the higher tension can actually choke the sound of some instruments.

String Tension

This is one of the biggest factors which determines the tonal differences between types of strings. It is also often confused with string tension – bear in mind that while some types of strings, tension and gauge are related but not the same.

Most strings come in three main tensions – light, medium and heavy. Gut-core strings generally have a lighter tension than their synthetic-core strings, and steel-core tend to have the highest tension. Lower tension is felt as greater pliability – it’s easier to press down the strings on the fingerboard and they roll a little. Darker, and warmer-sounding strings tend to have lower tension. There are of course exceptions to this, such as Thomastik Infeld Blue vs Infeld Red, which have almost identical tensions, despite the former creating brighter sounds and the former a darker and warmer quality.

It is advised to start with a synthetic core string first as they offer several advantages. Firstly, they are more stable in pitch, and are less prone to slipping out of tune compared to their gut-core counterparts. Next, their tension tend to be neither too light nor heavy. Picking a string with a tension that is too high may cause the sound to choke on certain violins. I will go through common string recommendations at the end.

Core Material

Gut core

These are the original types of strings which date back several centuries. These have the lowest tension of the three main core materials (gut/synthetic/steel) and are typically made from sheep intestines. Because of the low tension and how they are wound, these strings feel softer under the fingers and have a slower response. They also require fine bow dexterity and control in order to produce a good tone. Gut core strings are also the least pitch stable of the three, and require frequent tuning, especially if it is exposed to rapid changes in temperature and humidity.

Steel core

The first steel E string for the violin appeared around 1910, and this was followed quickly by other steel core strings with various windings such as steel or silver. Steel strings have a quick, focused and brilliant sound. They also have the least tonal complexity or overtones of the three material types. These strings are also the most resistant to temperature and humidity changes. As they have a quick response, have a stable pitch, and tend to be the least expensive option, steel strings are great for beginners just starting out the violin.

Synthetic core

Synthetic core strings are more stable than gut strings, with a more focused tone but fewer tonal complexities and overtones. Thomastik Infeld’s Dominant strings (made from nylon perlon) were an instant success when they were invented in 1970s, and are one of the most popular and ubiquitous synthetic strings on the market today. The success of Dominant paved the way for other manufacturers, who designed a variety of new synthetic strings combining high-tech nylons and composite materials for a more complex sound. Whilst synthetic strings do not possess the same amount of complexity of sound as gut strings, they do retain interesting and sophisticated tonal characteristics.

Synthetic strings can be seen as a happy balance between gut and steel strings – they share some of the warm qualities and beautiful overtones of gut, but possess characteristics of steel such as durability and stability of pitch, as well as a more focussed sound.

String Winding

Windings are essentially the material that is wrapped around the main core of the string. Different winding materials can impart different qualities – for instance, using tungsten as a winding results in a higher tension string that is thinner than one made from a less dense material, such as silver or aluminium.

Most strings come in three main tensions – light, medium and heavy. Gut-core strings generally have a lighter tension than their synthetic-core strings, and steel-core tend to have the highest tension. Lower tension is felt as greater pliability – it’s easier to press down the strings on the fingerboard and they roll a little. Darker, and warmer-sounding strings tend to have lower tension. There are of course exceptions to this, such as Thomastik Infeld Blue vs Infeld Red, which have almost identical tensions, despite the former creating brighter sounds and the former a darker and warmer quality.

When it comes to choosing string windings, a player’s chemistry might be a factor. For instance, some violinists tend to have sweaty hands, and they will find that this tends to corrode their aluminium-wound strings quickly. The exterior of the string develops a rough gray surface, which does not usually happen with other windings. Affected violinists might want to try a silver-wrapped D.

Recommendations

Beginners

I would recommend steel strings for beginners, due to their stability and ease of playing. While their tone is not as sweet or complex as synthetic or gut strings, it is important to ensure maximum ease of playing and response, especially when starting a new instrument, such that students can learn and build good techniques and habits. It is also a relatively inexpensive option for students on a budget.

Some steel string recommendations include:

  • D’Addario Prelude – solid steel core
  • Pirastro Piranito – single filament steel core, wound with chrome steel

If players would like to try a synthetic version instead:

  • D’Addario Ascente strings – clear, warm direct sound

Intermediate players

Synthetic strings are recommended for intermediate players, as they have better bow control and thus do not need to rely as heavily on the easy projection and playability of steel strings. Using synthetic strings will also provide more tonal complexity, something which intermediate violinists should be developing and refining.

Recommendations include:

  • Thomastik Infeld Dominant
  • Infeld Red/Blue – red is warmer than blue, which is more brilliant and bright. Some violinists like to combine a red G with a red/blue D and blue A.
  • Pirastro Tonica – if you’re bored of Dominants or your violin tends to sound on the harsher side, give these a shot. They have a full and clear sound, but warm. Slightly more pliable than Dominants, less bite to the sound and more mellow.

Intermediate-advanced players

For advanced players, you can make an informed choice by making your selection based on the following characteristics:

  1. What is your instrument’s characteristic sound? Is it darker/brighter? If your instrument is too bright, or you find it rather harsh-sounding, look for strings with a synthetic core, like the Infeld Red strings, or Vision Solo. Larsen Tzigane will also help tone down excessively harsh-sounding instruments. Evah Pirazzi strings have an intense powerful sound, having both beautiful overtones and brilliant projection without sounding harsh, however it has a slightly higher tension so may not be suitable for all instruments. Instruments that are dark will benefit from brilliant strings such as Infeld Blue, Thomastik’s Vision, Dominant, Pirastro Tonica or Wondertone Solo.
  2. How resonant is your instrument, can you hear overtones when you play? If your violin has a choked sound, experiment with lower tension strings such as Larsen Virtuoso or Pirastro Violino.
  3. If your instrument is sounding too unfocused or unclear, try a light-gauge version of the brilliant strings mentioned above.

More general recommendations:

  • Thomastik Infeld Vision – warm, yet have a fantastic projection. Not as metallic-sounding as dominants. These strings work extremely well as a set, there is no need (unless you want to) to mix and match this with other string types.
  • Obligato: Deep sound with complex overtones, fast responsiveness and stability of pitch. Generally warm but capable of producing brilliant overtones. Would be a good match for brighter violins which lack more complex depth of sound
  • Peter Infeld PI strings – extremely quick bow response, a verl well-balanced string set that offers a deep complex sound for the G and D strings, with brilliant but not piercing higher notes, overall excellent projection while retaining a warmth and robustness to the sound. Some players have reported the strings go ‘dead’ faster than others, your mileage may vary with these strings. Also, it comes with a hefty price tag.
  • Gut recommendations: Pirastro Wondertone Gold – made of modified synthetic gut core / Pirastro Passione – extremely warm core sound, beautifully complex overtone spectrum, good projection for a gut string. While Pirastro markets it as ‘easy response’, while this is true to a certain extent, bear in mind it is still a gut string, so it will not be as responsive as a synthetic string and thus players will have to ensure their bow technique is refined before using these strings.
Do I have to use strings meant for my level?

Short answer: No, but it is probably in your best interests (practically and financially speaking) to do so.

As with any artistic endeavour, there is a strong desire to use equipment designed for higher-level performers. While there is indeed no barrier preventing you from using advanced strings, it’s best that you use strings meant for your level.

First of all, as mentioned, beginner strings are purposefully designed in such a way to produce the fastest and easiest response while retaining stability. This means that beginners can spend more time on other basic violin techniques (keeping the bow parallel to the bridge in a straight line, flexible wrists, solid intonation etc) rather than wrestling with trying to create good sound on a ‘less responsive’ string or spending excessive time tuning their violin. Secondly, advanced strings are more precisely designed and manufactured – and their pricing reflects that. Without the technique to create more nuanced sounds on the violin and thus fully utilizing the capabilities of the string, one is simply wasting their money purchasing such strings.

Most importantly, musicians ought to enjoy their learning journey from beginner to intermediate to advanced, and equipment upgrades certainly ought to be an essential part of celebrating those milestones!