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A Survey of Strings for Violins, Violas, Cellos and Basses

by Peter Zaret

Many musicians and students are amazed and sometimes bewildered by the large number of strings available for the violin, viola, cello and bass. Each different type of string has its own special characteristics, which can change the sound of an instrument. These characteristics can make major changes in the quality, playability, volume and responsiveness of an instrument. In some cases, changing one or more strings can improve a weakness in a specific part of the range of an instrument. Some instruments respond best to a certain kind of string and less well with other types. Each instrument has its own personal characteristics. A string that works well with one instrument may not work well with another. There are many playing styles that indicate string choice. A classical violinist might choose strings that would be unsuitable for a bluegrass fiddler. A jazz bass player who plays mostly pizzicato would like a string that symphony bassists would find difficult to use. Here are some basic guidelines in selecting strings.

For inexpensive and or small size instruments it is sometimes a good idea to spend the extra money to get the better strings. In particular, a perlon core string will greatly improve the tone of a cheap or small size instrument. For those parents in particular who have a talented child who has played for a while, the improved sound with the better strings will offset the occasional problems with tuning the better strings.

Gut Core Strings

Gut strings tend to have a warm and complex sound with rich overtones. The response is a bit slower than synthetic core strings, and have a lower tension, giving them a pliable feel under the fingers. Musicians who perform early music on instruments set up in the Baroque style generally use gut strings. Gut strings were the rule in the Baroque period. There are some problems with gut strings, the most troubling of which is the gut strings instability in pitch. They tend to go out of tune frequently. They also are more sensitive to changes in temperature and humidity and tend to be more expensive than other strings. Another factor is they usually don’t have the power of steel strings or synthetic core strings. The strings wrapped with silver as opposed to aluminum tend to last longer particularly if the players hands sweat (sweat corrodes the aluminum very quickly).

Synthetic Core Strings

Over the last few years many musicians have switched from gut to synthetic core strings. The most common synthetic used is Perlon, a kind of nylon. These strings share many of the tonal characteristics of gut strings but are much more stable in pitch and generally have a faster response. They tend to have more power than gut core strings and need to be tuned less often. Their break-in time is a lot less than gut core strings. Since the core is synthetic, this type of string is more consistent in quality than gut, but may lack some of the complexity of sound that gut strings have. There are now a large variety of synthetic core strings on the market, each with different characteristics.

Steel Core Strings

Steel core strings are very stable in pitch, even when first installed. They tend to have a sound that is simple, clear, direct, pure, and usually a bit hard with less overtones and complexity than other types. They tend to be bright and a bit thin sounding. Non-classical players, especially country and folk fiddlers, as well as many jazz musicians often prefer steel strings. They also work well with small size, inexpensive student instruments as they stay in tune better than other types of strings. Steel cores (usually thin fibers of roped or spiraled steel) are now wrapped with a variety of metals such as aluminum, chrome steel, tungsten, silver and most recently, titanium. These changes have allowed manufacturers to produce strings with more sophisticated sounds.

For students and adults who are less than professional it is highly advisable to put on almost any synthetic core strings instead of cheap steel core strings. On the other hand, for beginning students studying the Suzuki Method, for instance, the perlon core strings will sound better but good steel core strings will stay in tune better. It is an individual choice.

String Gauge

Almost all strings are available in different thickness or gauges. Thomastik Dominants, for example, are available in stark (thick), mittel (medium), and weich (thin). Pirastro Eudoxa, Olive and Kaplan Golden Spiral gut strings come in a variety of gauges indicated by gauge numbers. The majority of string players use the medium gauges. In general a thicker than normal string will require more tension in order to bring it up to pitch. This increase in tension will produce more volume and sometimes a fuller sound but with a slower response. A thinner string requires less tension and will give a faster response, but with less volume. What thickness of string you choose will depend on the qualities of the particular instrument you are playing. A violin may need a thicker string to give it more “punch” or power, or more fullness of sound. Yet on other instruments, those thick strings will choke the sound and make it unresponsive and dull. On the other hand, a thinner string might help an instrument with a dull, unfocused, fuzzy sound but might sound shrill and thin on others. Each instrument will respond differently to different strings. The only way to determine the optimum string for you is to try a variety of strings on your own instrument.

Types of Strings and Their Qualities

1. Gut Strings

Pirastro – Olive
These relatively expensive strings have a brilliant sound with rich complex overtones and a relatively fast response. The Olive E is gold-plated and has an unusually pure, clear and brilliant sound. The G string for the violin and viola has some gold in it which makes it very expensive. How much this improves the sound is debatable. They are available in many more gauges than most other strings.

Pirastro – Eudoxa
This was the most popular string before the advent of perlon. Eudoxa strings have a warm, mellow sound with a slower response than the Olive or synthetic core strings and have less power than the Olive or synthetic strings. They are also more unpredictable and expensive than the synthetic core strings. They too are available in many more gauges than most other strings. These strings work very well for chamber music.

Pirastro – Gold Label
An economy gut string with an edgier sound than the other Pirastro gut strings. Available only in medium gauge. The violin E string is popular for its brilliance. Economically priced. This string used to be the mainstay of talented students before the advent of the perlon strings.

Kaplan – Golden Spiral and Golden Spiral Solo
These strings are similar tonally to the Gold Label. You can purchase a plain gut A string. Heifetz used a plain gut A string along with wrapped D and G string. It is extremely rare for players to use plain gut strings these days as they are difficult to keep in tune and break often. The Solo is brighter and louder than the basic and comes in many gauges.

2. Synthetic Core Strings

Pirastro – Evah Pirazzi
Evah Pirazzi features an exclusive miltifilament, developed and made expressly for Pirastro. These excellent strings have a powerful and brilliant sound as compared to the darker Obligato. They have a round full sound with easy response and playability. They also have a nice silvery quality and good depth of sound. The break-in time is a few days longer than other synthetic core strings.

Pirastro – Obligato
The Pirastro Obligato uses an exclusive new composite core material rather than nylon (perlon). They have a good sound somewhat similar to Eudoxa gut core strings but with a quicker response and slightly less complexity. Of all the synthetic core strings, the Obligato seems closest in sound to gut. Available in strong, medium and soft gauges.

Pirastro – Violino
This string is marketed as a “student” string but is priced about the same as the Pirastro Tonica strings. The Violino has a warm, full tone that seems to work well with new student instruments, with a bright and somewhat hard tone. These strings seem to take away some of the “edge”.

Pirastro – Tonica
The sound is slightly warmer and less powerful than the Thomastik Dominant strings and they seem to have more complex overtones. They have an excellent response. Their break-in time is very short and they are strong enough not to crack with too much bow pressure. Comes in soft, medium and strong gauges.

Pirastro – Aricore
The tone is quite warm and on the dark side with less edge than the Dominant. The response is excellent and they are very durable. The D, G and C are popular with cellists. They are only available in medium gauge.

Pirastro – Synoxa
Very similar to the Dominant strings in brilliance, but with more clarity and focus. These strings are rich in overtones and are more durable than the Dominant. The cello G and C silver work well with a steel A and D.

Thomastik – Infeld Red and Blue
The Infeld Red has a darker, warmer tone and the Infeld Blue is more brilliant in sound. They are designed so that you can mix and match them on your violin to get the balance you need. The tension is the same for either set. I found the Blue set to have a brilliant sound with more power than the Dominant. The Red is less powerful than the Dominant. They both have the same flaw that the Dominant has — they tend to break in the peg box due to not having the metal wrapping the whole length of the string.

Thomastik – Dominant
The original synthetic core string, made with Perlon. Dominant strings are bright and responsive and are by far the most popular. They have a strong sound with excellent character. They too tend to break in the peg box. When new, Dominant strings have a metallic edge, which fades after a few days of playing.

Corelli – Crystal
Like the Aricore strings, these strings have a relatively dark, warm sound. Unlike the Aricore strings they do have more edge or punch, which makes them sound a bit brighter and more focused. These strings are less expensive than any of the Pirastro or Thomastik strings.

Corelli – Alliance
Corelli Alliance have a kevlar core. Their sound is more brilliant than the Corelli Crystal along with a richness and complexity hop over to this web-site. The response is quick. These strings are also reasonably priced.

Larsen Violin Strings
The sound is big, brilliant, and slightly darker than Dominants, with an interesting metallic edge that gives the sound power and punch. The tone also has depth and complexity. The price is high, but some musicians feel they are worth the money. They tend to have a shorter life span than some other synthetic core strings. Available in soft, medium and strong gauges.

D’Addario – Zyex
These strings are promoted as sounding closest to gut-core strings of any synthetic core strings. They are more brilliant than gut and have a brilliant, very focused sound that is very stable in pitch. They are wound all the way through so they don’t break in the peg box.

D’Addario- Pro Arte
These strings are the D’Addario answer to the Thomastik Dominant. They are less brilliant than the Dominant but last longer. The tone is darker than the Dominant. They work very well with smaller sized violins which tend to be too bright and brassy sounding. They hold the pitch well and last longer than the Dominant.

Super Sensitive – Sensicore
This perlon core string is the Super Sensitive answer to the Pirastro Aricore, the D’Addario Pro Arte and the Thomastik Dominant. The tone is less brilliant than the Dominant but more brilliant than the Pro Arte. Less expensive than Aricore and Dominant.

Super Sensitive – Octava
The least expensive perlon core string available today. They work well with smaller sized violins and sound much better than the traditional steel core strings. They are a good value if you have a cheap violin. They can make a cheap violin sound better than a decent violin with steel core strings. The only disadvantage for small size or cheap violins is they don’t stay in tune as well as steel core strings.

3. Steel Core Strings

Thomastik – Spirocore
The core of these strings is a steel spiral rope. They have a round, homogeneous and powerful sound. They are especially popular with cellists who need a great deal of brilliance. The cello G and C tungsten are high-tension strings with a big sound. The silver G and C have less of an edge to their sound. Spirocore bass strings are popular with jazz musicians. The wrappings are aluminum and chrome mostly with the higher strings and silver and tungsten mostly with the lower strings.

Thomastik – Ropecore
Darker, warmer tone than Spirocore with less brilliance.

Pirastro – Chromcor
They have a bright clear tone. Favored by students and educators as they are relatively inexpensive. and durable. Fractional sizes down to a 1/32nd size.

Pirastro – Chromcor Plus
Available for only cello and viola A string. These strings have a more complex sound than the regular Chromcor and are more expensive.

Pirastro – Permanent
This string is chromesteel and tungsten wound, with a carbon steel core. A high quality string for viola and cello with good response, and a clear, warm and powerful sound. Available in thin, medium and strong gauges.

Pirastro – Flexocor
A spirally twisted, multiwire central core gives a richer and warmer sound than the single wire string. A high quality string for cello and bass. This A is also good to match with gut and synthetic core strings. The Flexocor bass strings are popular with classical players.

Pirastro – Flexocor/Permanent
These new steel core strings (available only for violin) are somewhat similar to the Helicore strings, but with a darker, warmer sound. More expensive than Helicore.

Pirastro – Piranito
Inexpensive strings for students that have a steely, edgy sound (although warmer than Supersensitive Red Label). More expensive than D’Addario Prelude.

D’Addario- Prelude
Also an inexpensive string for students. It has a solid steel core wound with a consistently smooth aluminum and pure nickel alloy winding. Preludes have a warmer sound than Piranitos.

D’Addario – Helicore
This string has become very popular. It has a warm sound, unusual for a steel core string. Cellists and violists especially like the G and C strings. Violinists who play electric instruments have taken to these strings. The Helicore bass strings are getting good reviews. They are available in Orchestra, Pizzicato and Hybrid. The Hybrid is for players who want both a good bowing response and a good pizzicato response. The Pizzicato is for the player who plays primarily or solely without a bow. The Orchestra version is for players who primarily bow.

These Danish strings are very popular with cellists and violists, particularly the A and D strings. The G and C strings are available with pure silver winding for a brighter, more brilliant sound. They are available in forte, medium and dolce gauges. The availability of these strings is sometimes problematic.

These premium priced Danish strings were introduced a few years ago and have become popular with violists and cellists for their pure, clear sound. The Larsen “Solo ” strings have more projection and a brighter, more brilliant sound. Available now in full sets for violin, viola and cello. Also in strong, medium and soft gauges.

These inexpensive Swedish strings are an excellent value for students and amateurs. They have a bright quality with an edge to their sound that is popular with some fiddlers, violists and cellists.

Supersensitive – Red Label
Without a doubt the largest selling string for bowed string players. They are low priced and durable and are widely used in school systems and rental programs. They stay in tune as well as anything and can be found almost anywhere.

I hope that the above descriptions will assist you in making a choice of strings for your instrument. However, I must stress that the only way to choose the correct string is to try a variety of brands and gauges. Each and every instrument responds differently to different types of strings.

Installing Strings

The main threats to strings are a lot of practicing or the dermatology of the player. Players whose hands sweat a lot will go through strings much faster than others whose hands don’t sweat. Silver winding is highly recommended against corrosion that occurs from salt and oils from the players hand.

When changing strings, remove only one at a time with all the others up to pitch, keeping the tension on the top. Before putting on the string, use a soft pencil on the groove in the nut and bridge. The graphite is a lubricant that reduces the chance of string breakage. Don’t tighten the strings to a higher than normal pitch as this will weaken the string and increase the chance of breakage. Strings should be wound evenly from the center of the peg to the edge of the peg box, but should not push against the peg box. The condition of the nut, pegs, bridge and tailpiece of your instrument is very important. Strings should fit the grooves in the nut and bridge correctly. If the grooves are worn or uneven, your strings will break more easily. It is recommended the player have his/her instrument examined periodically by a reputable violin shop.