Strings: Answers to Frequently Asked Questions
Our previous blog posts have focused on helping you find and select a new instrument. Next, we’ll move into a topic that is just as important but arguably much less clear: choosing the right strings. Depending on who you talk to and their experiences with different string manufacturers, types, and brands on their own instrument, you will probably hear several different, sometimes contradictory opinions. We’ve lost count of the number of times we’ve had experienced players come into the shop and sing the praises of their favorite strings, only to have another, equally experienced player come in and say they would never let that type of string anywhere near their instrument. The truth is that different brands of strings can have very different characteristics. Fortunately, we’ve done some digging and have compiled a list of answers to some of the most common questions we’ve been asked when players look for their new set. In our next post, we will compare and contrast some of the most popular sets on the market. Hopefully, you will find these posts to be a helpful guide in choosing your next set.
1. How much do strings affect the sound of my instrument?
With any of the instruments in the violin family, there are dozens of factors that go into the resulting sound and timbre when the instrument is played. Strings have a large effect on the sound, but they can’t fundamentally change the sound characteristics that are related to the construction of the instrument. While a high-end set of strings could elevate the sound quality of a cheap instrument to some degree, it will not elevate its sound to that of a much higher-quality instrument. That said, a poor set of strings could significantly hinder the tone of a high-end instrument. Whatever the quality of instrument you own, it’s ultimately best to use the highest-quality and most suitable set that you can afford.
What a high-quality and suitable set of strings can do is bring out the best qualities of your instrument and positively shape the tone you produce. They affect volume, projection, warmth, brightness, depth, and how much effort you have to exert with the bow to make the instrument speak. One set of strings may make a cello sound warm and sweet while another set may make the same cello sound brilliant and powerful. It’s important to find strings that match the type of music you play and what your ideal sound is for your instrument.
2. What makes one string sound different from another?
The main thing that differentiates strings is what they’re made of. Originally, all strings were made from dried and wound sheep intestines called (somewhat misleadingly) catgut. Over time, the thicker low strings of cellos and basses were wound with different types of metal around the gut core in order to strengthen the sound and make the strings more durable. It wasn’t until about the early 1900s that solid metal strings were introduced as a suitable alternative. Gut and solid steel strings are still available today, but now most strings have a core of either steel or stranded synthetic material wound with various kinds of metal. The materials that make up a string affect the sound quality that it will produce.
In general, gut strings produce the warmest sound and have the most overtones, which is often described as sounding “complex.” Because the material is less dense than metal, gut strings carry less tension and tend to be thicker than other strings. They aren’t as responsive or powerful as metal strings and are much more susceptible to pitch fluctuations based on temperature and humidity, so pure gut strings are now mostly used by musicians specializing in historical performance. Instead, there are gut-core, metal-wound strings that many professional classical musicians prefer for their balance of the characteristic warm sound of gut strings with the power and durability of metal strings.
Steel-core strings are known for their bright, focused sound and quick response. They are durable and fairly stable in pitch, even with changes in temperature and humidity. This type is popular with fiddlers and other musicians looking for a bright sound that will carry. Steel-core strings are also pretty useful if you play outside regularly. Many of the most common brands of strings for violin, viola, and cello still use steel-core strings for the upper end.
Synthetic core strings have become more popular over the past couple of decades because they blend the best qualities of gut and steel-core strings. They are durable, powerful, and have a quick response like steel-core strings and are capable of warm, nuanced tones that are characteristic of gut strings. Classical musicians tend to prefer using synthetic core strings and find them to be the most versatile for their uses.
There are several other factors that go into string manufacturing that make one string brand sound different from another including the types of metals wound around the core material and the production methods, but that information would turn into an article of its own!
3. Can I mix strings from different sets?
Using more than one string brand in your preferred set is fairly common. Violinists and violists, for example, often use one string brand for their top string and a different brand for their lower three strings, while cellists might have an A and D string from one set and a C and G string from another. The problem with using a different brand for each string on your instrument is it could end up sounding like four different instruments when you play! String manufacturers develop string sets with attention to the response and the balance across the strings. The goal is to have a blended, homogenous sound in every register, otherwise every string change will be obvious. The strings could feel different under your bow and fingers as well.
There’s no general rule about how many different brands of strings you can combine without experiencing downsides, but we recommend that you use at least two adjacent strings from the same set. If you have any questions about mixing strings from one specific brand with another, feel free to ask!
4. How often should I change my strings?
The answer to this question depends on how much you play your instrument. Strings experience slight wear from being under constant tension, but most string wear comes from oils and sweat from your hands and friction from the bow. Several professional soloists claim that they change their strings every 2-4 weeks because they play so often, but the average player doesn’t need to change their strings that quickly. If you play your instrument 1-3 hours a day on average, changing your strings every 6 months to a year is a good idea. If you only play occasionally, your strings can last for longer than that.
When your strings have become worn, there are usually some signs that it’s time to replace them. Listen for strings that sound dull or tinny, resist dynamic changes, and have difficulty staying in tune. Strings might go “false” over a long period of time, meaning that particular notes bend in pitch or don’t speak clearly, especially with quick bow changes and strong articulation. The last sign a string usually gives before it snaps is unraveling near the bridge or nut. If you notice any of these things on your strings and it’s been a while since your last string change, it’s probably time to switch them out.
5. What should I do with my old strings?
As long as your old strings haven’t unwound or broken, it’s a good idea to keep them as backups. Accidents happen, and you don’t want to be stuck on the day of a performance with a broken string and no replacement. Your instrument is designed to be under tension, so sudden changes in that tension can also cause changes in your bridge or soundpost placement. Try to avoid leaving your instrument with broken strings for long periods of time.
If you’re starting to build up a collection of old, worn out strings that you don’t need anymore, consider looking into a string recycling program. These programs started appearing in the past decade or two as a way to collect and reuse the metals and alloys in instrument strings. To learn more about these programs and find out how to get involved, check out Warchal’s recycling program and the Playback program hosted by TerraCycle and D’Addario.
6. What string set is the best?
There’s no perfect string set that works well for everyone. Every instrument is different and the way that strings sound on one instrument might be different on another. However, we are happy to recommend some of our favorites when you visit if you’re looking for something different.
Hopefully this has been a useful guide to some basics of string maintenance and finding the right set! As always, we’re happy to answer any questions that you might have about strings that aren’t covered in this list. Stay tuned for our next post where we get specific about the qualities that different strings have to offer.
Thanks for reading! Until next time!