How to Choose Strings For the Violin

Strings are very personal things. There are so many to choose from and which set will work best for you depends on the individual characteristics of your violin and your playing style. Unlike chin rests and shoulder rests, you cannot realistically try all of the available options before you make your choice. Thus, you may find my review of strings to be, at least, a starting point for choosing a set. It is important neither to underestimate nor to overestimate the effect that different strings can have on an instrument. Sometimes, rather than trying several different sets to try to “fix” a violin that isn’t sounding its best, it makes more sense to evaluate other things that affect the sound, such as placement of the sound post and bridge or maintenance issues such as cracks or open seams. Additionally, focusing on strings may distract you from your true obstacle — technical issues in your playing that you hope will resolve of only you could find the right string set.

There are many different types of strings on the market today, but most of them fall into four main categories:

1) steel strings;

2) gut core strings; and

3) synthetic core strings and

4) a gut and synthetic core blend.

Used primarily on student violins or electrics, steel strings have a very quick response but also a thin, one-dimensional sound. They are also thin and high tension and can cut into the fingers in the higher positions, where they become difficult to press. While most violin e-strings are made of steel, this material is rarely suitable for the other strings (a, d, and g).

Gut is the original material used for violin strings and the only choice for literally hundreds of years. Made of animal intestines (sheep) and sometimes wound with various metals, gut strings have a warm, complex sound. Gut strings were used exclusively until the introduction of synthetics in the early 1970s. These strings are typically wrapped with different metals to improve volume and responsiveness, which was certainly a large improvement over the plain gut strings that were used in previous centuries. Gut has two rather limiting properties. The first is that the strings simply will not stay in tune. Sometimes they even need to be re-tuned several times during a performance. The other issue is that gut strings have a very slow response. For these reasons, gut strings have largely fallen out of favor. The two most popular gut string sets still in use today are both made by Pirastro. These are the Oliv set and the Gold Label.

3) Synthetic strings were introduced in the early 1970s as an alternative to gut. The first synthetic string released was Thomastik-Infeld’s Dominant line. The a, d, and g consist of a “perlon” (plastic) core wrapped in metal. In several ways, these strings were a huge improvement over gut. First, after requiring a few days to stretch, they stay in tune, often for days at a time. Second, they have a very quick response. Third, they were much more responsive and could tolerate much more bow pressure. For these reasons, synthetic-core strings have largely replaced gut and are the choice of most professional violinists, including soloists. One of the first to adopt synthetics was violin soloist Itzakh Perlman, whose gorgeous tone is evidence of how beautiful the synthetics can sound. Dominants “dominated” the synthetic string market for many years, and it took a long time for other companies to launch competing string sets. In recent years, we have seen synthetics with many different core materials from kevlar (Corelli) to a material used for tennis racket strings (D’addarrio zyex). Because most violinists are always searching for a better sound, the new synthetics have gotten a lot of attention but have not necessarily been improvements over the time-tested Dominant string. In my opinion, Pirastro’s relatively recently released Evah Pirazzi string set marked the first excellent alternative to Dominants, and has replaced Dominants for many soloists. (Pirastro won’t tell us what the Evah’s core is actually made of!. Thomastik-Infeld’s repsonse, the Vision string set, is also quite good.

In 2008, Pirastro released a string set that falls into a fourth category, namely a combination of a gut and a synthetic core. This string is called Passione and will be included in my review below.

A few final general hints about string selection: Be careful when you experiment with strings. Each time you change a string, the stability of the bridge is disrupted. If the bridge should lean too far it could snap or collapse. This could cause the wood in the body of the violin to crack. Also, strings needs time to break in. The final sound and responsiveness are usually apparent within 3 to 4 days. Thus, it is generally not wise to judge a string by its initial sound.

Below is my review of strings. It is not a complete list. However, I have included commonly available strings with which I have a reasonable amount of experience, either as a teacher or as a performer.

Dominant strings, recognizable by the purple winding in the peg box, are the original synthetic core string and have a perlon core. They have been considered the industry standard for many years. Dominants are fairly bright and sound good on most instruments. However, the e-string is generally considered to be weaker than the others and is often replaced with a Pirastro gold e-string. Itzakh Perlman is well-known for using Dominant strings throughout most of his career. These strings are a good place to start for almost any violin. Occasionally, players complain of a slightly metallic undertone to the Dominant string sound.

In response to the Dominant string, many string manufacturers began to experiment with synthetic core materials. The Evah Pirazzi String, by Pirastro, has been by far the strongest competition for Dominant strings.

Within the last few years, the Evah Pirazzi set has become the darling of soloists across the globe. They are very powerful and bright strings. However, on a violin with a high arch, these strings can be so tense as to basically crush the sound. Additionally, on instruments that are already overly bright, these strings can sound quite harsh. The greatest soloists of our era certainly need a huge, powerful sound. But for the rest of us, a different string might be a better choice. In fact, I have seen more than one violinist have his bridge collapse when putting on these strings because the tension is so high.

In response to the Evah Pirazzi, Thomastik-Infeld’s most recent addition to its string lineup is the Vision and Vision Titanium string sets. The Titanium Solo is very bright and tense. Some players feel the sound is slightly metallic. However, some luthiers swear by using the “vision titanium orchestra” strings to bring a soft, highly arched instrument back to life.

Pirastro Obligato

Some years ago, Thomastik/Infeld, the manufacturers of Dominants, released Infeld Red and Blue as an attempt to update its brand following the introduction of a myriad array of synthetic core strings that were brought to the market to compete with Dominants. However, these strings have not been particularly successful and probably do not represent an improvement over the original Dominant String. Therefore, I do not recommend purchasing either of these two set

Pirastro Passione

The Passione string by Pirastro is a relatively new addition to the market and a very interesting one. Because it combines a synthetic core with traditional gut, it is advertised as having the sound of gut and the stability of synthetic. In reality, I think pirastro has reached a reasonable compromise with this string. It is definitely not as stable as most synthetic core strings, but does have some of the warmth of gut. However, it is one of the most expensive sets on the market today. These strings can be helpful, though, for a violin with a high arch because of the lower-tension.

Evah Pirazzi

The Evah Pirazzi set, by Pirastro, has become the darling of soloists across the globe. It is very powerful and bright. However, on a violin with a high arch, these strings can be so tense as to basically crush the sound. Additionally, on instruments that are already overly bright, these strings can sound quite harsh. The greatest soloists of our era certainly need a huge, powerful sound. But for the rest of us, a different string might be a better choice. In fact, I have seen more than one violinist have his bridge collapse when putting on these strings because the tension is so high!

Vision strings, along with their brighter siblings, the Vision Titanium strings, are Thomastik/Infeld’s response to the Evah Pirazzi. The Titanium Solo is very bright and tense. Some players feel the sound is slightly metallic. But many luthiers swear by using the “vision titanium orchestra” strings to bring a soft, highly arched instrument back to life. The standard Vision strings are medium tension strings with a warm but clear tone.

The Obligato string, by Pirastro, is another synthetic-core string that is similar to the Evah Pirazzi, but with a slightly slower response and a darker sound. The Obligato was created to compete with gut strings. It is a very popular string and somewhat similar in sound to the Pirastro’s Passione set.

Tonica strings, by Pirastro, were also designed to compete with Thomastik/Infeld’s Dominants. They are cheaper than Dominants but tend to be less powerful and are more dark. It is possible that they tend to wear out more quickly than other strings.

Helicore strings, by D’Addario, are wound strings with a steel core. They are amongst the few steel strings that sound quite good on many instruments. Because of the steel core, they have a very quick and pleasing response. However, they are rarely the “ideal” choice for acoustic violin and are best suited for electrics, in which they are in a class of their own.

The Violino set, also by Pirastro, represents another attempt to compete with Dominants. They tend to have a sweet tone, but with less projection than Dominant strings. They can be a good choice for an instrument that tends to have a harsh sound.

Choosing the right e-string is another crucial part of defining your sound. Almost all e-strings are made of steel. Some are wound, but the majority are not. Most steel e-strings can be combined with any set of strings. A few of the most popular are Pirastro Gold Label, Hill, Westminster, Goldbrokat, and Jargar. Since e-strings are relatively cheap, it is reasonable to try a few. Each one will tend to sound different from one instrument to another. Certainly, however, the Pirastro Gold Label has been considered the gold standard for decades due to its smooth, lush, and powerful sound. However the jargar e string has gained popularity due to its tremendous projection and clear sound.

Another consideration is string gauge. Commonly, each string set comes in three gauges: light, medium, and thick. The thicker the gauge, the higher the tensiojn. Often, a soft violin with a high arch can benefit from a lighter tension to avoid “choking” the sound. However, most instruments with a flatter arch can tolerate a higher tension string, which tends to produce a more powerful sound.

Remember that finding a luthier you trust is essential to keeping your violin sounding as beautiful as possible. He or she can recommend strings to suit your instrument, and can also make sure that your instrument is not in need of repairs that are affecting the sound. As one wonderful luthior once told me, “What affects the sound? The answer is: EVERYTHING!”

Jul 2nd, 2017 | Posted in Music
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