One of the more bewildering aspects of looking after your violin is knowing what strings to buy – there are so many options and such a wide price range, it's often difficult knowing where to start with them. Fear not, because we can talk you through it!
Originally, violin strings were made of gut. No, they were never made from cat gut, so don't don't worry about your sweet little moggy ending up as string fodder, it's always been sheep gut: cats don't have the, well, stomach for it! If you're interested in how gut strings are made Tony Robinson's Worst Jobs In History documentary available here https://youtu.be/i7Pkgw5Bs18 has a section on it and, as the title suggests, it's not the nicest job in the world. Traditional gut strings are only used in period music so it's unlikely you'll encounter them unless you go down that very specific route, so we won't spend too much time on them. Thin strings were typically one piece of gut and thicker ones could be plaited from thin strands. They were rather dull sounding in sound, fragile and tended not to intonate very well due to inconstancies along the length of the string, so they were challenging compared to the strings we have today.
As technology advanced, thick gut strings were replaced by thinner strings with a thin bead of metal coiled around them. Initially this was just done to the G string of a violin, but by the post war 20th Century all but the top string were made from this style of construction. Since these strings were much brighter in sound and it wasn't practical to extend the technology to a string fine enough to tune to a high E, the E string was replaced by a solid metal string. The metal used for the winding can be a number of types of metal but most common are are aluminium and silver, with stainless steel and chrome also occasionally used. Different metals have different properties and are often paired with slightly different cores, so a silver D will often be a little thinner than an aluminium D allowing a slightly quicker response. This style of string is still popular today and many professional players use wound gut strings such as Pirastro Oliv and Eudoxa.
During the 20th Century many advances were made in terms of man made materials to do the job of rope and string, and one of those is nylon. Nylon was quickly adopted in place of gut for classical guitar string making and also quickly found its way onto violins. Some string manufacturers have subsequently developed more sophisticated nylon based materials that better replicate the performance of gut strings, and popular examples of this synthetic gut are Thomastik Dominant and Pirastro Evah Pirazzi. Synthetic strings are otherwise constructed exactly like wound gut strings.
As the violin became more and more popular as a beginner instrument for school children, a limiting factor was the cost of such strings and efforts were made to come up with cheaper options than gut or nylon. Metal core strings that are similar in construction to acoustic and electric guitar strings have become standardised on entry level instruments and now make up the entry level market for violin strings. Metal strings have a very distinctive sound that some people prefer and, as well as the entry level metal strings there is a niche of better quality metal core strings, often using multiple rope-like strands of metal rather than a single thick core. In either case, the string will be wound with a second metal coiled around the core just like a gut or synthetic string so they look similar from the outside. Dogal is a good example of a solid core metal violin string whilst D'Addario Helicore is a popular stranded (or rope) core string.
The only advantage to unwound gut strings is that they are authentic in terms of how the violin that Bach or Vivaldi wrote for would have sounded in the era, so they're interesting in that respect because they allow us to hear the instrument as the composer would have heard them; however they're expensive, fragile, very short life span and for modern ears they don't sound as we expect a violin to sound.
Modern wound gut strings have a powerful yet warm and full sound that for many pro players is ideal. Like the unwound ones they're expensive and, although they're stronger and more stable than an unwound gut string, they still have a much shorter life span so unless you're a serious player they're an expensive option, if a very good sounding one. Wound gut strings tend to need playing in so they need a little planning if you play professionally, making sure you have enough time to bed in your new strings before a performance (or indeed lesson if you're still taking them). Lastly, gut strings are more susceptible to variances in atmospheric conditions – temperature and humidity will cause strings to go out of tune much more than synthetic materials.
Synthetic gut strings are for many people the sweet spot for sound quality vs practical benefits. They're durable, have better tuning stability, are longer lasting than gut and take less time to settle in after a restring so they have a lot to recommend them and they generally sound extremely good – to the extent you may even prefer them to gut core strings. The only disadvantage is cost but nowadays with synthetic strings at just over £20 a set they're a good option for anyone looking for good tone.
Metal strings are very durable and stable so they're a popular choice for beginners, although the trade off can be a rather harsh sounding string. A solid core string is often running at a higher tension than a gut or synthetic core string and they're typically also a little thinner, so they're not always the most comfortable string to play on either. However there's a definite niche for stranded core metal strings such as Helicores and if you want a bright, brilliant sound they're worth considering.
It's surprising how much difference a good string makes to even a very basic violin. Ironically, the most basic instruments are typically naturally quite thin sounding and a better quality, warmer sounding string is a good way to sweeten the instrument. However, we understand that putting a set of Olivs on a £100 violin is out of most people's budget. If you have a budget violin you want to restring, we recommend sets around the £20-30 mark such as Thomastik Alphague or Pirastro Tonicas as being relatively affordable yet will almost certainly sound better than the metal core factory strings.
Thomastik Dominants remain a popular choice for teachers and, although they're a little more expensive, will likely sound better again but it's up to you what you think is reasonable on a student level violin. No one will think less of you for spending £20 rather than £100 on a set of strings for your Stentor.
This is a good question!
If you compare an entry level violin to a more expensive one, one thing you'll often notice is the cheap one has those handy little fine adjusters on the tailpiece and the expensive one doesn't. This is largely down to string technology; gut or synthetic core strings are inherently stretchy so when you change the pitch at the peg it takes a relatively large amount of adjustment to make a relatively small change in pitch. In contrast, a solid core metal string that you might find on a beginner instrument will move a lot in pitch from a relatively small amount of movement at the peg. Because of this it's fairly easy to tune a gut core string using the peg alone, but rather frustrating to try to get the same perfect pitch out of a solid metal string just with the peg, so if you're using metal strings the fine adjusters save a lot of time and effort with tuning.
Fine tuners are not well suited to use with gut strings but in practice we recommend them on all the other types purely for the ease of adjustment – synthetic strings are easy enough to tune without them but think of it as like driving an automatic, there's no rocket science to driving manual but it's nice not having to!
Yes, pretty much. The main thing to note with cellos is that metal core strings are much more popular for professional level cellos than they are for violins, and several of the leading cello strings – such as Jargar and Larsen - are metal or rope core strings.
The inherent tonal quality of the string will be evident on every violin but it's important to note that, as each violin has its own tonal qualities, not every string suits every violin and just because a string sounds perfect on someone else's violin there's no guarantee it will sound as good on yours. If you own a nice instrument then I would always recommend being open to trying different things to see if anything suits it better than the obvious choice.
Yes, you can – the worst case scenario mixing strings is that you end up with an unbalanced sound, but some people consciously mix different string brands for a particular sound. One of our regular teachers uses a different brand for each of the four strings to get the absolute best out of his violin! The violin below has a mix of Dominants and Wondertones on it - fortunately branded violin strings are easy to identify because they have unique coloured silk windings at the end so if you don't know what's on there already it's easy to find out.
Here's a brief summary of twelve of the most popular violin strings and their significant qualities. You can find the current prices on the product pages linked, but to help navigate we'll arrange them in order of cheapest to most expensive.
Astrea A basic metal core string ideal for replacing old or broken strings on beginner level violins. They're rather thin sounding but very affordable and a consitent and reliable choice on a very tight budget.
Dogal A metal core string with a bronze winding to try to make them a little warmer sounding than other entry level strings. A fairly good sounding string for the price although now that they're nudging the price of some of the synthetic options it's worth spending the little extra for the synthetics if you can afford it.
Thomastik Alphayue A fairly new product designed to compete with Pirastro Tonicas, these are synthetic core strings that will really bring a student violin to life for a relatively cheap price. They're a warm sounding string and relatively low tension so they feel much nicer to play on than Astreas or Dogals. Compared to more expensive synthetic strings they have a little less body in the low end to Thomastik's best selling Dominants but they're much cheaper so as a value for money option we're really keen on them.
Pirastro Tonica Very similar to Alphayue, Tonicas have been the best selling entry level synthetic string for many years and they sound extremely good for a relatively low price. If you're looking for a warm but affordable string they bridge the gap between Alphayue and Dominant very well.
D'Addario Helicore A rope core string with a fairly bright and clean tone. They're a little less complex than Jargars or Larsens but Helicores are very popular folk strings and work well on electric instruments.
Jargar Original These are a professional quality metal core string that's fairly high tension with a loud, strident but relatively warm tone for a metal string.
Larsen Original A synthetic string (cello versions are rope core) that's fairly bright and clear in character, filling the gap between metal and synthetic strings.
Thomastik Dominant The classic synthetic core string, Dominants have a warm and full sound for the price. They're a good middle of the road string that sound good on pretty much any instrument, so they're a great starting point of you're making your first foray into better quality strings, and many pro players use them.
Pirastro Obligato A very warm and rich sounding premium synthetic string, closer in tonal quality to a gut core string such as a Eudoxa than a synthetic such as Dominant.
Pirastro Evah Pirazzi The best selling premium synthetic string, more top end ring and more strident than Obligatos but still with a fuller bottom end than Dominants.
Pirastro Eudoxa A classic gut core string with a very warm, sweet tone.
Pirastro Oliv Another gut string more brilliant sounding with complex overtones.