The Violinist.com Guide to Choosing Violin Strings
Which strings are the best? There are no one-size-fits-all answers. Each violin reacts differently to different brands of strings. One type of string may sound amazing on one instruments but sour, dull or too bright on another violin. Each instrument is different, and the unique needs of the violinist are important.
For example, a classical violinist’s strings might not be right for a blue grass fiddler, and vice versa. Some instruments will respond better to some strings than other. String vary in their sound, playability, volume and responsiveness. Each instrument is unique and each player is unique.
The Three Basic Types of Violin Strings:
Synthetic core strings are by far the most popular type of strings, because they are more stable than fickle gut strings but have most of the tonal colors of gut strings, generally speaing. Gut core strings are regarded as having the best tone, but they need to be tuned more often and react to changes in the weather, generally speaking. Steel strings are generally for specialized uses.
Gut Strings. For centuries, all musical strings were made of pure sheep gut — not cat gut, as is popularly believed. In the 16th century, the lower strings (which were the thickest) were wrapped with silver wire to increase mass. Today, gut strings have a gut core and are not entirely made of gut. According to string maker Damian Dlugolecki, “Since wire of silver or copper is several times heavier than gut, applying one, two, or three threads of wire in open wound fashion to a gut string, you create a string equal in tension at a given pitch to a pure gut string of considerably greater diameter.”
Gut strings are known for having a warm, rich sound with many complex overtones. Gut strings tend to take longer to stretch than synthetics, and once stretched they are generally stable but can react to changing weather conditions and generally require more tuning than synthetic core strings. Different string gauges for gut strings can change the quality and power of tone drastically. Usually a smaller gauge gut string will have less carrying power and be rather ‘bright’ sounding, whereas a thicker gauge gut string will be more powerful, gritty and with a higher string tension. Musicians playing Baroque or early music often prefer gut strings for the sound.
Steel Core Strings. Soon, steel strings became more popular than gut among non-classical players. Strings made of steel core have a direct, clear sound, and few overtones, although those that are wound can have more interesting overtones. They are much more stable in pitch than gut. They also last longer. They are very bright sounding, and sometimes thin, although again the thinness can be negated by windings. They are also good for smaller, entry-level or beginner instruments.
Synthetic Core Strings were invented in the early 1970’s when Thomastik-Infeld began producing the revolutionary Dominants, made from nylon perlon. Since then, manufacturers have created many new brands of synthetic strings using other high-tech nylons and composite materials. Synthetic Core strings have the warm sound qualities of gut, but are much more stable pitch.
Violin String Gauges:
Most strings are available in different thicknesses and tensions. With a thick string, you will get more volume and more center to the tone. With a thin string, you will get a ‘brighter’ sound with less carrying power.
Major Violin String Brands on the Market Today:
Dominant – These time-tested synthetic core strings are a great choice for students or anyone wanting a quality string at a reasonable price. Dominant strings are probably the most popular strings in the world. They are the default choice for many violinists, including in various combinations with other strings. These strings, like all perlon core strings, have a highly flexible, multi-strand nylon core and cater for artists who feel uncomfortable with steel strings. The sound of the Dominant string is full and mellow with rich overtones. It is radiant and can project without sounding metallic. While some believe Dominant strings are comparable in sound quality to gut without the disadvantages of gut strings, some disagree. However, these strings are clearly a step up from the early metal strings. Dominant strings do tend to have the tendency to unwind. They come in 3 Gauges: Stiff, Medium and Soft. Pick according to your instrument or mix and match. (Note: you will need to play them in for a few days to get rid of any metallic edge that they often have fresh out of the package). They have to be changed at regular intervals to keep the sound.
Evah Pirazzi – Evah Pirazzi synthetic core strings have an unbelievably powerful sound, range and modulation. Full, round sound and stability coupled with easy response and playability. Available in thick, medium, and thin. You can get a great sound without a lot of effort. Warm and brilliant sound, but must be changed often. Some players find the strings over-rated, and the higher tension may be too high for some instruments, again demonstrating that the match between instrument and string is a challenge.
Larsen Tzigane – These new synthetic core strings have received very favorable reviews from violinists. They seem to have rich undertones and a nice timbre range for synthetic strings, good projection with less tension than other strings, and responsiveness.
Pirastro Passione – These gut strings are still new but have received favorable comments from some musicians. Pirastro claims that these modern gut strings have complex overtones characteristic of gut strings, like Eudoxa and Oliv, but with better stability and a shorter break-in time than typical gut strings. Early reviews seem to agree. They have wonderful undertones without most of the stability problems of other gut strings.
Pirastro Eudoxa – Pirastro Eudoxa gut strings have a wonderfully rich, warm and quite full sound. The response tends to be slower (although compared to Kaplan Golden Spirals, they tend to be easier to play), and they can sound dull on some new instruments. These strings are said to be best on old German and Italian violins, but such a statement shouldn’t prevent you from experiencing the richness of gut. Note: If you are wanting gut strings on your viola, but find the C string too unresponsive, either lower the gauge, or try Corelli‘s viola gut C strings (they also make a viola gut G string.
Piastro Oliv – These excellent gut strings have more brilliance and a quicker response than Eudoxy (and more precious metals in the windings), but they have a high price tag. They can be an absolute joy to play when married to a “matching” instrument. Any gut string will require some playing-in time to stretch the string (when the string then becomes more stable), and before they will perk up to their full potential.
Thomastik-Vision – The Vision line of strings by Thomastik have a short break-in period, ease of playing, and high stability. According to the maker, they have a “focused, clear, open and brilliant” tone, although some players report them to be a little bright and one-dimensional on their violins. Made from an innovative and strong composite synthetic core, they come in Solo (Titanium), Orchestral (Titanium) and “Regular” (Not Titanium) variety depending on what type of sound you would like to produce. The Titanium Solo strings are very powerful and brilliant sounding with a lot of modulation and decent overtones, although these overtones can be quite sour on some instruments, and some players find the tone one-dimensional. The Orchestra line have similar characteristics as the Soloist but are warmer and catered to ensemble and orchestra playing, with high mudulation and long string life. The non-titanium regular variety are comparable to, but surpass, Dominants in their durability and sound, some believe. A newe solo version of the regular Vision strings (non-titanim) has received favorable reviews from some musicians. Vision strings come in three thicknesses and can be mixed-and-matched with other strings.
Pirastro Wondertone Solo – These strings are supposed to be the best of both worlds between Evah Pirazzi and Obligato: the color and power of Evah’s with the richness and darkness of Obligatos, while simultaneously being like Visions and having a very short break in period with extreme stability. They accomplish this fairly well, and the consequence is less power than Evah’s and a somewhat harsh sound at first. After playing them in, the sound becomes quite round. They are remarkably stable and settle very quickly. The G can be rather edgy, and both E strings that come with the set whistle a lot on most instruments. A Hill E works well. Best for newer instruments that need more depth. Last a long time.
Damian Dlugolecki – Dlugolecki’s strings are considered by many to be some of the finest gut strings on the market. He makes his strings both varnished and unvarnished upon request. Varnished strings are great for players that live in humid climates or who have a harder time keeping the fingerboard dry. Dlugolecki strings stretch very quickly and have a great response. Players are able to request custom gauges when ordering, unlike ordering from a string distributor where there are hardly any options (if any) to specify a gauge size for gut strings.
Kaplan Golden Spiral – These gut core strings produce very rich and warm sound. They are said to be excellent for solo and ensemble playing. They can be hard to play in and sluggish, although the “Solo” line is less so.
Obligato – Obligato strings, of all synthetic-core strings, seem to come the closest to sounding like a gut-core string. (Don’t be fooled however–these aren’t the synthetic answer to gut–they’re is no definitive answer yet!) However, they are more responsive and more brilliant than gut strings. The Obligato gold E string is a very nice string, being less tonally agressive than the Eudoxa Oliv gold E string (although like all gold E strings, it tends to whistle). Good for overly bright instruments.
Pirastro Tonica – One of Pirastro’s answers to Thomastik’s Dominants (the other being Aricore strings). These share a lot of the virtues of Dominants, although they tend to have a little more complexity, and usually do not suffer from a metallic edge when first put on an instrument. A very fine, multi-purpose string. If you think you like only Dominants, you should give Tonicas a try.
Pirastro Violino – Orignally marketed as a student string, their price, while hardly prohibitive, is not insignificant. However, of all the synthetic strings, these are probably the “sweetest.” What they lack in projection, they make up for in sweetness. If you have an instrument that needs taming, or has plenty of power but not an interesting tone, these strings are worth a try.
D’Addario Zyex – D’Addario Zyex strings have a bright, focused quality and must be played for a few days before they reach their best sound. Some players find that gradations in the piano range are more difficult to obtain with these strings.
D’Addario Pro Arte – D’Addario Pro Arte strings sound dark and smooth, They are used best on bright, rough-sounding violins.
D’Addario Helicore – These are steel core strings that are warm-sounding, and like all steel strings, are very responsive. They sport more interesting overtones than many metal strings due to their unique windings.
Larsen (regular) – Larsen strings are powerful and brilliant, but the D and G strings tend to lose their sound quality quickly and suddenly. The viola A string is popular with some violists, although on some instruments they can be overly aggressive. They have a similar core to Dominants, so they have less tension. Some say they are even more colorful and powerful than Dominants. These strings are in the middle range of prices nowadays.
Corelli Alliance Vivace – These strings are based on a composite core. While focused, they also provide rich overtones. They tend to be more powerful in terms of projection than Obligato strings, if not quite as sweet, while lacking the harshness that the Evah’s can bring to some instruments. Like Dominants, they work well on many instruments and live good, long lives. They also respond quickly in all positions.
SuperSensitive Red Label – These are all-steel strings that tend to be preferred by fiddlers. They are often found on school instruments because of the one of three virtues that they have: they are practically indestructible. The other virtue is that they are very inexpensive, the third being very appropriate for fiddling. While totally appropriate for fiddling, however, classical players traditionally do not appreciate the plain sound, or brittle and harshness, of these strings, especially in the hands of novices. SuperSensitive has come out with its own less-expensive perlon-core strings, SuperSensitive Octava, that should share virtues of other perlon core strings while supposedly winning on price. However, they seem to be thicker than other perlon strings, and the sound, when compared to the veneberable Dominants or more interesting Tonicas just don’t compete well. (They also have perlon-core SuperSensitive Sensicore strings, which some artists, such as Joseph Silverstein, use).
Jargar – These are fine steel strings, having warmth that SuperSensitive Red Labels lack. Many violists are devoted to the A string because of its ability to balance with other strings while taming what can be a difficult beast of a range for the viola. According to the Ifshin website (referenced below), ‘cellists also appreciate this string.
Warchal Strings – The most recent string company on the market, their new products are excellent. Their Ametyst set is lower in tension and comes close in feel and playability to Eudoxa. Their Karneol set is higher in tension but more brilliant and more overtones. It is a highly resonant string with lots of ring to it and a wide range of colours and modulation. It also projects extremely well. TheBrilliant set is of the new synthetic core type like Pirastro’s Obligato and Evah Pirazzi, though the material and concept are different. Matched with the right instrument these strings will offer a brilliant, focused sound that is round with lots of resonance. They are also very long lasting.
Finding the right E string for your instrument…
It is important to find an E string that matches with your violin. Although the string within one complete set can be good on some violins, some violins will benefit from using a different kind or brand of E. It is worth experimenting. Finding the right E string for your instrument can change the character of your entire instrument. Some companies, like Hill and Westminster make only E strings, while most others are available seperately from their respective sets. Goldbrokat and Pirastro GoldE strings are popular choices and inexpecsive. Since E strings are inexpensive, do experiment! It is worth the time, money and effort.
Whistling E-string and The Kaplan Solutions ‘Whistle Free’ E-string
Violins that are very rich in overtones whistle nearly always when having the E string played on with a quick bow speed or sudden string change. The only string that supposedly guaranties ‘non-whistling’is the Kaplan Solutions. Although this string claims to not whistle, it falls short in many other respects; its tonal projection is very small.
Identifying the Strings on Your Instrument:
If you’re having trouble remembering which strings are on your instrument, here are two useful sources for identifying strings by sight:
Buying Your Violin Strings:
Violin shops sell strings as convenience to their customers, and will even change your strings for you if you ask. But shop prices are often as high as 100% above mail-order prices. This is, in part, because string inventory maintenance is time-consuming and expensive for instrument dealers and luthiers. The cheapest way to purchase strings for your instrument is to comparison-shop over the internet. A quick Google search will bring up dozens of string dealers, ranging from well-known violin shops such as Shar to unexpected sources, such as the Woodwind and Brasswind catalogue. Prices change frequently, so check every time you order. Often, full sets are cheaper than individual strings; if you prefer a mix of strings on your instruments, your costs may be slightly higher. Be sure to factor in shipping and handling prices when you order.