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Why do strings break?

29 Apr 2021
by Jeroen

You may have experienced it before: a broken or blown string. Whether it happens when you first set it up or after a few months of playing: it is always a big disappointment. But strings don't just break. They are designed for durability and each string is subjected to meticulous quality tests by the manufacturer. The chance of a 'defective' string is virtually non-existent. It's more likely to signal that something is wrong with your instrument, or with the way you've set it up.

Life expectancy

Strings have a limited lifespan once they have been put on the instrument. The thin violin and viola strings have an average life span of three to six months, or about 300 playing hours, before they lose their tone quality and stability. An E string is the most fragile. It wears out the fastest (sometimes after only a few weeks) and is also the most likely to break. Thicker strings, such as those on the cello, should be replaced at least once a year.

If you notice that your strings are sounding and playing less well, are discoloured (can't be cleaned off with a cloth) or the winding is starting to fray, it's a sign that it's time to replace them. This way you avoid the drama of a sudden snapping string.

Incorrectly tuned

If in doubt, ask your teacher, luthier or other professional string player for help.

Differences in temperature or humidity

Sudden differences in temperature or humidity (e.g. during transport, entering a warm house in a cold winter, air conditioning in hot summer months, etc.) can cause the wood of your instrument to expand or contract. Apart from the fact that this is not good for your instrument, it will also affect the tuning of your strings. You will be not the first to discover a broken string on opening the case... Therefore, always use a good, insulating case or cover for your instrument. Accessories to stabilise the humidity in your case can have a positive influence.

Sweat and corrosion

Always wipe your strings with a dry cloth after playing. Don't forget the part where you place your fingers above the fingerboard. The sweat and grease from your hands can affect the metal winding or the core. Some strings are more sensitive to this than others (depends on the material they are made of). In the long run internal or external corrosion can occur, causing the string to lose its strength and break unexpectedly.

Imperfections on your instrument

Strings are designed to withstand the great tension between the tailpiece and the tuning pegs, and the violence of arching and pression of your fingers. However, imperfections on your instrument can be the reason why your string suddenly gives up. The place where the string breaks can give a good indication of the flaw.

  • Tailpiece and fine tuners

Strings with a ball end should normally slide smoothly into its intended place in the tailpiece or fine tuner. The ball should be as close as possible to the other side. If the ball is not positioned correctly, the string will not have the correct tension and the risk of breaking will increase significantly.  

If you are using a mi (E) string with a loop, and therefore a fine-tuner with a hook, check regularly that the hook has no sharp edges at the points of contact with the loop. If this is the case, have it touched up by a luthier.

  • Bridge

Are the grooves on the bridge wide enough? Is the bridge not too high (which causes a higher tension)? Watch out for sharp edges.

  • Nut

Check the width of the grooves and for sharp edges. The grooves should also slope down nicely through the scroll to guide the strings in the right direction.

  • The scroll and tuning pegs

Yes, even though ebony is one of the hardest woods in the world, after years of playing you will be able to see or feel certain imperfections on your fingerboard. Unevenness may appear where you place your fingers, or the string grooves may wear down. These inaccuracies contribute to faster string wear. If you think your fingerboard is not quite right, you can have it polished by a luthier.

Hope after reading these tips you'll never have to deal with a sudden string break again!