Choosing the right E string: what are the differences?
E strings for violins are these days available with quite a number of options and windings. That's not very unlogical. The E string has always been a "special case". On the one side a violinist is looking for sufficient projection, but on the other hand it is the string with the most risk of sounding too shrill.
Moreover it pays to experiment with differend kinds of E strings: a different E string can have a great influence on the complete sound of your instrument, as the balance of tension can shift to the lower strings, or the opposite.
You can experiment by trying to take into account the following possibilities:
- The core of the strings: metal or gut
- The winding: blank, or plated, or wound with some type of metal
- The tension/thickness
Different types of core material
These days E strings are almost always made with a metal core. Back in the days only gut strings were used, and also today this remains a viable option that you shouldn't entirely overlook. However it's not very common anymore to go for a full gut E string. If you choose to do so, make sure you combine it with other (modern wound or unwound) gut strings, like Pirastro Eudoxa, Oliv, Gold or Passione (Solo). Also remember that gut E strings come with a knot end instead of the usual ball or loop end.
A gut E string will always be unwound, because it becomes too thick otherwise. So if you choose a gut E string, you'll play on a naked, unwound gut string. The major advantage of a gut string is that it is very rich in overtones and sounds warm. However, there are some major drawbacks: lifespan is the biggest issue, and they are also very reactive to temperature and humidity changes. They project less than metal core strings.
A popular example of a naked gut string is the Pirastro Chorda series.
Steel E strings come in two options:
- Plated or wound with tin/silvery steel, aluminum, gold, platinum, chrome steel and titanium.
Unwound strings can also be indicated with the terms plain steel, carbon steel or stainless steel. These are the most "simple" strings, but make no mistake: there are differences in quality between brands and types. This mainly has to do with the quality and purity of the steel and the amount of chromium.
Unwound steel strings have as advantage that they are usually very cheap, very responsive and sound projecting. However the disadvantage of blank steel is that it can easily sound too shrill or sharp and may mix less well with warmer synthetic strings because of that.
Popular unwound E strings can be found in the Pirastro Evah Pirazzi Gold, Lenzner/Optima Goldbrokat, William E. Hill, Westminster and Dominant sets (Dominant has a specific unwound steel string; aluminum wound is the standard E string in the set though).
Tinned/silvery steel strings
These strings are the standard to mix with synthetic strings. The core consists of solid steel, but has been tinned to allow for more sound colours.
Tinned strings have as advantage that they allow for a more complex sound, remain responsive and also remain rather cheap. There life span is usually shorter though.
Gold plated strings
Gold! That has to be good, right? Gold plated strings make the string slightly heavier and thicker. This results in a less sharp sound compared to other kinds of E strings.
The advantages of gold plated E strings are therefore a warmer sound with more rich overtones. They also have some drawbacks: they are relatively expensive, don't have a very long lifespan and are prone to whistling when playing an open string.
The most well known gold plated E strings can be found in the Pirastro Obligato, Pirastro Evah Pirazzi, Pirastro Oliv, Larsen Original and Thomastik-Infeld Peter Infeld string types, usually as a separate option.
Platinum plated strings
Platinum, even better than gold? Maybe, depending on your instrument. They have quite the same characteristics as gold plated strings, but go a little further.
So the advantages are an even more complex, richer sound than gold plated strings. But as disadvantage they are very expensive (the most expensive E strings), have a limited life span (sound quality decreases rather quickly) and they are prone to whistling.
Titanium plated strings
You can usually view titanium plated strings as an upgrade compared to tinned/silvery steel E strings. They offer a projecting, full sound, but have as extra advantage that they are less sensible to sweat, and therefore have a longer life span. They also allow for a slightly more complex sound and dynamic range. But of course this means, as a disadvantage, that they are more expensive.
Aluminum wound strings
Aluminum wound E strings have a solid metal core, but they are completely wound with aluminum wire. This means these strings are thicker and heavier than there unwound or plated brothers. This results in a sound advantage: they barely suffer from the "whistling" problem and offer a warmer, darker sound. The disadvantage can be the life span, even though they are slightly more expensive: aluminum is sensitive to sweat. Because these strings are heavier, they are also slightly less responsive.
The by far most popular aluminum wound E string is the standard E string from the Thomastik-Infeld Dominant set. Very interesting as well are the D'Addario Kaplan Non-Whistling E string, or the Pirastro Eudoxa and Pirastro Tonica E strings.
Chrome steel wound strings
Last but not least are the chrome steel wound E strings. They follow the line of the aluminum wound E strings, but have as extra advantage that they are far less sensitive to sweat. The disadvantages are largely the same as with aluminum wound E strings, but they tend to be more expensive.
The most well known chrome wound E string is the Pirastro No. 1.
Apart from materials strings are also different from each other in terms of tension. Between different set types there can already be major differences. Larsen violin strings are for example known for their low tension, while Pirastro Evah Pirazzi strings belong to the top in terms of tension. But in one and the same set type (and E string) you often have a choice between low, medium or high tension.
The rule of thumb in chosing the right tension is the following:
- Standard tension (medium, normal, mittel...): this is by far the most used tension because the string maker has choosen this standard as the one that suits the largest number of instruments. If you're not sure which tension you need, always take medium tension strings. It only makes sense to experiment with tension if you encounter clear problems related to tension.
- High tension (high, heavy, stark, thick...): strings with heavy tension are slightly thicker than their brothers with medium tension. Because they are thicker, they have to be wound up more to reach the same pitch, hence the reference to high tension. A heavy tension string will in most circumstances result in more volume (but beware: too much tension might also "strangle" your instrument and sound!), but also less responsiveness because a thicker string is more difficult to put into motion. If you recognize this as a problem with your instrument, than you're better of with medium or low tension strings.
- Light tension (low, light, leicht, thin...): strings with a light tension are slightly thinner than strings with standard medium tension. Thinner strings have to be wound up less to reach the same pitch, and therefore have a lower tension. This thinner tension is often used to reach a more clear/open sound that is howevever slightly softer in terms of pure volume. The low tension is also beneficial for the responsiveness of the strings. A shrill sound or hypersensitive strings can indicate a tension that is too low: in this case, use strings with standard or high tension.