Help! Which strings do I need?
Both for violin, viola, cello and double bass there are currently quite a number of brands, string types and tensions. But which strings are the best? Or more accurate: which strings are the best for your instrument? There is not one clear answer to this question, but with this short guide we can already guide you to the right path so you can at least refine your choice!
The three major kinds of strings
Strings for string instrument can roughly be subdivided into three types.
Strings with gut core
Traditionally strings for string instruments were made from sheep or cattle gut (hence the name cat gut; this has got nothing to do with cat intestines!). Up to the beginning of the 20th century only gut strings were played on, and even now they remain immensely popular. There are two kinds of gut strings: unwound (naked) or wound with some kind of metal. Unwound strings are mainly used on period (baroque) instruments, whereas wound gut strings even today have huge advantages over synthetic and metal strings.
Advantages of gut strings:
- Rich and full sound
- Give loud instruments a warmer sound
- Produce a lot of overtones
- Allow for a lot of sound colours
- Available in a big number of kinds and tensions in order to fit several instruments.
Disadvantages of gut strings:
- Usually more expensive than synthetic or metal strings
- Need (a lot) more time to break in
- Untune more quickly (e.g. change of temperature, change of humidity)
- Shorter life span
- Less sound volume than most synthetic and metal strings
Gut strings are ideal for:
- Period (baroque) instruments
- Instruments that sound loud or sharp by nature
- Musicians looking for a warmer, more colourful sound
Have a look at our overview of available gut strings for violin, viola and cello and their main characteristics!
Strings with synthetic core
Strings with a synthetic core date back to the sixties and are relatively new. The core of this type of string consists of a synthetic material (usually nylon, a nylon derivative, or composite materials), and are wound with a metal (usually aluminum, chrome steel, silver or gold). Synthetic strings try to combine the advantages of gut core strings with the advantages of a synthetic core: they can sound as warm as gut strings, but are much more stable (in tuning) and are easier and quicker to play in. Synthetic core strings are currently the most popular type of string.
Advantages of synthetic core strings:
- Large and varied offer
- Different options: from warm and intimate to shiny and powerful
- Quicker to break in than gut strings
- Stay more in tune than gut strings
- Easier bow and left-hand response than gut strings
- From pretty cheap...
Disadvantages of synthetic core strings:
- ... to very expensive!
- Some types of synthetic strings have a limited lifetime (among other things racking due to sweat)
- Despite recent developments they still lack the complexity (over- and undertones) of gut strings
Synthetic core strings are ideal for:
- Modern (newly built) instruments that don't react well on the low tension of gut core strings
- Instruments that need more articulation than is possible with gut core strings
- String players that want to experiment with different types of sound, because of the large offering in synthetic core string types
- String players on a tighter budget
- Young/student string players: popular sets are available in smaller sizes.
Have a look at our overview of available synthetic core strings for violin, viola and cello and their main characteristics!
Strings with metal core
Strings with a purely metal core started to arrive at the beginning of the 20th century, mainly to overcome the disadvantages of gut core strings. In general metal core strings have a very open, brilliant sound that however is far less complex than synthetic core strings, and certainly gut core strings. They can be used in a large number of situations and are also very popular with beginning students due to their low price, but also jazz, folk and pop musicians like them. They are a perfect fit for electrical instruments. Recently a lot of development has been put into metal core strings and so nowadays they are usually wound with different metals such as silver, aluminum, chrome steel or a different complex metal. For cello, metal core strings are even more of a rule than an exception. The most colourful cello G and C strings are wound with tungsten, a special and pricy metal.
Advantages of metal core strings:
- Powerful, projecting sound
- Very short break-in period
- Very stable, little untuning because of temperature of humidity changes
- Usually cheaper than synthetic and gut core strings
- Easy to play: very fast and clear response
- Usually long lasting
Disadvantages of metal core strings:
- Far less complex/colourful sound
- The cheapest metal strings might produce a rather shrill sound
- Difficult to make sound variations
Metal core strings are ideal for:
- Instruments that sound "closed" and need more power
- String players that are looking for more volume
- Students, due to the often lower prices and long-lasting materials
- Alternative genres musicians: folk, jazz and electrical instruments
Have a look at our overview of available metal core strings for violin, viola and cello and their main characteristics!
Tension: light, medium or strong?
A lot of string types are available in a couple of different thicknesses, or tensions. The designation differs a little bit per brand, but their function is always the same.
- Standard tension (medium, normal, mittel...): this is the most used tension, because the manufacturer has taken it as a standard that works well for most instruments. If you're not sure which tension you need, always take medium tension. There's only point in changing tension when you encounter clear problems or disadvantages.
- Strong tension (high, heavy, stark, thick...): strings with a higher tension are slightly thicker than their normal tension brothers. Because they are thicker, they have to be wound up more in order to reach the same pitch, so they are called "high tension". A string with a higher tension will usually result in a more powerful sound (but watch out: it could also "pinch up" your instrument!), but will also be more difficult to play in terms of response as the heavier tension requires a little more effort. If you encounter the latter as a problem, it means your string could be of a tension that is too high for your instrument. Try a lower tension string.
- Low tension (low, light, leicht, thin...): low tension strings are slightly thinner than strings with normal tension. Thinner strings have to be wound up less tightly to reach the same pitch, so they have a lower tension. Thinner tension strings are used to get a more clear/open sound, however usually at cost of pure volume. Lower tension also improves responsiveness of the string, both in left and right hand. A shrill sound or "overresponsive" strings (where the sound might jump off and become crackly) could indicate a tension that is too low. Use a higher tension string to compensate for this problem.
Do note that each instrument might react differently on tension changes. There is no 100% certain outcome!
For violin and viola: string with ball or with loop end
The E string for violins (and the A string for some violas) can use two different connecting systems: with a loop, or with a ball (as all the other strings on the instrument). You can easily check yourself on your instrument what kind of E string you have: if there's a small hook on your finetuner, then you need a loop end E string. In all other cases you need a ball end E string. Both systems can be integrated into your tailpiece, or might use an external, separate system. The ball end option is by far the most used one, and certainly if you have a study instrument the tailpiece will almost certainly be suited for ball end strings.
Some manufacturers use a system where you can remove the ball of the string so it fits on a loop end system. If a string uses this system, it's always clearly indicated on the product page. In that case you don't need to select a ball or loop end option as there is only 1 type of this particular string.
Need more help?
Finding the right string is a quest in itself: despite all general rules, all instruments react differently on certain types of strings, and the differences can be huge. A string that in theory should fit your instrument or your sound expectations, could in practice not work at all! If you can't seem to find what you are looking for and need help with selecting the right string, then we'd love to hear from you and help you! Contact us by mail on [email protected] or leave a message through the contact form on this website.