Credits: Richard Ward
Not long ago, I found an old catalog (circa 1960) from William Lewis & Son in Chicago when they were one of the largest violin shops in the world. I noticed the limited selection of strings available to musicians at the time. You could choose from a few steel-core strings, primarily designed for students, or gut-core. There were familiar names like Pirastro, Thomastik-Infeld, and Jargar along with others that have since disappeared. This was more than a decade before Thomastik-Infeld would introduce its revolutionary Dominant perlon-core strings.
Today there more kinds of traditional gut-core strings than there were 40 years ago, a dozen or so synthetic-core strings that are routinely stocked by the larger stringed-instrument specialists, and a multitude of steel-core strings. Most of these strings have been introduced in the last few years. The major string manufacturers are constantly introducing new products, which can be overwhelming and confusing for musicians. But a little knowledge will help you through the string-buying maze.
Keep in mind that there is no single perfect string for everyone. The trick is to find a string that complements the qualities of your instrument and your playing style. Below you will find a guide to the basic qualities of each type of string—gut, synthetic, and steel—followed by a breakdown (alphabetically by manufacturer) of the specifics of brands and lines. The list is limited to violin strings readily available in the U.S. and does not include some of the lowest-priced strings, which are aimed at beginning students. The manufacturers’ list prices shown are for complete sets of E, A, D, and G; some sets are available with alternate winding options on certain strings, so a price range is shown. Be aware that actual retail prices vary widely from these list prices.
Musical-instrument strings have been made of sheep or lamb intestine since the earliest days. Until the end of the 19th century, gut strings were the only strings available. On the violin, the E, A, and D strings were usually plain unwrapped gut. The G string has taken different forms to reduce mass, using forms of twisting, braiding, and wrapping. Today, musicians specializing in early-music performance are among the few using plain gut strings. Most who use gut-core strings use those that are wrapped with silver or aluminum.
Gut-core strings have their own unique sound, which is very full and complex with lots of overtones. Of all types, these strings have the slowest response. On many instruments there is a slight resistance, or "catch," on note or bowing changes, an effect that is more pronounced on some instruments than others. Because they are lower in tension, gut strings tend to feel softer and more pliable under the finger.
The major disadvantage is that they are rather unstable in response to temperature and humidity changes and thus tend to go out of tune frequently. When first installed, gut-core strings need about a week to stretch out before they have any kind of stability at all. Some musicians get tired of the constant tuning. The sound of these strings, however, can be beautiful, and although manufacturers of synthetic-core strings often claim their strings sound just like gut, they usually don’t.
Kaplan Golden Spiral ($53–$59) and Golden Spiral Solo ($64–$71) strings are made by D’Addario, one of America’s largest string makers. I have found the sound to be similar to Pirastro Gold (see below). The solo version is a bit more brilliant and is available in different gauges.
String maker Damian Dlugolecki (520 S.E. 40th St., Troutdale, OR 97060;  669-7966; http://www.damianstrings.com) makes all kinds of traditional gut strings and has a good reputation. Each string is sold separately (Es and some As in sets of two); a full set will add up to $37–$90.
Pirastro Chorda strings ($38) are made for early-music specialists with violins set up for Baroque performance. The E, A, and D are plain gut, and the G is wrapped with silver-plated copper wire. They are designed to be tuned to a 415 A. (A= 415 is one of many older—and lower—"standard" pitches. The lower pitch makes for a more mellow sound. Modern pitch in the U.S. is typically 440 hertz. In Europe the standard is sometime higher—445 or 450—which gives the orchestras a more aggressive, brilliant tone.)
Pirastro Eudoxa strings ($57) have been on the market for a long time and were the standard string for many years. They have a dark, warm, and quite full sound. The response is rather slow, and they can sound dull on some (especially newer) instruments. Eudoxa strings work best on old German and Italian violins, especially those with a higher arching.
The Pirastro Gold ($48) is another old-timer, often referred to as "Gold Label." Less expensive than Olivs or Eudoxas, the Gold Label comes in only one gauge and has a sound somewhere between those of the other labels. The E string is one of the most popular on the market and works well with many other strings.
Pirastro’s premiere gut-core string, Oliv ($89), has been on the market for almost 40 years. The sound is moderately brilliant with quick response for a gut-core string. You can dig in and get lots of sound from these excellent strings. The G string uses a gold alloy wrapping, and the E string is gold-plated steel with a beautiful, clear, and pure sound.
SYNTHETIC-CORE STRINGSIn the early 1970s, Thomastik-Infeld revolutionized violin-string making by introducing Dominant perlon-core strings. The claim was that now you could have a string that sounded like a gut-core string but didn’t have the disadvantages of pitch instability and slow response. These strings use a core of perlon (a type of nylon) wrapped with silver or aluminum. Within a day or two of installing the strings, they stretch out and stabilize. The core isn’t affected by changes in temperature and humidity nearly as much as gut, so these strings stay in tune much better. They also have a quicker response. Since the introduction of Dominant strings, other manufacturers have introduced many new synthetic-core strings using not only perlon, but also high-tech composites such as Kevlar. Each string has its own particular sound quality.
Made in France by Saverez, producer of high-quality strings for tennis rackets, Corelli Alliance strings ($110) use a Kevlar core rather than perlon. The sound is warm and dark, although not as warm and dark as the Obligato, for example. These strings have a small but devoted following.
Corelli Crystal strings ($38) have a tone that is warm and dark, with a fair amount of edge that keeps them from sounding too dull. When you take them out of the package, you will find them very stiff compared to other strings. They also feel thick under the finger, although they really are not thicker than any other string.
Although Dogal has been making strings in Venice, Italy, for more than 50 years, they are not well known in this country in spite of their recent ad campaign. In fact, if you want to try them, be prepared for a long search (you can try contacting the company directly through the Web site www.dogalstrings.com) . When I first installed Dogal Synthetic Gut strings ($34) on my violin, I found them rather dull-sounding, with a sluggish response. After two days, they seemed to perk up. I would characterize the sound as slightly dark, with slower-than-average response. I think Dogal needs to improve the D string (silver winding instead of aluminum would help) because of the flat, sluggish sound.
D’Addario Zyex strings ($60–$64) have a bright, focused quality and must be played for a few days before they reach optimum sound. D’Addario Pro Arte strings ($45–$49) offer a sound that is fairly dark and smooth, making them a useful choice for bright, rough-sounding instruments.
Larsen ($90) has been making excellent cello strings for some time. When the company’s violin strings came on the market, I was as impressed as I have ever been with new strings. They are powerful and brilliant but with great quality. The sound is noticeably bigger than that of the Dominant. The biggest problem so far is that the D and G strings tend to lose their quality rather quickly and suddenly.
John Pearse Artiste strings ($37) have been around for several years. They have a clear, focused sound; the exception is the D string, which is a bit darker than the others. They might work well for an instrument needing extra clarity and focus.
Pirastro’s first response to Thomastik-Infeld Dominant strings (see below) was the Aricore ($37). This string has a dark, warm sound, but can be dull and rather dead on some instruments. If you have a violin that is harsh and shrill, you might want to consider these strings, which are available only in medium gauge. In contrast to the Aricore, Pirastro’s Synoxa ($39) is brilliant and focused. If your violin has a fuzzy tone, you might try this string (also available in medium gauge only).
Until Pirastro introduced its Tonica strings ($45), the company seemed to be having trouble competing with Dominants. Tonicas are excellent strings with a bright sound. The sound is not as bright as that of the Dominant, but it has more complexity, fullness, and depth. Some people may find the string to have a slightly slower response. Two E strings are available, one plain steel and one with aluminum wrapping. I’ve found the wrapped E to be very useful on violins that have a tendency to squeak when going to the open E.
When Pirastro introduced the Obligato ($61), I found it to be one of the more interesting strings on the market. Of all the synthetic-core strings, the Obligato comes the closest to sounding like a gut-core string, namely the Eudoxa. Obligatos are, however, more responsive and slightly more brilliant. If you have a violin that would work well with Eudoxas, you might want to try the Obligatos. I would also suggest them for overly bright instruments. The standard set includes a silver-wrapped D and a gold-plated E.
My initial trials of the Pirastro Evah Pirazzi ($68) have shown it to be an outstanding string. It’s more brilliant than the Obligato, silvery, powerful, and with a great deal of character. These strings need two or three days to stabilize, as they tend to stretch a great deal when new.
When the Super-Sensitive Musical String Co. first introduced Sensicore strings ($53), they had a nice, brilliant tone—slightly less bright than Dominants. More recently, they were reformulated and repackaged. They now have a darker, warmer sound somewhat like Pirastro Aricore. The strings fare better in the lower register, building a deep, warm tone and good volume. But the A and E strings tend to be more shrill.
Thomastik-Infeld Dominants ($54–$58), the original synthetic-core strings, are still top sellers. The sound is brilliant and responsive, and these strings seem to work well with many different instruments. When they are first installed, they have a rather metallic and edgy sound that disappears with a few days of playing. The E strings don’t seem to match the quality of the other strings, and many players substitute a Pirastro Gold Label E, which is a good match.
Thomastik-Infeld’s Infeld Blue ($59) and Infeld Red ($68) strings are newer to the market. They are designed to complement one another; the tensions are the same, allowing you to mix and match. The Infeld Red set has a darker, warmer sound, and the Infeld Blue is more brilliant. In my preliminary tests, I found them to be excellent strings. The Blue set sounds a bit like Dominant strings but with more warmth. These strings also proved to have a shorter break-in period.
The Opera Strings Co. is a subsidiary of the Opera Violinmaking Company. Initially these strings are made to be put on the violins they make for German Hofner, whom they have been supplying for many years. It's only recently these strings are marketed and sold on its own and under their own company brand Opera. They're made to resemble the tone for Thomastik's Dominant strings, with the G string being wrapped in silver with a Korean perlon core. The tone in general is brilliant and responsive, although like the Dominant, the E string don't seem to match the quality of the other strings. The main advantage of these strings is price ($12), it's the best value for money, and a sign of things to come when Asia starts making their way into the international strings scene, and perhaps a reminder to us how cheaply strings can be made, and the high price we pay for brands.
Steel strings began to appear in the late 19th century with the introduction of the steel E string (most E strings still employ steel in their creation). The A, D, and G strings use a core of fine strands of steel covered with a variety of metals, including chrome steel, silver, tungsten, titanium, and others.
Many (but not all) steel-core strings have a tendency toward brightness. The sound is usually clear but simple, with few overtones. Steel-core strings have the fastest response of any string. Most are higher in tension and thinner than other types of strings. The least expensive of them tend to be edgy, tinny, and a bit rough. The best are of a much higher quality.
With steel cores, there is very little expansion or contraction during temperature and humidity changes, and they tend to stay in tune better than synthetic-core strings. They are therefore a good choice for beginning students.
The D’Addario Helicore ($50–$55) is a popular string with a smooth, warm tone. It has a soft, pliable feel under the fingers, unlike most other steel-core strings. It is probably the best choice for electric violins.
Many decades ago, Jargar strings ($55) became popular with cellists, especially for the A and D strings, and with violinists for the A string. They have a warm sound and a good following, even with some classical musicians.
If you play country, old-time, Cajun, or rock, Swedish Prim strings ($35) might be a good choice because of their power and projection. Their bright, edgy sound and low price make them popular.
The Pirastro Piranito ($24) is among the least expensive violin strings on the market, but has a surprisingly good sound for its low price. I find Piranitos useful for small student instruments. The Pirastro Chromcor ($31) is a step up from the Piranito but still budget priced. Chromcors have a bright, clean, and clear sound. They are also good with small student instruments. Pirastro’s Flexocore strings ($46) have a warm, dark tone like the Helicore.
Super-Sensitive Red Label strings ($27–$30) have a wide acceptance with schools and some beginning students because of their durability, very low price, and wide availability.
Thomastik-Infeld Spirocore strings ($57) have a very bright, hard-edged sound. They have a following among some nonclassical (country, bluegrass, mariachi, etc.) players. The company’s Superflexible ropecore strings ($44), on the other hand, have a very dark sound with very little edge. For years Zeta, the maker of electric violins, recommended these strings for all its instruments.
Excerpted from Strings magazine, July 2001, No. 95
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