Violin Strings: A Buying Guide

How To Buy Violin Strings

First off, let me tell you, the research for this article was brutal. Born out of the need to sift through the overwhelming number of string lines and brands on the market, this article aims to help you understand what to look for when choosing strings for your violin. The list of strings on the market can be terrifyingly large. But not to worry, you’re friendly neighborhood music man is here to help!

I must stress that not all strings will play and sound the same on all instruments. No two instruments are the same, even if they come from the same manufacturer. Therefore, it’s important to tailor your choice to the specific identity of your violin.

In order to do that, there are a few questions we need to ask ourselves, but it’s hard to answer these questions without knowing some key facts about violin strings. So let’s begin!

First off, let me tell you, the research for this article was brutal. Born out of the need to sift through the overwhelming number of string lines and brands on the market, this article aims to help you understand what to look for when choosing strings for your violin. The list of strings on the market can be terrifyingly large. But not to worry, you’re friendly neighborhood music man is here to help!

I must stress that not all strings will play and sound the same on all instruments. No two instruments are the same, even if they come from the same manufacturer. Therefore, it’s important to tailor your choice to the specific identity of your violin.

In order to do that, there are a few questions we need to ask ourselves, but it’s hard to answer these questions without knowing some key facts about violin strings. So let’s begin!

Violin string guages

 

The string gauge plays a role in which type of string to buy. Generally, the heavier the string, the more volume you will produce from your instrument. The string vibrates more and produces more resonances across the top of the instrument. However, with higher string gauges come higher tension on the violin. Modern instruments are built with a more sturdy frame, so they would be able to withstand higher gauge strings, but you will certainly need to have a luthier adjust the bridge and nut in order to accommodate the highest gauge.

Most people use medium gauge strings on their violin. It’s a good balance of volume, tension, and playability. Though it’s the easiest to play, I don’t recommend using thin gauge violin strings unless you are specifically trying to tone down the volume of your instrument. Sometimes it enhances the sonic qualities of the instrument, but other times it can make the instrument sound brittle.

Loop end or ball end violin strings?

When buying violin strings, there are two popular methods for attaching the string to the tailpiece. You can buy either an end with an open loop which simply sits around a hook on the fine tuner of the tailpiece, or you purchase a string that has had a small brass ball inserted into the loop. This works on fine tuners that are claw-like in appearance. It also makes it easy to insert the ball end directly into the holes on the tailpiece should you decide not to use fine tuners.

Either one is fine. Some people prefer one to the other. I will admit that my own tastes lean further toward the ball end string simply because there’s less stress on a single strand of the string base if the fine tuner claw is split and too wide a stretch for the loop to stretch around. This means that you have to choose one side of the claw, which is thin, to hold the loop.

Still, I’ve played on violin strings using this workaround method and they haven’t broken quickly or soured in tone.

There is another way to attach the string to the tailpiece, and that’s with a gut string that has been either tied on, or has had a knot tied into it to simulate a ball end that sits in the fine tuner. I generally stay away from these types of strings simply because of the hassle. It’s by no means insurmountable and purist Baroque players still use this method, so it’s truly up to you should you desire to use it.

Plated and wound violin strings and what they do

Many players find that they enjoy the sounds of a plated violin string. This generally takes the form of a plated E string, D String, or G string. The most popular choice is plating the E. There are sever reasons for this.

First, an un-plated E string can be quite shrill. It can produce a very bright sound and often times it can “whistle” when moving quickly from the A to the E. Violinists combat this by plating the E with gold, aluminum or chrome. Other metals used are tin and titanium.

In the case of the gold plated E, it mellows out the sound of the string and can additionally combat some whistling. Plating an E string in general will help mellow out your sound. However, this plating tends to wear off at a relatively quick pace. If you’re a professional, you might find yourself buying E strings separately as they may wear out quicker than your A, D and G.

Aluminum is said to have the best results when combating the dreaded “whistle” that can happen when moving quickly from the A to the E. I’ve found that the E string does combat the whistle a bit. Either one will hep you solve this problem.

How often should I change my violin strings?

This will vary greatly depending on many factors. These factors include frequency and length of practice or play, the weather conditions in your area, the quality of the violin string, and the core material.

First and foremost, if the metal winding of your violin strings is unraveling, it’s time to change strings. You can make the choice to change only the one string, or you can change the whole set. Either is fine. Sometimes it’s better to just start fresh with all four.

For professionals

If you are a professional player or you simply practice a lot, your strings will wear out quicker. They will lose their original brilliance and depth. Some players find that a heavy practicing and performance schedule will mean changing violin strings within 3 months. For others, 6 months can be the time frame. But if you’re playing professionally or semi-professionally, 6 months is about as long as you will go unless you have a preference for the sound of well-worn strings.

For students

If you are a student or casual hobbyist, you may find that you can go 6 months to a year or more without the need to change strings. There’s nothing wrong with this as long as you keep up the strings by wiping them down after every playing session. You may even need to clean the strings once or twice.

How weather and player affect your strings

Weather conditions in your area can affect the strings and wear them out. For example, if you live in excessively cold or warm climates, it can affect the violin strings. For example, if you live in a very cold climate, the metal on the strings will be constantly constricting when cold and expanding when warming back up.

If you live in a very warm climate, the opposite can occur. This will lead to the string wearing out over time. Imagine you took a rubber band and continually pulled it back and forth non-stop. It’s the same effect.

Piggybacking off of this, your body chemistry can affect your strings. Sometimes your personal Ph levels can increase the rate of rust and decay of the string. This is why I always suggest wiping down your strings as soon as you finish playing.

Finally, the core material can affect the life span of the string. Generally, gut core violin strings will dull sooner than synthetic or steel core strings. Between steel core and synthetic strings, I feel that synthetic core holds up longer. Though they are steel core, steel strings can be dulled very quickly if the violinist plays hard.

The types of violin strings

There are three types of violin strings. More appropriately, violin strings have three types of “cores”. In reality, modern strings are wrapped in a metal winding of some kind. The core that the metal is wrapped around has a significant effect on the tone that the strings produce. Let’s take a closer look at the three main core types: steel, synthetic, and gut.

Steel core violin strings

Pros: Steel is very resistant to changes in humidity, and therefore more likely to stay in tune. Steel core means the strings are resistant to breakage. Not impervious, but resistant. This type of string also takes less time to “play in”. Generally, they are settled in a day or less. Steel core strings produce a metallic or twangy sound. This makes them perfect for bluegrass, country, and rock.

Cons: Steel core strings on an instrument that is already bright will make a very shrill sound. Very shrill indeed. Additionally, steel core strings aren’t quite as forgiving as strings made with other cores. The bow is able to produce a more scratchy sound, and imperfections in bow technique will be more likely to invoke this response.

Steel core strings are not very complex. They often don’t produce as many overtones. However, this can sometimes be a desirable trait for certain genres of music. Finally, if one “zings” the string with the bow, such as when you play a Sforzando, the pitch of the string will “bloom”. This means it will increase then decrease in pitch before settling back to the correct tuning.

The majority of beginner violin strings have steel cores. These strings are very bright and metallic in nature. They’re excellent for dark and dull instruments. This makes them perfect for inexpensive violins as most of these instruments lack either the materials or construction methods to help them project a commanding, articulate sound.

This is not a judgement, but a simple statement of the facts. However, on higher quality instruments, steel core strings often sound too harsh and trebly. I personally shy away from them on my instrument as my main instrument already projects with plenty of brilliance. Steel core strings have some desirable traits, and they definitely have their uses. I find them to be situational for performers who have grown into the intermediate level or above.

D’addario Prelude Violin Strings

This is a great string for the money. If you’re a student, this string is both affordable and reliable. It’s definitely on the brighter side of things since it’s steel, but it also projects well. This particular string is recommended by teachers the world over.

Red Label Violin Strings

These are the strings I reach for when I want a true twang. You’ll find these strings to be nice and bright. They’re certainly not going to be the Baroque player’s delight. However, if you are wanting to play fiddle music and bluegrass and country are your go-to genres, these strings will serve you well.

Synthetic core violin strings

Pros: Contain similar tonal characteristics as the prized gut core string, but are more stable in keeping pitch. Synthetic core violin strings are also more resistant to changes in humidity. This string type generally has a fast response. The “play-in” time for these strings is between a day or two, as opposed to a gut core string’s one week “Play-in” time frame.

Cons: Though similar, they are not exactly the same in tonal brilliance and response as gut strings. They are generally more expensive than steel strings. With today’s technologies, prices have come down considerably. However, quality synthetic core violin strings will likely run you $20-$40 more than a standard steel core string.

Full disclosure: I love synthetic core strings. The core is technically a nylon or nylon derivative. Perlon is one such material. They are often soft to the touch (speaking in terms of playability). Additionally, due to my traveling the continental US for performances, I experience many different environments. This means that I need a stable string, one that can weather the many temperature and humidity changes that I will encounter. Synthetic core violin strings do that for me.

Synthetic strings, and strings in general, can be coated with different metals to accent or reduce certain frequencies produced by your bow, strings, and violin. Some such metals are gold, silver, aluminum and titanium. Each has their own specific quality. Sometimes these metals can increase the cost of the set of string you are purchasing. Personally, I like a gold E string with a gold wound G string. But remember, that works for my violin and it may not be the best set for yours.

Fiddlerman Violin String Set

This string set is a great entry level item for the a violinist who’s violin is either naturally bright, or you prefer a more mellow tone. Since it’s synthetic core, expect to get a little more complexity than the economy level steel strings.

In a blind test, people couldn’t tell the difference between these and the more expensive Thomastik Dominant strings. Some people report unusual breaking of the A string, but Fiddlerman always takes care of these issues with a replacement.

Pirastro Tonica

This is essentially the Pirastro competitor to the Fiddlerman set. In this price range, I find the Tonicas to be a good deal. If you’re a beginner looking for a way to round out the sound of your instrument, these strings are a great buy for you. Additionally, if you’re a beginner with a discerning ear, or an intermediate looking to upgrade your sound, this is a great string.

Thomastik Dominants

I quite literally grew up playing these strings. These are essentially the standard by which most synthetic strings are measured by the simple fact that so many people have played them.

The formula for this string creates a very pleasant tone that is round, warm, but not too mellow. It produces beautiful overtones but on the wrong violin, the E can get a little bright for my taste. Still, these are an excellent string with excellent quality that I play to this day and some players swear there isn’t a better synthetic string on the market.

Pirastro Evah Pirazzi

These are my go-to strings for general classical performance. For my violin, these strings bring out the powerful low end and singing high end. The G string has a response that is just a split second slower than you would expect. It makes for a subtle sonic entry.

Interestingly enough, it has no effect on volume. Nearly all of my students and performance partners comment on how loud my violin is while playing these strings. This can either be a good thing or a bad thing. That’s entirely up to you.

I find the gold E string to be just what my violin needs. Where unwound strings can be shrill and shallow, the gold E keeps my tone grounded and warm.

Pirastro Obligato

Obligato’s are made of a new  synthetic fiber material. This allows them a quicker break-in time than other synthetic strings. Being that synthetic strings break in rather quickly, that’s saying something.

The tone found with these strings is interesting. It somehow manages to be dark, yet pervasive. I’ve found that it penetrates the mix of a band setting well. Obligatos produce plenty of volume as well. On the right violin, these are a feast for the ears.

Some players have found that these strings can wear out quicker than expected. This may have something to do with the quicker break-in time. In my experience, they’re worth the try.

Gut core violin strings

Pros: The most complex tone of all the violin string cores. Full of body and brilliance. Very warm with beautifully apparent overtones. Gut core strings are even more soft and pliable than synthetic core strings. They also tend to have a slower response than synthetic core strings. This is both a pro and a con. It can smooth out some bowing inconsistencies, but is not as sharp and present.

Con: Gut core strings take about a week to “play-in”. They constantly fluctuate in pitch until they reach a level of stability. Gut core violin strings are very susceptible to weather changes such as temperature and humidity. These factors can further complicate tuning. They are naturally more expensive than synthetic strings and especially steel strings.

Gut core violin strings are generally made of sheep’s gut. Contrary to popular belief, catgut is not made of cat gut, but sheep. Gut strings are the go-to choice for many professional players. A professional has the skill and knowledge to bring out the most brilliance from a gut core string, while being able to tame and control the temperamental nature of tuning and integrity. Gut core is the go-to option for Baroque style players and is very well represented in the classical music community as well (Baroque being the time period before the Classical era of music).

Though these strings sound fantastic, it’s probably best that a beginner doesn’t attempt to use them. Gut core violin strings may even cause problems for the intermediate player, but that becomes subjective to the student. Gut core strings can be expensive, so keep this in mind when choosing strings for your violin.

Pirastro Passione

These strings are quite articulate. They have a deep sound and project very well. These strings work particularly well when used in the performance of early Classical era or Baroque music. These aren’t your fiddle, or even rock n roll strings. But if you’re looking for a refined sound, look no further than the Passione.

Passione violin strings have a higher level of stability than most other gut strings. This can be an important factor to consider when looking into gut. These strings have a dark voice and a smooth tone and if that’s what your instrument needs, this may be the set for you.

Pirastro Eudoxa

Pirastro Eudoxas have become the alternative to the Passione line. If Passione strings aren’t quite the right sound for your violin, then Eudoxas may be the way to go. Eudoxa violin strings have a longer life span than most gut strings when played anywhere from 1 to 3 hours a day. If you are playing more than this, they will last about as long as a normal gut string set.

These strings have good resonance and can bring out the best in your instrument. The tone is deep and satisfying. The E string on this violin set gets some good reviews. It’s better than most E strings from gut sets. Additionally, Eudoxas are nice and smooth to the touch.

If you need an alternative gut string that can show you the true brilliance of your instrument, Pirastro Eudoxa violin strings are worth a look.

Where should I buy violin strings?

So now that you’ve decided on the types of strings you want, where do we purchase them? Well, the more expensive strings are less likely to be carried in stores. Conversely, the most inexpensive strings will line the shelves. This normally means steel strings will be readily available locally and gut strings will have to be ordered online.

Synthetic strings fall in the middle in that the lower price range will be sold in stores and the higher priced packs will be found online. However, not all stores will carry the same lines, so you may end up buying your strings via the internet.

I’ve found that outside of cities with large music stores, I don’t often find my preferred strings on shelves. Therefore, I have come to order my strings almost exclusively online. As we discussed in our article on how to buy a violin, make sure the retailer, whether it be local or online, allows you to return the strings if you received a defective version.

How much should I spend on my violin strings?

As a general rule of thumb, don’t break the bank if you can’t afford it. There are plenty of options to choose from. As a guideline, steel core strings will be the most inexpensive followed by synthetic core strings and finally gut strings. However, there are some variations to this guide.

For example, certain high-quality synthetic core strings can be as expensive as gut core strings. Additionally, strings that have been plated in special metals can also garner a higher price tag. Regardless you can expect synthetic cores to be in the middle.

Gut strings tend to be the most expensive. This is because the newer offerings are wrapped in metal winding on the exterior. However, pure gut strings are actually less expensive than wound gut strings. But I don’t suggest using pure gut strings as a cost saver as they have different tonal characteristics than most violinists are used to. Additionally, they tend to be much thicker than steel or synthetic core strings and therefore may require adjustments to the violin’s nut in order to accommodate the increased size.

Generally speaking, violin strings hold true in price relative to the level player you are. If you’re a beginner, you’ll be spending near the low end of the spectrum. If you’re an advanced player, be prepared to spend more money on quality strings.

Final thoughts

I hope this helps everyone in their search for the right violin strings. Remember, it can take some time finding your favorite because not all instruments are created equal. Make sure you try strings based on their natural material qualities until you find the ones that produce your preferred sound on your instrument.

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