As a string musician, part of understanding your instrument and the sound you want to create includes understanding the strings you put on that instrument. From gut strings to steel core to synthetics, the composition of orchestral strings have changed through the centuries — and will continue to change as long as technology is used to revise and enhance the way strings are constructed. But what are the differences between the various types of strings, and how do they affect the sound of your instrument? We asked our friends at Pirastro — a German company that has manufactured strings for 222 years — to share some of the basics about string construction with us. Pirastro’s US Marketing Manager Ed Mingo offered the following explanations of the different types of string materials and construction:
Gut core strings were the original strings used on all orchestral string instruments. The earliest evidence of gut strings was the discovery of an Egyptian Lute dating back to 1500 BC. Known for their rich warm and nuanced tone, gut core strings set the standard that all other strings are compared to.
Gut strings are made from a natural material (typically sheep intestine) and are prone to stretching as well as temperature and humidity changes. They are very time consuming to make: It takes about one year to properly cure and stretch a gut double bass string. Gut core strings are commonly used by professionals and amateurs who appreciate their unique sound and timeless beauty, and are popular with Baroque, orchestral, and studio musicians on the violin, viola and cello. Plain gut G and D strings are also commonly used by jazz, rockabilly, or slap bass players.
Solid Steel Core
First introduced around 1900, solid steel core strings were developed to provide better tuning stability and faster break-in time than gut core strings. They are constructed using a single strand of steel at the core with one to six outer windings or wraps. Solid steel core strings are known to have a superior tuning stability and very easy or quick bow response.
Most solid steel core strings are relatively easy to manufacture and are popular with beginners as well as fiddlers. Most modern professional cellists use solid steel core A and D strings. Almost all popular violin E and viola A strings are either plain or wound solid steel core strings.
Stranded Steel Core
First introduced around 1950, stranded steel or rope core strings were developed to provide better flexibility and a wider variety of tonal possibilities than solid steel core strings. Stranded core strings are made by using multiple strands of steel that are twisted like rope to provide different tensions — the more the core of the string is twisted the greater the flexibility. The variations in the twist give strings a different feel, tone, and bow response.
Different multiples of steel strands can also be used to vary the tone and feel of a string.
Some strings use as many as seven strands while others use as little as three. Depending on construction, stranded core strings are played by beginners as well as professionals, and are most commonly used by professional double bassists and on the cello G and C strings.
Nylon core strings were first introduced in the 1940s as a mono filament classical guitar string. The first orchestral nylon strings were introduced in the 1970s and were developed as a professional alternative to gut strings by providing better tuning stability and breaking-in time. The core of the string is made up of multiple nylon filaments which makes the string usable on bowed instruments and more flexible than stranded steel core strings.
Nylon core strings have the playability and are more similar in tone to gut strings but are not as prone to temperature and humidity changes. Nylon core strings are used by beginners as well as professionals in all styles of music, and are most commonly used on violin and viola.
Advanced Synthetic Core
Advanced synthetic strings were introduced in the mid to late 1990s. This new synthetic material was originally developed by the aerospace industry to resist heat and friction. Advanced synthetic core strings have the playability and a tone that is closest to gut strings combined with the tuning stability and break in time of a steel string.
The core of an advanced synthetic string is stranded similar to a nylon string, and its improved durability makes it possible for string makers to provide players with an even wider variety of tonal possibilities. Depending on construction, advanced synthetic strings are popular with student and professional musicians in all styles. They are commonly used on violin and viola but have also gained popularity with hybrid style double bassists.
Metal windings or wraps are used on every core type and provide the string makers ways to customize the tone of individual strings. The metal windings used on today’s strings were not developed until the time of Stradivarius in the mid-1700s. Manufacturers can change the tone of a string by using different metals or alloys for the outer windings. Heavier or dense metals such as silver or tungsten are used to create a warmer tone with greater projection, while lighter or less dense metals such as aluminum or nickel are used for brighter tones.
- Nickel – An inexpensive alloy primarily used on solid core strings.
- Chrome steel – Also known as stainless steel, it is a durable metal which is used in some form on almost every string instrument set.
- Aluminum – Light and bright sounding metal used mainly on violin and viola A and D strings.
- Silver – Dense and warm sounding metal primarily used on the lower strings of the violin, viola, and cello.
- Tungsten – Dense and powerful sounding metal mostly used on cello G and C strings.
- Titanium – A light alloy usually combined with silver on viola and cello strings.
- Gold – Heavy and warm sounding metal used on higher end violin and viola strings also used to coat violin E strings.
Multiple layers of flat or round wire are used in the construction of strings. Violin strings can have as little as two layers while bass strings can have up to seven.
String makers can also affect the tone and bow response by polishing or not polishing the flat windings of strings.
Damping materials are typically found between the core and the outer metal windings of a string. They are used to control the amount of harmonics or overtones a string produces. Traditional materials used for damping included silk and cotton thread. Synthetics like nylon have also been used as damping material on more modern strings. Most recently, newly developed liquids have been used for damping strings.
For more information on orchestral strings, including tips on string life and string maintenance, be sure to visit the Pirastro website — and while you’re there, be sure to check out the variety of strings they offer.
Pirastro’s Newest String Release
Pirastro recently released a new cello A string called the Perpetual Soloist Weich. Available in medium and strong versions, it is made for the cellist looking for a low-tension string with a dark velvety tone.