What Makes Good Violin Strings?

Says Laurie Niles, who edits www.violinist.com, “For centuries, [most] musical strings were made of pure sheep gut–not cat gut, as is popularly believed.* In the 16th century, the lower strings (which were the thickest) were wrapped with silver wire to increase mass. Today, gut strings have a gut core and are not entirely made of gut. According to stringmaker Damian Dlugolecki, ‘Since wire of silver or copper is several times heavier than gut, [by] applying one, two, or three threads of wire in open-wound fashion to a gut string, you create a string equal in tension at a given pitch to a pure gut string of considerably greater diameter.’”

If you’re out to find a good set of strings for one or more violins, you’ll probably choose one of the two others kinds of strings than gut, either steel core or synthetic core. Steel strings have the advantage of strength, and they’ve gained popularity among nonclassical players over time.

In the 1970s, technology led to the development of nylon perlon cores in strings. The Dominant company sells these strings, and synthetic strings generally are found in many music stores.

Katie LaBrie says, “When a student comes in come in with a poor-sounding instrument, sometimes the fix is as simple as changing to a good set of strings.”

If you’re a teacher, you need to watch your budget, but you’ll also want to look for these things when buying stringsfor your own or your school’s instruments:

  • Sound quality:  “Avoid strings with a tinny or metallic sound, and opt for ones of higher and richer quality,” advises Labrie.  If a string’s tone is good in the shop, chances are that it will sound fine on your instruments.
  • Durability: School instruments take a lot of heavy wear and occasional abuse. Strength is important.
  • Warranty:  If there’s a problem or a string fails for no apparent reason, guaranteed replacement by the manufacturer is important, especially in tight times.

*The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians adds silk, animal sinews, gut from lions and wolves, horsehair, vegetable matter such as bast, hemp, flax, and liana, and in the 17th century, coconut, yucca, and aloe. Catgut, according toMerriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, 11th ed., is a tough cord made from sheep intestines.

NAfME member Katie O’Hara LaBrie, the orchestra director at Haycock Elementary and McLean High School, both in McLean, Virginia, was consulted for this piece.

Ella Wilcox, Originally published on June 8, 2011, © National Association for Music Education