Lower tension AND lower action????

January 4, 2011 at 01:39 AM ·

   So I've made the decision to switch to Planetary Pegs as the humidity here is making tuning really annoying when going long periods between practices (school is soaking up much of my time).  And on that note, whilst I read Gut strings need constant retuning, what more a perfect way to stay on top of tuning than with Planetary pegs????   Until I can get to a point where I practice on an extremely consistent basis, planetary pegs would solve any tuning headaches with gut strings.


  So I've run into two things I desire:


1. I hate the tension of the Red Label strings I have.  They're the typical student steel strings and I don't like how bright sounding it is.

2. It may be a byproduct of the strings, but I hate the effort it takes to get to the fingerboard.  I'm not digging grooves into my fingers (no callusses, my teacher taught me from the get go on playing with nearly no body tension and very lightly, I hated the harmonics days, yuck!) and my hand isn't "sore" per say, but it feels like I could just benefit from having strings that are closer to the fingerboard and easier to press.  


  So all that said, is it a bad idea to have a lower tension string like gut strings AND lower the action of the strings?  I feel like I cannot vibrato because of both the tension of the string as well as the fact I have to press what feels so far to get a satisfactory note.  I just feel I have to work harder than I really should be and I can really benefit from strings being closer to the fingerboard as well as strings that aren't as hard to press to get the tone I want.


  As far as the violin goes, my teacher hopped on it for a minute or so and really tried to exploit it's response and said it's a really good violin and has great sound, projection, and response, so it could very well be just a toss up as far as what may sound best on it.

Replies (14)

January 4, 2011 at 02:13 AM ·

I find gut strings to be just as stable as most others, after you've allowed 2-4 days for them to settle in from new. Just before Christmas I played in three concerts in which I used Eudoxas; after the initial tune-up they needed no more attention until the interval, when only a tiny change was needed for one or two strings. I did a couple of hours practice this evening after changing the Eudoxa A and D to Corda plain gut A and D (not new, btw). They settled in within 15 minutes. Lovely to play on, and the plain gut Corda A is superior to the Eudoxa imo. To complete the scenario I'm off to the shop in the next few days to get a couple of gut Es (always buy a pair so that you have a spare!).

Gut is, of course, the lowest tension string, and I personally like to have the lowest action I can properly get away with. One thing I've noticed about gut – this may be a psycho-acoustic thing, I don't know – but if a gut string goes a little flat it doesn't seem as noticeable as when the same happens to synthetic core or steel. Perhaps the harmonic richness of the gut tone disguises it.

January 4, 2011 at 03:37 AM ·

I agrew with Trevor about gut stability--but only in the sense of relative pitch stability. I find plain gut more stable than wound. Not a problem in any case.

But, note that "tension" is used in both Nate's and Trevor's posts in imprecise ways whicha are partially incorrect.

One must differentiate between tension, and stiffness. Two completely different concepts which confound each other because increasing the tension on a given string makes it stiffer!

In fact, you can have very high tension gut (try using a pirastro number 14 on the E, and 18 on the "a" and a 24 on the D....that would be very high tension). You can have very low tension steel. A very light gage steel will have less tension (measured as a force) than a heavy gave gut.

However, a steel core string has high stiffness. For a given tension, it deflects less for a given pressure than does gut. And gut is not the least stiff material. That would be reserved for perlon.

How the strings feel under the fingers is a function of both of these easily confounded characteristics.

Note that for a given material, it is the stress, not the tension, that determines the pitch on a given length. Therefore a thicker gage solid string will have more tension than a thinner gage solid string, at the same note, but the tension divided by the area--> the stress, is the same.

There is an enormous difference in feel going from steel core to gut. I just did it on my fiddle for the heck of it. I was playing all plain gut for the past three years. The steel strings feel like solid rods.


January 4, 2011 at 03:40 AM ·

 When I say lowering the action, I'm referring to cutting the bridge low so the strings are closer to the fingerboard.  But I dunno how well low-tension strings couple with a low-cut bridge (buzzing strings a bigger and more likely possibility?) I guess my Luthier would ultimately know when setting it up.

 I know I'll lose some projection (like many modern fiddlers end up using an electric pick-up to compensate), but I don't really need projection at this point of my skill level and needs so I don't care too much about that at the moment.

I am however worried with wear/lifespan as well as subject to breakage in comparison to synthetic.  I've been told most gut strings only last 3-4 months, whereas a synthetic string like Obligatos can last over 18 months under moderate use (per my teacher).  My current use is around 5 hours per week due to school scheduling if that can give any insight to how long a set of strings would last me.

I do want to be able to play with less effort from my left hand.  If I can get both a shorter distance to fingerboard with less effort and a softer string, that's exactly what I'm after.

January 4, 2011 at 03:58 AM ·

plain gut a and e can wear out quickly. plain gut d can last quite long . Wound gut G can last years. Wound gut d and a will outlast a perlon string, in my experience. But much is a function of body chemistry.

Lowering your bridge height will have a profound effect on your fiddle's sound.

January 4, 2011 at 04:46 AM ·

To extend Pierre's point a bit: As you try out the strings, try playing your violin in different rooms to compare acoustics.  And keep doing this over a period of days, if possible, to give the strings time to settle -- for a better indication of what their response on your violin will be over the long term.

It's a safe guess is that gut would probably work well on your instrument, since the modern violin is meant to be played with them.  I would try them first before doing anything with the bridge.

One caution about Pirastro Eudoxas -- it's easy to crush the tone.  I most often play on regular Eudoxas, medium gauge, with the stiff versions of D-G to withstand more bow pressure.  No experience so far with Chorda or Eudoxa Brilliant -- although Trevor and Pierre have piqued my curiosity.

About the crush problem: I tighten my bow hairs just enough to take up the slack -- and then only a notch beyond this point.  Too loose -- the tone will more easily break; too tight -- you increase the risk of unwanted bow bounce and hard landings.  Keeping the strings scrupulously clean and free of accumulated rosin dust and skin oils and acids will also help to optimize overall response.

Although the humidity in my area is noticeable much of the year, too, I remain a confirmed user of gut strings -- they work fine for me.  Just take the time you need to experiment -- and let us know what happens.

January 4, 2011 at 05:18 AM ·

 So the gut strings make for pressing the strings to the fingerboard much easier, i.e. less effort than steel strings?  I understand about the texture and tactile feel of the string itself being softer, but I'm referring to the ease of pushing it to the fingerboard.

  I don't really have a problem with the strings on my fingertips, but getting a softer string (gut) wouldn't be bad either.


Thanks a ton for all the answers.  I'm pretty much torn between the Obligatos and eudoxa strings.  


What kind of impact does a shortened bridge have on the fiddle?  Is it just projection/volume or does it have a marginal change in sound as well?

January 4, 2011 at 06:04 AM ·

changing bridge height can have a profound effect on the sound.

The easiest thing for you to do, first, is to simply play with a non steel-core string. Try Dominants, or try Gut. With respect to the feel under the fingers, that is a function of the stiffness as I described above. You will find it easier to press a gut or a perlon (Dominant) string down to the fingerboard, for a given string tension in pounds or newtons (or kgf).

January 4, 2011 at 01:18 PM ·

Lowering the bridge is going to change the sound, by a lot. If you insist on trying a lower bridge height, have a luthier cut a new one, so you can go back to the original bridge if the new lower bridge doesn't give you the result you want.

January 4, 2011 at 01:41 PM ·

Concerning the crush problem on gut strings it won't happen if you play a little closer to the bridge (be guided by your ears) and use more bow speed to get the volume.  

[edit] Incidentally, the above advice is not always self-evident to a beginner. The Suzuki books don't tell the reader (as far as I am aware), but the Suzuki-trained  teacher will, as will any other teacher or experienced player.  A self-taught poster on another thread might be interested in this observation.

January 6, 2011 at 07:48 PM ·

 Thanks for the input!  I'll likely be purchasing strings and a new bridge in February.  Interested to hear the shorter bridge, and as pointed out, I'll just get a new bridge cut so that if I don't like the sound, I can just pop the old one back on.

January 9, 2011 at 03:24 PM ·

   When saying lowering the action of the strings, I mean having them closer to the fingerboard by lowering the bridge.  Many guitarists do this so they have quicker action and don't have to press as hard or as far.

January 9, 2011 at 04:09 PM ·

Nate, if you can afford the various upgrades you are talking about, it seems to me that it is ridiculous that you are using Red Label strings.

You do not say how high your strings are above the top of the fingerboard - that number (higher for the lower strings) is important to considerations fo lowering the bridge or raising the fingerboard.

The height of the strings above the fingerboard at the nut is very important. They should just be about one business card high..

I had no choice but to play on gut-core strings throughout the 1940s and well into the 1970s (when finally Tonicas worked on my violin (Dominants did not please me on that fiddle)). Living in New York (city and state) and in Maryland, frequent tuning just seemed to be a fact of life. When I moved to Calif. and the climate was more stable, air-conditioning came into the picture and practicing at home under one climate condition and then having air-conditioned orchestra rehearsals became another - and that is when water absorption (and loss) by gut strings becomes really annoying. (If bow hair can lengthen or shrink by a half inch, imagine what the strings are doing!)

A good luthier can advise you on how much bridge lowering your violin should have and how it is likely to affect the tone - also on a good choice of non-steel strings - although I suspect that trying Dominants will be the first suggestion.

In my own experience Knilling Perfection Planetary Pegs (or Pegheds) will certainly make tuning easier and obviate any need for tailpiece-mounted fine tuners (except E, if you want) even if you continue to use steel strings - I added them to all my instruments several years ago and have not regretted it.


January 9, 2011 at 04:31 PM ·

Just do what Andrew says. "Nate, if you can afford the various upgrades you are talking about, it seems to me that it is ridiculous that you are using Red Label strings." that made me chuckle because I thought the same thing.


And let me add that it isn't analogous to the guitar. The "speed of the neck" on a fiddle isn't a string height issue--meaning lower is faster. The technique of playing is completely different. You need the strings to be height enough to prevent buzzing against the fretboard. Of course the minimum height to achieve this would be different with steel core versus perlon versus gut. Most violins are set up for perlon. In general, violins feel like they have high action, compared to a guitar or a mandolin.

I will also mention that while it is true that some guitarists are even obsessed with the lowest possible action, others find that low action makes for insipid music--less dynamic range possible, less loud--even  less tone. So lower action is certainly not the end-all-be-all----even in guitars. (That being said, I do find electric guitars are "easy" to play due to the low action. But then, you have to listen to an electric guitar;D).

January 11, 2011 at 12:21 PM ·

 Thanks for the tips!!!

Andrew, I've had the Red Labels because I started playing in January of last year.  When I brought in the fiddle it needed new strings and I the luthier knew this, so he put on durable strings.  I didn't even know what they were at the time.


 Since then, I've realized my style of playing, what I personally would like to have and although I knew string height was necessary to keep buzzing away, I didn't know the specific number.  My girlfriends family all play double bass, mandolin, and guitar, so they couldn't really give me too much of a direction to go, but my instructor told me about how many bluegrass players keep steel strings for the brightness but lower the action as well.   It was just something I was tossing up in the air, as I didn't know gut strings made for a significantly lower tension, thereby making pressing them also easier/quicker.


Bill - Thanks for the response.  I didn't know violins in general had a higher action than a guitar or mandolin.  It just felt difficult to press in relation to those other instrument and I was looking for a way around it all.  This was my first fiddle and the luthier set it up as classically and traditionally as possible, so I really didn't know what to expect.

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