Tips on playing gut strings?
I just got my violin repaired and had the luthier set it up with my first-ever set of gut strings. I'd never even seen them up close before, but I have known for awhile that inevitably I would try them, so that time has come. I've had the violin with gut strings for 9 days now.
Here's the set I've got:
* Equal Tension Violin G-4 Pistoy Gut Heavy
* Equal Tension Violin D-3 Pistoy Gut Heavy
* Equal Tension Violin a-2 Gut Heavy
* Equal Tension Violin e-1 Gut .52mm
I know I'll have to experiment with different gauges to eventually find what sounds best on my fiddle, but I had to start somewhere and these were as close to a matching set as I could get from Gamut's "Overstock" page where prices were about half of their normal. I don't have a lot of money and in fact still owe the luthier a few more payments of $100 per month.
BACKGROUND: I've been teaching myself to play for about 27 months, and after the first year of omnivorous samplings of sheet music, I decided to focus on baroque because that is the period/style that most touches my soul. I especially like early baroque, 17th century stuff, but I also have some Handel sonatas I play. I concentrate the most on the Corelli op.5 sonatas, but have a bunch of less well-known 17th century stuff I turn to to keep variety.
I have the benefit of living close to New Haven, so I have been to hundreds of concerts and recitals at the Yale School of Music, observing up close many baroque ensembles (including baroque opera) where I sit up front to study the instruments and how the musicians hold and play them. I'll never be like them, as I work full time as an electrician and I'm a single dad so I'm lucky to practice almost every day --and I don't have a teacher and I have no one to play with-- so its all just me and the sheet music. But I persist and I know how much progress I've made.
Gradually I've been trying to move into a more authentic approach to playing baroque violin, so about a year ago I abandoned the shoulder rest and soon thereafter I also removed the chin rest. When I did this on my 1924 violin it exposed several cracks that were hidden underneath, so I took it to a local luthier and paid him $1,000 to fix the cracks, replace the existing block with one made of willow wood, and custom fit a new bridge. Since he was going to set it all up as part of the rebuild, I figured that would be the time to try gut strings, so I bought a set online from Gamut strings and had them sent direct to the luthier, who put them on but, to my surprise, expressed some unfamiliarity with them and so never tightened them to tune it. (Surprise because he won a prize for a violin he made that is a reproduction baroque violin, and he explicitly advertises his new built-to-order $18,000 - $20,000 violins as copies of a certain stradivarius instrument).
In fact when I got the repaired violin back from him, the bridge was slanted under the loose strings, and got worse as I first twisted the pegs to tighten the strings. Pretty soon I loosened all the strings to move the bridge myself and try to stand it up. Not long after (maybe the next day), as I was tuning I was startled by a loud crash and thought a string had broke but to my relief what had really happened was the bridge had fallen down. So again I loosened the strings and stood it up, and now the bridge seems pretty vertical and stable.
EXPERIENCE SO FAR: After maybe a week of spending much of each session just tuning (stretching) the strings, in the last few days they've been almost in tune when I pick up the instrument, so I more quickly tune and get on with actually playing.
Mostly these strings are not so much harder to play but they seem less responsive (ie, slower to do what I tell them to do, delaying the catch of the bow and the sounding of the tone). Especially the big fat G string really wants to screech and I have to slow down a lot to get real musical tone out of it. Usually it takes some fraction of a second or more to catch, so first it screeches and then I get tone. The bow does not seem to naturally grip it so hopefully this is an exercise in developing better technique. Already I've discerned that the closer to the bridge my bow runs, the screechier it gets, so I'm moving towards the fingerboard more than I used to play.
Another issue I'm addressing is that G string is so fat that when I play a double-stop with the G and D, I can't press with the tip of my finger because the top (finger touch point) of the G is so much higher than that of the D. So I end up hitting it by bringing my index finger down on a slant so I have a wider finger surface (the side more than the tip) I can use to also press the D. It works, but I'm not used to playing that way!
PLEASE any tips on playing gut strings will be most appreciated!
Will, I'm surprised, has you were, that the luthier did not take the time to tune the strings and position the bridge for you. How would he be certain all was good? What about the sound post position?
A few year ago my luthier shrugged on my question regarding the equal tension strings and said:
Agree with Rocky, and most violins, including those of strad etc were built with scaled tension,where the E is most tense, just like a modern violin. :)
Timothy, I agree that it was strange he did not tune the strings even just to prove the violin sounds good after his repair of cracks and installing a new block and bridge. Hence my surprise, especially since it seemed to me someone who builds reproduction baroque violins ought to be well-acquainted with gut strings. But I tend to be a non-interrogational person, so I just accepted his explanation that he was not very familiar with the strings ("maybe you'll oil them before tightening", etc) and I should get advice from an expert player we both know (who I took 3 lessons with last year).
I'd just like to post a quick notice here that might help with the terminology controversy.
Yes Ella, I do have a baroque-style bow. It's short and light and wispy-quick, like a little sports car! I procured it for $200 through an expert professional violinist who has a dealer friend. I know nothing of its origins but I love it!
@Will: By "sink in", I mean the slight depression that the bow has to make into the strings to get them to speak. Often, people playing on gut think response is slow and volume bad because they skim over them like synthetics.
You'll get much better sound with a silver wound gut G, which is the authentic type of string for baroque. Unwound Gut G strings are only authentic for renaissance music and are rather disappointing from what I've heard
You can pay a lot of money for a baroque silver wound G from the best suppliers, or you can save money and just use a Eudoxa G (silver wound gut core), the difference is not that much, of course with heavy stringing you'd want to use the Stark.
Equal tension is a load of crxp, you want equal volume to the four strings, not equal tension.
Thanks for the tips, Lyndon. Surely over time I will experiment with different strings and different gauges of those strings. I want to approach authentic baroque music as best I can, but it will always be as an amateur with very practical limitations of money and education.
When humans put their mind to it, they can accomplish wonderful achievements that often they didn't expect or know they were capable of. Keep up your violinistic ventures-age is overrated and technically not a real obstacle.
You have to be really careful who's advice you take when it comes to baroque instruments, for instance it sounds like someone charged you $200 for a fake Chinese baroque bow that sells for $40 on ebay, you can easily find "experts" who recommend ridiculous stuff that makes playing much more difficult, the heavy string craze is another dead end IMHO. I order my strings from Damien Dlugolecki and specify that the tension matches dominant mediums, with silver wound G and plain gut D A and e. Stringing heavier than that can damage some instruments, for others it may work just as with heavy strings like Evah Pirrazi, it sounds like there is a reason the strings you bought were in sale on the overstock category, Damien charges me about $75 for a set with double length A and e strings
Well Lyndon, I've been an idiot dupe for 51 years now and loving it most of the time, but thanks for bringing in pomposity and purity, it balances us out I suppose.
I'm definitely not calling you an idiot, I'm just warning you that not all people in the baroque scene give sound good advice, like the person that sold you that bow. You'd be better off to get advice from the performers that are actually making really good sounding baroque music and ask them what strings, bow etc they use. Internet experts are dime a dozen, I'm not even a player but I do run a violin shop and I specialize in Baroque, transitional and Modern violins. I know how to set them up, and have sold quite few. Sorry if I come off as pompous or pushy, I'm just trying to be informative. For instance if you were to interview a prominent baroque ensemble, I don't think you are going to find anyone using plain gut G strings, maybe if their specialty was renaissance music, but not with baroque IMHO
Will, gut strings were the _only_ strings available from the Renaissance, and then through the Baroque, Classical, Romantic and Modern periods, well into the middle of the 20th century. Gut worked very well for centuries (and continues to do so), and was the basis for learning how to use the bow. So don't feel constrained to use gut only for Baroque!
Yeah but wound gut was available from 1650 according to his quote.
If you're going to play baroque, do you have to saw off the last bit of your fingerboard?
If I'm restoring a transitional instrument (classical era) I'll often leave the fingerboard full length, or 1/4" shorter. For baroque violins I compromise using a 10" fingerboard, somewhat longer than many early fingerboards, because players don't want their baroque instruments to be radically different from the modern instruments they might play, baroque performers are notoriously not historical, they usually don't want a flatter arch to the bridge, which makes playing individual strings harder, but chords much easier, even though this was presumably the historical practice, they also don't usually want their sounding length to be significantly shorter than modern, even though this is what most original condition instruments we find have. They also don't want to be historical about the lower than modern bridge height we see on baroque instruments, because all of these factors lead to a quieter instrument if we stick to historical, and baroque musicians are in the same power, volume game as modern violin soloists, they want a loud instrument and if that means not being historical, they don't care. Then the strings, they want heavier gauge strings because they are louder, even though they put fragile 1700s instruments under dangerous stress, I would say a lot of baroque musicians that are playing successfully are actually putting there instrument under more stress than modern players; with higher bridges, heavier gauge strings, and steeper than historical neck angle.You might be surprised how many well know baroque musicians play basically modern set up violins with heavy gut strings, because that gets the loudest tone.
From what I've encountered you're 100% correct Lyndon, unfortunately. Real Baroque setup is just not commercially viable. And you've nothing to apologise for - I welcome your posts!
Thank you, Bud.
Well Lyndon, maybe I really am feeling...if not like an idiot, then something not much better. And like Bud, I too have appreciated your posts in many threads, including this one.
Let me ask you this, what percent of your problems are with the G string, not the other strings, because that part of the problem can be easily solved by buying a Stark (heavy gauge) Eudoxa G string $25-$30, its authentic, baroque musicians commonly used silver wrapped gut core G strings, and it will play pretty much like your Dominant G. Then you only have the other three strings to worry about and you are still being authentic, perhaps more authentic for baroque, because I don't think that many baroque players would have been using a plain gut G.
Thank you, Lyndon, for all the advice. I think it is so cool when people like you play instruments they built themselves! I just read the wikipedia article on clavichord, an instrument I've heard of for years but never quite knew what it was. So depressing a key doesn't just hammer the string but holds it in a particular vibrating length, wow! So is tuning confined to string tension or also to moving the blade to alter the vibrating length?
@Will: My offer still stands as is, don;t worry, I started at 18 years, every improvement brings a smile and further motivation, so just take it one small note at a time. :)
For what it's worth I own (and play) 3 clavichords and play on gut strings with no SR or CR. My first advice to Will would be to find a group to play in - there are plenty of good reasons for this.
Just last night I got a new renaissance-style bow with a pop-in frog (no threaded adjustment) that makes the straight bow stick bend outward like a bow-and-arrow bow shape. And I love this bow!
Great to here. How are you liking your gut strings?
Hi Will - Sounds like you're having fun with the strings. As someone else posted above, I'd seriously consider using a silver wound G. Music written from the late 17th century puts more demands on the G string because of this. Also, .52 for E seems light compared to the heavy lower strings you are using. Equal tension is an interesting theory, people come up with interesting theories all the time, then as now. Ultimately go with what works for the particular violin.
IMHO there's no historical basis for equal tension stringing because quite simply the historical string makers would not have been able to accurately measure the string tension with their technology, correct me if I'm wrong.
I've been wondering how I would measure string tension in the absence of today's high technology. I think I'd extend the string horizontally between two support members over which it passes. The support members would obviously correspond to the nut and bridge, and the distance between them would be that of the instrument you're interested in (violin, viola, cello etc).
Measuring string tension does not require any modern technology. Suspend the string between two supports at the reference distance and add weight to one end until the correct pitch is obtained. This method would have been available back then, but may not have been used.
I made a baroque viola some years ago, and the D, first position of the A string, always squeaked. I asked baroque players about that and their response was that you have to master playing in a bare gut string.
Thanks to everyone here for all the advice and insights. I'm definitely getting tired of the fat G string, which I have been increasingly able to sometimes get tone from but often still it groans. I have been using it as an exercise in getting better awareness and control of bow technique, but I look forward to trying a different G string soon. The other strings in this set I like a lot. The E is getting shredded where the bow most frequently contacts, and also up higher around the A of my pinky in 1st position. But the string still sounds good so I hope its disintegration will be slow. Eventually it will snap and I'll learn how to tie the new one I have in my case (the E and A strings were double length so I have spares).
Will, you'll know when the gut E is due for replacement long before it breaks. What happens is that fraying eventually gets to the stage where the tone starts to lose its clarity and perhaps you hear squeaks where there weren't squeaks before, but before then the fraying will become an annoyance under the fingers. I've never had a gut string snap (a couple of steel Es, yes, but I suspected manufacturing errors). The only reason I would expect a gut E to snap before its time is if the groove in the bridge (or nut) hasn't been engineered correctly and a sharp edge somewhere is rubbing into the string - that includes finger nails, btw!