Experimenting with wires as String Replacements

September 25, 2017, 5:58 PM · Hi guys, it's me, the guy with the fake name here.

As you all know, I love writing blogs on Violinist.com and I always have something to share. (Often times very disagreeable and stupid)

This time, I have something definitely stupid. I've recently been trying to find some kind of common metal or plastic wire to try and imitate or replace the steel and perlon strings.

Of course, first thing people around me told me that I was crazy, and would most likely damage my violin or something, which is why I'm using a cheaper violin as my guinea pig.

I've so far strung a copper/nylon intertwined based wire from an broken Samsung charger, a pure copper intertwined wire, and a copper intertwined wrapped in aluminium foil.

My results for these were that they all could only tune up to a D pitch before they broke.

The copper/nylon one, I had accidentally untwined it and it started fraying, but was still playable. I found that it actually sounded like the steel D strings you could get from like D'Addario Preludes. The same applied with the pure intertwined D.

As for the one copper with the aluminium foil wrap, it completely failed and was very muted actually, as if I had kept the rubber layer of the wire I had extracted it from.

Just something that I've been doing. (BTW if any of you remember my fake Dominant post, they sounded like steel strings, like Red Label quality.)

Any of your thoughts on my string experimenting?

Replies (38)

September 25, 2017, 6:04 PM · I'm personally curious what tennis strings would sound like, but those are too thick for violin. Maybe you can try badminton strings?
September 25, 2017, 6:18 PM · The first question that comes to mind is why?
September 25, 2017, 6:35 PM · @John that... is an idea that I haven't thought of

@Scott As I said, I tend to to do stupid things, but I was curious because if people can use steel wire to use as both E and (A strings are rare to be just 1 wire with no wrap, but believe me, I've seen that happen), then I was wondering whether copper wire would do well, or just be a flop.

September 25, 2017, 6:38 PM · ^ Why not? :P

Experimenting is fun. Who knows maybe he'll discover the next generation of strings. All the technology we have didn't just appear out of nowhere. It's often someone deciding to try "stupid" things that leads to discovery.

September 25, 2017, 7:09 PM · One thing I've heard about purely metal strings is that the pitch bends very easily with any pressure from the bow. I've never used them, so I can't say for sure, but I think Fiddlerman has a video where he can bend the pitch of the string an entire semitone just with bow pressure.
Edited: September 25, 2017, 7:27 PM · Christopher, that is very true with certain crappy metal strings, especially lower-pitched ones. Violin Kiddu, your experiment sounds cool to me. It's weird and quirky, but it's cool. I have also heard of people in third-world countries making orchestral stringed instruments out of trash materials and using wires for strings.
September 25, 2017, 9:38 PM · experimenting is cool, good luck...
September 25, 2017, 10:05 PM · Christopher I think that is Simon Fisher in that video
Edited: September 25, 2017, 11:27 PM · Early harpsichords and clavichords could have brass strings, but pianos have tempered spring steel ones, because of the higher tension.

Violin E's are somewhere near breaking point, whether plain gut or plain or aluminium-wound steel. Copper wire will never do the job.

I tried a plain nylon guitar E (cut in half) as a sustitute for a gut E: it got flattened where my fingers played..

September 26, 2017, 1:38 AM · As long as this experiment does not take up valuable practise time, it can do no harm.

Cheers Carlo

Posted under my own real name in accordance with Vcom's rules.

September 26, 2017, 5:18 AM · @Adrian flattened? Wow
September 26, 2017, 8:47 AM · An interesting experiment. Just make sure the wires do not cut or entangle bow hairs.
September 26, 2017, 9:05 AM · I saw an old time banjo player on TV who used fishing line for strings, using different test (strength) for the different pitches.

(Most fishing wire today is made of smooth nylon so I'm unsure it'd work with a bow.)

September 26, 2017, 9:47 AM · A secondary question: does anyone know if steel piano wire of the correct gauge could be used as a violin E?
September 26, 2017, 2:38 PM · I don't think there is piano wire thin enough. But steel guitar strings work. I have used them to convert a 3/4 size violin into a piccolo violin using a extra thin top string. And they are dirt cheap.
Edited: September 26, 2017, 2:40 PM · Might it be too stiff? But I suspect that violin E's are spring steel rather than just wire.

And thanks Bo, that's worth nowing.

September 27, 2017, 8:38 AM · My first thoughts on it are that this IS an area where recent technologies have been applied.

I first realized how deep this subject could go when I experimented with alternate tuning and strings on my bouzouki, alto mandolin and uke tuned in D.

Most anything you could imagine is probably playing catch up with more refined designs, unless you really have something everyone else missed.

Large string manufacturers like D'Addario employ engineers full time to look at just these kinds of things.

I'm the type to like experimentation as well. In this case though, I don't hold out much hope other than maybe obtaining a little personal knowledge and finding the best combination through trial and error.

If you can find something else close in thickness as measured with a micrometer, you might find a decent substitute. How much time wasted though? And will it be a better fit? Copper and bronze are softer metals, not likely to hold up to the kinds of tension necessary on a violin.

There's a chart that lists all string lengths, thicknesses and tensions. It can be found online. This would be a nice resource if looking to use substitutions. You can also use it to calculate pitches based on string lengths, or what any given string can be tuned to.

Wound strings usually make the best lower strings while high tensile steel combinations or platinum work well as single strings for E and A.

Some kinds of materials will put undue stress on the neck and possibly break it trying to get it tuned, or simply break the string.

September 27, 2017, 7:42 PM · "Large string manufacturers like D'Addario employ engineers full time to look at just these kinds of things."

So why can't they come up with something as good as Dominants after all that effort?

September 27, 2017, 11:00 PM · Good question. Pull apart a modern synthetic and they're basically a Dominant copy. For all the hype nothing has really improved, neither do they last any longer. E-strings are just a piece of wire, some of the best have been around even longer than Dominants.

September 28, 2017, 6:43 AM · @Timothy Smith I know copper and bronze are rather soft metals, but since the wires I am using right now are actually several rather thick copper wires, they're actually holding out right now
Edited: September 30, 2017, 11:47 PM · Suppliers like Malcolm Rose sell all sorts of wires. http://www.malcolm-rose.com/Strings/strings.html
October 1, 2017, 11:25 AM · "A secondary question: does anyone know if steel piano wire of the correct gauge could be used as a violin E?"

The lowest gauge I carry in the piano stringing tool box is a size 11, which translates to about .029".
The medium gauge Golden Spiral steel E on my violin measures about .013"--more than half as thin.

The piano wire is much stiffer. Can you use it? Yes, I suppose. Changing the gauges of various wire on a piano is part of what we call changing the "scale design." So what the OP is talking about is really the same thing: experimenting with a different scale design. The problem is that modern violins, like modern pianos, have evolved by trial and error into particular scale designs for a good reason: they seem to work. You can still fuss around with the scale design of a piano to get certain results. For example, upgrade an old piano which may have been tuned to 435 to sound better at 440. But I think that would be a more subtle change than what the OP is trying.

He seems to want to make radical changes which he knows will not work. So I guess it would be fun to see the results, but in the end I'm not sure what will be accomplished. It would be like saying "hey, it would be fun to make some different rims for my bike, like wood (yes, they have those...) or cardboard" knowing all along that what will result is just something suckier than the original.

October 1, 2017, 2:15 PM · Violin strings are made to furnish a given tention, if you use wires you can put the instrument under too much tension, ruining it.
October 3, 2017, 7:35 PM · Michael Praetorius tells us in his Syntagma Musicum II (De Organographia) from the year 1619 that violins were, rarely, strung with brass and steel. He reports that these violins have a quieter and sweeter sound than the usual ones that everyone was familiar with. [page 48 in the original edition 'VIOLN DE BRACIO']
Edited: October 4, 2017, 6:51 AM · I may be wrong, but I have doubts about the "steel" strings that Praetorius mentioned. Steel is basically an alloy of iron and carbon, the proportions and the process both critical for a successful product. Praetorius's "steel" wasn't the steel we have known since the 19th century.

Steel swords were being forged in the Indian sub-continent and elsewhere in the East far earlier than Praetorius, but would the technology to extrude steel wires have been around then? Brass is a lot easier to work with.

October 4, 2017, 11:55 AM · For those who wonder why we can't have better strings as the result of current engineering tech I would say it's planned failure.

These companies want to stay in business.

Maybe there is a real point in trying substitutions. I'm all for this so long as it isn't done on my violin :-)

October 4, 2017, 2:24 PM · Why are you assuming we need "better" strings?
Or that the companies have "planned" to fail? It's a silly assertion.

The strings we have are fine. There is now a huge variety. If you can't find any strings on the market you like, either get a different violin... or take up clarinet.

October 4, 2017, 5:58 PM · Violins in 1619? I think I don't know my violin history...
Edited: October 5, 2017, 7:56 AM · Trevor, I bet you are right about the steel, maybe it was a low carbon steel, closer to pure iron. Kiddu, you might want to experiment with strings intended for harpsichords and clavichords. (edit: just noticed that Bud Scott has already suggested this above).
October 5, 2017, 6:38 AM · 'Violins in 1619?' Kiddu, if you want to learn a little bit about early violins, just look up Andrea Amati and Gasparo da Salo, that will get you started...
October 5, 2017, 6:50 AM · Aha, a fellow string-experimenter! Personally I have been attempting to make strings out of the guts of a wide variety of kinds of cat, to determine which gives the best tone (depending on breed, fur colour, diet etc).

Your post has inspired me to pick this up again just as soon as they let me out of prison.

October 5, 2017, 7:24 AM · Companies design a life expectancy into their products all the time. I don't believe strings are any different.So yes, this is planned failure.

Maybe the question is, can they make strings to last longer? Why do a few want to experiment with the process? Is there an advantage to it?
Or is it simply fun to a few to experiment?

It isn't a sin to experiment. Go for it.I hope you have fun. It just isn't my bag. I have dreams of building a violin one day, but I realize that's a tall order.

In my case, I seriously doubt I can come up with anything better on my own.

Edited: October 5, 2017, 7:48 AM · I have trouble believing that companies design a life expectancy into violin strings.
October 5, 2017, 8:29 AM · Maybe a better way if saying it is, they probably don't care if the strings only last for a year.

They made something that only lasts for a year or less all depending. They are happy with that design.

You work with piano strings. Why do those last so much longer than guitar and violin strings? I've been playing the same Shimmel for 5 years and all it needed was tuning. Lot's of factors I suppose.

Edited: October 5, 2017, 8:44 AM · When I was looking for suitable guitar strings to use for my conversion of a 3/4 to soprano violin I found this string tension calculator very useful:
Arto's String Calculator
It allows you to enter the density of the material and calculate the tension for a given diameter, length and tone height. Or the diameter required to achieve a target tension. There is also a tool to calculate the average density of composite strings - like a wound synthetic string - if you have information about the tension and diameter. This may save you from exposing your violin to too high tension that could damage it.
October 5, 2017, 1:58 PM · Eh, I wouldn't be SO sure about that, Scott Cole. It's been shown that plenty of companies have designed planned obsolescence into their products. Thinking about it from their perspective, it makes a lot of sense. If, as a company, you could make 10 million per year instead of 5 million per year by "allowing" your strings to only last effectively for 6 months instead of 12 months, your shareholders would be....displeased if you didn't. At least, it makes sense from companies who have already established their brand, since people are going to buy their products either way.

With all of that said, it might actually be pretty difficult to design failure into violin strings, while still producing something that good musicians will use.

Edited: October 5, 2017, 9:14 PM · Bo, that String Calculator is a great resource! I just used it to play around with possible "Praetorius" wire stringing schemes. I found that the soft iron strings would not be able to stand the tension of the E string, even at A415. So it seems that Praetorius really meant it when he called for steel rather than iron. Perhaps something like these Tinned Harpsichord Wire strings, as are available from www.fortepiano.com would be similar to what Praetorius was familiar with: "Tinned Harpsichord Wire is a tinned low carbon steel wire of low tensile strength, often referred to as Zuckermann Wire or Tinned Iron Wire."

Here are some numbers:
A440
G string Malcolm Rose English Brass, AVERAGE DENSITY: 8536 kg/m³ TENSION 4.7kg DIAMETER .65 mm
D string Malcolm Rose English Brass, AVERAGE DENSITY: 8536 kg/m³ TENSION 4.9kg DIAMETER .44 mm
A string Malcolm Rose English Brass, AVERAGE DENSITY: 8536 kg/m³ TENSION 5 kg DIAMETER .3 mm
E string Malcolm Rose English Iron Type A, AVERAGE DENSITY: 7769 kg/m³ TENSION 4.1 kg DIAMETER .19 mm (exceeds recommended maximum practical tension 3.1 kg)
E string Zuckermann Wire (www.fortepiano.com), AVERAGE DENSITY: 7682 kg/m³ TENSION 3.7 kg DIAMETER .18 mm (tensile strength minimal specification 14060 kg/sq cm corresponds to around 3.5 kg)

A415
G string Malcolm Rose English Brass, AVERAGE DENSITY: 8536 kg/m³ TENSION 4.2kg DIAMETER .65 mm
D string Malcolm Rose English Brass, AVERAGE DENSITY: 8536 kg/m³ TENSION 4.3kg DIAMETER .44 mm
A string Malcolm Rose English Brass, AVERAGE DENSITY: 8536 kg/m³ TENSION 4.5kg DIAMETER .3 mm
E string Malcolm Rose English Iron Type A, AVERAGE DENSITY: 7769 kg/m³ TENSION 3.7 kg DIAMETER .19 mm (exceeds recommended maximum practical tension 3.1 kg)
E string Zuckermann Wire (www.fortepiano.com), AVERAGE DENSITY: 7682 kg/m³ TENSION 4 kg DIAMETER .2 mm (tensile strength minimal specification 14060 kg/sq cm corresponds to around 3.9 kg)

October 6, 2017, 5:16 AM · Erik said,

"With all of that said, it might actually be pretty difficult to design failure into violin strings, while still producing something that good musicians will use."

I think that idea came from me seeing far too many recent gadgets made to lesser standards than they were say 30 years ago or more. Parts availability is almost non existent in some cases and overly expensive in others. Where we once had ball bearing, we now have a bushing instead. Things like weed trimmers are designed for maybe a three year life expectancy.My z turn mower is expected to last seven years, so you see, they do it all the time with mowers and cars.

Applying this idea to violin strings admittedly might not be a good comparison.It's more about what they can do, but don't.

If you gave good German engineers the problem of designing a 5 year violin string I think it's probably very possible. There's no real motive for a string maker to do that though. They would rather keep making them to last 3 or 6 months with lots of choices.I use Vision solo's mostly and they seem to strike a happy medium for an intermediate player IMHO. Maybe change to a platinum E.

Truth be told, I think most of us like to change strings just because we can. It sometimes adds a different element to the sound or playibility. 5 year strings would be boring.

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