Time for a String Change?

April 13, 2011 at 05:39 AM ·

I'm relatively new to the violin, and I've never had to replace worn-out strings before.  I put Dominants on my violin when I first bought it (February, 2010).  In December of 2010 I swapped out the Dominant E for a Pirastro Gold Label E.

My violin always sounded a bit rough or "edgy", even with the Dominants.  After I put on the Pirastro E, I noticed an immediate change in the tone -- much smoother and sweeter.  But for the past month or two, it seems to be heading back toward sounding more harsh.  Is it likely that I need to replace the strings?  The Dominants have been on for 16 months.  I've practiced nearly every day (probably only missed a half-dozen days in that 16 months), for an average of one-and-a-half to two hours a day.  Is it likely that the tone change is due to worn-out strings?  If I change them soon, would it be a good idea to change all 4, or just the Dominants (since the Pirastro is only about 4 months old)? 

Replies (20)

April 13, 2011 at 05:52 AM ·

You definitely need new strings. I remember reading somewhere here that you should change your strings every 120 hours of playing, so if you play an hour a day, you'd be changing your strings approximately every four months. When I used Dominants (with a different E of course), I was able to get six months out of them, mostly because they were on for the ending months of the school year and the summer--the times when I perform the least.

You don't have to stick to the 120-hour rule. I know some people that will base their string changing on a numerous amount of variables, such as when the perfect fifths start becoming imperfect sounding, or when the winding on the A string is unraveling, or when the E has become black.

I usually change mine (I currently use Tonicas) every four months, which is usually when both my E has turned black till the end of the fingerboard and my A has begun unraveling.

April 13, 2011 at 05:55 AM ·

 I'm amazed that none of your strings have started to unravel... 16 months is a seriously long time!  So yes, definitely put a new set on and be sure to play for an hour or so immediately after to you put them on (to break them in).  You'll notice the difference, no doubt.

April 13, 2011 at 07:13 AM ·

No no, strings are no horses, no need for breaking in. They simply need some playing before they settle, but it doesn't matter when you do this or how fast. On the contrary, letting them relax a night after being attached makes it easier to play them in.

I haven't seen any unraveling dominants for a long time. Maybe they improved the quality.

April 13, 2011 at 08:38 AM ·

You don't have to change all four - but its nice to have compatible strings.  From what I've seen here people do not like to mix high with low tension strings but other than that is the combination you like best that counts. 

I recently changed makers partly due to longevity.  I had dominants on my previous violin (with a different E, as is normal here) and they lasted a long time compared to the Evah Pirazzis on my new one.  [Following up from a comment above, note also that some strings, notably gut or gut core, can take many days to settle - my Passiones took over 3 days for the sound to come out and a couple of weeks to stay stable.] 

April 13, 2011 at 09:31 AM ·

Agreed with Elise, mixing high and low tension strings isn't the greatest idea.  Apart from sound, it's supposedly not good for your instrument and can throw your soundpost off a little.  But that (so I hear) really only happens if you do something like put a high tension G and D on with low tension A and E.  However, lots of people use a non matching E.  

 

I still maintain that playing the strings for a while right after changing them is a good idea though... We had 2 people from Thomastik Dominant give a presentation at my school (one an sound engineer who designed the new line of Thomastiks and the other an executive) and they explained it in pretty good detail: the string is basically made up of several layers of material (a synthetic fiber or wire core with various layers wrapped around it) and when you put a new one on, the majority of the pressure is on the center-most layers as those are more or less straight, while the surrounding layers are wound.  In playing after replacing the strings, you're basically allowing the vibrations to stretch all the layers, causing them to "settle" together and mesh better.  Without that playing, the middle layers continue to stretch for however long you leave the instrument in the case while the wound surrounding layers stay mostly unchanged.  

 

Anyway, that was their explanation of it.  I'm certainly no engineer, but I trust their opinion.  After the presentation I made sure to warm up the strings after replacing them (before I would mostly do it at the end of practicing) and I've noticed that the nice shimmery "new string" sound lasts much longer (and the strings last longer in general).

April 13, 2011 at 10:28 AM ·

Thanks a bunch!  Time to break out the spare set!

April 13, 2011 at 11:26 AM ·

I use gut A, D and G (the A is plain gut) with good quality plain steel Es on both my fiddles. If the practice room or rehearsal/concert hall is cold I warm up the strings before tuning by rubbing my fingers up and down the fingerboard length of the string a few times. I find the tuning then stabilizes much more quickly and that the strings will remain stable in that environment, needing no more than a little tweak once or twice (no more tuning adjustment in fact than if I had been using synthetic core strings).

I find that new plain gut strings settle in quickly (covered gut isn't far behind). I think this is because they don't have the extra layers and they are pre-stretched during the manufacturing process. The last plain gut A I installed (a Pirastro Chorda) was in the middle of an afternoon; it was stable enough for an orchestra rehearsal in the evening, and the tone developed to its best over the next two or three days. I think the initial settling of the string wasn't so much stretching over the playing region but settling in on the peg.

April 13, 2011 at 12:11 PM ·

Interesting Trevor - but apparently not the case for the Passiones (which are wound gut) at least.  There the string really does stretch - there is even a note that the G winding can be expected to extend over the nut when the string is put on but will retract into the peg box once it has fully extended.  And that takes days.  I think the same is true of Obligatos but don't have a lot of experience.

April 13, 2011 at 02:00 PM ·

Elise, my two lower strings are Eudoxas. I've used Obligatos a lot in the past (violin and cello) and I'm pretty sure they don't have the stretching that Passiones are apparently subject to. My experience of Obligatos is that they are a solid, reliable and long-lasting synthetic core string that is tuning stable within a few hours and settles in tone-wise within two or three days. If I ever leave gut then Obligato is my first choice; in fact, I always keep an old(ish) set for emergencies.

April 13, 2011 at 02:29 PM ·

Oops - I meant Olives not Obligatos (also wound gut).  I've not tried Obs. 

April 13, 2011 at 02:36 PM ·

A string life of 120 hours has been mentioned. I've also seen 150 hours quoted. However, these figures are meaningless without qualification. There are many variables involved – which string it is; its construction and what it is made of; the setup of the violin (the action in particular); the playing style (do the fingers hammer down on the strings, are the finger nails too long?); and certainly not least, the amount and energy of the playing.

I suspect (but don't actually know) that 120 or 150 hours may represent the usage of the busy professional symphony player doing anything from 3-6 hours a day rehearsing and performing. Such players may be more likely to change a set of strings in one go, and the manufacturers would then have sales figures on which to base their usage estimates. On the other hand, the average amateur is nowhere near that intensity of playing both in terms of hours and the physical energy being put into the playing. Perhaps 200 - 300 hours for a string set would be more reasonable for such players? I don't know.

I think it may be possible to make some sort of comparison between violin string life and car tire life – friction and applied forces are involved in wear characteristics of both. A car driver who does long distances at a steady moderate speed on fairly straight well-surfaced roads (motor ways)  may expect a high mileage from his tires; a F1 driver will get less than 200 from his (at least one complete tire change per race); and an ordinary motorist who does a lot of fast driving on windy country roads may also expect a reduced tire life (as well as his own if he doesn't watch it!)    

April 13, 2011 at 02:41 PM ·

Some people have corrosive sweat.

Some people don't clean the strings.

Some people clean them too aggressively.

Just change the strings and see what happens. Nothing we say here can help.

April 14, 2011 at 11:01 AM ·

Update:  Yep, it was definitely the strings!  Changed them yesterday, and my violin has gone from sounding like Janis Joplin to Sarah Brightman!!   :) 

April 14, 2011 at 12:06 PM ·

LOL

And the violinist? :D

April 14, 2011 at 07:23 PM ·

Is there a way to check whether strings should be replaced, rather than just going by a number of hours (or months)?  (I get this vision of keeping a stopwatch by my violin, starting it when I begin to play, stopping it when I stop, pausing it during long rests...)  It must be possible for an experienced player to inspect strings visually, or listen for something in the sound, and be able to tell whether the strings need replacing, or just cleaning - or if all you need is a bit more (or less) rosin.  Any suggestions as to what to look or listen for?

April 15, 2011 at 01:55 AM ·

Charlie, I think you've said it  –  visual inspection and listening carefully; together with experience, which can be acquired fairly quickly in this case by getting the opinion of another violinist. Regarding rosin, too many players use too much, which adversely effects the tone. Use it sparingly, just a couple of swipes every couple of days is sufficient. If you can see rosin appear on a clean string when you put the bow on it then you have at least sufficient rosin on the bow. 

April 15, 2011 at 02:47 AM ·

Greetings,

I think what has been said so far is true up to a point but I am not entirely convinced by the notion that the ear will tell uis when to change.   I personally feel that the incremental deterioration in string quality/sound is so slight that the player is often not aware of it until they suddenly have an `aha` moment (say after six months or so) that their violin sounds bad and change the strings with subsequent amazenment in the sound difference.

I have a lot of respect for Dominat strings but I don`t think they last anything like as long as many players belive  Of course the factorts mentioned above make a big difference but in general I think for exanmple a college (or not) player doing three or four hours a day might weell change their strings every four to six weeks.  The problem then becomes one of expense....

Incidentally,  the Dominat e string is one of the worst ever made.  They give them away free with the a string here in Japan and I have a big pile of them at home which nobody wants to touch with a ten foot barge pole.    There are lots of absolutely gorgeous gold e strings (or not) out there but the best bang for your bucks is.  more often than not,   the goldbrokat steel e which costs almost nothing. Used to be used by Milstein, Heifetz et al.      Interestingl;y thi sis a mirror image of Dominat since the lower three strings from goldbrokat are cheap junk that are siutable only for garotting my cat.

Cheers,

Buri

April 15, 2011 at 01:26 PM ·

Buri -- Poor Po!!!  Not an image I want to hang onto.  Do you think this has anything to do with the fact that my cat bolts from the room as soon as she sees me reach for my violin case???

Elise -- Hopefully the improvement in the violin will help offset the shortcomings of the violinist!!

April 15, 2011 at 05:36 PM ·

Nowadays 75% of my strings are gut, and every time I pass a field full of sheep I say "thank you" to its occupants.

April 15, 2011 at 05:57 PM ·

We had 2 people from Thomastik Dominant give a presentation at my school (one an sound engineer who designed the new line of Thomastiks and the other an executive) and they explained it in pretty good detail:

Thanks for that information. I'm always ready to learn...

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