How can you tell when your strings are dead?

June 2, 2014 at 11:46 PM · How do you tell when you should replace your strings? While I notice a huge difference when I replace them, it seems to me like the dying process is so gradual I never notice.

Replies (48)

June 2, 2014 at 11:58 PM · This is a tough one....

especially with new generation strings, when the core is so well made it almost never breaks.

From my own experience, the sting lose richness and, and with some brands (gut core), there is a hissing layer in the sound envelope. Some have reported on the lack of responsiveness and / or volume.

It all depends on the quality of your instrument, your internal concept of sound and how picky you are.... really very subjective perception.

Typically, after 150-200 hours of playing time, it is time to replace them.

June 3, 2014 at 05:57 AM · I notice a harsh scratching sound when my strings need replacing but others do not report this.

Most people say that strings lose their brightness and 'zing' over time . I do not notice this but, as this is a not a quality I like, perhaps the brand of strings I buy never had it.

Other people say that the strings should be replaced when they are hard to tune but I have used strings for two years (Tonicas) and never had tuning problems !

June 3, 2014 at 11:10 PM · I have been using Vision Titanium Solo for several years now, on a very fine contemporary violin, and I find they consistently go dead after about 7 months. It seems to happen quite suddenly. They only way to describe it is in vague and subjective terms -- loss of brightness, an unpleasant dull sound, decreased resonance. I start to wonder why I'm not liking the sound, and then I remember & change the strings. Quite a transformation! It seemed to me that when I used Eudoxas, long ago, they lasted much longer. The same goes for Tonicas.

June 3, 2014 at 11:38 PM · I think modern strings are much more stable -- the strings don't seem to go false, for instance, but the sound simply deteriorates in quality slowly, over time. That means when to change strings is more a function of taste and tolerance than actual need, in most cases -- i.e., do you change when you're no longer getting optimal sound, or when you are no longer getting tolerable sound?

My teacher recommends 100 hours of play before changing a set, but when a string set costs $90, it's tempting to let it go at least twice that long, if not longer.

June 4, 2014 at 01:25 AM · It may be true. "Modern" strings, that is strings with a synthetic core, are certainly more stable in terms of intonation over the short term. They're much less affected by humidity, etc., so you don't have to tune up so often. But as for keeping the quality of their sound over the long term, months or even years, I'm still not convinced of their superiority over the gut strings I used twenty or thirty years ago. My memory is that Eudoxa and Oliv (when I could afford them) held the quality of their sound much longer. (I haven't tried more recent versions of these brands, so I have no opinion of how they behave today.) On the other hand, I may not have been so particular back then, and I didn't have as good an instrument, so perhaps I just never noticed.

June 4, 2014 at 08:30 PM · At least on my violin, Olivs are spectacular for two weeks. Then they really lose most of their sound, and they're dead long before synthetics.

June 5, 2014 at 02:50 AM · I use Dominants and they tend to lose volume and richness as they age. When you first put them on, they are a little tinny for a few days, but after a week or so, they sound really nice. As Lydia pointed out, roughly 100 hours of playing and it's time to change strings. That is about what I am getting with Dominants. I try to play about 1 hour a day, and I usually get 3-5 months out of a set of Dominants.

I used Passiones for a while, but got tired of them going out of tune. But they seem to last quite a bit longer than Dominants, perhaps twice as long. If I recall, I think I had the Passiones on for about 7-8 months and didn't notice a big difference from when I first put them on.

June 5, 2014 at 04:21 PM · My luthier's rule of thumb is to change strings after 120 hours of playing. I follow that rule and do not bother trying to hear whether they are going bad. Much easier that way.

June 5, 2014 at 05:53 PM · Easier but perhaps more expensive than need be?

June 5, 2014 at 07:50 PM · Paul - possibly, but easier than trying to listen to them as they gradually deteriorate to try to figure out when it has gone too far.

June 5, 2014 at 08:03 PM · I tend to agree with Tom.

I almost lost my sanity with Passione strings when all the passion was gone. The worst of all, they still look like new, but the sound is not there. Hard to justify spending another $100 on a new set.

It took me a lot of time to give myself permission to replace strings before they break.... an old habit from the times when a set of Dominants imported from Germany was considered a strike of fortune.

As per Olives (Eudoxa and other guts), what may be killing them before their time is those humid days, when they stretch and we keep tuning them. Once the rain is gone, they are over-streched and the gut core is spent.

June 5, 2014 at 10:16 PM · The problem with the deteriorating strings is that the change may not be obvious to the player, but may be to a listener. This is probably because the player has gotten used to the sound coming up to their left ear from the violin and unconsciously hears what they have been accustomed to to, rather than what is actually happening - the old problem of how difficult it is to be truly aware of what one's body is really doing (bow control and intonation, for example).

One way in which you could assess in an organized manner the deterioration of string sound is to record a short piece of music shortly after the strings have been installed, and repeat the recording every week (for example), making a note of how many hours the strings have been played in that time. Changes in climatic conditions (temperature and humidity) should be noted where possible - unusually cold dry winters or hot wet summers could skew the results.

The recording conditions must be identical every time - same music played in the same way, same recording hardware and setup, and the same recording location.

The result should be over time that you have a series of dated recordings which, if listened to carefully, should reveal when the deterioration in sound quality becomes obvious to the unbiased ear - the microphone. Then you'll have a proper basis for changing strings after x number of hours, knowing that the tone really does start going south at that time.

What short piece of music should be chosen? My suggestion is something no more elaborate than a 3-octave scale of G played at a moderate speed with separate bows at a dynamic of mf or f. Other contributors may well have better suggestions.

[Edit added 6/6/2014] It may be useful to ask someone else to listen to the recordings in order to identify when the tone is starting to go off. This will prevent your own subconscious feelings from influencing how you hear them.]

June 5, 2014 at 11:16 PM · It's a tough call, not only because it's hard to tell day by day what is happening to the sound, but also because of the psychological impact that spending around 100 dollars on strings can do to the 'ear'.

For me, it's a bit of a drawn out process. First I'm unhappy with my 'sound' because it's off somehow. Then I fiddle with the bow hold or technique, muck around with all the rosins I have lying around, adjust the bridge a little, clean the strings, clean the bow and then finally order new strings. The minute they're on it's like a revelation. This happens most of the time.

Different strings also last varying lengths of time. I have found some of the more expensive ones do not necessarily last longer than cheaper ones, some only for two months. So now I use Obligatos, which while a bit pricey, guarantee at least 8 months or a little more, of use, so I can relax until then. That is with my practice regimen of one hour per day.

June 6, 2014 at 01:03 PM · Tom, Rocky -- I know what you mean. One wonders how long one has been needlessly struggling if one is playing the violin and it just sounds really dead. I stirred the pot because that's the situation I'm in now, and I think I will replace my strings, it's been a year which means about 500 hours of playing.

June 8, 2014 at 06:32 AM · I went to a presentation by Connelly on Thomastick strings. They said 300-350 hours on a set of violin strings. 20% longer on viola strings.

June 8, 2014 at 01:26 PM · I find that Evah Pirazzis fold up fairly quickly and abruptly. The clue is that it becomes really difficult to play in tune on them. They're not actually false the way a gut string would be, but none of the overtones will help you.

So far, the Peter Infeld PIs seem to last much longer and fade more gradually. I'm going to change the set on my primary instrument this weekend, but they don't sound at all bad yet. Just a bit less resonance from the A and E.

June 8, 2014 at 02:18 PM · Before getting carried away by string-changing fever there are a couple of things worth trying.

1. Thoroughly clean the strings to be sure there is no old rosin left in the winding grooves. That old rosin can dampen the overtones and change falsify the uniformity of mass per unit length. I use a nylon "scubbie" and perhaps alcohol pad cleaning.

2. Try changing rosin and use a couple of swipes of the previous rosin you liked. And/or perhaps clean your bow hairs thoroughly (a toothbrushing might be enough).

3. Try playing your violin in cello position to get it away from your left ear. I do this frequently to get some sense of how the violin sounds to a listener.

And keep the old strings they might come in handy again - at least in an emergency.

Andy

October 29, 2015 at 02:38 AM · When people say less responsive, do you mean that there's a lag between when you bow and when the sound is made?

I'm experiencing that currently.

October 29, 2015 at 03:05 AM · @Steven: I think less responsive means that the string starts to not react as much to changes of bow and vibrato, as it were.

Incidentally, gut strings are easy to catch when dead/dying whether wound or pure because they start to noticeably lose tone when bowed, and the pizzicato'd open string will start to give a hollow, thumpy sound that gets worse the longer the strings stay on. :)

October 29, 2015 at 03:08 AM · Steven,

as long as responsiveness is concerned, my subjective estimate is that it is 80-90% due to instrument itself, not the strings.

When strings are spent, they typically lose richness (the lack of overtones) and with some of them (from Pirastro family) there is some sort of persistent hiss, or "damage" in sound envelope.

First place to notice this is my friend's basement with low celling - I have to sit during chamber music session, and the sound bounces back immediately giving me those symptoms.

October 29, 2015 at 03:29 AM · I see,

I still have decent overtones out of these, in fact, it feels as if they are getting richer on A and E string lately.

As for responsiveness, on lower strings, it started slowing down as the "edgyness" disappeared slowly.

I noticed just before I put my violin away today, that my open string pizzacato on old E string sounds like a bit of blur, not quite sure how to explain it. Maybe this 1 year old string needs to be decommissioned finally?

For the most part, I play in a tiny hallway in my apartment basement parking lot where I can hear EVERYTHING, and much louder. Also in a telescope dome in my school's observatory.

This set definitely had endured more than 100 hours of playing...

October 29, 2015 at 03:35 PM · I think a string is dead when it doesn't vibrate when you pluck it.

October 29, 2015 at 04:40 PM · @Chongwei: Definitely yes, but more easily noticeable with wound or plain gut. :)

October 30, 2015 at 06:13 AM · To me, strings go out when due to contact with the fingerboard, they aren't completely cylindrical anymore. One side gets a bit flatter, and the tuning goes wonky, especially trying to play fifths.

Playing between 4-5 hours a day, I change my G/D strings every 2-3 months or so, and the A and E more frequently.

November 2, 2015 at 12:46 AM · So, I think my Obligato set may be gone

1. My Infeld Red swapped out to Warchal Amber E, relatively new.

2. Obligato GDA just sounds very dull except for sympathetic vibrations

3. It seems that I have to put a LOT of rosin on the bow to make a decent sound of these except E.

4. I can only hear vibrato coming from E string

Especially in 3rd position and up, fingering the exact same spot produces different tone by a sharp/flat.

Are these signs of strings being dead?

November 9, 2015 at 02:18 AM · Another test for a bad string is playing it and then listening to the ringing after the bow is lifted. If the ringing of the string goes off pitch, it's time to replace it.

I agree with the others who say that a string that sounds "dead" is done for. What "dead" means is in the realm of personal taste, which is inarguable.

November 9, 2015 at 02:59 AM · I used Vision Titanium Solo for several years on my violin, and found that without fail the strings would go dead in a really nasty sort of way after 7 months. I'm not sure that "dead" is the right word for their behaviour though; they became aggressive, blaring, ugly without any nuance. Like a loved one who has suddenly turned mean or vicious. Over a period of several weeks I would start to detest the way my violin was sounding, and blame myself or the instrument before I realized what had happened. I have recently switched to Passiones, which are holding up well so far, and I hope that they'll die away more quietly when their time comes.

November 9, 2015 at 03:18 AM · my after-bow ringing is off pitch... I'm going to stubbornly use this set until next year though.

November 9, 2015 at 01:25 PM · Brave! You might regret it if they start to turn nasty, though. . .

November 9, 2015 at 01:43 PM · Well, I'm on a student budget, and I don't have to perform in front of anyone. I do have 2 sets of warchal strings in the case, but I need to ration them out until I start grad school.

November 9, 2015 at 01:55 PM · Understandable! Hope the strings last well into the new year. The Warchals will be a considerable relief to your ears when you put them on at last.

November 9, 2015 at 04:27 PM · I hope so, I've tried their Ametyst, I was impressed, then I switched violins and it came with new set of obligato and amber e. I like the "whistleproof" and power of Obligato, but they seem to lose power within weeks of playing. I have an amber and karnoel set unopened in my case, and I may get Brilliant Vantage sample as well, if my wallet survives the Christmas shopping.

November 9, 2015 at 07:22 PM · I think the best way to determine if your strings are dead is to check the relation of the natural harmonics with the open string. For example, the E string should be 660hz (if tuned against A440hz string). The octave harmonic should produce 1320hz. The B harmonic above the octave harmonic should be 1980, and the E harmonic two octaves above the open E should be 2640.

To check the harmonics for each other string the same way. The octave should be twice the frequency of the open string and 4 times the frequency for two octaves. For the octave+fifth harmonic just multiply the open string frequency by 1.5 then double it.

If the numbers are off by more than a couple herz, it's time for new strings.

November 9, 2015 at 08:59 PM · Sounds a bit complicated for an old geezer like me. Me, I fly by the seat of my pants. If I don't like the sound they're making, then I figure it's time for a change. Probably amounts to the same thing, though.

November 9, 2015 at 09:39 PM · Parker, I like your way better! :)

November 10, 2015 at 10:11 PM · If I can't play in tune even after I am thoroughly warmed up I know it's time to change strings. Usually this is most noticeable on the E string.

November 15, 2015 at 10:56 PM · So, I'm finding my Obligato set to be fraying by the tailpiece, I can actually see the metal wire spiking out of the coloured wound part.

Would it be dangerous to keep playing this set until January? Or should I retire the set finally?

I have a feeling that this will snap eventually.

November 16, 2015 at 12:21 AM · Bit of superglue on wrapping? Do you use a wire mute?

November 16, 2015 at 12:39 AM · Nope, no mute ever.

Basically part of the string that is in contact with the tailpiece due to ball-end being latched under the tailpiece. It seems be just starting to fray.

November 16, 2015 at 01:55 AM · You should be okay for at least a month or so if it is just starting to fray.

I had a Eudoxa A that was frayed in the pegbox to the point where i could see the black core underneath a section, and the winding near the bridge was coming unwound in 2 spots as well. :)

It is not the winding that maintains the string, but the core in it (though the string should be changed when it frays enough, technically speaking). :D

November 28, 2015 at 10:04 PM · So I cheated, after not being able to play my violin for 5 days, I decided to play last night, and it just sounded AWFUL.

I decided to put a new set of Warchal Karnoel. Bridge collapsed at some point, and I saw my luthier today to deal with fine tuner's love mark on the top.

I didn't notice it last night because I was freaking out over the bridge collapsing and tail piece scarring the top, but it seems that the Obligato set that I took out seems to be rusted.

Also, something I am finding out lately is that I am fond of the "breaking-in", the "edgyness" from strings breaking in actually sounds very pleasant on this violin. Does this mean, I probably would like "bright" strings on this violin? I used to seek "dark" strings, for any other violins I've had.

November 29, 2015 at 03:05 AM · You could try brighter strings, or simply get a thinner gauge of what you already use, which will also make the sound brighter. :)

The instrument will lack bite if the strings are too thick to agree with it, so there's that too.

November 29, 2015 at 04:57 AM · Eversince Infeld Reds here in Canada are being sold for over $80 in stores, I've decided to explore. I'll be sampling all Warchal Strings and other economical alternatives.

I am hoping that Warchal Brilliant or Brilliant would bring some good sound.

Currently Karnoel, before being broken in, other than tuning instabilities, it sounds great. I just wish I didn't have to chip the top with the tailpiece

December 1, 2015 at 04:38 AM · You know A.O. I think you're absolutely right about the string thickness.

I'm finding that the Karnoel strings are thinner than the Obligato string I had, and it seems to have have an entirely new voice. Still pleasant, much lower tension I can feel it. I feel like I have much better control over the sound.

I also find it to have much better dynamics in volume.One down side is that in order to reach the ff I was able to achieve on Obligato set is only possible if I am bowing with everything I've got.

December 1, 2015 at 06:45 PM · Well, Steven, the light gauge strings are not SUPPOSED to get as loud (but you can try if you want). :)

December 1, 2015 at 08:05 PM · I guess all of us faced this challenge at one point in time. To me it appears that one should simply replace all 4 strings after 200 hours, no matter if they lost their quality or not. They can also be kept as a backup.

This, of course, if one has a budget for stings. A compromise might be to settle with affordable strings like Zyex and then get them replaced more often.

It also appears to me that modern string producers, in their quest for better strings, put the life expectancy on the back burner.

Lastly, there is a lots of mythology about the impact of strings on violin sound. Even today, most Strads are strung with Dominants. I truly believe that string's contribution to overall sound is way smaller compared to violin itself, proper setup and bow.

December 1, 2015 at 10:02 PM · I would agree with you Rocky, except that the "small" difference can become quite significant, especially if you drastically switch from steel to wound gut or from synthetic to plain gut (for example), and the real sound of the instrument will emerge when strung with plain gut, as it reveals all of the weaknesses of the (usually not top tier) instrument such as: Weak registers on the D and G strings, weak areas where double stops are lacking in power (usually between D and A 2-4th pos or so), weak harmonics, and a lack of volume on the f-fff end. :)

December 1, 2015 at 11:39 PM · The Warchal Brilliants sound so good on my violin, they are my current favorite. I just bought two sets at $43 each from Johnson Strings, my Christmas gift. I have always been happy with the silver D, never tried the aluminum version.

Steven, my violin also has a one and a half inch scratch from a fine tuner mishap long ago. It now just looks like it belongs there to me. I think a violin maker could make it pretty much invisible except to your own eyes.

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