Strings: Pros and cons of heavy gauge?

March 10, 2005 at 11:54 PM · I am now basically an advanced beginner, and have started trying out top-end strings. Each time I ask a salesperson, they say "just buy the mediums." great, that tells me nothing.

I know that heavy gauge strings last longer, and have more harmonics. I am most interested in the latter, as that equates to a more responsive instrument.

I also know that the nut, bridge, etc all have to be cut specifically for the gauge you use.

OK, fine, no problem there. What I want to know are the possible downsides to using heavy strings.

I image they might be dangerous on a very light or veryold instrument, but that does not apply to me.

are they garder to play? I have VERY stron hands, so that probably shouldn't worry me, but I still want to know.

Other considerations:

Can / should they sit lower to the fingerboard? That would affect intonation and bridge placement. I would love to find a total combination that allowed me to move my bridge a hair towards the tailpiece (big hands)

Can they actually be overbearing on some violins? In other words, has anyone ever chosen not to use them because medums acually sounded better?

What else? I don't even know the questions to ask. Please just let me kave your random thoughts on what tension you use and why.


Replies (29)

March 11, 2005 at 12:50 AM · Greetings,

I have never heard that thick guage strings have more harmonics and make the instrument speak better. I suppose thta kind of technical question couitld be fired at the companys in quesiton via the Internet.

Personally, I have come across a lot of instruments that sound better with medium or even narrow/light guage strings. It is a very individual thing.

I also find I am beocming increasingly resistent to what are really superb synthetic strings like Pirazzi which actually wseem to make greater demands on the bow arm and -may- offer less in terms of pallette in exchnage for more power(?)

If you wanted to experiment you migt try contacting the compay in question and epxlaing what you wnat to do then see if they will send you a free set of the differnet guage.



March 11, 2005 at 01:07 AM ·

Heavy strings actually have fewer harmonics, and are less responsive. If that's what you want, you need to go in the other direction--towards light strings.

Heavy ones put extra pressure on the violin, and the first thing to suffer in that is the weaker and more fragile upper harmonics (put your fingers on a speaker cone and see what part of the music disappears first!) Usually heavy strings are most useful to giving a darker, more concentrated sound, but bear in mind that the extra pressure also cuts the volume of sound, by preventing the violin from vibrating--they get their darkness by stripping away certain sounds, not adding.

March 11, 2005 at 02:44 AM · Hi,

Thanks Michael. I didn't know that. And Buri, I thought that I was the only to think that about the Pirazzi. I find the same, and so does one of my students after being an unfortunate victim of experiencing them first hand thanks to the recommendations of a luthier who thought he knew better than his teacher...


March 11, 2005 at 03:15 AM · Michael, where does your information come from? mine comes from two of the top string manufacturers. i have talked to their tech people in depth about several issues, including this one.

You may have a point, though. even though heavy strings THEMSELVES produce more harmonics (they absolutely do) the extra tension could concievably dampen the top plate. but I doubt it. that's what the sides of the violin are for. If you mean downwards pressure, that's part of what the soundpost is for.

I know for an absolute fact that the phenomenon you describe does not happen with classical guitars, as I have run my own tests. A violin has a slightly different physical setup, but not that different.

It's an interesting idea, but I'm not buying it until I know that it is backed up by empirical evidence.

So, is there any, and is this info online somewhere?

March 11, 2005 at 03:29 AM ·

My experience comes from putting the strings on violins, lots of violins. I once worked for someone who liked heavy strings beause he like MORE of everything, and fatter strings were "more". When his back was turned, we'd take them back off again. The difference was pretty consistent across all sorts of violins. The sound of heavy strings could be fairly described as "dull".

You can't get more harmonics--the harmonics that exist are defined by the note. You can get greater volume of the existing harmonics, but that wasn't what I heard--I heard the opposite. I have the software to check this out, now--maybe I should do a few tests. . .

I don't know about classical guitars, but I do know that on steel string guitars lighter strings = a brighter, airier sound.

As far as response, violins are different from guitars: with violins the response problem is getting the string to speak quickly and cleanly; guitars don't have that issue because the pluck gets the string moving whether it wants to or not.

March 11, 2005 at 03:32 AM · Heavier guage = more resistance, darker tone, higher volume.

Lighter guage = less resistance, brighter tone, lower volume.

See D'addario comparison page:

March 11, 2005 at 03:47 AM · Michael (or anyone else), which strings speak more quickly and cleanly? The discussions here of strings focus more on steady-state qualities I'd say.

March 11, 2005 at 04:04 AM ·

I would definitely question the heavy = more volume thing. The only thing heavies do is let you bow harder, which makes the violin louder in some respects, but it's not because the strings themselves make more noise. If you put in the same energy as before, you get less, not more. And then there's the question of what's "louder", if a violin seems louder but doesn't have the harmonic output necessary to project properly in context.

Jim, if you're just looking for speed, I think Super-Sensitives are pretty good. :-) I'm guessing now, but I bet that the new Thomastick Vision/titanium strings (I haven't seen a set yet) are among the quicker ones, if titanium works the same in violins as it has proven over the last decade or more to do with cellos. A general rule is that softer and bigger is slower than harder and smaller. So, in order, it might be gut, aluminum, silver, steel, titanium, generally. Barring manufacturing gymnastics to overcome these tendencies, of course.

March 11, 2005 at 04:26 AM · Michael,

First, I thank you for your info based on personal experience. I believe what you are saying about the total end-result, and that is really what i wanted to know.

as far as the specific science, however, you definitely have a few things wrong. this isn't all that important, but for the record:

quote: "You can't get more harmonics--the harmonics that exist are defined by the note."

-Absolutely, unequivocably incorrect.

Ever put a vibrating tuning fork down on a table? same note. same exact fundamental frequency. The table adds many harmonics, as does more metal in the string. The relavent term is "formant structure."

Quote: "I don't know about classical guitars, but I do know that on steel string guitars lighter strings = a brighter, airier sound."

-Incorrect again, technically. On steel-string guitars, the sound ends up SEEMING lighter and airier because there are less low frequencies. Heavier guage strings DO give more highs as well as lows (I have done fast forrier analysis on this) but the overall, resultant sound is more bass-heavy and thus seems darker.


But, as I said, I'm sure you are correct as far as the END RESULT of using heavy gauge on a violin.

It also seems that a few other posters agree with you.

I'm going to keep researching this, but for now will stay with mediums.

-Thanks for the info!

March 11, 2005 at 05:06 AM ·

"Ever put a vibrating tuning fork down on a table? same note. same exact fundamental frequency. The table adds many harmonics, as does more metal in the string. The relavent term is "formant structure."

Something's not quite correctly parallel about this model, but I can't put my finger on it. . .

I understand what you're saying, though, but it's not put through the violin and out the other end. The guys who make strings may know strings, but they're not violin makers. :-)

Regarding guitars--less bottom end or more top end. I think that may be another one of those physicists' theories that doesn't play out in real life.... again, because of the muting effects of tension. It's OK to listen to the science types, but often their real world perspective ain't too hot. . . at least in the violin world, that's true to a huge extent, to the point that lots of the time they're downright wrong, except in theory, where they're always right. :-) The problem is that the instruments themselves are much more complex than the theoretical models. You strike me as a man who reads too much--you need to get out more. :-)

March 11, 2005 at 05:05 AM · Re harmonics, you two are talking about different things. Formants will show up in a frequency transformation but aren't related to the pitch of a fundamental tone. This is part of why something sounds as it does, it isn't just the relative proportion of frequencies in the harmonic series.

However when an instrument maker talks about more or less harmonics, he's talking about a less tangible quality of the sound, it's complexity in terms like more fundamental and less harmonics, or vice versa.

"It's OK to listen to the science types, but often their real world perspective ain't too hot."

Very true of too many of them, because they aren't aware of certain things you are, but often you can still learn things. Or sometimes just get mad at them :)

March 11, 2005 at 05:16 AM ·

Oh, I try to listen. It's hard to listen to a deaf man telling you about sound, though. In real life, I'm one of the more technical and technological violin makers I know. I just don't get too carried away with it at the expense of what my ears are telling me, since their experience is the whole point of it all.

You have lost me on your first point, however--can you explain it more? You're not the guy I had the argument about formants with, are you? :-) Who maintained that the harmonic output of a plucked stringed instrument was *always* a series of harmonics of regularly decreasing volume? That theory only works if you ignore the fact that an instrument is a big non-linear filter and amp, both.

March 11, 2005 at 05:21 AM · Yep, everything else is a tool toward that end.

PS, nope that wasn't me. It's been a long time but from what I remember, formants are like resonances which are excited regardless of the frequency of the stimulus. If you did a frequency domain transformation (e.g. FFT) of the tuning fork on the table the resulting series would show a particular envelope independent of the frequency of the tuning fork. I wish I remembered more.

March 11, 2005 at 05:21 AM · I thought a formant was simply a peak within the normal harmonics over the fundamental, at some spot. For instance, good violins, properly setup, have a big rise in whatever normal harmonics fall in around the 3000-3500hz range--sometimes they're as strong as the fundamental. But those are the normal harmonics of whatever the fundamental is, not something unrelated.

March 11, 2005 at 05:41 AM · That would just be a peak in response, or maybe the result of formants if the frequency of the peak didn't change when the fundamental did. I suddenly feel like I've been out of school too long.

March 11, 2005 at 11:13 AM · You have it right, Jim. Formants are the natural resonances of the instrument. They act only as reinforcers to the harmonics in the strings, not comb filters.

Strings have their own formants. if they didn't, all strings would basically sound the same, wouldn't they?

There is simply no question of three things:

1: thicker strings have more complex harmonic signatures than thinner strings of the same make. If you want to argue, call Thomastik or Pirastro and argue with their head techs.

2: An instrument that has a total sound with more complex set of formants, both from the strings and from the wood, comb-filtered by the bridge and bow, has a better chance of being expressive than one with less formants. those formants must, of course, be musical, and that is the big trick.

Irrespective of the "more tension dampening the top plate" issue (which may have some validity, i suppose) the more.

3: Just because a string has more complex formants doesn't necessarily mean the the resulting violin sound will, and/or that the resultant sound will be musically pleasing. This is, of course, Michael's point.

It is the thing I did not know before. I find it surprising, but not implausible.

I am also quite interested in the idea that string tension might somehow (in a minor way) limit plate vibration. -Although I think that the "finger on speaker cone" analogy is extremely false. I would also note that, if this theory is correct, a lower bridge would result in a louder instrument, but typically the opposite is true.


I'd still like to know some of the other related facts, such as how string gauge affects intonation, string life, height off the fingerboard, scale length (that's a BIG issue for me) etc etc etc

March 11, 2005 at 01:44 PM ·

That higher bridges result in louder instruments is yet another myth in a business which is full of them. There's an optimum bridge height range, and if you depart much from it, you suffer. The reason it's always expressed as higher is louder is because based on the way a violin collapses through time, NO violins need lower bridges with time, so virtually all remedial work involves doing something to raise the bridge, with consistent benefit. The opposite rarely gets tested, though. In the scarce instances where a neck needs to be dropped from a set that's too high to something normal, the result is virtually always a more complex sound with greater freedom and more volume.

Incidentally, because I think I know where you're coming from (guitars, that is), I believe that the better guitar makers are coming to understand that some of these issues are not as clear cut as they once thought, too. I still see a lot of the "theoretical" makers (guys who talk more than build) repeating the same myths over and over, though, just like in the violin world. In general, however, very few guitar acoustical ideas transfer well to violins.

I would be very tentative about the more formants is better concept. Basically, this results in a violin with more texture, not more expressivity. Some players find this characteristic very irritating (it isn't expressive because it's locked in by the violin's response), and it's generally rather limited in great violins. Expressiveness results from something else.

I don't know about formants part in this (can there be a reverse formant? :-), but something certainly is working as a filter in good violins in the range of about 1200-2000hz--there's a huge response valley running through good violins in that range, and it's generally recognized as one of the characteristics of a fine violin.

For anyone who's interested in all this, there's some great reading in the synthesizer field. Whereas the acoustics people can get away with sitting on their hands as far as real life is concerned, the synthesizer people have to make it work on real musical instruments, for real ears. After years of reading acoustics stuff, reading the synthesizer stuff (and playing with a software synthesizer) has bumped my understanding of some of these things up quite a bit.

March 11, 2005 at 01:47 PM · Hi,

If I can throw in my own two cents here... "Ever put a vibrating tuning fork down on a table? same note. same exact fundamental frequency. The table adds many harmonics, as does more metal in the string. The relavent term is "formant structure."

Michael is right. There is a flaw with this. The table does not add harmonic. The table is an amplifier and will highly different component of the harmonic structure at different points, giving the sound it characteristic "colour."

First, how a string works... The thicker or more tense the string, the slower it reacts and the more force you have to use to set it into vibration. To get the same amplitude of vibration as a thinner less tense string, you will have to use considerably more force. The after note resonance of a tense thick string will also be shorter than with a looser string.

Here the catch Allan, and your affirmation is right in the literal sense. Yes, the thicker string can have what Pirastro and Thomastik describes "by itself." When you put it through the amplifying medium of the violin, that is a different story. Tension changes the vibrations of the instrument and to some extent can choke them if there is too much tension. In this senses Michael is right. It is a phenomenon called acoustical interference.

There is also a misconception too. A thinner string is in actuality not more focused by less. It is set into motion faster with less pressure required, and therefore is to some extent more and less responsive. More for bowing, less between notes, because of the amplitude factor (wider and slower). Of course, the opposite is true of heavy gauge strings. More resistant to bowing, but more responsive to note changes because of the faster, narrower more rapid vibrations.

Maybe this doesn't clear up things, but I hope that it sheds some light on things.


March 12, 2005 at 10:31 PM · Michael, since you're paying attention to this thread, do you consider the string length between the bridge and the tailpiece important? If so, what do you think should be done there?

March 12, 2005 at 10:48 PM · Extremely important. The right length is usually around 55m.

March 19, 2005 at 01:07 AM · Interesting discussion. I've been playing the violin for a long time (1958), and I've tried every brand of string there is, I'm sure. The quality and sound has astounding variation.

As for gauge, I think it's hard to generalize about the actual acoustical effect, because the violin they're mounted on has a profound effect on the overall sound. I will say that any kind of string, be it gut or synthetic, is generally a bit harder to play in a heavy gauge. The light gauges sound more silvery to me. I think music stores recommend medium gauge because a) that's what they have in stock, b) it's usually a safe choice and c) if you're not in a specialist string shop, the help may not know what they're talking about.

March 19, 2005 at 03:42 AM · I'm the kind of person who worries about how many pounds of pressure I'm putting on the fiddle. A set of medium Super Sensitive Red Label strings exert about 54 lbs.


March 15, 2012 at 06:31 AM · In my opinion, Red labels are not a good choice. I play Helicore Heavy gauge's on my viola, so I thought I would try them on my violin- bad idea! The mediums sounded much better. I've gone to several string workshops over the last few years, and after the D'Addario workshop, I was thinking I should try lights and all kinds of new things, but after I left the Thomastik workshop, the guy had me thinking mediums are the only way to go, and that you will put to much pressure with the heavy's and not enough with the lights, and that they have it all figured out just right for you so don't worry your pretty little head about it, just use Thomastik's. I really prefer Evah's on violin anyway.

March 15, 2012 at 09:54 AM · I agree with Michael (and others) who claim that using high tension strings is rather counter-productive in terms of the sound quality. To be honest, I am quite surprised that some other strings producers declare the opposite.

The higher tension the less overtones, the worse playability and response (especially in soft dynamics and high positions), the higher "press demand" - this is why the strings may seem to be louder - they force you to press anytime.

There can be another extreme. Too low presure would cause another kind of weaknesses of course.

As many players and violinmakers already mentioned in many other topics - the strings (their formula, including their tension) has to fit the particular instrument.

Anyway - generally we can say - the better instrument, the lower tension of the strings is needed. With extremely bad instruments, there is the only chance how to create any, (at least "below-average" tone). Put the high tension strings and press :-)

March 15, 2012 at 10:58 AM · Allan - My two pennies' worth on this subject is that the main reason I would fit heavy gauge strings on an instrument is to increase string tension and downward pressure on the bridge. This can be done to compensate for a string length that is shorter than standard or a low projection at the bridge. It can also be done simply because an instrument sounds better if one or more of the strings are under more tension - for instance you might use medium gauge on all strings except the D string. I'm afraid there's no magic formula, every instrument is different and will require an individual solution.

March 15, 2012 at 12:03 PM · Bohdan Warchal

I have been considering your strings for a while now, and I like the idea of a trial. I do find the full price a bit on the high side though.

I also like your future plans for re-cycling. Would you accept other makes of string for re-cycling or would it have to be only Warchal strings?

Would you reccommend the Brilliants set for a contemporary Italian fiddle with a big gritty sound?

March 15, 2012 at 04:18 PM · I think Marc made and excellent point about heavy gauge strings (or exceptionally high tension strings) to compensate for short string length, I have experienced that first hand.

March 15, 2012 at 06:51 PM · I have forgotten to mention one important detail about heavy gauge (high tension) strings. Such strings keep us farther form the bridge, in other words, they don't allow us to use sufficiently wide range of contact point.

It is very simmilar to the gear on the bicycle. If one puts 100 lbs pack sack on ones back, on will not be able to ride with tme smallest gearwheel, but he/she will need to use the second or third ones. Since the contact point range is one of the most important factors for variety of sond colors and shadings, one is not able to benefit form the compete range of overtones.

In fact, such strings create rather a bit inferior kind of forte. If we consider, that among all three factors, primarily contact point allow us to create projecting (but still free sounding and ringing) forte, high tension strings force as to change the priorities (pressure first, than speed and contact point). The forte becomes dull, although loud close to the ears, it dosen't project into the hall.

To Peter: I am glad, you are interested in our products, enviromental policy as well as trial programme. However I would like to respect the etiquette of this unique forum as well as the general internet etiquette. Such answeres could be perceived as blatant advertising and this is not why I came here.

If want, you can ask me via personal message, I try my best to respond all questions.

March 15, 2012 at 07:32 PM · Bohdan

Thanks, my mistake, I will contact you by private message/email.

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