Screeching Gut E String

February 3, 2021, 2:17 PM · Dear all,
I'm seeking advice from those of yours frequently using gut e string.
Some weeks ago I ventured on discovery of a loaned baroque violin. While playing without chinrest and shoulder rest is getting somewhat easier each day (minimal improvement each day though ;-)) I am really annoyed about the sound quality of the e string. I can achieve an okay-ish sound from g through a (could be better, sure, but fine at this stage). But with the e, there is so much screeching, not even whistling like with an steel e. I'm wondering if it could be this little bit fraying around contact point? Or too little rosin? I've tried to change contact point towards the bridge and back, without any noticeable improvement (though, while playing, I'm not always fully concentrated on contact point, I have to admit).
Every advice is appreciated, thanks in advance! Anne

Replies (9)

Edited: February 3, 2021, 5:14 PM · Plain gut has a much smaller radius for where your contact point needs to be. I'm sure you've experimented quite a bit, and your frustration has been felt by probably everyone who's tried gut strings for the first time, so don't fret!

In general you will have to bow closer to the bridge than you normally would, or at the very least not be tasto-ey. The ideal contact point and bow technique for gut strings could very well be someone like Zukerman, (which is ironic because he is probably the last person to play on gut..). Lots of starting the bow stroke on the string especially as a newcomer, and closer to the bridge. People love to talk about how gut strings offer more color and while it's true, it can also be quite misleading because it depends on what your definition of color is.

Gut strings in and of themselves provide more upper overtones than synthetic strings, meaning that the sound will be much more interesting or 'colorful' if you will. On the other hand, the extreme difficulty/impossibility of simultaneously playing with a healthy sound and at the fingerboard, means that you won't get as much access to the those kinds of sounds which means your variance in contact point 'color' is going to be more limited.

The point of that entire last paragraph is basically to say that if you are trying to attain color through a tasto or even slightly tasto contact point (even in p!), you will get nothing but screeches. You will have to somewhat counterintuitively play with much more juice, and less stereotypically baroquey at first. Good luck!

February 3, 2021, 3:12 PM · Dear James, thanks a lot for your encouragement, now I know what to work at! Anne
Edited: February 3, 2021, 4:35 PM · A gut E will teach you more about bow and tone control than you would have thought possible!

It's worth noting that up to about the end of the 19th century all violinists (and violists and cellists) used gut strings, including the E. As late as post-WW1, there was a major German orchestra (Berlin Phil?) that did not allow their violins to use the steel E (which was by then in fairly common use) because doing so would have upset the tonal balance.

February 4, 2021, 12:11 AM · Hi Trevor,
I may be wrong, but I believe the gut e continued well into the 20c. Szigeti commented in one of his books about how breaking one in a recital was perfectly acceptable and one simply stopped, put a new one on and continued from where one had left off...
The sound of a gut e is beautiful to my ear. I have enjoyed using them on a modern violin including in recital. They are not quite as unreliable and hazardous as legend would have it. The orchestral point is interesting. I had a theory that some of the passage work on the New World that requires a lot of open e string were written simply because the sound dvorak was envisaging was gut rather than a gaggle of violinists all playing a steel open e.
Edited: February 4, 2021, 9:55 AM · You have to keep your bow absolutely straight on a gut E. You also need to watch your bow speed (usually they like a faster and lighter bow than what you will be used to).

Gut Es are very finnicky, and small changes in gauge make a huge difference.
Personally I play on baroque style gut, but I absolutely can't stand the feel or sound of gut E strings. I stick a steel E on instead.

Edited: February 4, 2021, 3:06 PM · For me it is funny to read about difficulties with gut E strings. I recently put a set of chordas* on my violin (influenced by this forum BTW) to find out how they would sound. And the only string of the four that I really like (actually love) is the E. I love its tone, singing and luminous (is this even a proper adjective for a sound?) and without the sharpness of steel Es (gold steel, aluminum steel etc., they all sound too sharp to match comfortably with their three mates).

It is the A and D where I get ugly noises that I have to be very careful to avoid. (The G is spun with aluminum and is ok though not great on my instrument). I anticipate going back to the good old Eudoxas or (if I need more projection) Passiones. But if it is realistic I would dearly like to keep using a gut E.

BTW I also see the E (and the A) beginning to fray at the contact point. This worries me a bit. How long can one expect a gut E to last? How likely is it to break in mid-rehearsal or mid-performance?

I should probably add that my violin is an ordinary violin (built 1918), nothing baroque about it.

* The pandemic forces me to play alone at all times; if I had regular rehearsals to go to I would not take this kind of risk with a set of strings.

February 4, 2021, 4:26 PM · Thanks for your insights, now I'm reassured that's my technique to work on and not bothering about a new string etc.
Edited: February 4, 2021, 7:47 PM · @ Albrecht

Chorda is the shortest-lived of any string I have tried. You can potentially extend its life by periodically (every 1 to 2 weeks maybe) moistening the string with almond or walnut oil, and washing your hands often. You have to wipe off the excess, of course, as to not soil your bow. Nonetheless gut E strings will always break quickly, because they're operating at pretty much the maximum tension that the material can withstand at such small diametres.

Is the Chorda G not silvered copper? I can't imagine them having changed the formula. Anyways, I find Aquila to last significantly longer than other gut strings, in case you're looking to try something new.

February 4, 2021, 8:29 PM · Thanks, Cotton for your advice.

I guess I keep using walnut oil for salad...

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