String Changing

July 3, 2021, 2:48 AM · In my post regarding tone, numerous people discussed strings and trying new strings. it seems that several of you change strings as often as you change underwear. I’d be interested in your strategy for determining whether one set of strings sounds better than another. I had a discussion the other day with my violin teacher regarding this. We both agreed that, to get a fair comparison, you would need to break Set A in for a couple of weeks, Then take Set A off and put on Set B and wait a couple of weeks before those are broken in. Then you would need to play both one after the other to get a good determination of sound quality. On a variety of threads here, some of you talk about having tried quite a number of different strings. It sounds like that has been, for several of you, over a short period of time. Do you do it methodically, or just put a new set on and “see” if you like the new set better or worse? Are you trying out new strings sets when the previous set needs replacing or just when you become dissatisfied and want to try something new? Do you ever settle on a brand or are some of you constantly looking for something better? If the strings aren’t worn out, do you save then and organize them into packages? Do you find yourself putting a set on that you have taken off premature to them wearing out? I want to try some new strings. So many possibilities I want to try. I can’t see spending $80- $100 and immediately taking them off and trying something new. I want a good sound. But finances have to play a part as well. Thanks in advance for your thoughts.

Replies (41)

Edited: July 3, 2021, 9:12 AM · Rob, your question cuts to the core of what I see as a significant problem facing violinists -- there are so many things we can do to improve the sound of our instruments, but the plain fact is that these parameters have scarcely been subject to rigorous, controlled experimentation, partly because when it comes to the sound of a violin, there are so many parameters, and they're so closely inter-related, and so much subjective judgment is involved that rigorous, controlled experimentation is basically impossible.

What your professor is suggesting is a controlled experiment and it's not a bad idea, but you should be aware (which I suspect you already are) of its limitations. The thing every violinist needs to consider is whether the outcomes of such experimentation are likely to be worth the time and expense.

Usually the way it goes with strings is, "I'm using Dominants right now, but I want a little more brightness and sizzle in my sound," so you ask the luthier or your friends on v.com how to get more brightness and sizzle than you're getting with Dominants, and you get a range of suggestions. I told my luthier that my viola was sounding like an old shrew being garotted and he noticed that I was using Dominants and he recommended I switch to Obligato, which I did, and the sound is much better. Next I complained to him that my viola was not very responsive and he said it wasn't my strings.

I could have spent $1500 on ten sets of strings to test them out on my viola, but the alternative is to stick the $1500 into a mutual fund and apply it toward the purchase of a better viola later on. That decision is somewhat easier if your instrument is worth $500, and less easy if it's worth $50,000.

One thing I will say is that there is this prevailing folklore that the clerk in a violin shop should be able to hear you play your violin for 30 seconds and then tell you what kind of strings will make your violin sound better. No. What they're actually good at is selling you a new set of violin strings. I trusted my luthier because he makes violas and he said that he noticed early on that his instruments sounded better with Obligatos than they did with Dominants.

July 3, 2021, 10:39 AM · Rob - Paul's reply is full of wisdom, so I will only add a few thoughts. One thing is that it is important to have someone play your instrument for you so that you can hear the effect of the strings you have. Strings that sound not so good under your ear may sound somewhat different if you are standing six feet away listening to someone play. Another is that somehow, if you find the right strings, your instrument will suddenly sound like a Strad or you will sound like Heifetz (same thing with rosin). Strings are unlikely make that kind of difference. A final consideration is what sort of groups you are playing in. If you are mostly doing chamber music, you are likely to want strings that are warmer than if you are mostly doing orchestra, where you want strings that project well.

For pros, the choice of strings probably can make a big difference, but for most of the rest of us, not so much. I trust my luthier of 25 years on the issue of strings, and my violin and viola both do quite well with Obligatos. They might sound a bit better with something else, but I am not interested in this point in my life in experimenting.

In any case, good luck!

Edited: July 3, 2021, 11:37 AM · Rob, that's a good test only if you don't ever play your violin for those first few weeks of "break-in". Which is ridiculous. Otherwise, behavior during that period counts, because it does--you are playing then, and sound matters during that period as much as it does during any period they're on the violin. If a set of strings took a couple of weeks to sound good. . . that's a horrible thing, I think.

I think you need to consider the whole period the strings are on--
--how quickly to they get to a good point
--how long they stay there
--how they age, whether it's good or bad
--whether they go suddenly or taper off slowly
--and, of course, how they sound, overall.

Many pros I've dealt with consider Dominants are shot after three weeks or a month. In your scenario they'd never qualify at all. The longest-to-settle down strings I know take about two days to resolve.

You should know your violin well enough that you can tell the difference in strings without a side-by-side trial at one instant, but rather how they're doing through their whole lifespan, just as you should be able to tell when they're going bad. If you don't, if you can't tell, what does any difference matter, since you can't identify it?

I've found that break in is quite different among different string types, but never have found a string that takes weeks to break in. Perhaps for some reason your teacher just doesn't like strings when they are sounding as they are supposed to sound?

Edited: July 3, 2021, 2:43 PM · I think, generally, synthetic strings are more similar than they are different. If you switched an Evah for a Tonica on my violin and had me play it blindfolded, I don't even know if I could tell—certainly not right away. That is, if I still played synthetics at all.

The difference between gut and synthetic is immediately noticeable, on the other hand. So if you choose a set of perlons at random, and a set of guts at random, and compare the two, you'll have a non-scientific but plenty good enough idea of what direction you want to go.

Edited: July 3, 2021, 3:29 PM · I'm planning to change strings twice a year. So far I use Dominants, as they are middle of the road. The last lot started unravelling after about 9 months. Shar's comparison chart thinks they are warmer than Tonicas. Fiddlerman thinks Tonicas are warmer. In 6 months' time I'll try Tonicas. The truly warm strings all seem to be gut, in which I have zero interest. I had been using Hill dark rosin on new Dominants, but today I put on some Royal Oak Classic instead, and that did seem to produce a warmer sound.

It may be interesting to try one set of top-price strings, just to see if there's a mind-blowing difference, but I doubt it - websites claiming to know say that Perlman uses Dominants.

Others will tell you you have to try every string to see which suits your instrument best. But you know that already.

Another strategy would be to assume there will never be any big difference and just use a different string every time. Maybe one year you'll be surprised.

(Another experimental variable, Rob, would be whether you are still changing and developing as a violinist)

July 4, 2021, 3:40 AM · Typically, I have a couple different types of strings that I want to try on a violin depending on age, origin and what it sounds like with the existing set of strings (usually whatever the luthier had on it). I'll throw a set on, try them for a couple weeks and make some notes on sound. Based upon that first set, I'll change them after a month or so to a new set of strings and keep whatever I took off since they're still pretty new. Again, more notes on sound quality and time it took to break in. At that point I'll usually decide whether I'm happy with what I've tried or if there's something particular I'm unhappy with that needs to be remedied.

If they were only on for a short time, I keep strings to use again on a different instrument (we own three violins as of now). I do always keep notes of what instrument and what strings I've tried, how long they took to break in, sound quakity, how long strings lasted before tone degraded, weird noises or oddities I've experienced, etc.

July 4, 2021, 11:38 AM · "sound quakity"

Unintentional I'm sure, but it says so much!

Edited: July 4, 2021, 12:10 PM · I only one tried a set of violin strings that took 2-3 days to settle in. They were Larsen Tzigane strings. They were almost intolerable at first. For the first day or so, it sounded like I was playing inside a coffee can. When I change a set of Obligatos, Evah Pirazzi, or Vision Solo, sound-wise they're ready to play right away.

Quakity is when the music-store guy strokes his beard, looks wistfully skyward, and advises you that your $1000 Chinese workshop instrument needs Peter Infeld strings with a Platinum E.

July 4, 2021, 12:37 PM · I have been lucky enough to live near violin shops that stock libraries of "tester" strings, enabling me to try out many, many strings in an afternoon.

I have also gone through periods where I have done a lot of experimentation, especially when I was playing so much that I would change at least once every 3 months and sometimes as often as every 6 weeks. (Strings were cheaper 20 years ago, the era when composites started to really be the thing.)

July 4, 2021, 1:35 PM · Another alternative for string testing is to have a second violin in the case to wear a second set.

In the old days of gut, that was to have a string ready for quick substitution before a concert, minimizing the risk of stretching. With synthetics, that is much less of a problem, but some might prefer to take the precaution.

July 4, 2021, 4:05 PM · Yes if you are worried about a string breaking or delaminating during performance you're best to have a set of strings you've taken off as these are preconditioned and they will not lose a half step in the first minute of playing.
July 4, 2021, 7:15 PM · All good thoughts. Some new ideas to consider. Since I first starting playing about ‘62 or ‘63, I suspect I was playing on gut strings. I looked up Dominants, and they became available in 1970. That was about a year before my slow 2 year violin burnout began. If I had to guess I stayed with gut strings. When I started to play again in January, I used the Dominants that a local luthier put on my instrument about three years ago when I had a complete setup done. Unfortunately, I didn’t start playing again at that time. I worried the Dominants had gone “dead” so, after three months, I put on Obligatos (a suggestion from another luthier).I used them for 3 months. I wasn’t sure, but it seemed they lost the warmth. I’m realizing how new I am at discerning sound characteristics! I put on a new set of Obligatos. After a month or so I started getting unpleasant sounds from my G, D and A strings. So, I began thinking about switching strings again. I can’t say they are worn out. Maybe. I’m not good enough to make that determination. I’m thinking I might try a set of gut strings. But all from the same set, or a different E string. Do I put the Obligatos into plastic baggies in case I want to use theme later? I’m concerned I will regret the guts and immediately look for another alternative. At some point will my wife wonder about my string budget? Ha Ha. Lydia, I haven’t asked whether any of the local guys have test strings. But I suspect they don’t. I could be there a couple of afternoons. But after deciding, I’d be a customer for life of the shop that allowed me to do that testing. Pondering which direction to take. Again thanks. You guys are a great resource of experience and information.
July 4, 2021, 7:26 PM · Could be going false/tired with use, or maybe there is something in your adjustment that is creeping out of position. Bridges that were once perfect can sometimes wander around.
Edited: July 5, 2021, 1:19 PM · Putting strings away in a bag is fine. If they are still good.

Three months is about the limit on Dominants. It doesn't matter too much if they were on but not played--they were probably still good when you started playing again.

I can tell you, if this is important, that Evahs don't last long, Rondos last the longest of metal strings, and gut strings are good nearly forever, by comparison. Given what you said, I don't think you'd like Evahs, but you might like Rondos or Tonicas. I don't know any pros who play Obbligatos on violin.

Where do you live?

July 5, 2021, 1:32 PM · Michael (or anyone else) have you gotten a chance to try the rondo viola strings in your shop? I'm planning on trying them on my viola because I love them for violin, but I haven't been able to find much on them in terms of what people think of them. One shop that I asked said that they think they behave like their violin counterparts which is a good enough reason for me to try them, but still the curiosity.
July 5, 2021, 5:48 PM · Michael- I’m in Southern California. I don’t care too much about longevity. As long as I can get 3-4 months our of a set, I’m OK. But I want to get the best sound of strings that I can so I can eliminate that from the discussion of my tone. I’m a little gun shy to start buying stings randomly though. I have looked at the strings charts. It’s funny that the same strings will show up differently on differentl string charts. I’m thinking of Eudoxa strings next. I hardly ever have to tune the Obligatos. But I’m not worried about tuning a little more often. I have an old violin and I’m thinking the violin was made when gut was the only option (other than steel). On the Shar website, they have a string chart. One of the two characteristics is direct vs. subtle. Could someone explain those for me?
July 5, 2021, 6:42 PM · Direct vs. Subtle I suspect is just fancy-talk for Loud vs. Not-as-Loud
Edited: July 5, 2021, 7:02 PM · Not quite. The chart on Violin String Review (which otherwise has similar axes) has a separate icon for volume. "Direct" strings have a cleaner, more penetrating tone while "subtle" strings have a more complex sound.
July 5, 2021, 7:04 PM · This question is about kid's 1/2 violin: is there is a clear sign that strings need to be changed? Or they are good until they are there? :)
July 5, 2021, 7:13 PM · Most new cheaper 1/2 size violins come with worthless Chinese strings that sound terrible and can be vastly improved upon, I would recommend Tonica as the cheapest best for the money quality string out there, about $35/set
July 5, 2021, 7:24 PM · Andrew is right

Direct means the sound is more focused while subtle is more broad and complex.

As for the OP, if you like the stability of not having to tune so often but you want to be more conscious about your violin being made when gut strings were the only string available, you could give light/weich gauge strings a try.

A lot of violinists who play on older violins or want to have roughly the same feel of gut will use light gauge dominants. One that comes to mind is Antal Zalai. Fabulous violinist. He has a YouTube channel where he has lots of videos of his playing including all 24 Paganini caprices and the entirety of Bach’s sonatas and partitas. I’m sure you can see it in a lot of his videos, but in the videos of his Paganini caprices you can see the normal colors for dominant strings at the tailpiece but at the peg end the windings are yellow which is the color code thomastik used to show that they are light gauge. He plays on an older instrument as well (I think a Guarneri?)

July 5, 2021, 7:27 PM · I don’t have a cheaper 1/2 size violin.
July 5, 2021, 7:42 PM · Per Zalai's website: His instrument is a 1733 Stradivarius which decades ago used to be the famous violinist & MDR Sinfonieorchester concertmaster, György Garay's concert violin.
July 5, 2021, 8:07 PM · I stand corrected.

Shar's guide has the vertical axis as Direct to Subtle, and the horizontal axis as Warm to Brilliant.

The guide on Shawn Bouke's Violin String Review site has the vertical axis as Bright to Warm, and the horizontal axis as Clean to Complex.

Shawn explains on his introductory page:

"Describing sounds is very difficult. Terms like bright, warm, clean, and complex are often used to describe tone or timbre. Here is a simple analogy to get an understanding of the difference between a bright tone and a warm tone: Imagine striking a thin piece of metal with a hammer. That more shrill, thin sound could be called bright. Now imagine striking a block of wood with a hammer. That sound would be more warm, or dark.

Understanding and Explaining the difference between clean and complex tones is a bit more difficult. That difference in tone has to do with the number of overtones within the sound produced. Overtones are vibrations that are part of the harmonic series, or multiples of the same frequency that sound at the same time. Clean tones produce less overtones while complex tones produce more overtones.

Every instrument is different, and strings will not sound the same on every instrument. Although a new string may alter the tone of an instrument slightly, it is only one factor in the total sound of an instrument."

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

HTH!

July 5, 2021, 10:02 PM · Thanks Amrita. I’ve never understood the concept of overtones very well. My question might be, who would want less overtones? Is there a specific type of music that lends itself to a more clean tone?
Edited: July 5, 2021, 10:24 PM · A flute doesn't have many overtones, organ pipes can lack overtones, just as an example of sound that is more like a sine wave
July 6, 2021, 1:05 AM · There can be such a thing as too many overtones as well. I once had a coach have my quartet play sul ponticello to help blend our sound better. It worked, but I’m not completely sure how. My understanding is the abundance of overtones created by sul ponticello helped open our ears to listen to each other more closely. Someone with better understanding of sound physics could probably explain it better.
July 6, 2021, 1:08 AM · In regard to the question about Rondo viola strings, we got half a dozen sets to try at the shop after a couple people raved about them. We put them on six violas and every set had amazing results, so we immediately ordered more after selling all six violas in two days. The professional players who have tried them have been loving them.

I think they’re the best viola set available now, and the whole set is good, no substitution of the A necessary for the first time ever! They have the feel of a lower tension string under the fingers while also getting an incredible depth of sound.

Edited: July 6, 2021, 6:28 AM · FWIW, Aaron Rosand played gut on his del Gesu, but switched to light Dominants when the humidity was going to be high and variable, like on tours in Asia during wet seasons.

We have the Rondo viola strings but I haven't tried them. I expect them to be great.

A sound can get so broad that the core and pitch center of the string get lost, so there is such a thing. This is very common on the lower strings of cellos. Many modern players, it would appear from their choice of instruments, prefer a direct sound to a fat rich one.

I think that MIGHT be because they think they are louder, which may or may not actually be the case: it is true that a nasty sound is more penetrating than a good one in the sense that one always feels that nasty sounds are already too loud and good ones you want to hear more of, no matter what the actual volume is, so "nasty" gets more attention. Think of players known for their laser-like but usually invariable sound because the violin is set up to dump everything all at once, leaving nothing in reserve to push around. Personally I'd rather listen to a shop vac---a similar experience but with an "off" switch.

S[eaking of which, there's not only the idea of rich, full, lots of overtones, but also the related idea of malleable. You can have the first and not have the last--that is, have a particular, desirable sound with not a bit of variability. I personally check this with vibrato: change in only pitch = bad; more of a pulsating, scintillating envelope of sound with the pitch wobble being less obvious = good. Generally the second situation requires minimal vibrato strength/width to generate, so if you see someone wildly shaking their hand to get just a normal vibrato, the violin is probably not be up to the job and they're trying to force it. Another way to check for this is for maximum tonal difference when bowing close to or far from the bridge, but this is a test that's best done in comparison with other violins, like in a sales room with 10 violins on the table.

My personal feeling about string choice, mirrored by about 90% of my customers, is just buy Rondos and be done with it. Great sound and complexity, incredibly long life.

July 7, 2021, 12:30 PM · Michael,

What about the other 10%?

July 7, 2021, 2:23 PM · Aaron Rosand also used weich/light gauge Tonicas as well per Pirastro's website: https://www.pirastro.com/public_pirastro/pages/en/Aaron-Rosand-00001/

"My belated thanks for kindly sending to me the sets of Tonica strings last June. The Tonica "Weich" remains my favorite of all strings currently on the market."

July 7, 2021, 2:33 PM · It's too bad Pirastro discontinued the Tonica in weich/light gauge. Only mediums now.
July 7, 2021, 6:09 PM · Andrew, they're all over the map. The Latest Thing, usually, whatever it is that week. One of them has been with some Warchal string for quite a while now, which is notable.
Edited: July 7, 2021, 9:11 PM · I might not be typical of Michael's clients, but I totally sympathize. There are a few instances when I'd want improvements or differences that come from Warchal Timbre, or maybe some of the gut options-- Eudoxa and Tricolore mostly.

Still, if I were to send any instrument off without the chance to monitor it, Rondo would cover most cases between pretty well and fabulously. Not quite idiot-proof, but a very fine solution. (Non-Rondo E, though!)

Edited: July 8, 2021, 11:40 AM · The thing that I really like about the Rondos is that they feel like a neutral string, if "neutral" is a Dominant-like baseline that doesn't feel like it's pushing the instrument one way or another. But they don't sound metallic while they break in, the way that Dominants do. They're quite stable within a day for tuning. They feel soft under the fingers. And I've just managed to use a set for more than a year before thinking, "hmm, after-ring isn't really present as much, I really should get new strings". (And an adjustment...)

Rob, you should plan as if your strings will only sound optimal for 3 months, in most string brands. It's not that you're making the wrong string choice. You're just expecting them to sound good for a long time. They don't. They wear out. Modern strings usually don't break until they are very, very old, but they'll go dead way before that point.

Mich, strings for kids need to be changed at least once a year no matter what. I suggest that you change every 6 months if the kid doesn't play much, or every 3 months if they play a lot.

July 8, 2021, 12:08 PM · Michael. Thank you.

That is interesting to me because two of my violins sound very weak with Warchal Amber and Timbre (and Tricolore) but the other two are the best ever with the Warchal strings (I did not even try the Tricolore on those two fiddles).

July 8, 2021, 12:43 PM · Over the 20 years that I've been playing my old family heirloom violin I've tried a variety of strings, and always return to plain gut (Chorda) with a steel E. There is no doubt in my mind that these suit the 18th c violin because they bring out the resonance and response the best. Sorry about the steel E instead of gut, but one must be pragmatic when the need arises! Eudoxas come close to the Chordas, but the Chordas bring out the tone and resonance better. I've tried various synthetics, but they seem to strangle the tone to some extent, presumably because of the increased tension over plain gut.

My experience is that plain gut retains its tone far longer than synthetics - my current Chordas are over two years old and their playing life is still good, with no tonal loss, no tuning instability, or fraying. I find it helps to lightly oil the plain gut strings every couple of weeks with sweet almond oil.

Edited: July 8, 2021, 7:13 PM · Yeah. My experience has been that when gut works it's great, and when not its disproportionately disappointing. Something synergistic seems to happen when it does work and if that doesn't happen it's a total bust. . . there's no in between.
July 8, 2021, 6:49 PM · Chorda are just about the worst gut strings on the market, gut string manufacturing has improved lately, you should try some other brands, like Gamut.
Edited: July 9, 2021, 3:43 PM · Lyndon, I think the behaviour of gut strings can depend on the violin. A few years ago I tried Chordas on a Jay Haide I had at the time (but which I now no longer have), and the result was rather less than satisfactory. I got far better results on that violin with synthetics (particularly Warchal Amber), and the situation regarding string choice is essentially reversed on my old violin.

My choice of Chorda? Where I live in the UK I buy Chordas over the counter, whereas Gamut (for example) would have to be obtained from across the Atlantic, with extra charges for shipping, import duty etc. Gamut and other brands are doubtless very good, but Pirastro isn't standing still on R&D!

My Chordas do what I want them to do and last very well. I see no point in going to the expense and time of trying out alternative brands in the unsubstantiated hope that one of them "might" be a winner. As I suggested above, string behaviour depends largely on the instrument and may not be all that predictable.

And I'm not in the habit of changing a perfectly good horse in midstream!

July 9, 2021, 3:46 PM · With gut, I am finding enough to suspect that gauge/tension matters more than with mainstream synthetics. I tried a set of Tricolore on one fiddle, and it just refused to respond properly. I suppose I could have got a real hatchet for a bow and relearned how to use it, but I found instead that light-weight A and D solved the problem.

When I moved the mid-weight strings over to a different fiddle (Guarneri pattern vs large Strad, if that matters) they sounded just fine.

All of which does support Michael's observation somewhat.

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