How does a violin string "wear out"?

December 7, 2022, 7:31 AM · I can understand a gut string wearing out, but does anyone know how a synthetic or steel string actually "wears" out, assuming the winding is intact?

I hear of people who religiously change strings every six months, and others who hardly ever change their strings. Any logic to this at all??

Replies (29)

Edited: December 7, 2022, 8:00 AM · String are wrapped in thin metal windings, and these wrappings can corrode and become unraveled over time, particularly at stress points over the nut and the bridge.

The interiors of sythetic strings are made with many thin fibers of nylon-like polymers that stretch and lose their elasticilty over time so the string does not vibrate properly like it did when it was new.

The same things happens with metal strings like Helicores which have metal fibers instead of polymers. Solid core metal strings also stretch and corrode.

Cleaning strings with alcohol can also cause dissolved rosin to sink into the interior fibers thus shortening string life.

Signs that strings are worn out can be subtle, but includes difficulty tuning and playing double-stops in-tune becomes hard or even impossible.

Edited: December 7, 2022, 8:20 AM ·
Exactly! What George said.

I use terry cloth to clean my strings after every use. After experimentation, I find the terry cloth works the best. If I don't clean the strings, accumulated rosin on the string can negatively affect the tone of the violin.

At the advice of my luthier, I also don't use any kind of fluid to clean the strings nor the violin.

I use terry cloth only on the strings. Else, the loops on the terry cloth can potentially catch on any splintering of the wood. To clean any residual rosin off of the violin itself, I lightly go over the violin and under the fingerboard, tail piece, and chin rest with a handkerchief.

December 7, 2022, 8:10 AM · Players who fail to clean the rosin off their strings regularly run into problems that could easily have been postponed.
Edited: December 7, 2022, 9:03 AM · @Fred - in terms of when to change strings, the problem for most amateurs is that, unless the strings break or you see some obvious indication of wear, the process of wearing out tends to be gradual. It may be difficult to notice since your hearing adapts to the newish sound over time. That's why I follow my luthier's advice to change mine after every 120 hours of use, which for me is about every six months. I don't feel that I have acute enough hearing to really tell when they need changing unless they are really far gone.
Edited: December 7, 2022, 9:53 AM · Between the polymer fibres and the metal windings there is a layer of "gunge" to dampen the vibrations: we don't want the strings to ring too long. I imagine this layer will be the first to suffer from our finger-pressure.

A gut core has natural damping. Guitar strings are presumably not damped, but tennis racket strings are..

Edited: December 7, 2022, 5:14 PM · A wrapped string has some intrinsically dissimilar materials pushed together to work well. Metal winding, gut or some kind of synthetic core, maybe silk threads. When they wear unevenly, they get out of sync.

The wrapping will get thinner and pushed around up top, the core underneath will erode based on that action, and both will suffer from being attacked by rosin and perspiration.

Add to that the problem of gut absorbing moisture, and you have an endless cycle of expansion and contraction, which induces fatigue on the very thin metal strips. Even without the actual wear, just the change in shape in the metal windings will induce the string to go "false". Less of a problem with synthetics (except for EP Green), but still.

In some ways, you'll see less wear from pure gut. It is less strong, of course, than silver or aluminum, but it doesn't have all that indigestion going on beneath its surface.

December 7, 2022, 11:41 AM · And different people's sweat has different pH values.
December 7, 2022, 12:47 PM · For me, one day I realize that I'm working to hard to get the sound out (viola) or that as George mentioned - intonation becomes more challenging (violin or viola) and there is also a loss of "edge" where the sound is darker, more damped. I generally change my viola strings about 3 times a year, and violin strings once per year (I play it a lot less).
December 7, 2022, 12:51 PM · I find that the A string usually takes about 10 months for the winding to unravel at the first position B location. So I am now trying to change strings every 6 months at predictable intervals, so that the unpredictable doesn't mess up anything like orchestra.
Edited: December 7, 2022, 5:13 PM · Like Karl, I will ask myself (after a few months-- I keep a log of string changes) if the violin still sounds good. If I start to feel buyer's remorse, I put on new strings and usually all is at peace.

The big exception has been Evah Pirazzi, which often go false long before they don't sound good. That, to me, means extreme difficulty of playing double-stops in tune.

I am now using Tricolores in almost all situations, so we shall see if they go false in the old way, or break, or get dull first.

(For those trained on Dominants, false wrapped-gut strings can be detected by playing and letting ring a loud natural harmonic. If it changes pitch in the process, you've got a lemon.)

December 7, 2022, 4:02 PM · Wow! I just learned a lot!! I didn't realize the construction of wound strings was that complicated - this will also certainly help make the purchase of higher-end strings less painless. I also did not understand the harm alcohol can due to strings. Thanks all!
Edited: December 8, 2022, 1:12 AM · IMO much of what Warchal writes about alcohol is pseudo-science. They use a stainer - wooh, the fibres are stained. That doesn't mean it's rosin. They don't weigh anything before or after, etc. They ignore the ratio (probably microscopic) of rosin in the string to rosin on the string when you are playing.
Edited: December 8, 2022, 3:14 PM · Whether or not you believe that dye is a good surrogate for dissolved rosin, the experiment showed that alcohol seeps inside of strings.

More importantly, the experiments showed that wiping the strings with a dry microfiber cloth safely removes >90% of surface rosin from the strings. Alcohol is therefore both unnecessary and is very likely damaging to violin strings.

The bottom line is that alcohol is best kept away from violins and violin strings.

And don't use cork either: :-)

December 8, 2022, 4:08 PM · The people using pseudo science are the ones recommending alcohol, with no evidence it does not damage strings
December 9, 2022, 4:00 AM · I have much respect for Bohdan Warchals knowledge about construction wound strings. But the study regarding cleaning of strings with alcohol is lacking information. There is no description of the method - for all we know they may have immersed the string completely in the coloured alcohol. When I clean my strings with alcohol I use a small amount on a cloth. The study also shows that strings with different cores are stained differently. Is this because the alcohol penetrates differently? Or - more likely in my opinion - because the chosen dye has different affinity for the different core materials? If the problem is transport of rosin into the string followed by evaporation of the alcohol the problem would be the same irrespective of the composition of the core.
As far as influence of rosin deposits on the quality of the string my belief is that the most damage is caused by rosin deposited between the windings causing the string to become less flexible. Anything causing friction - such as rubbing too hard - can potentially melt the rosin particles thus fusing them together.
Lyndon - you should set up a scientific experiment to settle this once an for all! As a scientist I can give you some guidance. It should ideally be a randomised double blind placebo controlled study. A number of identical strings on identical violins and with identical bows with identical hair should be used, rosined exactly the same way with the same amount of the same rosin and played the same way (bow pressure, contact point etc.) by the same player for the same amount of time. The strings should be randomly assigned to different cleaning metods, cleaned at predetermined intervals by a second person using the different methods you want to compare and after a certain period of use examined by a third person for changes in the physical properties of the string (stiffness, mass distribution etc.). The individual strings should off course be examined before the study too to compensate for preexisting variations. Also the percieved changes for the player should be evaluated. It is essential that the people who evaluate the properties are unaware of which cleaning regimen is used. Do let us know the outcome of the study ;-)
Until then I shall continue to clean my strings with alcohol every now and then as it is my experience that I cannot detect any ill effect but I do detect a positive one. And off course I clean the strings with a micro fibre cloth after playing - as recommended by Bohdan Warshal.
Edited: December 9, 2022, 5:35 AM · I clean strings, like Bo, occasionally, with a small amount of alcohol on a cloth, and with something below as a safety net to prevent any getting onto the top, though I use literally only a few drops so the risk is very slight. After playing I ‘dry-clean’ the strings with a dry cotton handkerchief. I only use a very worn and softened handkerchief for this, and I wipe the strings all the way to the nut, and the fingerboard below. Perspiration is the issue there, rosin build-up below. I very seldom experience windings disintegration, but I am also very particular about LH fingernails.
Edited: December 9, 2022, 7:10 AM · I use eau de cologne occasionally, change strings after 6-10 months and don't notice any problems. I don't present that as science. In fact cloths and credit cards won't get rosin dust out from between the windings if it works its way in there, so it's the putative devil and the hypothetical deep blue sea. I hold my violin upside down (back to the ceiling) when I use alcohol.
December 9, 2022, 8:21 AM · Presumably using a pharmaceutical wipe and following it immediately with a microfiber cloth will minimize the invasion of the string’s interior. But I would be cautious in any case.
Edited: December 9, 2022, 8:52 AM · I agree with ..... I always clean my strings with a microfiber cloth before returning my instruments to their cases.

I've been cleaning my strings with alcohol for about 50 years and my bow hairs almost as long. I take all the precautions to avoid alcohol getting on wooden surfaces (unfortunately, once I did get a drop of alcohol on a violin's top). I've described my processes here in the past.

I had my doubts about this from time to time and would IMMEDIATELY rub everything dry with cotton cloth to prevent alcohol from getting to the string cores and the dissolved rosin from solidifying in the string windings or on the bow hair.

I actually had not done either type of alcohol cleaning since the COVID pandemic started but I did it earlier this week and found it still works as well as I have believed. Everything is now sounding as I remembered and desire.

I know these procedures are frowned on by some/many (for example, Warchal) but I have found a British bow maker who (also) cleans bow hair with alcohol ( we only just "found each other" last month.

December 9, 2022, 10:25 AM · Eau de cologne is fine if it’s not too heavily scented...less floral oil etc. it can add a certain elegance to your interpretation, which is nice for composers like Rameau or Lully. Pharmaceutical wipes will certainly clear the strings of virus and bacteria, but are violin strings a major vector of infection?
Edited: December 9, 2022, 11:20 AM · When people talk about strings wearing out, they're really not talking about the windings coming unraveled and the like. They're talking about loss in performance or sound that doesn't have any obvious visual clues.

Lyndon makes a good point about what's science and what's not. Like Andy Victor, I too have been cleaning my strings and bow hair with alcohol for a long time and I also rub my strings -- very gently!! -- with 0000 steel wool when I do not have alcohol prep pads handy. I don't find any ill effects from doing either one. On the other hand, that claim is absolutely NOT anywhere near being a scientific conclusion.

I credit Warchal for actually doing some kind of experiment. I'd have been floored if alcohol can't get in between the windings because the strings are wound and then they're stretched when you put them on your instrument so there almost has to be some kind of tiny gap that opens up.

The only thing that really surprise me is that this thread has got to this point without anyone bringing up wine corks.

December 9, 2022, 1:05 PM · Or skunk squeeze. ;-)
December 9, 2022, 2:13 PM · Always bring up wine corks - it makes pooring much easier ;)
December 9, 2022, 2:40 PM · There's usually someone who says they rub the rosin off their strings with a disused wine cork.
December 9, 2022, 3:28 PM · The above mentioned study by warchal shows how cork debris gets deposited between the windings.
Edited: December 9, 2022, 5:27 PM · All the arguments about whether or not to use alcohol on strings are completely nullified by the observation that a dry microfiber cloth removes >90% of residual rosin from the string surface.

There is no advantage in using alcohol to clean violin strings. It is a myth that should die before more people damage the varnish on their violins and shorten their string longevity.

And if anybody is worried about the tiny amount of rosin remaining on the string after a microfiber cleaning, just remember that much more rosin is added back as soon as you run the bow over your strings for a few strokes.

Alcohol and violins don't mix.

Edited: December 9, 2022, 9:40 PM · This rosin on the strings disussion always gets a chuckle out of me.

Strings go bad because of:
- Loss of core elasticity (I think this is the main reason steel strings lose some of their ring)
- Saturation with sweat, dead skin, and oils
- Gradual deformation of the string from use
- Oxidation of the windings

Gut has the additional weakness of turning to mush and fraying over time, but for me it still outlasts synthetics. Nothing irritates me like rusty windings...

Edited: December 11, 2022, 8:12 AM · Cotton, I agree with you that gut outlasts synthetics, significantly so, except for the E of course, and I can live with that. I have recently resigned from my symphony orchestras, solely for age-related reasons, and have taken the opportunity to revert my 18th c violin to a setup pretty well as the maker intended, with all gut strings. It already has a 2-octave fingerboard, I don't use an SR or CR and the violin still has its original pegs, so all I needed to do was to install a baroque tailpiece, a simple enough 20-minute job if done with due care.

My playing now is in the far more relaxing and stress-free environments of a weekly string ensemble at Bristol Music Club (consisting of a dozen or so retired people like myself), playing occasionally with a small band accompanying Irish folk dancers, and a weekly Irish music session in a local pub.

December 10, 2022, 9:58 AM · That sounds a delightful mix, Trevor. I hope to set up something similar one day.

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