Core Strategy – a survey of string design
Published in the Strad Magazine August 2003
A list of modern string-making materials reads like an alchemist’s recipe book. Silver, aluminium and nickel windings jostle with tungsten, tin and titanium, while hidden within lie sheep gut, nylon, space-age synthetics or intricate braids woven from fine steel threads. From the oldest companies such as Pirastro to the newest makers such as Larsen Strings, manufacturers are working to provide an ever wider range of strings to satisfy the diverse characters and tastes of instruments and players.
Strings can be most easily categorised and understood by an analysis of their core materials. Sheep gut has always been the traditional core for strings, and is still highly desirable for what Steven Isserlis describes as its expressive range and alive, engaging sound. But gut tends to lack the power required by many modern soloists and its quick response to changes in temperature and humidity necessitates frequent re-tuning. Modern manufacturing processes have improved its durability and power, but many contemporary players find that its weaknesses outweigh its strengths.
The simplest steel strings are made from a single solid steel core which can also be wound with wire. Most string makers have also developed their own specially constructed ‘rope’ core of fine steel fibres, as Jim Cavanaugh of the Super Sensitive Musical String Company describes: ‘A multi-stranded core gives a quicker bow response and takes the edge off the brightness characteristic of many solid core strings. The rope core is also very flexible and slightly elastic, so it will feel somewhat softer under the fingers.’
Multi stranded metal core strings have become extremely popular with cellists and bassists and seem to have contributed to an evolution in bowing style, as Fan Tao, head of research and development at D’Addario explains: ‘When you exert heavy vertical bow pressure on a gut or nylon string it starts to twist, which suppresses the sound. Steel core strings are much stiffer and have a smaller diameter than gut, which means they resist twisting much better. This allows you to use much more bow force, much closer to the bridge. If you watch videos of Pablo Casals, you see him using lots of bow speed on his gut strings, well away from the bridge, but modern cellists using metal strings are able to play as hard as they can, really close to the bridge, using very slow bow speeds, which is why steel core strings have been widely accepted by cellists.’
Norman Pickering, an acknowledged world authority on strings, believes that metal core strings have huge potential: ‘The stumbling block for metal strings has been getting them good enough for players to like. But I think metal strings have huge potential for future development because of their stability and the ease with which you can adjust their tonal quality.’
In 1970 Thomastik-Infeld brought out their Dominant string, which caused a revolution in string design through its use of a highly flexible multi-thread nylon core. Nylon (also known as Perlon) quickly became a widely accepted substitute for gut, due to its resistance to changes of heat and humidity, its durability and relative warmth of tone.
Meanwhile, research and development departments throughout the world have been hard at work, systematically testing an exotic range of new synthetic substances in the search for the holy grail of ever more stable, beautiful sounding synthetic substitutes for natural gut. This research has led to the introduction over the last ten years of a new generation of highly stable synthetic strings with a variety of playing qualities.
The Danish company Larsen Strings is one of the newest arrivals on the scene. ‘In 1990 I set out to produce a fine metal cello A string using a 100 year old string winding machine in my garage,’ Larsen recalls. ‘I experimented with many different materials and, after many disappointments and consolatory bottles of wine, I finally created my first successful string. Nowadays I employ expert technicians using advanced machinery, but I still oversee the whole process.’ Larsen is best known for his metal cello strings, but he has recently introduced synthetic core strings for violin and viola.
The Super Sensitive Musical String Company (based in Florida, US) is a family business, like most string manufacturers. ‘We are now going from the ‘Model T’ era of string making into the computerised era,’ Jim Cavanaugh reveals. ‘It’s very important to use the most modern production techniques as they create better quality, faster production and a more consistent string. The Octava is our most recent string, which we developed in response to a demand from teachers for an economical perlon core string for intermediate students. We brought it out six months ago and the response has been phenomenal.’
Anne Jarl Hansen took over the Danish firm Jargar Strings in 1993. ‘My father worked with the strings all his life, always improving them. We still do things in quite an old fashioned way: all our strings are made by hand by twenty people who work in their own homes. Most of the workers just concentrate on one string, such as a cello A string.’ Jargar strings are particularly popular with cellists: ‘The steel core gives the cello a brilliant sound and is very stable. Our most popular string is the medium tension, but we sell a fair number of forte strings in France and southern Europe, while our dolce strings are more popular in the UK,’ Hansen reveals.
Dogal Strings, whose factory lies just outside Venice, Italy, have been producing steel strings by hand since the Second World War, when their factory producing gut strings was destroyed by bombing. ‘It was very hard to get supplies of gut after the war, so the company decided to produce a low tension steel string,’ Franca Cella Lavelli recalls. ‘We have also been experimenting with synthetic alternatives, and discovered a multi-fibre used for modern racing sails, which we now use for our new Vivaldi violin strings. We can only use this wonderful material because we make the strings by hand, and our workers can only make a Vivaldi string after working with us for seven years.’
Fan Tao recently took over research and development at D’Addario (based in New York State, US) from Norman Pickering, who had spent twenty years as the company’s R&D consultant. ‘We are constantly developing new ideas because players still want the sound of a gut string but also the durability and stability of steel core strings,’ Tao explains. D’Addario’s most recent innovation is Zyex, which has a space-age synthetic core. ‘The core is unique,’ Tao reveals, ‘It is an incredibly expensive substance used to insulate space craft and satellites. Unlike gut, and even perlon, it remains very stable in changes of temperature and humidity and has a very warm tone, which works particularly well with bright new instruments.’
Thomastik-Infeld, based in Vienna, Austria, are justly proud of their world famous brand, Dominant. Helmut Frank, their marketing manager, reports that they are still working to improve the string’s quality and materials. ‘After thirty years of success with Dominant, we thought it was time to come up with some new ideas for the string market, so we introduced Infeld Red and Blue for violin. These strings have a new synthetic core, but are still made in the tradition of Dominant strings.’
Annette Muller-Zierach and her brother are the sixth generation to work for her family firm, Pirastro, which is based in Offenbach, Germany. ‘We are always working to find something which people will like and which is easy to play, and we are very pleased with the response to Evah Pirazzi, Obligato and Violino, all of which share the same new synthetic core material.’ Pirastro’s latest offering is their No. 1 Universal E string. ‘The idea was to create an E string with an easy response and which does not whistle,’ Muller-Zierach reveals. ‘We are delighted by the response so far.’
With so many dedicated companies producing fine strings, where is the player to start? Larsen urges caution: ‘If you are truly happy with the strings you already play, I would not advise you to change them. If you have a happy marriage, why get a divorce?’
If you are unhappy with your instrument’s performance, first check your set up, advises Bruno Price, New York dealer. ‘I’ve met frustrated players with a harlequin mix of strings on their instruments still searching for the magic combination, when what they really need is a new bridge and post or just re-glued seams,’ he recalls. Price also advises players to replace their strings regularly. ‘If someone comes in with their instrument sounding terrible, it’s often because their strings are six months old,’ he reveals.
David Morris of J&A Beare Ltd, London, advocates a ‘small is beautiful’ approach to string experimentation. ‘If you want a change, try a small, sideways step, by experimenting with a different tension,’ he suggests. Most strings are manufactured in up to three different tensions (low, medium and high) but these tensions vary from brand to brand and maker to maker. Norman Pickering explains the effect of tension on string performance: ‘As the tension of a string increases, you get a higher volume of sound, but you lose controllability and response. Some players have powerful instruments and like playing on a low tension string for its responsiveness. We recommend medium tension as the starting point and high tension only for very special purposes.’
Another area for minor experimentation is with string windings, which vary in density and tone. Tungsten, for example, is almost twice as dense as silver, which is three times as dense as Aluminium. Many string brands offer a variety of windings. Thomastik Spirocore cello G strings, for example, are available wound with chrome, silver or tungsten. Jargar’s standard cello strings are wound with chrome, while their ‘Silver Sound’ G and C strings are wound with pure silver. ‘Silver Sound strings make a more mellow sound which is very popular with chamber musicians, but they are also used by soloists such as Julian Lloyd Webber,’ Hansen explains.
If minor adjustments to your string selection do not help, what is your next step? ‘Don’t be afraid to experiment’, urges Elisabeth Schneider, violinist and conservatoire teacher in Copenhagen, Denmark. ‘I was very influenced by my teacher’s taste, but I think it is essential for every player to make a personal choice in strings. It’s as natural as a painter selecting special pigments to suit his taste in colour and texture.’
Robin Aitchison, a violin maker in Ely, UK offers string trials to players who are unhappy with their sound or who want to experiment with the latest innovations in string technology. ‘When players arrive I ask them to play to me and describe what they like about the sound and how they might like to improve it. Then I check the set up of each instrument, as I find that about 20% of all instruments need a sound post adjustment before new strings can be considered.’
‘Violins and violas are often successfully strung using one brand for the three lower strings and a personal choice for the top,’ Aitchison explains. ‘However, stringing cellos tends to be more complex because of the different tonal qualities sought by players from the upper and lower registers and the challenge of creating a comfortable transition between the two.’
David Juritz, leader of the London Mozart Players, used Dominants for many years on his Gagliano violin. When he changed to a Guadagnini two years ago, he found he needed another solution. ‘I am no expert on strings, and just assumed that Dominants would suit my new violin, but I found it impossible to control the sound. I was advised to try gut strings, and was amazed by how the quickly and happily the violin settled down. It’s a complete joy to play now. The Olivs last for up to six months, but I change my metal E strings every few weeks as I find they deteriorate quickly.’
Glenn Dicterow, concert master and soloist with the New York Philharmonic Orchestra, plays a del Gesu violin. ‘I play to an audience of 2,800 people four times a week, so one of my biggest priorities is being heard clearly. I am often sent samples of new strings and I always try them out, but I always went back to the Dominants I’ve been playing for the last thirty years. Then two years ago I found that using a soft Helicore A string made a big improvement to the whole instrument. Its sound blends well with the Dominant D and G, but its greater softness release some of the tension on the bridge and freed up the lower strings too. I am a little more fickle with E strings, depending on the repertoire I’m playing.
Cellist Oleg Kogan has had a ‘rags to riches’ experience with strings, as he grew up in Russia, where good strings were scarce. ‘When I was a young student there were no good strings at all. When I moved to Moscow I found some nice strings made for the Bolshoi theatre and then I was able to obtain some Thomastik strings, which were an absolute revelation to me at the time. When I started travelling outside Russia, I discovered Jargar strings, which I loved, and then when I came to the UK I came across Spirocore and then Larsen, so I have finally settled on Spirocore for the bottom two and Larsen for the top two strings. I’d like to experiment more with a good luthier, when I have time.’
Violinist Maciej Rakowski, violin professor at the Royal Northern College of Music, Manchester, is an avid experimenter with strings. He plays a Carlo Tononi of Venice violin which has a troublesome wolf note. ‘Sound is very important to me and I try to give my instrument a set up and strings which will bring out its true tonal qualities. When it comes to strings, we violinists are spoilt for choice nowadays, and I always want to try the newest strings because you never know what is going to work on your fiddle until you try it.’
After trying almost every string on the market, Rakowski’s choice has narrowed down considerably. ‘It’s a bit like developing your own taste in wine,’ he admits. ‘Eudoxas are by far the nicest strings to play on, but they don’t produce enough power from my violin. Evah Pirazzi are great, but I find them difficult to play pianissimo with them on my violin. I liked the sound of Helicore, but they felt a bit tough under my bow. Then I tried Infeld, which felt better, but the wolf was kicking in more than with Helicore. At the moment I’m back with Dominants, but I’m thinking of trying a combination of different string types next. Alternatively, I could always spend a couple of million on a Strad!’
‘You can never predict the result when experimenting with strings,’ Aitchison admits. ‘Not only does each string behave very differently on every instrument, but each player’s taste and playing technique is utterly unique, and will bring out very different qualities in the same string. Nevertheless, if you are prepared to test a wide range of strings the results can be very rewarding.’
© Sarah Mnatzaganian 2003