The materials, construction and design of a string will shape its bow response and overall sound. Each string has its very own specific recipe which is determined by months of research and testing. The anatomy of a string designed for violin, viola, cello, or double bass, is usually comprised of four major categories.
The core is the most central part of the string that runs from end to end. Most strings fall into one of three core categories: gut, synthetic, or steel.
Solid Steel Core
Steel core strings arose during the turn of the 20th century, due to a shortage of raw material needed to create gut strings, as well as technological advances in metallurgy and engineering. These strings feature a solid steel wire that runs throughout the entire core of the string. In the case of some violin E strings, this material makes up the entirety of the string itself (no other wrap materials are included).
Solid steel core strings play with a sound that is more projected, focused, and clear than that of gut or synthetic core materials. These have the longest lifetime of any type of string, due to the stability, strength, and resilience of the solid steel core. The solid steel core structure is both durable and relatively simple to manufacture, making them popular for beginning students, as well as those who are economically-minded.
Stranded Steel Core
Stranded steel core strings feature a core made out of thin steel wires braided together in a rope-like formation. Wires of varying diameters are created by a process called "wire drawing," involving the pulling of metal rods through a series of dies, making them thinner and thinner. This gives strings the strength of steel, combined with flexibility and elasticity. The complexity of the stranded steel core also affords strings a wider range of tone than that of solid steel strings, though the general tonal palette is still brighter and more focused than that of gut or synthetic core materials.
While there are many different formations of stranded steel cores, many of them share similar qualities and can often also provide players with easy bow response, often favored by the lower strings, as well as those who play electric instruments or alternative styles (bluegrass, rock, jazz, and others).
These strings feature a core made from synthetic or manmade fibers. Synthetic core strings tend to play with a more flexible, stretchy feel than that of metal or gut strings, as well as a thicker overall diameter. The synthetic materials available to us are quite diverse. For example, a synthetic material like nylon can be made with different elasticities and properties. As a result, string-makers can manipulate these strings to exhibit an assortment of playing characteristics and sound qualities, including gut-like warmth, projected clarity, or balanced evenness.
Some synthetic materials have a higher resistance to humidity and temperature changes, making them more resilient than gut strings. Due to their ability to offer a greater range of tonal variety, these strings are often used by both professional players and advancing students.
Gut strings are made from the small intestines of sheep and cows, and are the oldest type of string-making material. Because of the complexity and elasticity of natural gut, these strings are often warmer and more complex in tonal color. However, they are more susceptible to variations in temperature and humidity, and are the least durable of any strings used today. They are also typically more expensive to purchase than modern strings, due to the more labor-intensive techniques used to manufacture them, along with a high cost of raw materials.
Windings (or wrappings) are one or more layers of material that are wound along the length of the core. These are often types of metal or synthetic materials which provide the function of adding mass to the string while allowing the string to retain the flexibility necessary to vibrate properly.
Metal wire used for windings are usually categorized into either round wire, which is cylindrical, or flat wire, which is flattened like tape. The outermost winding must be done with flat-wire in order to provide the surface necessary for bowing. This is one of the chief differences between orchestral strings and most fretted guitar strings, as the outer-most layer of winding on most guitar strings is made with round wire. The type of materials used for windings and many other parameters such as wire diameter, winding tension, and spacing and angle of windings can significantly impact the sound and feel of the strings.
While a majority of orchestral strings are wound, some are not. For example, violinists have the choice of E strings that either wound or plain steel (which feature a solid core with no winding), the second option of which is much more common.
Like other bowed string manufacturers, D'Addario uses colored thread on the ball end and peg end to help identify the brand, pitch, and tension of a string. Additionally, silking at the peg-end protects both the end of the string and the instrument's peg by preventing windings from becoming unwound and serving as a buffer between the peg and the wire wrapping. In place of actual silk, most modern strings use synthetic thread.
Need help identifying your strings? Click here to check out our Silk Color Chart.
BALL / LOOP END
What's the difference between a ball end and a loop end?
A loop end string resembles a looped metal noose. A ball end string has what resembles a small metal washer inside of its loop.
Strings for viola, cello, and double bass, as well as the A, D, and G violin strings are almost exclusively made with a ball end, due to extra strength needed to anchor the string to an instrument's tail piece. Loop-ends are most commonly seen on violin E strings, though these can also be made with a ball-end.
If you're a violinist deciding between a ball or loop end E string, you can identify which type you need by examining the tailpiece. If the E string fine tuner is different from the bottom three strings' tuners (G, D, and A), you may need a loop end. A "Hill" or "English" style fine tuner has a singular hook that attaches to loop end strings, whereas a ball end fine tuner will have two prongs to keep the ball in place.
Damping indicates how quickly a string vibration dies away. Strings that are designed to be bowed (such as most orchestral strings) require a higher level of damping than strings that are designed to be plucked (such as most fretted or guitar strings). A string's damping can be controlled by manipulating the interaction of winding and core materials. Damping can also increase over time as corrosion and foreign materials (dirt, dust, rosin, etc.) accummulate on the string, further reducing a string's resonance.
String tension is a measurement of force along the length of the string. It is determined by the amount of mass (material) wound on the string, the frequency of vibration, and the string length.
String tension affects the response, playability, and sound of a string. We offer most of our string lines in multiple tensions: light, medium and heavy.
Players often use the term "tension" to describe the feeling of a string to both the left and right hand. This feeling is determined not only by a string's playing tension, but the elasticity of the core (how easily it stretches), the string diameter, the string texture, and the height of the string above the fingerboard.
Stringed instrument makers also use the term "tension" to describe the force exerted by the strings on the body of the instrument. This force is actually determined by the string's playing tension, the angle of the strings over the bridge, and the geometry of the instrument. It is a different measurement than that of the playing tension referred to as "light," "medium," or "heavy."
Generally speaking, when compared with medium tension string of the same brand, heavier tension strings have slightly more mass and are thicker, while light (or lower) tension strings have less mass and are thinner. Heavier tension strings generally play with additional volume and projection, though they can be more difficult to control than medium or light tension strings because of their thicker diameter. Heavier tension strings also have slower bow response than medium or light tension strings of the same material. Light tension strings have a wider tonal palette than higher tension strings, as they can be played more delicately and quietly. Light tension strings also have quicker bow response, due to their thinner string diameter.
Contrary to common belief, higher tension strings don't necessarily sound brighter. Since higher tension strings can be played louder, players often bow farther away from the bridge and use less bow pressure, which produces a less bright sound.
Start with medium tension. If the string feels "soft" or if you want more sound, try heavy tension. If you want an easier bowing response or you don't want as much projection or power, try a lighter tension. Sometimes a mix of light, medium, and heavy tension strings will work best.
Please note that there aren't global standards for tension levels, and that tensions will differ among string brands (even if they are both labeled "medium"). Terms like "light", "medium", and "heavy" refer to relative tension measurements only. Our tension specifications are listed on our website.
How Often Should I Change My Strings?
We recommend that with frequent use, you change violin or viola strings every 3-6 months, and cello or double bass strings every 6 months to 1 year. However, with less frequent use (such as beginning student-level playing), strings may last slightly longer than this guideline. Strings that are installed on an instrument will wear out eventually since they are under tension and exposed to humidity and corrosive pollutants in the air.
There are many variables that influence the longevity of a string:
- The acidity of human sweat
- The materials that the string is made of
- The humidity of the climate where the string is used
- Corrosion of the string
- Build-up of rosin, dust, and other particles on the string's surface
Over time, strings will naturally lose some of their resonance and ability to hold pitch. Some of these changes occur gradually, and a string's age may not be immediately noticeable to the player's ears until new strings are installed - if you can't remember when you last changed them, it's probably time to put new strings on. Signs that it's time to change your strings include:
- The inability to hold pitch for a long duration
- A dirty or grimy appearance
- A dull sound
The greater the difference in age among your strings, the less uniform your sound can be. When you install a new string, it is not necessary to change the unchanged strings if they have not deteriorated in sound or response. However, if the other strings are more than a few months old, it may be a good time to change them as well.
CLEANING The best way to keep your strings and your instrument clean is to not use too much rosin: only a few (3-4) swipes are necessary before each playing session. Any rosin applied beyond this amount will fall off of the bow hair and onto the strings and body of your instrument when playing.
Additionally, you should wipe down the fingerboard and bowing areas of your instrument regularly with a dry, clean cloth. This will help prolong string life. Be sure not use a dirty cloth, as it will only add more corrosive dirt, sweat, and rosin to the strings.
We do not recommend using alcohol to clean your strings — it could drip on the instrument and permanently damage the varnish.
STRING CHANGING 101 Change only one string at a time. Don't tune down the other strings - you risk movement of the bridge or sound post.
When winding the string around the peg, try not to wind a string around or across itself. Let the string lay side by side on the peg if possible. This will minimize the probably of damaging or breaking the string.
Lubricate the nut and bridge notches with graphite (pencil lead).
Pay close attention to the bridge: when viewed from the side, the bridge should be perfectly perpendicular with the top of the instrument, forming a 90 degree angle. If the bridge is slightly tilted, it may be possible to straighten it, however this requires some training and experience. Your instrument repair technician can show you the proper way to straighten your bridge.
The main ingredient of rosin is tree resin from conifers, such as pine or larch trees. Small amounts of additives are then added to change the rosin properties, such as its hardness. Any high quality rosin will coat the bow hair uniformly without creating a large amount of excess dust.
Players of lower instruments generally prefer softer rosin, requiring more stickiness to move their thicker strings. Players of violin and viola may prefer harder rosin for faster bow speeds and ease of bow response.
Dark rosin is usually slightly softer. However, one should not choose rosin solely on the basis of color since soft and hard rosin can be made in any color.
Take note: most players use too much rosin on their bow hair and rosin too often, resulting in a rough, gritty sound, and rosin build-up on their instruments. You can avoid this by applying only a small amount of rosin (3-4 swipes) at the beginning of every playing session. Wipe down your instrument and strings at the end of every playing session to avoid rosin build-up.
D'Addario is proud to support music teachers all over the world. By sharing our string-making process with you, we hope to inform and inspire both you and your students.
If you haven't yet had a look at the Strings 101
section, take a peek - you'll find information on string anatomy, care, and maintenance which is important and interesting for string players of all ages and levels. If you end up using this information in your classroom (we were hoping you would!), we've also developed lesson quizzes to use alongside Strings 101. Use these in class with your students or to test your own knowledge, and enjoy!
We'd love to know what you think: let us know how we can better inform or assist you at firstname.lastname@example.org