'Gut Strings' - The Strad Magazine - April 2008 issue
[Q]. I see many fascinating adverts for strings. Are there any significant differences between the strings, or is it all just a marketing exercise?
[A] There are huge variations. For a start, there are three different families of strings. First, we have pure metal strings, which are either just a length of wire (for example, the violin E string), or a metal core wound with metal. These metal varieties are used by 99 per cent of modern cellists and by many viola players, and they constitute 98 per cent of E strings on violins. Next, we have gut.
[Q] Gut – as in catgut?
[A] Well, normally it’s sheep’s intestine. (Try putting a piece of uncovered gut string in the dishwasher; it will emerge to resemble some kind of completely indestructible cooked spaghetti!) Gut strings come in two varieties: plain gut, which is used by the players of ‘original’ instruments, and gut wound with metal, which is used for the lower strings of original instruments and by a small number of ‘modern’ players.
Finally, we have synthetic strings. These are similar to covered gut but with an inner core made from some form of nylon or proprietary material. New, ‘improved’ versions of these are popping up all over the place.
[Q] What do these synthetic strings offer?
[A] It seems that in the modern instrument world, beauty of sound is valued above other aspects. String manufacturers have responded to this, producing synthetic strings that enable a generic, ‘good’ sound to be produced very easily. Each new brand of these strings also seems louder and more spectacular than its predecessor. But these ‘advances’ come at a cost.
[Q] So what are the downsides of synthetic strings?
[A] Put simply, the ‘human’ quality of sound is difficult to produce with these strings. It’s as if tone colours are handed to us on a plate, and there’s no need to search for them. Synthetics are somewhat uncritical as to their speaking point: most combinations of pressure and speed of bow seem to work just fine with them. And they tend to make instruments, however great, sound rather bored – and they are terribly predictable.
[Q] I would have thought that predictability would be an asset.
[A] Maybe, but all the other aspects of our instruments are so alive and natural. The horsehair in our bows, the miracle of violin construction, not to mention the living body that is the player! I find it inspiring to remember that it is actually the vibrating string that is amplified by the instrument’s sound box. The point where our moving bow hair meets the string is the focal point of our musical communication. This contact point is where music comes from – it is the aural equivalent of looking into someone’s eyes. In other words, the strings that we choose are a direct reflection of the sort of musician we want to be.
[Q] I had no idea this was such a serious issue. What about the metal strings you say most cellists use?
[A] Metal produces even more sound than synthetics, a sound that is much thicker and more impenetrable. Those few brave souls who have stuck with covered gut have their work cut out to compete. Maybe we have just become unaccustomed to the modern cello strung with gut; gut’s subtlety, range and ability to draw us in are easily missed. Unfortunately, there is no discussion with most modern cellists – for them it’s metal or nothing! Just listen to the wildly different tone quality between the cello’s lower A-string notes and those very same pitches on a gut- or synthetic-strung viola G string. No wonder cellists have a reputation for hogging the limelight!
[Q] And you say that most violinists use a wire E string?
[A] Yes. No modern player that I know uses a gut E string. Let’s be honest, though. Even with the greatest instrument and the greatest player, a metal E string is a pretty ugly sound, isn’t it? I suppose violinists have been forced into it – by the sound-level inflation caused by booming cellists! But, as far as I know, it is not possible to make a gut E string wound with metal, as the gut would have to be too thin. I do hope that some day someone will invent a sweet-sounding synthetic E string to go with those clever new lower strings [which type of strings are these ‘clever new lower strings’? oh yes - Pirastro Passione!]. (Carbon nanotubes, anyone?)
[Q] What do viola players use for their top string?
[A] It’s very puzzling. Most viola players take after the violin example and use a metal A string with their synthetics, ignoring the fact that the sound is totally different from the other strings. This is despite the fact that there is no practical problem with manufacturing a covered gut or synthetic top string for a viola, like there is for the violin. An uncovered gut can often work well too. Metals tend to give us a choice between a sound that’s excessively loud, and one that’s soft and fluffy – there’s not much available in between. As with a violin, a metal top string seems to even out differences between instruments.
[Q] It sounds as if you would like metal strings to be banned.
[A] They do have some uses. They are great for folk instruments and as sympathetic strings on violas d’amore. Also, their extra driving power can often salvage the lower strings on children’s small violas and violins.
[Q] OK. Let’s assume that you have managed to convince us to try some covered gut. Now, how do we go about choosing the brand?
[A] It is pretty complicated. One string manufacturer has three ‘wound on gut string’ labels: for modern, classical and student instruments. The strings within these labels come in different thicknesses, and in different versions such as ‘stiff’, ‘silver’ or ‘tungsten’. That’s a lot of combinations.
[Q] Do you mix and match labels?
[A] It all depends. If we try to ‘match’ strings to their neighbour we quickly run into problems. I think it helps to look at the issue from another angle. What we need is to find an ‘interesting’ pairing of a particular string and the instrument, independent of how that particular combination fits in with its neighbours. For example, we might have a new viola fresh from a luthier who has nicely fitted it up with synthetic strings because of their strong and clear basic sound. We might play for a while, and decide which area of the instrument has the least dynamic and colour contrast (often the D or G string on a viola). Then we can dig into our extensive used-string box to find a thin, covered gut string (thinner strings have much more flexibility and speed of response). The instrument’s personality will now magically emerge!
Then we can increase the gauge, checking that the flexibility is still there. If at any point the sound becomes choked or overdriven, I revert to the previous gauge. We can also try the ‘stiff’ version of the string that we are using; these often work very well but take longer to break in. It can be fascinating to switch back to the synthetics at some point. You might be staggered by the loss of the instrument’s personality.
[Q] Are you saying that each string works independently from the others?
[A] No, not entirely. There are consequences. Overdriving the G string can often make the upper strings of a viola sound somewhat closed. So we can either increase the tension of the upper strings or, possibly better, switch to a different type of gut string for the G – with less richness and more openness and resonance.
[Q] How about uncovered gut strings – is it the same process?
[A] Yes, but for some reason there are many more manufacturers of uncovered gut strings, many more different construction methods, and even more theories and historical practices. Also, they do seem to vary more with each batch, especially the thicker strings. When I find a good viola D string, I guard it with my life!
[Q] Is it just the tone-colour range of gut strings that appeals to you?
[A] There all sorts of things that gut can do well, especially when it comes to articulation and that first millisecond of a note. The speed of response can be phenomenal, and the ‘crunch’ is delicious, like seasoning on your food – and with an infinite variety of flavours. Particularly exciting is the fact that we can’t quite guarantee what the string–instrument–bow combination will let us get away with on any particular day. Our skill, the weather, our mood and especially the mood of our colleagues seem all to make significant contributions!
Responsiveness of the string is not important only for staccato notes – it is important for every note, even those starting pianissimo. We have to ‘pick up’ the string and develop a resonance in the instrument. This picking up is akin to having an idea and speaking a word – however quietly. Let’s take for example the beginning of the sixth movement of Beethoven’s String Quartet op.131 (example 1). We want to start this incredible moment from ‘nothing’. But the nothing is a definite moment in time. We must allow ourselves to start with a very, very tiny ‘click’ that’s almost inaudible to anyone. This is very difficult to do on synthetic strings, and nearly impossible on metal.
Another area in which gut wins hands down is dynamic range. It is perhaps true that synthetics are louder, but that’s only if you let the string take charge of the volume control. An instrument with well-chosen gut strings has a fantastic ‘overdrive’ capability; synthetics break down at this point and flatten out the dynamic peaks. More than that, when we are inspired the gut seems to come with us, which can result in tremendous chaos!
[Q] Aren’t gut strings a hassle, though? Don’t they take for ever to wear in?
[A] Gut these days, both covered and uncovered, seems to me much more consistent than it used to be (either that or I’ve become much less fussy), and I don’t find the break-in a problem. The playing-in period becomes part of our natural exploration of sound colour. It only takes a few hours of hard playing for gut strings to reach their peak, and there they remain for a long time, until they eventually unwind, fray or snap. We might get the odd string that whistles or is a bit slow to reach perfection, and we have to be brutal and discard it. Contrast this with synthetics. Granted, their pitch stabilises quicker than gut, but most sound truly awful when new; and once the first few hours of playing are over, they start a slow, miserable decline. Some last only a month at most. Eventually we find that we are uninspired by our instrument: worn out synthetic strings lose all those tasty high harmonics!
[Q] You are surely underestimating the problem of gut strings going out of tune, aren’t you?
[A] It’s important that our pegs are in tip-top condition. Also, our guts become our friends – shouldn’t they get all the attention they deserve? When I play in a classical, uncovered-gut quartet, I find it important to be in constant touch with not only my own strings’ tuning but also everyone else’s, especially the cello’s. It just becomes a way of life. Granted, humid days cause more problems – and sometimes I do wish that we could ask the audience to stop breathing.
[Q] So, are there any technical tricks to using gut?
[A] Yes. I clearly remember the first time I picked up an instrument with uncovered gut strings – I could hardly make a sound. It’s important to draw the bow rather than dig it in. Too much pressure with the first finger on the bow just dampens the sound, and can even stop it altogether. It is also important to use the big supporting muscles in the stomach and back, and let the arm, hand and then the bow just hang on the end of our torso. After that, clever adjustments of the fingers on the right hand can be used for articulations and inflections. Of course, all these things can help when using synthetic and metal strings, too.
Moreover, the contact point (the place between the bridge and fingerboard where the bow meets the string) becomes much more critical with gut. We need to become adept at steering the bow around to get the contact point that we are after. And possibly the most important aspect when playing with gut is the need to be aware that the tilt of the bow makes a big difference to the tone colour. If our bow hair is too flat, the sound will become choked.
[Q] But I remember my teacher insisting, ‘Flat hair, flat hair!’
[A] Yes, it is a mystery. You can get almost flat with gut strings, but after a certain point the tone quality collapses. I like to imagine that we have one leading solitary bow hair, with all the others working in support. If we play with completely flat hair, we have many leading hairs vying for supremacy and they fight each other, destroying the clarity and core of the sound . Metal strings don’t seem to mind flat hair. Gut strings really don’t appreciate it.
Furthermore, a well-worn-in gut string can be played right on the bridge, as long as we walk the tightrope between speed, tilt and pressure. Synthetics don’t inspire us to explore those dangerous places.
[Q] Are you suggesting that we all use gut strings from the moment we begin learning an instrument?
[A] Well, it wasn’t so long ago that gut was all we had. I really do believe that unless we have contact with ‘real’ strings at some early point we simply won’t develop the finer points of technique and a good range of expression. Many students reject gut strings because they are too expensive. I think it is worth remembering that 250 years ago, strings made up a large proportion of the cost of an instrument.
[Q] Is there a professional divide between users of different types of strings?
[A] The music world used to be much more divided, with the uncovered-gut, Baroque players and the modern metal-stringers seemingly inhabiting different universes. Thank goodness this is changing gradually, and it is not uncommon now to find fine musicians who are happy with all sorts of instruments, bows, pitches and strings. Often modern players who have experimented with gut can bring some aspects of the tone quality and articulation possibilities that they have discovered with this sort of string to their modern set-ups.