Frequently Asked Questions
There are a bewildering number of strings on the market today – far more than there were even 20 years ago. String making companies are vying to produce louder, longer lasting strings in an attempt to take over a larger chunk of the market.
New strings appear every year and although some do capture the playersʼ attention, others, having initially been hailed as a miracle, fade away after a year or so. Strings also enjoy a certain popularity based on the style of music played and the area of the country, or the world, you live in.
Strings that I am told do well 50 miles away remain a minority purchase here. DʼAddario Zyex strings, for example, are highly recommended by some shops, but years after their introduction we only have a handful of customers who use them.
There are basically three different types of string core (synthetic, gut, metal) which can have a number of different windings. The synthetic core Dominant D, for example, comes with either aluminium or silver windings. The silver costs more and gives a richer sound. Pirastroʼs new Passione set have introduced a new “hybrid” string as the core is a combination of gut and synthetic materials.
Each core has its own strengths and weaknesses. The above information is essentially our experience of these strings, our customers opinions, and the effects that we have noticed on different instruments that we have sold or set up.
The important thing to remember is that this is only our opinion, the right string for your instrument is the one that works for you, and your bow and fiddle…
Metal core strings are both some of the cheapest and some of the best. Dogals sell in large quantities to schools and education authorities. They are basic one dimensional metal strings that we try not to sell if we can persuade customers to spend more.
The Pirastro Piranito string was very popular for years as our cheapest working string, but has fallen from favor now due to price increases by its European string manufacturer. Its role has been taken over by DʼAddario Preludeʼs. This is the cheaper of the DʼAddario range after Helicore and Zyex. Its the cheapest entry level violin string that works.
The mid-range metals – Precision, Superflexible and the more expensive Spirocore we only sell to traditional folk or rock musicians. The strings have precious little subtlety of tone but do allow the continuously decorated flowing line of traditional music to appear. Jargar and Prim have very limited classical appeal and again are used mainly by non- classical players.
Probabaly the best selling strings at the moment are the medium priced DʼAddario Helicores. Smooth and focused, the sound is quick under the ear and not at all like the in- your-face metal strings mentioned above. A lot of the classical and non-classical players who have tried them have liked them, but like all strings they wonʼt suit every player or every instrument. Trying new strings is always a gamble.
Most of the easily available, commercially made gut core strings are made by the Pirastro company. By far the biggest seller is the Pirastro Eudoxa, selling twice as many as the more expensive and superior Olive.
The Olive is a very good string. Eudoxas do not seem to suit all violins, but then no string does suit all instruments, and it is rare to find instruments below about £1,500 that have the qualities to do justice to gut strings. Although I said Olives are superior to Eudoxas, not everyone would agree. Some do, but choose Eudoxas for their lower price. Others donʼt hear the difference or find that the stronger sound doesnʼt work for their violin.
The major problem with Olive strings seems to be the E, which sings beautifully but can be difficult to control. It whistles easily, especially during chord playing, and unlike other E strings it doesnʼt like to be mixed with other sets. The A string too requires care and takes a while to play in. Players who cannot buy the whole set have been known to buy an Olive E, A and D, and a Eudoxa G since the Olive G is so expensive. They would probably be better off buying the Olive G and using Eudoxa on the A and D, since the increased tension on the bass bar side of the bridge can brighten the sound of the instrument. There was a photograph of Pinchas Zukerman on the front of a Strad magazine many years ago. The violin was strung with Dominants and he had a heavyweight Dominant G string, implying that even with a million poundsʼ worth of old Italian violin he could do with a little more power in the bass.
Eudoxas were the choice of most players for generations. The sound has been described as refined yet capable of volume, and they make excellent chamber and orchestral strings. They are, however, very temperamental, and donʼt last very long. Their detractors say that they are soggy and unfocused and break up at speed. This just highlights the difficulties in appreciating something as subjective as string sound. Change nationality or generation and different qualities are sought after. We have students using the strings their teachers like, only to change their strings as soon as they are free of authoritative restraint…
The Pirastro Gold Label strings probably have no more than 10% of the gut market. They are edgier, feistier strings half the price of the Olives. Because they are slightly coarser they work quite well on Early Music instruments which, given the lighter bow and smaller soundpost, respond well to the Gold Labelʼs sound. A few years ago we tried every commercially available gut core string on some Baroque fiddles and the Gold Label strings sounded the best, along with Golden Spirals. These are an American string made by Kaplan. Golden Spirals have a small but devoted following.
We sell more E strings than sets as the E is often mixed with other sets.
Dominant is still probably the leading brand in terms of overall sales, although this has been affected by a serious price increase in the last few years. The other synthetic core strings have not quite caught up with the popularity of Dominants, although many different types have appeared over the years. The Pirastro range has a number of these strings. The Tonica string is good and both they and Synoxa have a limited but devoted following. Synoxa are cheaper than Tonica and punch out a brighter sound, but are still weaker than Dominants. DʼAddario Zyex appeared with a bang, but most of the customers who tried them have gone back to the strings that they were using before, or gone on to other strings. The new Thomastik Infeld strings havenʼt made much of an impression; we only sold a few last year.
The best of the bunch seem to be the Obligato and the Passione followed by Larsen Tzigane, and Corelli Crystal. The Corelli Alliance are expensive and we sell very few of them. They have a powerful “soloist” sound and are reputed to last a long time, which may make up for their high price. They have a stronger sound than the cheaper and far more popular Corelli Crystals, which are warmer and “rounder” in tone. Corelli Crystal are like Dominants but, whereas the main criticism of Dominant strings is that, although you get a lot of noise for your money, itʼs hard to hear the “centre” of the note, the Corelli Crystal strings have more warmth and focus, and are a little cheaper.
The Pirastro Obligato strings are very good and increasingly popular with people wanting a strong, clear, focussed sound. Synthetic core strings bridge the chasm between gut and steel, and the Obligato seems to be the one that sounds closest to a good gut string, having both strength and warmth. They are more responsive than gut (it takes gut some time to get moving) and have a bright but not hard sound. On the negative side, one or two players have found them fuzzy or hollow. Obligatoʼs seem to be the favourite string of those moving away from the more temperamental and capricious gut strings whilst looking for power and reliability. Another excellent string is the Larsen. This comes in three types, the original, which is the least popular, the Tzigane which is richer and warmer and the Virtuoso which is too new yet to have created much player feedback. It may have to work hard to live up to its name. It is similar to the Obligato but stronger and more focused.
Dominant, the first synthetic core string, appeared in the 1970ʼs and is probably the most popular string ever made. They are still way out in the lead in terms of numbers sold. We buy them in fifties; other strings we buy in fives or tens. The edgy metallic sound wears off after a few days (itʼs almost as if synthetic metal strings need a week to play out whilst gut strings need a week to play in). They come in three grades and all sizes. People occasionally say that they are using Dominants and would like to have better strings but at the highest levels there isnʼt better, only different. Dominants have been used by Pinchas Zukerman, Itzhak Perlman and Nigel Kennedy (who still does) on fine old Italian violins, and they would have used them because they worked
Buying new types of string can be a bit of a gamble and quite expensive, especially for players of larger instruments. New strings are continually appearing on the market and, of course, the makers all claim that they are really good…so how can you tell? It is hard, even for a shop, to keep pace with what is new, what works, and even more importantly what lasts. To help people make a decision we have developed our “String Trial”.
Customers are welcome to call in at the shop by appointment to try out the most popular brands of string on their own instruments, thereby saving hundreds of pounds in the possible purchase of inappropriate strings. There may be a small charge for this service.
The system we suggest is simple, although it did take some time to evolve into its present form. The idea is eliminate as many variables as possible. Testing the outer strings first does not tell you very much, so we suggest initially working only with the second string from the top. The reason is that the player crosses from the third string, which is a known, to the first string which is also a known, across the second string, which keeps changing.
We suggest that the customer plays on their violin, although it works the same for cello and viola, with their bow for a few minutes to warm up and get used to the ambience of the room. Then we suggest putting on the five or six top (although not necessarily most popular) selling violin A strings. This would probably include Dominant, Pirazzi, Obligato, Helicore, Corelli Crystal and Larsen. If a customer has been recommended a particular string then we can try one of these as well. Unfortunately we cannot do this with the gut core strings since they can degrade quickly if they are regularly put on and taken off an instrument…so this eliminates the Golden Spiral, Olive, Eudoxa and Gold Label strings. Having tried a selection of strings from our trial box the player returns to the A string they felt gave them the quality the most felt that they were looking for, and then puts on the D string. If the D string suits then 99 times out of 100 the G will also. Having established our three lower strings, a variety of E strings can also be tested. Many players do not use the E string that comes with the standard set but buy the string that gives them the singing quality they want in the upper register. Occasionally customers have been known to end up with a mixture of three different types of string on their instrument.
It is also worth remembering that many strings come in different weights. There are, for example, six different Larsen cello A strings. If you like the sound of the Corelli Crystal D string, but feel that it sounds a little weaker than the G, then try a heavier Corelli D. A photograph of Pinchas Zuckerman in the Strad magazine some years back showed the Violin he was holding to be strung with Dominant strings…but he had a heavy weight Dominant G on the bottom showing that even a Guarneri Del Gesu violin might need a bit of help sometimes.
A simple way to assess this yourself can be done at home. If you feel that one string is weaker or stronger than another then you can compensate by tuning it up, or down a semi tone. if the string feels more in balance then that may indicate that a lighter or heavier string may be in order.
NB. This test, although rough, has proved to be very effective but it can only work if every other variable has been checked. There is no point in buying a different weight of string if the imbalance is being caused by faulty set up or an ill fitting soundpost. Make sure the violin is properly serviced first.
These days it is very rare to come across dud strings given the refined techniques of modern string winding. It does occasionally happen of course but this mostly with gut core silver wound strings, which are subject to changes of temperature and humidity. Most string breakages are usually caused by user error, or roughness at the nut or bridge. If you should have a reoccurring problem with strings breaking, we would be happy to look over your instrument to see if the problem can be rectified.
For years cellists needed Jargar strings. They were cheap and fairly brash. Cello sound is fairly low down in the mix, and whereas a violin solo could float out over the top of the orchestra, a cello is down there with all the other growly instruments and so needed to be strung with heavy metal just to be heard. Dominant was often the next choice, especially for chamber work. A warmer and richer sound, they were also easier to control for the beginner.
Since the advent of the new generation of metal and synthetic strings, things have changed. Larsen are now the most popular cello strings, eclipsing the sale of Jargars by six to one. The Larsen A is almost the essential A string on any cello. It comes in six different grades, so youʼre bound to find one that suits. If not then it will be a Jargar.
Jargar sets we sell mostly to older players who have always used them, or to players of cheaper student cellos. We tend to put the ever reliable Prelude on our cheaper student models, soft Jargars on the next level and, invariably, Larsen on anything over £1500. Some of the cheap Chinese and East European instruments can be coarse at the top.
The nylon core Aricore set has a much softer A string and we have used it to help warm up a cello where the A string fights back. A set of Aricores is sometimes used to soften a particularly harsh instrument but we sell very few.
Permanant leads the rest in popularity, but again we sell very few of these…and almost no- one uses Dominants on a cello anymore
Cello E Strings…
Yes! They do exist, and they sound one fifth above the cello A. For years, Cellists who wanted to double a violin part an octave below, or who had a rare five string cello, had to make do with nylon guitar strings or the commercially available bass viol D strings which were tuned up a tone.
We have now found four purpose made cello E strings, two by the Supersensitive company in America, one by Thomastik, and one by Larsen. Thomastik make a cello E string that compliments their Spirocore set, and we bought all of the last batch they made. The sound of cello e strings is a little thin since the cello is not designed acoustically for this stringing, but the Spirocore works quite well and is probably the best of the bunch, even though it is half the price of its closest rival, the Larsen. We have mixed them with Helicores, Larsens and Dominants to good effect and they amplify well. You can just move your top three strings over one place and put the new e string where the a used to be.
There isn’t much call for them except in the folk/rock worlds but if you’ve got a spare cello you could give it a go.
Choosing an Instrument or Bow…
Many players coming into our shop admit to a degree of confusion when it comes to choosing an instrument or bow. This confusion is not really surprising. Beginners have no point of comparison and are often afraid to trust their own judgment. More experienced players can be hampered by being too close to the instrument; they know what they think it should do, but are invariably bringing techniques and expectations developed using different, and sometimes, inferior equipment. Many players have instruments and bows that were either inherited or chosen for them by a teacher, and it is quite possible to play an instrument for 20 years and never have the experience of choosing one for oneself.
Over the last 20 years we have watched a lot of people choosing violins and bows and this is an attempt to summarize our experience. These are observations and suggestions rather than a list of do’s and don’ts and almost all have been gleaned from the remarks of players and teachers themselves.
First the bad news. Buying a better violin, viola, or cello will not make you a better musician, because the instrument doesn’t actually do anything … it just sits there, and you have to do all the work of making music. A violin can be likened to a palette of colours, and the bow to the brush (or to be more accurate, the brushes). So buying a better violin does not actually make you a better violinist in the way that having another 50 paints would not make you a better painter. The left hand plays the notes, and is responsible for intonation, but it is the right hand, the bow arm (responsible for tone, rhythm and phrasing) that makes the music. So if the violin does not actually play the music then there is a very good argument for not playing too much music when you test them.
You can also see therefore how important it is to test violins with a good bow. If you aren’t buying a new bow make sure that you aren’t using a poor quality bow, even if it’s the one you would normally use and you “know” it. If you play a Stradivari violin worth a million with a £30 bow, then what you are is a £30 violinist.
When most people try a selection of violins what we usually hear first is their musical personality, rather than the sound of the instruments. The musical personality of the player is of course very important (people spend years working hard at becoming the player they are) but the “musical personality” is really only important when performing – and it can often get in the way of hearing what the equipment wants to do. It is not surprising that instruments of widely differing ages, qualities, and nationalities can all sound much the same when it is the player we are listening to, rather than the instrument.
Anyone who can say after 30 minutes that they can’t tell the difference between half a dozen violins is listening to themselves playing,and not the equipment. If they “all sound the same” then stop making them sound the same.
Testing an instrument or bow is not like practicing or performing. Rather it’s a bit like test driving a car – you are revving the engine, exploring the possibilities of the vehicle rather than going on a journey. One of the best ways to test instruments is to accentuate the differences between them. Often the “less is more” principle applies. If the violin is properly set up you should be able to take it for granted that it will play the music – so don’t play the music.
What the player needs to do is find out how the instrument will play the music. Reduced to a ridiculous extreme, all the instrument has to do is play loud, soft, fast and slow. If it will do that on a couple of scales of the player’s choice then it should be able to handle the piece of unaccompanied Bach or the Irish jig you wish to play on it when you get it home. In any violin shop you only have a limited amount of time and you should be making a shortlist of possibilities rather than airing your repertoire.
Often, one of the least helpful things a player can do is to put a piece of music up on a stand, because then the concentration is on the notes 2 feet in front of them instead of on the instrument they are playing.
Sadly, few training systems encourage playing away from the notes. If you do feel the need to play a piece, then don’t work on your latest one (because you don’t know it yet!) – play something you know very well, and don’t play too long, or feel you must get to the end of it. When you move to another instrument, play the same piece. Listen in, not to the notes, but to the sound. Sometimes parents or teachers, if present, can be overly critical of posture or intonation. Remember, this is a short-listing experience, it is not a lesson, and it is important to make the choosing process as stress free as possible – even fun (!) – as well as educational.
What the player is learning, or rather realizing here, is something other than technique. Anyone who has played for even a few years has put a lot of hours into the instrument and our job is to help players make a decision by showing them that they already know far more than they think they know. It is a constant source of delight how many players of all ages come into the shop saying they can’t tell one instrument from another, and within an hour or so are making very subtle distinctions between different qualities of sound. If we can reduce the “what can I make it do?” question to loud, soft, fast and slow, then how are we going to approach the other question “what does it want to do?” This aspect of instrument playing seems to be almost entirely ignored by the western classical and folk traditions – the former in particular seeming to concentrate on dominating the instrument and projecting as big a sound as possible.
The best way for a player to hear the sound of the instrument is to rest the bow on the string, and then draw it over the string, using just enough weight from the bowing arm to focus the sound. “Float” the sound out and maybe doodle a little, just playing a few notes and listening to the quality of the sound. You are just focusing the sound, not projecting it. Feel how hard you have to work to keep the sound present without either forcing it or letting it get away. Pick up the next violin and do the same. If you are testing violins use the same bow, (and if you are testing bows use the same violin), so that of the three variables, player, bow and violin, only one will change.
Two things will become apparent. One is that the volume and quality of sound will be different from one instrument to another, and the next is that you will have to work the bow differently to focus the sound, depending on which violin you are trying. So…do you like the sound you are producing? Shifting the emphasis, how hard did you have to work the bow to create that sound? If you have to work harder on one instrument than another to produce the sound, is the extra effort worth it in terms of quality of sound produced? Liking the sound of your instrument is important. If you want a rich, warm sound then a hard, edgy violin will not give you that, and vice versa. By listening to the sound like this you are hearing what the equipment wants to do. Is the sound full or thin, warm, dry, edgy, muffled, focused, muddy – or any other subjective description/adjective/word you choose to use.
In our experience most people buy the instrument or bow they like the sound of when they are doing the least. That way, when you do play the instrument, you know you are working together.
The whole Harry Potter phenomenon has had a very interesting effect on people’s awareness of this. Just reminding the average Potter fan that “the wand chooses the wizard”, and making the point that the violin “chooses” the player, or the bow “chooses” the instrument has been known to transform the possibly frightening task of choosing an instrument into a fun and even, dare I say, “Magical” experience…(Ouch)…
Similar principles can be applied to choosing bows as to choosing violins.
It is always best to try out bows on the instrument you play. It may seem obvious but quite a number of customers will turn up without their instrument not realising that there is a particular relationship between the instrument, and the bow that drives it. Each bow will bring out subtle differences in the instrument that it is tested on, and there is little point in choosing a bow that works well on a strange violin, when it is supposed to be working on yours.
There are three things going on when a bow hits the string.
One is Volume … some bows just seem to be a little louder than others, but this is not the most important consideration for most people. The second is Tone … some bows have a more complex signal than others and itʼs a good sign if each note sounds like a little chord … and the third is what you might call Focus….when the bow hits the string does something happen? Three bows from the same workshop, at the same price and with the same rosin may give surprisingly different results, results that can be easily obscured if the player is working to create a sound rather than listening to the sound produced.
There are two almost opposing ways of approaching this. First is the “Dominator” model…which can be summed up as…”What can I make it do?”. This reduces down to playing loud,soft,fast and slow (in various combinations) and crossing strings. The second is the “What does it want to do?” model, the “Less is More” system which works as well for bows as it does violins.
In the first system most people play, or have been advised to play, scales, and maybe a piece they know quite well. This often teaches them very little since they are using the playing skills developed on their old equipment, and they can often be stuck in that particular mind-set when approaching any new equipment. Very often, at the end of an hour, they have done a lot of practicing, but havenʼt actually heard what the bows are doing. They have been trying to make them conform to the sound in their heads. They are often confused.
Listening to the equipment is not actually taught in the Western classical or folk music systems. But as soon as ones preconceptions are left behind subtle distinctions can be made. So the second approach, the “What does the bow want to do when its on the string?” can be a little counter-intuitive for players who have spent many hundreds of hours developing their particular approach to playing. It is however the most transparent method, and when understood yields the quickest results. For the Harry Potter generation, just mentioning the fact that the “Wand chooses the Wizard” has made this clear, approachable, and even … fun.
Whichever system you use, and I suggest some sort of combination of the two, the idea is to make a shortlist of the bows that excite the player in the strange acoustic of a shop, and then to take them away on approval to test-drive them in the acoustic they are used to. It is not always a good idea to buy a violin or bow in a strange room.
Although they last for centuries if looked after and well maintained, instruments can be easily damaged. As the largest Violin Shop in the West of England we see many instruments in need of attention, and therefore cannot recommend too highly the use of specialist musical insurance. Any damage needs to be assessed quickly and this is especially so in the case of insurance claims. It is also vital that the instrument needs to be attended to before any dirt and rosin can penetrate the affected areas. The only realistic quote is obtained when a qualified and experienced craftsman has been able to examine the instrument.
To qualify as a repair under insurance, an instrument has had to have sustained actual damage. Warped bridges, worn pegs and fingerboards, broken strings etc. are classified as wear and tear and do not qualify for an insurance claim.
We would strongly recommend only dealing with a firm that has no exclusion on claims and is prepared to pay devaluation on the damaged instruments. Also check whether you will be covered if you leave the country for a period of time. As our customers lose a significant proportion of insurance claims under their household insurance policies, even if they are named items, we suggest getting a letter in writing from your policy holder outlining the situations in which cover will not be offered.
Assisted Purchase Scheme…
The assisted purchase scheme allows pupils who attend or have instrumental lessons at a county music centre or state school to buy an instrument for the retail price less the VAT.
Only new instruments, bows and cases can be sold under this scheme.
We can only sell instruments through the assisted purchase scheme if there is no part exchange involved.
What you need to do:
- Choose a new instrument from our shop to take on approval and inform us of your child’s name, school and class.
- Take the approval form into school and give it to the relevant person in accounts and inform them to contact us with the relevant order number.
- Wait to receive your invoice from the school which will be the price of the instrument less VAT. We will then invoice the school or county directly for the full amount and the school will recover the VAT from the government.
We can only process a sale if we have written authorisation from the school or county. Please discuss this with your school or county music service in advance to help avoid delays or confusion. Any paperwork (including official orders) we receive from them must include the following:
- The schools address, phone number and a relevant staff member contact name.
- The instrument type and size.
- The pupils name and contact number.
Please contact the shop for further details.
The information below is taken directly from the HM Revenue and Customs website;
VATGPB7825 – Local authority education services: related activities: assisted instrument purchase scheme
Please note however that it is not necessary for the instrument “to be handed to the player in the designated teaching room”. This may apply to certain Brass and Woodwind instruments, but the string family is far too personal to be bought from a catalogue. After you have chosen an instrument in the shop you take it away “on approval” on payment of a small insurance premium until the school paperwork is completed.
The Assisted Instrument Purchase Scheme (AIPS) applies to pupils in full-time state education who receive musical tuition at school, or in a local authority orchestra, as part of their curriculum. It enables them to purchase new instruments through the local authority.
The supply of the instrument by the local authority to the pupil is not by way of business if the pupil is being taught to play the instrument by the school. Participation in school orchestras counts as tuition. In these circumstances the VAT incurred by the local authority when it purchases the instrument, can be recovered under section 33.
To be eligible for the scheme the following conditions need to be met:
• the pupil must be in full-time education at a local authority school
• the pupil must be receiving music tuition for the instrument from a local authority engaged instrument teacher as part of the school curriculum
• the instrument must be used by the pupil at the school or in a local authority orchestra
• the instrument must be appropriate to the pupil’s needs
• the and instrument must be handed to the pupil in a designated teaching room,
• the instrument must be charged to the pupil at, or below, the VAT exclusive price paid by the local authority for its purchase.
The scheme works in the following way:
• the parent contacts a local authority nominated music shop which prepares an order form with the necessary details
• the order form is sent by the shop to the school which officially orders the instrument
• the school charges the parent for the price of the instrument excluding VAT
• the instrument is delivered by the shop to the school with an invoice, including VAT, which is then claimed back by the school under section 33, and
• the instrument is delivered to the pupil in a designated teaching room.
Violin glue is hygroscopic, and is subject to changes of temperature and humidity. The heat and sweat of the players hand and body can contribute to the seams of an instrument springing open. Very often, if this happens, the instrument will rattle or buzz on all, or sometimes just on specifically resonant, notes. Open seams should be glued as soon as possible to avoid complications.
All bridges will warp over time due both to the pressure downwards, which is in excess of 20 kiloʼs in some cases, and the pull exerted towards the pegs and tailpiece during tuning. Bridges are now lasting for far shorter periods of time due to greater modern string tensions and, in particular, the overuse of adjusters. For centuries bridges used to warp towards the nut, but the widespread use of adjusters has caused bridges to pull backward.
Since the tailpiece of a violin is only about 2” from the bridge this can happen very quickly. Bridges that could last for decades a couple of generations ago may now last just a year or two now if the instrument is tuned only from the adjusters. Check that the feet of the bridge sit down on the front of the instrument, that they fit properly, and that the back of the bridge is at 90 degrees to the front of the violin ( this is measured behind the bridge…the front of a bridge is curved and the back is flat, so when the bridge is upright it may appear to be leaning back slightly.
If the bridge looks like it is leaning forwards then it is ). Check that the strings have not cut their way through the wood at the top of the bridge, as this can inhibit their vibration if they are pinched by the wood on either side. A string should be “proud of the bridge-wood by at least 50%. Strings that have cut into the bridge can cause problems for both fingering and bowing. A large proportion of the instruments we see have bridges that are badly curved on the top causing problems during string crossings when the bow will “foul” another string. If the bridge curvature is incorrect then players can also have problems of intonation, especially double stopping, as the strings are not being pushed the same distance down on to the fingerboard and are then being “bent” out of tune.
Pegs wear and are also affected by temperature and humidity changes. It doesnʼt matter how good an instrument is: you canʼt play it if you are unable to tune it. Because the pegs are made of wood, the original tapered cylinder (usually a 1:30 taper) will gradually turn oval with time. This is a perfectly natural occurance.
Pegs may be “doped” to work better, with the application of propriatory pastes. If this does not work, new pegs usually have to be fitted. If the peg holes are too large or badly worn, new wooden bushings may have to be put in and new pegs fitted through them.
Pegs should be fitted so that the top of the strings go straight from the instruments nut, at the end of the fingerboard, to the peg, without touching any of the other pegs. If a string touches another peg then it can be pulled out of tune when the other peg is turned… Strings fouling on the other pegs in a peg box can have a serious affect on tuning.
Varnish will wear over time and can be chipped off if knocked. Varnish is not just cosmetic, it protects the violin from the sweat, rosin and dirt that soon affects exposed wood. It is a good idea to re-varnish damaged wood as soon as possible. Do not touch areas of chipped off varnish as the chemicals in your hands can make the job harder to do.
Soundposts often become too tight over time, especially in new instruments which have not been under pressure before, and recently overhauled ones that have had a period with the tension relaxed.
A tight soundpost is a potential danger as well as having the effect of over damping down the vibrations of the front. The job of the soundpost is to create a node or “stillpoint” around which the violin front oscillates. If too tight or too loose the quality of sound suffers.
Rosin comes in various shades of the two basic colours: a dark treacly brown and a light golden
Honey colour. Dark rosin is dark because it has been cooked for longer and it is this that makes it stickier. The same is true of cooking anything. Visually rosins are indistinguishable on the bow as they all form a white powder. They do however have have different qualities. There are differing opinions about rosin. Some players think that the stickier rosins make the strings respond better, but of course this will be just another variable along with set-up, stringing, and instrument quality and of course, bow pressure – not to mention bow quality. The larger the instrument the softer (and stickier) the rosin used tends to be. Double bass players use something that looks like toffee.
Different rosins use different qualities of tree resin. They are cooked for differing periods of time and under different conditions, and may even have various quantities of different metals or other additives put in to enhance certain properties. There are dozens of types. Some carry the brand name of a particular string, and these may well be worth trying if you use those particular strings, as string makers should have developed them specifically to help make their strings respond. Both Dominant and Larsen have brought out a rosin, and there are a number in the Pirastro range. How much research has actually been put into this is impossible to tell. it could be that a string maker has produced their “Own Brand” rosin as just another way of making money. We have however had customers who have tried a rosin designed for one type of string on a different type of string, and found that tone quality and pickup from the bow have deteriorated, but that might also be due to a variety of other factors.
There are increasing numbers of people who have developed allergies to rosin dust and there are now several rosins on the market designed to reduce allergic response. These are generally cooked in a vacuum. Both Kolstein, Geipel and the newer Larsen rosin produce quite low levels of dust, but we have had customers who have reported problems with all of them. There is now a rosin which is entirely synthetic and produces no dust at all. It’s called Clarity. It is made by the American Supersensitive company and it obviously comes from research in the petrochemical industry. It won’t help the ozone layer, but it will stop you crying when you play. It is entirely transparent (it looks like a Glacier Mint) and gives a mellow sound that several of our customers have said they really like, and you won’t get the build-up of white dust on the front of your instrument.
The shop’s favourite rosin at the moment is the Andrea Bang range. It just seems to do what a rosin is supposed to do … make the bow stay on the string.
Problems around rosin…
Rosin is partially refined tree resin. Rosin sticks to the tiny scales that line each hair so that they continually catch and let go of the string. This happens thousands of times on all of the 120-odd hairs that make up a newly re-haired bow and without it a bow will just glide silently over the strings.
Too much rosin can create a coarse, gritty, and uneven sound. The reasons for over-rosining a bow
can include old (tired) hair, dead strings, nervousness at the prospect of playing in public, and even, in some cases, a lack of interest in tone . Over-rosining is often an attempt to compensate for other problems with regard to the playability of the instrument. It is usually caused by the desire to create more volume. Over rosining the bow can also have a reverse effect, as it can cause the bow to slide over the strings, almost as if it has been soaped. The players usual response to this of course is to put on even more rosin which just adds to the problem. The quality of the rosin also has a profound effect on the nature of the contact between bow and string although this is more a matter of focus rather than tone.
A build up of rosin on the strings can be removed by the application of an alcohol based fluid.
You can even use perfume or aftershave. Dab a little on a piece of cotton wool or soft clean cloth, and carefully wipe over the playing area. It is a good idea to do this from time to time. You can also clean the rest of the strings and the fingerboard to remove any dirt, sweat or grease from finger contact. As hair and strings become old they lose their quality, and over rosining often follows as a consequence. What you then hear is the sound of dirty hair catching in a build up of rosin, on tired strings.
Bow hair can also be cleaned but this is a job defiantly best left to a specialist. Very often wiping with a soft clean cloth or very carefully brushing the hair through with something like a soft toothbrush will help remove a build up of old or excess rosin. If your hair is grey, brown or yellow it may be time for a rehair – it’s supposed to be white.
Best selling rosin…
Szigeti is our favourite best selling entry level rosin at £4:80. It’s a golden colour and less “glassy” in tone, (and slippery in contact) than the cheaper Hidersine rosins. This is the one we recommend to relative beginners, although we do have professional players who use it without any problems.
Art Craft Dark, also called No7, costs £6:00 and is a much better rosin. It’s a dark coloured, stickier rosin, which helps the bow to stay on the string. The identically priced Art Craft Light (also confusingly called No.7) is a paler and softer rosin. We prefer the Dark which we tend to use as our “House” rosin but have sold both to violin, viola and cello players.
Andrea Bang Rosins…These were first introduced under the name Tartini and are just under £30. They come in various blends, two each for all four members of the string family and although many people can’t see the point of spending that much money on a block of rosin most of those who try it are converted. This is the rosin we use on a bow of any price which doesn’t seem to work as well as it should and every bow we have put it on has, to some extent, been improved.
The old Liebenzeller rosin has reappeared under the name Larica. The originator of Liebenzeller, Renate Schmidt who sold the recipe to the new suppliers, has written to her old customers stating her dissatisfaction with the way the new rosin has been produced. Those regular users we have sold it to however have been perfectly happy with it.
The various rosins of the Pirastro range are all steady sellers, the most popular being Goldflex.
Most viola players are still useing Dominant strings. Even those players who use Eudoxas on a violin would probably be using Dominants on their viola. Although we do sell Eudoxas and Olives steadily, Helicore, Pirrazzi and Obligato have become the next most popular strings to the ubiquitous Dominants, although quite a lot of players are put off the latter two by the price.
Some viola players mix and match in the search for their perfect sound and we have seen some instruments set up with four different types of string (this goes for violins also). Quite often a year later these strings have been changed again, so this may say more about the player than the instrument.
Fingerboards wear with use, especially now that increasing numbers of players are using strong metal strings. Planing or “shooting” the fingerboard (shooting comes from the Old English word meaning to pass over … as in ”shoot the rapids”), can eliminate the buzzes and dead areas that come from having ruts in a fingerboard, and make the instrument considerably easier to play. It can also correct faulty intonation.9
Keep the violin, fingerboard, strings and bow hair as clean as possible. Rosin dust, sweat, and atmospheric dirt in combination can have a clogging effect on both strings and bow. Dirt on the body can inhibit the vibration of the instrument and therefore contribute to a dullness of tone. String sound begins under your finger, so rosin and dirt on the fingerboard can interfere with the vibration of the string before it hits the bridge. Sometimes just cleaning a finger board can have a noticeable effect on tone production.
Although there are proprietary cleaners, some leave a residue or contain solvents. Use them sparingly. Having the instrument and fingerboard cleaned professionally can make a difference to the quality of sound.
If my strings came in a tube should they to be kept straight or can I coil them?
Many of the strings that come in tubes do not need to be kept straight. The gut strings such as Pirastro Oliv, Eudoxa and Gold Label and the Kaplan Golden Spirals that need tubes, but these can be loosely coiled for postage purposes. The steel and aluminium wound nylon cored strings can all be coiled. All of Pirastro’s other strings, including Tonica, Synoxa, Aricore and Obligato will eventually only be available in packets.
What is the difference between a plain E string and a wound E string?
The E string is the only string available in plain steel or wound version.
Winding a string affects the mass of the string and this effects tone. Although the greater technology involved in the wound or coated string should increase the complexity of the sound (it certainly increases the price) not everyone agrees. A number of customers have preferred the sound of their violins with unwound E strings.
Winding a string may make it feel more comfortable under the fingers and some people claim to have noticed an increase in volume and a decrease in the likelihood of whistling. Like winding, coating a string with gold plate (!) may protect the string and prolong its active life.
NB…Quite a few of the Pirastro strings come in both a plain, usually called “ silvery steel”, and a wound version. The wound version is the more expensive. What is interesting is that all of the plain steel strings are exactly the same whatever the coloured winding they have. So there is no difference between the Gold, Aricore and Passione steel Eʼs even though the sets vary enormously in type and price. Some customers donʼt believe this and claim to hear a difference, but that is probably just the difference between a new and an old string.
To avoid confusion, and disappointment, itʼs a good idea to make a note of which type you are currently using rather than just asking for an E string.
Why does my E string whistle?
Whistling E strings can be caused by a number of things. About 25% of whistling Eʼs are due to technique, such as the side of the 1st finger overhanging the fingerboard and touching the string, or the player ‘grabbing’ the E string when passing from the A string to the E and back. It can also be caused by the angle of the bow mixed with incorrect bow
Most of the time a whistling problem is caused by a faulty set up. The string can be too low in the nut so that when it vibrates it hits the top of the fingerboard, or the fingerboard has holes in it (through wear), or a build up of dirt and rosin There may also be a problem with the bridge, or the sound post may not fit properly. It may be, on a violin that has not been serviced for some time, that a combination of these factors creates the problem.
The strings themselves may be incompatible. The capricious Olive E string does not like to be mixed with Dominants, for example, although, of course not everybody will have a problem with a particular combination of strings. The strings themselves may be old and cranky and no longer playing true. Sometimes an extra length of string in the peg box can vibrate, causing a strange noise.
We have sometimes found that a bow might be incompatible with certain strings, or even that a change of rosin can cause squeaking.
In the shop, we follow a certain procedure:
- Does someone else using the same equipment have the same problem?
- Does the player have the same problem with a different bow on the same violin, or
- the same bow on a different one?
If the whistle occurs on several violins with different bows, then the problem lies with the player. If the whistle is on different violins with the same bow, then it may be the bow or the player. If it is on the same violin with different bows, then it may be the set up. It usually takes up to 15 minutes to asses the problem; sometimes it can be identified very quickly. We once spent hours trying to sort out a problem that was eventually traced to a block of Pirastro rosin bought the week before by someone using Dominant strings.
With the rosin removed and replaced with the original brand, the problem was solved. In those cases where nothing seems to alieviate the problem, the usual recourse is to the Kaplan “Non-Whistling” E string. This has a strong, very individual, sound, but its guaranteed not to whistle. The Pirastro No1 Universal string has helped some people overcome this problem as has the Wondertone Solo Advanced (not the Wondertone Solo which is a totally different string) but they donʼy always work.
Strings broken at the nut or at the peg…
No string supplier accepts responsibility for strings that are broken above the nut as this is due to the way the string has been put on, and is therefore “user error”.
Bear in mind that modern string winding techniques are now so advanced and mechanised that we almost never see a faulty string.
Strings,if they are new, usually break where they touch something. This will be either the nut, bridge, tailpiece, peg or pegbox.
In the vast majority of cases, probably nine times out of ten, any string broken above the nut has been wound too tightly up against the peg box wall. This is a common fault, and one that we have made ourselves from time to time.
Even very experienced players have been known to do this.
Usually what has happened is that the string has been bunched up against the side of the peg box and snapped under tension. The wood of the pegbox wall is of course considerably stronger than the string itself.
Sometimes the nut groove is too sharp, perhaps because the wood has become damaged over time.
If your strings break at the tailpiece, nut, bridge or peg it may be worth getting the instrument itself checked. Unfortunately, we cannot give a refund on strings broken in this way.