Musicians spend a lot of time thinking about their strings, and violinists are no different. When should I change them? Is my sound right? What are the other options? But I wonder how much thought goes into how they are made? It can have a profound effect on what you hear. And for the Violin, it is especially important.
All violins will sound better if they have good strings. But if you are lucky to own what is referred to as a “fine Violin,” it is essential. A “fine violin” will sound at the top of its game with “fine strings.”
But how do they make a fine, or for that matter, any string? Let’s find out and answer the question, “How Are Violin Strings Made?”
Enter “The Cordaro”
The Italian “Cordaro” or “String-Maker” has been a noble profession in Italy for over four hundred years. They’re often descendants of previous string-makers. Knowledge and skills were maintained in families and passed down as time went on.
Humans still matter
Strings were once all hand-made by the Cordaros, but it is mostly automated today. But that doesn’t mean humans are redundant. The machines have to be maintained, set up properly for each string. Metals may have to be reloaded, tensions set. Machines can’t do it on their own. Yet.
It takes at least two weeks to train someone to go near one of these machines. But that is nothing compared to the half a dozen years to train a master string-maker, a Cordaro. The machine might be doing most of the work, but take the human element out, and it doesn’t work.
Another part of the process of violin string making that has changed are the materials used. So, let’s take a look at those…
The central core can be made from Gut, solid or stainless steel, or Synthetic materials. Some are made of stranded steel, a nylon filament, or Bronze, and the traditional Gut is still some player’s choice.
Why wrap them?
Wrapping the string will add mass and lower the pitch. It also acts as a protection to the core. These are also made from a variety of materials, including, Steel, Tungsten, Silver, Copper, and even Gold or a combination of them.
Wrapping gives the string elasticity and adds some tonal changes. Elasticity is required to give the string the accurate harmonics to be in tune. It will also handle the action of the bow more smoothly.
Sometimes colored thread will be placed on the string to tell the violinist which string it is. They are often coded with two colors, one denoting the manufacturer.
No, They Are Not Chasing Cats Around
A few hundred years ago, there wasn’t some bloke running around Italy hitting cats on the head to make strings. But it did start with animal intestines, if not cats.
Four hundred years ago, strings for the Violin and later the Viola, Cello, and Harp had “gut” strings. So did some other instruments you may never have heard of that have since disappeared.
Traditionally, the animals used to make violin strings were sheep or cattle. It may well have been the name “cattlegut” that was abbreviated down to “catgut” that gave it its name.
That sound you heard is a few million cats breathing a sigh of relief…
These days synthetic strings are the most commonly used violin strings. The cost has had something to do with that. Though there are some problems with the traditional “gut” string. We will go back to that briefly later.
A Complex Process
If you’re wondering, “how are violin strings made?” bear in mind it’s no simple thing. Furthermore, the material and complexity are reflected in the price.
Gut strings are more expensive for two reasons. Firstly it is usually the professionals that buy them. That means companies can charge a bit more. But secondly, the process to create them is time-consuming and complex.
The intestines have to be cleaned and any residue of fat removed. They then have the membrane on the exterior scraped away. Then they are treated with Lye, a very strong alkaline solution, sterilized, and twisted into shape.
Manufacturers of Gut Strings Have a Simple Goal
After being stretched and dried by experts, they’re given a wrapping, or in some cases, multiple wrappings. This can be a variety of metals but is often silver, and then they are checked to ensure the pitch is correct. You can see why they are expensive.
We have already mentioned mass and flexibility…
But we repeat this because it is essential in the building process. The goal of the manufacturers is to produce a string with plenty of mass, so they are resonant. The strings must also have flexibility so they can vibrate.
If they are not flexible, the harmonics will not be tuned. And if they haven’t enough mass, the string will sound weak and thin. A manufacturing balancing act.
Strings with a Gut core can be plain or wound. The excellent Pirastro Medium Handmade Wound Covered Gut Strings for Violin are a good example of gut core violin strings.
We mentioned some problem areas…
They are not the best choice for many Violinists. Gut strings are fragile and will break down quite quickly. They can be temperamental and not want to stay in tune at times.
But the sound is beautiful, warm, and accurate when it is right. It is the string of those who play at a high level who will put up with their little problems.
What Other String Cores are Available?
Having looked at Gut, let’s consider the other two options, Steel or Synthetic. The design of these strings can vary depending on what the manufacturer is trying to achieve. Each manufacturer likes to create distinct sounding strings, and some are well-known for it.
A Steel core may be solid steel, or it may be stranded. The latter being when there are several strands of the steel that are then twisted together. They have very particular attributes. They are very sharp and defined in their sound with a quick response and have a very bright sound.
However, you won’t find very much depth and warmth to the sound, nor will you get rich tones. Classical players tend not to use them, but they are great for Country and Bluegrass type music.
The D’Addario Prelude Violin String Set, 4/4 Scale Medium Tension – Solid Steel Core, are an excellent example of steel core violin strings.
The Austrian string-making company Thomastik-Infeld gave us the Synthetic string 50 years ago. The Dominant String had a Perlon, nylon core and became instantly popular. Today synthetic strings in all their forms are probably the most used string. They are stable in pitch and long-lasting.
While they haven’t got the superior sound of Gut, they are much closer to that sound than Steel strings can achieve. They can produce a warm sound that is smooth and quite accurate, and defined.
Thomastik-Infeld probably changed the world of the Violin when they introduced their first string. So, check out the Thomastik-Infeld Dominant Pro Violin Strings Synthetic Core to find out more.
You Have Your Core, What’s Next?
Then it is a matter of applying the winding. The number of times you add winding will depend on the sound you are trying to create. If you want to create a higher-pitched, sharper sound, you use less winding. Lower pitched strings have more layers and create a much warmer sound. Some bass strings are wound as many as five or six times to create warmth and depth.
It is not only the number of layers applied but also the type of metal you use. Certain metals will affect the overall sound. There are some strings, though, that have no winding at all. Again producing a different sound.
Looking for a Great Violin or Violin Accessories?
We have a nice selection of reviews to guide you on your way. So, check out our in-depth reviews of the Best Student Violins, the Best Violin Bows, the Best Electric Violins, the Best Violin For Kids, and the Best Violin Cases you can buy in 2021.
And if you want to know more about music in general, have a peek at our handy guides on What is Considered a String Instrument, The Romantic Period of Music, Some Amazing Facts About JS Bach You May not Know Yet, and Amazing Facts About Mozart for more useful information.
How Are Violin Strings Made – Final Thoughts
The sound you may be looking for will be determined by how it is made, and the core and winding will both affect the sound of the string. Therefore understanding how they are made and what is included in their makeup will help you make the right choice.