The most important thing to remember when looking to buy violin strings is that every single violin is unique, so finding the best strings for a violin is an individual process. Strings that sound fantastic on one violin can sound terrible on another, and the only way to find out how different strings sound is to try them out. The musical genre is also important as the sound preference of a classical player will be different from that of a traditional fiddle player or a jazz musician. Personal preference is also an important factor to bear in mind when choosing strings.
Violin Strings Explained
Before making a decision about which violin strings to buy, it is helpful to have an understanding of how violin strings work and which kinds are available.
A violin has four strings. The notes are A (440Hz), a higher E, and a lower D and G.
Strings are attached to the violin by stretching them across the body of the violin. One end is fixed to the tail piece of the violin, the string is threaded through a hole, and a bead on the end of the string holds it in place. The E-string is always threaded through a fine tuning mechanism rather than simply through the tail piece, and it is increasingly common to find the other strings attached through fine tuners as well, as this is necessary for modern steel strings.
The strings are stretched over a wooden 'bridge' where the tension when the strings are tightened keeps them, the bridge, and the soundpost inside the violin which supports the structure of the body in place. The strings are kept separate by wearing little grooves into the bridge where they rest – the E-string has a small protector as it is very fine and would otherwise cut into the bridge too much. The bridge also keeps the strings positioned in a curve at the correct angle for playing.
The other end of the string is wound around a peg at the scroll end of the violin beyond the fingerboard.
Tuning the Strings
The initial tuning on the strings is done by adjusting the pegs to tighten or loosen the string, bringing it roughly into pitch. Fine tuners allow smaller pitch adjustments to be made by turning a small screw. If fine tuners are not fitted, the pegs must be used to tune the strings precisely.
How to Play the Strings
The strings are usually played in one of two ways; using the bow or plucking them with the fingers (known as 'pizzicato'). The bow is made of wood with horse hair stretched across it. Rosin is applied to the bow hair to provide friction, and the bow is then drawn across the string between the bridge and the fingerboard, causing it to vibrate. Without the rosin, the bow will slip on the strings and a clear sound cannot be achieved.
The Different Kinds of String
Modern E-strings are always made of steel. The other three strings can vary; the core of the string can be made from different materials. There are three main types of string, each with its own unique characteristics.
Gut is the traditional material for making strings and has been used for hundreds of years. It is still used on period instruments to give the correct tone and timbre for Early Music.
Gut strings have a bright sound quality, especially suited to classical music. They also produce a rich and full sound with many overtones, giving a distinctive feel to the tone quality.
Gut strings have a reputation for losing the pitch quickly although some players believe this is less of a problem with modern gut strings. They also take longer to tune, meaning they go out of tune very frequently when first fitted, and they are very responsive to changes in temperature and humidity. Lastly, they are also comparatively expensive to buy. These factors mean that they are not generally recommended for beginners.
Steel Core Strings
Steel core strings are made with a steel core, wrapped in wire except for the E-string which remains unwrapped.
Steel core strings are generally cheaper than other strings, they tune in quickly and effectively, and hold their pitch well. Because they maintain their pitch, they can be tuned using the fine tuners only. These advantages make them a popular string with beginners.
Compared with other strings, their sound is sometimes considered thin and lacking in depth.
Synthetic Core Strings
Synthetic strings were developed more recently. They have a core made from a synthetic material called 'Perlon'.
Synthetic strings have a similar bright sound to gut strings but have much greater stability of pitch. They also tune in quickly and without difficulty. They have a superior tone which is considered full and warm with plenty of depth and colour.
The main disadvantage with synthetic strings is their cost, which can be very high.
Some players use different types of string on their violin to achieve different sound qualities for each string.
Strings can also be bought in different gauges (thicknesses). Most strings are available in thick, medium, and thin gauges, and the thickness of the string affects the quality of the sound.
Thicker strings allow more volume, which helps the sound to carry well. They also have more balanced tone. These strings would be ideal for solo players or players in small ensembles. Thinner strings produce a brighter tone, but with less volume, so the sound does not carry as well.
Most beginners opt for medium weight strings, at least at first, although they may change the gauge once they have more playing experience and have developed their own distinct sound.
Identifying the Strings
Each make of string has its own colour of thread which is wound around both ends of the string, so if the player has forgotten which strings are fitted, they can still be identified. This can be done using an online database.
Buying Violin Strings
Of course, it is possible to buy strings in a music retailer or specialist violin shop, but prices are often higher than buying online. Using an online seller such as eBay also opens up a much wider range of strings and brands, and allows prices to be compared between sellers, but remember to take shipping costs into account when comparing prices.
How to Choose the Best Strings
Naturally, because of the differences in both individual violins and the different qualities of both the type and make of string, it is impossible to state categorically which the best string is. It all depends on individual circumstances. However, it is possible to give some general advice about choosing strings.
Beginners should probably start with steel strings as they have a good tone and hold their pitch well. However, after a while they may decide to try something different and experiment with different kinds of string and different makes to try and improve the sound. Experienced players will probably have a more clear idea of exactly which strings they require and may tend to stick to one brand and string type.
Full Sets and Individual Strings
It is possible to buy strings in full sets, which is generally slightly cheaper option than buying strings separately. However, if different kinds of sound quality are required for each string, it's probably worth the extra investment of buying individual strings.
A few makers specialise only in manufacturing E-strings, and some players prefer the sound quality of these specialist strings, so consider buying a separate E-string even if buying a full set; the difference in tone could be worth the slight additional cost.
There are many makers of violin strings. Dominant is probably the best-known brand, and it is a very popular make, but other makers include Pirastro, D'Addario, Larsen, and Kaplan. Specialist E-string makers are Hill and Westminster.
Buying Violin Strings on eBay
To buy violin strings on eBay, access the home page, go to All Categories, and under String, select Violin from the drop-down menu of More categories. The results can then be browsed to find violin strings. Alternatively, it is possible to search using key words, such as the pitch of the string, e.g. E string, the kind of string; gut, steel or synthetic, or the make of string.
It is surprising how much difference varying the string type and manufacturer can make to the overall tone quality of a violin, and it is worth taking time to experiment with different strings and combinations until the best possible sound is achieved.