String Theory: Historical Facts About Your Violin Strings
As musicians, we are constantly in search for information regarding the music we play and our instruments. Many of us are aware that violin strings were once made out of gut, but perhaps you didn’t realize that gut was the standard material used until after World War II. Evidence found in ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics suggest that the production of strings made of sheep gut spans back some 6,000 years. It would require an entire book to divulge every detail of string history, but here are several key points on the history of violin strings.
The G String
- As with other strings, the G string began as a pure gut string. By the late 1600s, G strings were wound with silver or copper wire to produce a fuller, resonating sound.
- The sound of wound G strings was clearly superior to that of pure gut, and by the 1730s pure gut had been totally replaced by wound gut.
The D String
- Pure gut D strings were the standard until end of the First World War. In times past the technology needed to produce wire thin enough to wind the string simply didn’t exist.
- In 18th Century France, a method called demi-filée (half-wound) was developed, which applied the wire to the core of the string. This solution resulted in very thick D strings and never became widespread, vanishing completely by the end of that century.
- The use of aluminum to fully wind gut D strings can be traced to the period after WWII.
The A String
- The A string was the last of the four strings to transition from pure to wound gut. Pirastro developed the first wound gut A string in 1951 using aluminum. It took nearly ten years before it became standard.
- The pure gut A string was common until the advent of synthetic strings in 1970.
The E String
- Due to their thin gauge, gut E strings were never wound, and pure gut E strings were common well into the twentieth century. The first steel E string appeared around 1910, but didn’t gain prominence until the Second World War when sheep gut became scarce.
- From the 1880s until the development of steel strings, silk strings were used as an alternative to gut, but usually only in the case of an emergency.
Strings as most of us know them today are made from synthetic materials and then wound in aluminum, chrome, steel, silver, or an alternative metal. Wound steel strings were long-lasting and not as sensitive to the climate as gut, however most players found them to have an undesirable metallic or ‘tinny’ quality. Synthetics present the best of both worlds: the warm timbre of gut combined with the reliability of steel. The first synthetics were developed by Thomastick-Infeld and released into the market in 1970, popularly known as Dominant.