As a violin player, I often have to change strings regularly in order to keep my instrument in tip-top shape. Nowadays, most string players use synthetic or metal strings. However, others go with the more unorthodox gut strings. Is there a significant difference between the two, and if so, how does it affect one’s playing?
What are gut strings?
As its name suggests, gut strings are made of… gut! These strings are traditionally made using either sheep or goat intestines. The intestines are dried and wound to produce a thin but pliable string. Legend has that Apollo, the Greek god of music, was the first person to make gut strings. Gut strings have been the dominant type of string used in Western music for thousands of years, until the Industrial Revolution.
Do gut strings make a difference?
According to many string players, there is a significant difference between gut and synthetic strings. Gut strings have warmer tones while synthetic strings project louder across a concert hall. This is because gut strings have a lower tension on the bow compared to synthetic strings. However, according to this study, gut strings are much more temperature-sensitive than synthetic strings. This makes gut strings less favourable in areas (like Vancouver) with fluctuating temperatures.
Because of the significant difference between gut and synthetic strings, some players choose to use a combination of the two when performing. For example, the famous violinist Jascha Heifetz uses gut strings for his A and D strings (the two inner strings) and steel strings for his E string (the highest-pitched string).
Personally, I do think there is a difference between the two types of strings as well. I’ve played using both gut and synthetic strings and I’m amazed at the variations in sound each one makes. If in the future, someone can make a type of string that combines the warmth of gut strings with the power of synthetic strings, that would be a great advancement in musical technology.