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String Maintenance

Preventive String Maintenance and Daily Habits

Good habits are best developed as early as possible, but it's never too late to start. There are a number of simple things you can do every day, right after practicing, which will prolong the life of your strings and prevent premature breaking and poor performance.

Cleaning Your Strings

It's a fact: Clean strings perform better than dirty strings. Clean strings vibrate freely, the way they were designed. But caked-on rosin inhibits vibration, leading to a loss of tonal quality and response. Before you put your instrument away after playing it, every day, clean the strings with a clean, dry cloth, preferably of a soft cotton or silk. This removes much of the rosin dust that has accumulated during playing, before it becomes caked on and difficult to remove. Be sure to clean both the top and the undersides of the strings. The use of a mechanical string cleaner, such as the Tone Gear String Cleaner or Nomad Tool, simplifies the job. If caked rosin is difficult to remove, consider using a liquid string cleaner, such as Royal Oak. If you use alcohol to clean your strings, be careful that it does not make contact with varnish, since it may damage it. In either case, just use a drop or two on the cloth.

If you experience excessive rosin buildup, you may consider using less rosin. In general, a single, daily application just before practice is all that's required. An even application, from frog to tip, will help your strings achieve a purer tone.

Body oils and secretions also may lead to premature string failure, with aluminum winding being susceptible to dissolving over time. After removing rosin from your strings, also give them a few swipes all the way up and down the fingerboard, to remove any perspiration. This practice helps immensely in maintaining your strings and giving them a chance at a long life.

Important: Use a different cloth to clean the body of your instrument. It's always best to have two cloths, one for strings, and the other for the instrument and bow stick. And don't forget to throw the cloths into the washing machine now and then.

A Word About Strings Breaking
Broken String

Manufacturing defects are extremely rare. Of course, damage to new strings is certainly possible, but there are really just three primary reasons for strings to break:

1. The string has worn out; it is beyond its useful life
2. Setup issues with the instrument
3. User issue

If you experience repeated breaking of new strings, it is most likely due to number two or three, above.

We'll address each of these reasons separately.

What Happens When a String Wears Out?

A string is under a great deal of stress almost continuously. It is tuned to pitch, subjected to aggressive bowing when the music gets demanding, and is often played in less than ideal conditions. The most common reason for a string to wear out is that it loses its mass. This happens because the string is constantly stretched, getting thinner in the process – for a given length (such as between the nut and bridge), an older, well-used string will be thinner than it was when it was new. Its tension will be lower, leading to tonal distortion, especially in forte passages. And because it is getting thinner, it is also getting weaker, which makes it much more susceptible to breakage (although by this point the player will usually replace it before it breaks, due to its poor and unfocused tone).

String Winding Since it is so thin to start with, the violin E-string is usually the first string that needs replacing. The other strings will also eventually wear out, and sometimes the winding starts getting loose because it is no longer wound tightly against the ever-thinning string. Anywhere there is extra stress to the string, such as at the nut and bridge, looser windings will have a tendency to separate at those points (see image). Sometimes, the action of the left hand fingers will also cause the loose windings to separate. Once that starts happening, the windings will start to break.

Although all strings eventually wear out, steel core strings last longest, followed by synthetic strings. Gut strings have the shortest lifespan.

Setup Issues

There are four points on an instrument that are critical stress points for strings. A qualified luthier will assure that these stress points are properly executed, not adding undue stress to your strings.

  • The Nut
    • The nut must be properly shaped and notched. The nut must be shaped so that the strings do not turn toward the pegbox at too steep an angle, which adds unnecessary stress. The image below shows a properly shaped nut, with a gentle angle.
      Properly Shaped Nut
      The notches of the nut must also be cut properly, to prevent binding and squeezing of the strings. They must not have sharp edges. The use of graphite to help lubricate the movement of the strings within the notches will prevent premature problems; you may use a sharpened pencil to apply graphite simply by rubbing the pencil lead into the notches.

    • The Bridge
      • The notches in the bridge must also be cut and shaped correctly, just as in the nut. If the notches are too deep, the string will bind. If the notches are too small (smaller than the radius of the strings), added stress will be placed on the strings.
        Bridge Illustration
        If the bridge is too high, the extra tension may also lead to premature failure. As for the nut, the use of graphite from a sharpened pencil is recommended to lubricate the notches; you may use a sharpened pencil to apply graphite simply by rubbing the pencil lead into the notches.

    • The Pegs
      • Properly fitted pegs will allow strings to clear each other inside the pegbox. If the pegs are improperly fitted, causing the strings to contact each other inside the pegbox, the added stress will lead to premature wear. And the pegs will be hard to turn. If the string insertion holes in the pegs are located incorrectly, the strings may also end up binding on the peg box wall, adding extra stress and making tuning more difficult.
    • The Tailpiece
      • At the tailpiece, proper installation is important to minimize stress.
        • The violin E-string with a loop end is most susceptible to premature failure, as is the viola A-string. Be sure that your luthier removes sharp edges and burs on your string adjuster's hook. If you have experienced breakage at this point, try a plastic loop protector. This video offers a clear explanation on how the loop protector is installed.
        • Be sure that you use the right string end for your string adjuster. For a good summary of loop and ball end strings, here is a good video.

User Issues

Besides cleaning your strings from rosin and perspiration each day, there are several precautions you can take to assure that your strings last as long as possible.

  • When winding strings onto the pegs, be sure they are wound correctly around the peg, side by side. They should not overlap.
Peg Winding
  • Tune new strings slowly, and be sure to avoid tuning them above pitch.
  • Be especially careful when tuning steel strings. Since they will significantly change pitch with only a little change in length, it is easy to inadvertently overtune them. They are not as forgiving to overtuning as synthetic or gut strings, and are more likely to break in the process.
  • If you use gut strings, it is best to tune them down about a quarter tone after use, especially if they will not be played for a while. If you will be traveling by air, this is very important, due to the extreme and rapid drop in humidity in the aircraft: The strings may shrink in length, increasing tension beyond their breaking point.
  • Although gut strings have a loop end next to the knot, it is the knot that holds the string within the tailpiece, in the same manner as a ball end. Do not use the loop on a gut string on a fine tuner. Simply insert the knot into the slot in the tailpiece as you would a ball end string.

Gut String Tuner