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String Information for Beginners
Strings for Beginners
String Science 101
A Guide for the Advanced Player

There are a tremendous number of variables interacting with each other when it comes to all the tonal dimensions and nuances of a musical performance. For the purposes of this article, there are four different basic factors that relate to each other when it comes to the sound produced by a string:

  • Pitch
    • Pitch is the tone produced by the string. For example, the four pitches for the four open strings of a violin are G, D, A, and E.
  • Length
    • On a stringed instrument, this is the part of the string that freely vibrates -- the distance between the two fixed ends of the string. For an open string, it is the distance between the bridge and nut. For a string that is being played, it is the distance between the bridge and where the finger is stopping the string.
  • Tension
    • Tension is measured along the length of the string. Depending on the material, tension may be high, low, or in between
    String Tension
  • Mass
    • Mass is measured by the string's weight for a given length. Different materials have different mass. The windings on a string act to increase the mass beyond the mass of the core material alone.
Strings are manufactured to produce a given pitch at a given length. Increasing tension will increase the pitch. Increasing the mass will decrease the pitch.

Here is another way to look at it. For any fixed pitch and length. . .
  • If you increase the tension you must increase the mass to keep the same pitch
  • If you increase the mass you must increase the tension to keep the same pitch
  • A Word About Mass and String Gauges













    String manufacturers use the term "gauge" to describe the thickness of the string. This relates to mass, with thicker strings having greater mass. Adding to the confusion are the various different words used to describe the mass. The chart to the left will help sort things out:

    The most common string gauge is in between the two shown in the chart. It is commonly called "medium" or "mittel". Most players find that medium gauge strings provide the best balance and response for them.

    NOTE: For consistency, from here on we will use the word "gauge" instead of "mass", since it is the more commonly used term among players and string manufacturers.
    So, for the Player, What is the Significance of Different Gauges and Tensions?
    Although it would seem that, as long as the pitch and length are where they should be, the balance between gauge and tension is obviously correct and there is nothing more to consider. However, there is actually much more to consider than just the pitch and length. Gauge and tension are critical in determining the tonal qualities and playing characteristics of strings. The reason that string manufacturers offer strings in a variety of gauges and tensions is because of the great variance in both instruments and players. Some players will find that they want higher string tension. Some instruments may require less. The next section explains the tradeoffs, and the effect on the sound that both player and instrument produce.

    NOTE: There is no standardization among string manufacturers when it comes to gauges. This means that the terms "heavy", "light", and "medium" may not have exactly the same measurements from manufacturer to manufacturer. However, within a single manufacturer, the terms are relative to each other as described. These terms are printed on most string packages. If you do not see the gauge specified, this means that the manufacturer makes only one gauge, which they considered to be "medium".
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    Heavier gauge strings require higher tension, as we've noted. It takes more bow force to move a heavier gauge string, which is often described as "resistance" in the bow stroke. This is necessary in order to produce a big, powerful tone, and is often desired by players. There are limitations, however. Too heavy a gauge can cause some instruments to sound choked or muddy because of downward pressure on the bridge.

    String Tension

    It can also make it difficult to play quiet passages, because of the need for more bow force to move the string. For the same reason, heavier gauge strings are also slower to respond than lighter gauge strings, especially when playing at a low dynamic range.


    Lighter gauge strings, which are lower in tension, require less bow force to move, enabling them to respond very quickly. This quickly becomes evident in fast, quiet passages. Lower tension strings, while not capable of producing as much power and projection as higher tension strings, are able to produce a wider variety of tonal colors. They are also more brilliant sounding, which can help an instrument that may be naturally less bright than desired. However, if a strident, overly bright sound is produced, the gauge is too thin.


    Medium gauge strings are the most popular because string manufacturers have carefully developed their strings, zeroing in on medium gauge to have the best combination and balance for most players, instruments, and conditions. Unless a specific problem is being addressed that may require a heavier or lighter gauge, medium gauge strings are the recommended starting point when trying out new strings. If you find that medium gauge strings do not give you the desired tonal result, you may wish to experiment with heavier or lighter gauges, depending on the problem you are experiencing.

    The Significance of Materials: It's All About the Sound!

    Gauge and tension are not the only determinants of the sound that a string produces. The materials chosen for the manufacture of a string have a profound effect on tone and playability. As with almost everything having to do with strings, each material has its pluses and minuses.

    The Core of the String

    This is the primary material from which a particular string is made. It's usually not the only material, but it does form the "body" of the string. Different core materials can have vastly different characteristics, as you will learn below.


    Gut strings are made from the processed intestines of sheep and cows. Gut was the first material used in the making of strings, and still has a following with baroque music specialists as well as some classical players. The reason is because of their very warm and complex sound, and layers of overtones. Gut is also a soft material, offering a comfortable hand feel. Gut strings do not respond as quickly as strings made from different materials – a bit slower than synthetic strings, and considerably slower than steel strings. Today, most gut strings are also wound with metal, in the same way as other strings are made. This increases gauge (and mass), requiring the string tension to be increased. This avoids the tonal distortion that is common with low tension strings, especially when playing at louder volume levels. Gut strings have several disadvantages: they are generally more expensive than other strings; break-in time (the time it takes for a string to stabilize and settle into proper pitch) is long, requiring frequent retuning; the lifespan for gut strings is shorter than for synthetic core strings, and much shorter than for steel core strings; perhaps most importantly, gut strings are very susceptible to changes in humidity, making for frequent retuning.

    Players of instruments set up in the baroque manner use gut strings exclusively, for the quality of tone, especially if tuned lower than today's typical A-440. In fact, many baroque players use plain gut strings, which are not wound, for a fully-authentic experience.


    There is a variety of different materials used in synthetic core string manufacture. Most are versions of nylon, a thermoplastic polymer that is processed into filaments for the manufacture of strings. A great variety of blends and processes are employed in the manufacturing of nylon, each having its own unique characteristics. String manufacturers choose from among these varieties, creating strings that are designed to solve specific problems for players. The latest string technology innovation employs a blend of these different materials, creating a "Composite Core" string.

    Synthetic core strings are designed to sound and play like gut core strings – softer, more pliable, and warmer, more complex sounding than steel strings. The great advantage of synthetic strings over gut is their stability – they are unaffected by humidity and temperature, so they stay in tune much better than gut strings. Like gut strings, and unlike steel strings, synthetic core strings are easy to tune with pegs.


    Since steel is more dense than either gut or synthetic strings, steel strings require less material in order to produce the same pitch, and must therefore be thinner. Since there is less material to move, steel strings also respond very quickly. Steel strings generally are made at a higher tension than either gut or synthetic, which can translate into more tonal volume. Steel strings are also very stable, holding their pitch more reliably than either gut or synthetic strings, and they tend to last a long time. They produce a simple sound, usually brighter and thinner sounding than gut or synthetic. This can be helpful for some instruments and a hindrance for others. Steel strings vibrate at a narrower amplitude than gut or synthetic strings; this may allow the player to use a lower bridge, which can make it easier to play fast passages.

    Steel has a tendency to vibrate for a long period of time, much more so than gut or synthetic. This is a positive attribute for guitar strings, since guitars are plucked or strummed, with very rapid decay (a fall-off in tone from the instant the player has stopped plucking). This is not such a positive attribute for bowed instrument strings, since the bow produces a continuous tone, with the length of the tone being controlled by the player. Gut and synthetic strings have a natural tendency to dampen, but steel strings will ring long after the bow is removed from the string. The use of a polymer dampening agent between the core and winding in the manufacturing process helps to retard the ringing of steel strings, thereby giving the player more control of the tone by means of bowing.


    Some steel strings are made of several thin steel wire strands that are twisted or braided together. This manufacturing process lends the string a softer hand-feel. A dampening agent is usually applied within the strands to cut down on excessive vibration. These "rope core" strings are very popular with cellists and bassists because of their resonant properties, offering power and response to low register instruments. They are also popular among violists for the same reason, and for violinists and fiddlers who seek fast response.

    String Winding
    Strings are usually wound with a flat and narrow metal ribbon, applied to the core material in a side-by-side fashion.

    The number of layers of this winding can vary from just one layer to several. Metal winding is more dense than the core material of the string, and therefore acts to add mass to the string without adding too much thickness, and without impeding the string's flexibility. Various metals are used for windings:
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      • Aluminum is the most common winding material. It is inexpensive and durable, and yields a bright tone. However, it can be prone to corrosion from the acid naturally occurring in some people. This may lead to aluminum winding prematurely dissolving, leading to string failure. Frequent cleaning, after each use, can be effective in extending the string's useful life. However, some individuals may prefer to switch to a string with a different winding.
      • Chrome steel is also a common winding material, producing a lively sound. It is non-corrosive.
      • Titanium is light weight, and produces a warmer tone than aluminum. It is also hypo-allergenic and will not corrode.
      • Silver is heavier than chrome steel and aluminum, and produces a warmer sound. It is commonly used on violin G strings, and sometime D strings. It is generally not used for violin A strings because it is too heavy.
      • Tungsten is very dense and is most often used for cello C and G strings to increase their power and projection by adding mass. It is a stiff metal, not suitable for thinner strings because of the difficulty posed in winding tightly.
    Violin E Strings Are Different!
    The vast majority of violin E strings are solid steel, and not wound, because their thinness can lead to premature breakage of the winding, since it is softer than the core material. Wound E strings are available for players who prefer them, since they are less prone to whistling than solid steel strings. In fact, many violinists prefer to select their own E strings, even if they use matched sets of G, D, and A strings. This is strictly because of personal preference. Charles Avsharian explains attributes of various E strings in this question and answer blog article.

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    String Plating

    Sometimes E strings are plated with metal. Plating, a very thin coating that adds almost no additional thickness to the core, offers a way to add mass to a string without the use of winding. Metals used in plating include chrome (brilliant), titanium (power and clarity), tin (warm), silver (even warmer), gold (powerful, brilliant). Plating also helps protect the core material. Eventually, the plating wears off from use, and the resulting loss of mass will inhibit good tone production. At that point, the E string should be replaced.