Damian Dlugolecki - Stringmaker

String History FAQ's

Q. When did violinists switch to the steel e" string?

A. During the last decade of the 19th century there were two
notable players, Willy Burmeister and Anton Witek, who because of
excessive persiration, began to use the steel e" string when playing
in public. But the use of gut e" a' and d' continued to be widely used until
World War I, when shortages of material and the disruption of
international commerce made it difficult to obtain high quality gut
strings. At this time many violinists were forced by necessity to
begin using the steel e" string, adapting to it rather quickly.
Among these players were Jascha Heifetz, Fritz Kreisler, Maud
Powell, Jacques Thibaud. It must be said that there were many
players who were critical of the steel e" string, stating that the
"wire string sounds distinctly different to the artist than does a
gut e"{Toscha Seidel};"I cannot use the wire strings that are in
such vogue here (meaning the U.S.){Tivadar Nachez}. David Mannes
the American violinist was quite eloquent on the matter: "The whole
question as to whether gut or wire strings are to be preferred may,
in my opinion, be referred to the violin itself for decision. What
I mean is that if Stradivari, Guarnerius, Amati, Maggini and others
...had wire strings in view, they would have built their fiddles in
acccordance, and they would not be the same as we now possess. I
can see the artistic retrogression of those who are using the wire
e", for when materially things are made easier, spiritually there is
a loss."
In America, musicians adopted the steel e" string more quickly
than did violinists in Europe. This was partially due to the
difficulty of procuring quality gut strings from Europe. This was
also the time of cast iron architecture, when steel was seen as a
new and revolutionary material, much like graphite is viewed today.
This was an age of "progress." But as we know today, the notion of
progress is an illusion. There's no progress without some
consequent sacrifice of value.
In Europe, however, violin soloists such as Mischa Elman and
Samuel Gardner continued to play on the gut e" string. And as late
as 1920, violinists in many orchestras in Germany still had to bind
themselves by contract not to use steel strings.

Q. Are gut strings produced now as good as the ones produced at the
beginning of the 20th century?

A. Gut strings are still made in the exact same way they were made
a hundred or even 400 years ago. The only significant difference is
the final polishing process. During the earliest times this was
done by hand where the polishing process though labor intensive,
insured that the integrity of the string was preserved. In other
words, there was little danger of shearing any of the filaments of
gut. Around the turn of the century, however, polishing machines
were developed where strings were placed between facing abrasives
that were then set in motion via electric motor. This could work
well if the pieces were sized properly prior to polishing. But
often the strings were polished unevenly, too much, or not enough.
I suspect that many of the complaints from contemporary violinists
concerning broken strings can be attributed to the shortcomings of
the polishing technology of the day.
Today we have machines that automatically sort the pieces by
gauge prior to polishing and finally we have the centerless grinder
which does a perfect job of polishing the outside diameter of the
string to an optimum finish. I would venture to say that gut
strings are capable of being equal in quality to those made during
the apex of their development, which I believe was during the late
17th century, not coincidentally at the same time violin making was
at its zenith.

Back to the String Menu Home Page