Damian Dlugolecki - String Maker


Q. How long will gut strings last in storage?

If a gut string is kept at a consistent temperature of 65° (F.) and 50% relative humidity, it can be kept in storage for many years. These are certainly not normal conditions, however, and during the humid Summer months followed by very dry Winter months strings tend to degrade in quality.

Q. Can I use strings that have been stored a long time?

A. The only way to tell if they are still useful is to put them on an instrument and play them. If the string has been adversely affected by climate, it may fray a little sooner than normal, but otherwise it should be playable. It does matter very much what the ambient humidity and temperature are when you put the string on the instrument and begin to play it. If conditions are normal, you may get a reasonable amount of life from the string. Pretty much the same goes for wound strings. When you store a covered string for future use, don't wind it into a tight little coil. Rather, find a reasonably large zip lock envelope where it is in a loose and relaxed coil. This will prevent distortion of the wire over time.

Q. How long should a gut string last?

A. Obviously the amount of playing you do is a factor. And the size of
the string is a factor; smaller diameter strings fray and break more
easily than larger gauge strings. Beyond that, the only truly important
consideration is the extent to which you can keep your left hand dry.
Moisture, more than anything else will cause the fraying which signals
the beginning of the end of the useful life of the string.

Q. Should I change all my strings at once or only a few at a time?

A. There are several things to consider. One is that intonation,
particularly that of a fretted instrument, is affected by mounting new
strings. Strings that have been on an instrument for a long time will
tend to play 'sharp' next to a new string. The harmonics of the open
strings may be in tune, but in stopping the string the pitch will
sharpen more relative to a new string simply because the older string is
not as elastic as it was when you first put it on. Most gambists change
the top three strings at once and that seems practical. A violinist can
replace an e" string and adjust without much difficulty once the string
has stabilized.

Q. Is it a good idea to mix and match strings from different sources on my instrument?

A. Think of your viol or violin as an amplifier for gut strings. For the instrument to work optimally all the strings must sound and play in tune. The string gauges or diameters must relate to the size of the vibrating string length from nut to bridge, sometimes referred to as the 'mensur' of the instrument. The strings must be proportional to one another in such a way that 'equal feel' is maintained across the fingerboard. This relates not only to the diameter of the string, but to the configuration of the string relative to its' place on the instrument. Generally strings with a lower torsion are used for the top string because the top string or chanterelle generally is under greater tension than the strings below it and so it follows that it must have greater overall strength. A string of the same diameter but with greater torsion may break at that tension where the low torsion string will not. For the middle and lower range of the instrument a higher torsion string is called for because the string needs to be more 'efficient' in storing and releasing energy from the bow. The additional torsion helps the string to move its own mass. You would not want to place a high twist string above a low twist string. These are just some of the matters to take into consideration. It will become apparent that a unified approach is the best way to achieve an optimal sound.

Q. My strings squeak under my bow at certain times of the year. What causes this?

A. Gut strings are extremely hygroscopic; that is to say, they gain or
lose moisture content according to the amount of ambient moisture in the
air around them. The elastic characteristics of of gut, that lend it
musical qualities, aside from strength, are enabled by collagen, a
protein matter that is reliant upon moisture to be activated. So when it
is exremely dry, the strings lose that magical equilibrium of elasticity
and strength that allows them to store and release energy from the bow.
There is simply nothing to be done, short of humidifying the area where
you are playing. It is beneficial to keep some sort of dampit in your
case, because wood is also hygroscopic and wood joints may come apart if
the atmosphere becomes to dry. There is really nothing you can apply
directly onto a string to counteract the problem of ambient dryness.

Q. Is there a danger of a gut string breaking during a performance?

A. Generally, no, as long as the string does not show signs of
excessive fraying or of weak spots where the string may appear to be
slightly kinked. If this is the case, it is best to change the
string prior to performance.

Q. If I need to change a string shortly before a performance, or even during a performance, how can I break in the string quickly?

A. It is a good idea for a performer to keep a previously used
string in the case for just this circumstance. For a string that
has been played-in adjusts to pitch very quickly. Remember, as you
bring the string up to pitch, lift up on the string at the bridge.
Do this by placing a finger under the string on each side of the
bridge, then gently lift so that the string momentarily loses
contact with the bridge. Do this until the string is stable.

Q. What are varnished strings?

A. Varnished strings are coated with a special varnish that enables the string to resist the affect of moisture from the left hand. In this way it makes the string much more durable as moisture from the left hand is the main thing that will degrade the quality of a string. We certainly recommend the varnished e" and a' because these strings are under higher tension than the others and are played more.

Q. Is the sound of varnished strings different from unvarnished strings?

A. No, they sound the same to the player and certainly to the audience.

Q. Sometimes my metal wound strings go sharp. What can I do about this?

A. Try lifting up on the string at the bridge from time to time as you
tune. Just put two fingers under the string on either side of the bridge
and lift gently just so the string momentarily loses contact with the
bridge. Sometimes the string doesn't move smoothly across the crown of
the bridge. The string may stick at the nut also. In this case, running
a soft pencil back and forth in the nut groove can supply enough
lubricant to keep the string moving smoothly across the nut.

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