Damian Dlugolecki - String Maker
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.

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