Tuesday, May 3, 2011

E Strings....What's the Deal?

Written by Amy Tobin, violinist and manager of Fein Violins:

Ah, the E string. It is both bane and boon to a violinist, and the type of E you use can tip the scales in either direction.

Yes, it is true that you can buy your favorite brand of violin strings in a set, E string and all. So why a special post specifically for and about the E? Well, picking an E string can be a little like standing in the middle of the cereal aisle at the supermarket. A seemingly endless array of choices when all you really want is a good, healthy breakfast!

Okay. In my humble experience (or not so humble...I do happen to be not only a violinist, but a 1st violinist to boot!), the E string seems to be an afterthought for most manufacturers. "Hey, we've got a great set of strings here.....let's just quickly make some Es to go along with the rest so we can sell them as a set!"

Not so fast, dear string makers. We, the musicians, are on to you.

You see, the E can make a TREMENDOUS difference in regards to your overall sound. It is the thinnest, highest tension, and brightest string on our instruments, and because of this it can change the timbre (or tone) of all of the rest of them. Yep, it's true. If you don't believe me, try it yourself. Grab some different brands of Es (they are usually inexpensive enough to do this little science project at home) and try them, one after the other, with your favorite brand of strings. I'll bet you will notice quite the range of sounds from them all!

Now, on to the more specific details. First a disclaimer, however.

Yes, I am a working, professional violinist who has been playing for *ahem* years, but I do not claim to know the ins and outs of every E string. I, like many other players, was stuck for many years using the same strings that my teacher had recommended to me in my younger days because I assumed they were the best. HA! A little exploration and risk taking has rewarded me more than ten-fold!
I will, however, share what I do know with you. I have tried many different Es, different materials, different gauges, different manufacturers, and I can definitely tell you that NOT ALL E STRINGS ARE CREATED EQUALLY!

Okay. The first thing I do when I have a full set of strings is get rid of the E. Yes, that's exactly what I do. In fact, I do not buy full sets of strings. I buy them separately. There is no reason to purchase an E that won't be used and will only cost me extra.
More than likely, the E that comes with your set will not match the rest. Again, doing your own research with this will convince you more than anything I could say here. (And before you all start crying foul, there are indeed some players who find the E that comes with the set to be quite to their liking. That is usually the exception, however, and not the rule)

The next thing I do is to put one of my trusty Westminster E strings on. This is a string made by Kagan and Gaines, and I can't say enough positive things about them. I love them! Love Love Love Love! Didn't even know these existed (probably because they are not part of a corresponding 'set') until I saw that Sotheby's uses these on all of their auction instruments. K&G only makes E strings. Yep, you heard (read) me right. No A, no D, no G, just the E. Three different gauges (as most...more on that in a bit), and I use the medium unless I need an extra bold sound for some reason. Then I will use the heavy gauge.

Okay. Enough about my favorite E. Let's get to some of the nitty gritty.

E strings are metal. They are steel, gold-plated steel, chrome-plated steel, platinum-plated steel (yep. platinum! BLING!), you get the idea. Some are plain, meaning just the long metal strand, and some are wound with aluminum or such.
An E string wound with aluminum will generally give a bit of a softer (in quality, not in volume) type of sound. Whether this is due primarily to the aluminum or the fact that it is wound I don't really know (see disclaimer above!), but that does seem to be the case.

Plain steel: These E strings have the boldest tone of all, and they can range from fairly warm to very, very bright. There are many different brands of these (Westminster is all steel), so you will have to try some to see which suits you. They are usually the most inexpensive, however, so it is an easy thing to do. Chrome steel can also be included here. This is a type of steel with a chromium component that makes it a little more resistant to corrosion.

Gold plated steel: These look fancy. They really do have a beautiful sound.....warm and round while still retaining the brilliance one might want from an E. They whistle, though. A LOT! You have to really want this particular sound to deal with learning how to work around the whistle. (For those who are new here, whistling occurs when  you play the open E and the string does not speak. All you get is a sort of whooshy bow noise, at best, or some loud overtone, at worst)

A special mention goes to the Kaplan Solutions non-whistling E string at this point. This is a wound string that is supposed to have more of the warmth of the gold-plated string while drastically reducing (or eliminating altogether) the whistling that might occur. In fact, these really are nice sounding strings. We've just found that they break......a lot.

Titanium plated steel: These will have a very brilliant, soloistic type of sound. If your instrument is generally too mellow and you feel like you need more from it, try this.

Platinum plated steel: Thank you, Mr. Peter Infeld, for making the most expensive, most warmly brilliant E on the market! I have tried this E. I must say that I really like it tons, but it would only suit me for when I am soloing, not trying to blend in with the orchestra. (Although, when I play solo in front of the orchestra next year, I am definitely putting one of these on!)

Now, what thickness (or gauge) do you need?

Light gauge: Use these if you have a much older instrument that can't take the higher tension of medium and heavy gauge E strings. You might get a bit thinner sound, but there are definitely instances where this is appropriate. Also, if you are new, and you are still building up those playing callouses, feel free to try the light gauge string.

Medium gauge: This tends to be the norm. A good, solid gauge with enough tension to create good projection and a nice, bold sound.

Heavy gauge: If you are soloing, or if your instrument needs a volume boost, you might try the heavy gauge string. Sometimes I really prefer the feel of a heavy gauge string under my fingers. The tension is higher, the sound is broader, and it just feels more substantial under my digits. (After playing for 30+ years, my fingers are so calloused that I can stick pins into them without feeling it......true!)

With all of that said, there is still so much more. I leave you here to your own exploration of the many types and brands of Es.

Go ye forth and find the E that suits your soul.

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