Written by Amy Tobin, violinist and manager of Fein Violins:
So, you've been playing on that violin, or viola, or cello of yours for awhile when you suddenly break a string. You bring it in to the shop to have it replaced and they ask you "How long ago did you change your strings?" 'Geez,' you think to yourself 'I don't think I've ever changed them.' If that's what you're thinking, then it's definitely time!
One of the most basic parts of a string instrument, the strings, tends to be the most overlooked. Most new players figure if it's not broke, don't fix it! While this may be true in a lot of other instances and situations in life, it is not true when it comes to violins, violas, and cellos.
Chances are, if you can't remember when you put your last set of strings on, it is time to change them. Strings have a finite life span and, just like anything else, change and break down as they age (yes, it's true......think of them as ligaments and muscles and, if you are anywhere over the age of 40, you will probably know exactly what I'm talking about!). Strings get used......A Lot........so just think of them as wanting to retire after a long life of incredible music making!
Now, there are different kinds of strings that will last for different lengths of time.
Gut strings: Usually need to be changed as soon as they are broken in. You might think I am exaggerating, but I'm not. Unless you have a deep-seeded need to really know what gut strings sound like, or you have a Baroque style instrument, save yourself some money. They are QUITE expensive! Synthetic core strings: Made of a core of a type of nylon called Perlon, these usually last a lot longer than gut, anywhere from 3 to 6 months. Obligatos and Evah Pirazzi strings are both examples of good synthetic core strings.
Metal core strings: These last the longest, sometimes up to a year of good sound! Although most of them do not have the warmth and richness of synthetic core, D'Addario's Helicore strings have been a great, fairly inexpensive, alternative for people. Most cellists use metal core strings for their stability and power. Larsens are a great example in this category!
So when, exactly, do you need to change your strings? Here are a few helpful hints.
1. Tuning trouble? Change on the double!
Sometimes you will be tuning up with your orchestra, or tuning up at home, and you just won't seem to be able to get it quite right. You'll be turning the peg (or the fine tuner) this way, that way, back this way again, and it will never seem to quite hit that sweet open sound of a perfect fifth. This is a great indication that your strings have gone false, which means they won't have the same focused tonality of newer strings. Also, if you find yourself muttering (as I have in the past) 'Geez! My intonation has never been so horrible! What the heck is going on?' that is a HUGE clue that you need to change those strings!
2. Unwinding string? Bring it in!
Strings are made of different materials. The E strings are usually all steel or gold plated steel (and now, for a little more bling, platinum!) and are frequently just plain. However, there are some wound E strings as well. Most of the other strings have a core of one material (gut, Nylon or Perlon, or some type of metal) that is then wound with another material (steel, silver, aluminum, etc.). Now, this winding is exactly what you would think. It is one material being wound around and covering another material. The more you play on a string, the more likely it is that the winding will start to unravel. This not only creates a weak spot where the string might be likely to break, but it is also incredibly uncomfortable under the fingers and can get in the way of smooth shifting between positions.
3. Sounding dull? Time to cull!
Okay, I admit. The rhyming thing is getting a little out of hand. It does make you remember it, though, right?
This one is pretty simple. If you don't feel like you are getting the same amount of sound, or it is somehow duller, or less vibrant than what you remember, then it's time to change the strings. Easy peasy lemon squeezy.
4. When in doubt, switch 'em out!
Yes, that's the last rhyme on this post.....I promise!
This one goes along with the 'Geez. I can't remember when I put those last strings on!'
If you can't remember, or you're just not quite sure if they need to be changed, just go ahead and do it. You will thank yourself after those first pulls on the open strings.
If your string breaks, well then it's definitely time to change it.
PSA: Cellists, although we empathize with the high cost of strings for you, please change them before any chance of tetanus occurs...