Thursday, November 19, 2020

Why Do Strings Break?

By Andy Fein, Luthier at Fein Violins

and Ivana Truong

Most string players have had the awful experience of getting all set for a lesson, concert, or recital and BAM a string breaks. It seems like the bigger the occasion, the more likelihood of a string breaking.

Why do strings break? What can you do to prevent a string breaking at the WORST POSSIBLE MOMENT?

Violinist Midori Goto, age 14, breaks two strings during her debut performance, 
and didn't even flinch! 
Here's something every string player should know and accept- Strings Break. Life happens, you can't fight entropy, and strings break. Just like a rubber band will lose its elasticity over time and eventually break, so will your strings. But there are some things you can do to help your strings last a fairly long time. 

Strings, at least the steel and metal wound ones, are pretty sturdy. So, if your strings are breaking regularly, you should take a look at your instrument. Check the broken string and note where it snapped or if there are other prominent signs of wear (e.g. unwinding, fraying). There may be a sharp edge on the nut (the part connecting the fingerboard to the pegbox/scroll), bridge, tailpiece, or fine tuners. A sharp edge will cut into the winding of your strings, causing them to snap or the ball to come off. No matter how many times you replace your strings, this will keep happening, so remember to pay attention to your instrument.

Depending on where the issue is, you can adjust it yourself or take your instrument to a luthier. If your strings keep on snapping at your fine tuner or tailpiece, your first step should be to make sure that the strings have been installed correctly (there's a video later in the blogpost to help!). If you have a ball end string, make sure the ball isn't twisted- the curve of the ball end should fit in the crook of the tuner (see below). Also, double-check that you have the correct kind of string for your fine-tuners. There are loop-end and ball-end E strings and each will need a different kind of fine tuner. 

These tuners fit ball-end strings. If there is an edge or the tuner is too narrow for the string, it could cause your strings to break more often.

Make sure your string is properly installed, the ball should slot firmly into the tuner, but without much force. The circular face of the ball should face outward not up. 

A loop end string and compatible fine tuner. Sometimes the edges of the hook can be too sharp. You can file the edges down or buy a silicon cover for the tuner.

If it seems like your strings are always breaking near the bridge, it may be that the notches are too deep or too narrow causing the string to be pinched. If there is just a sharp corner, an easy solution could be to use a rubber sleeve. One is usually included with E-strings. When you're installing the string, you can just adjust the sleeve so it sits in the notch where your string goes. You can also ask your luthier to put some parchment on your bridge, which we do to all our violins. If this doesn't fix the issue and your strings are still breaking frequently, go to your luthier and see if you need to get your bridge adjusted.

If the issue seems to be the tailpiece or nut, don't try to fix it yourself, bring your violin to a luthier and they can help.

Most commonly, strings break when they're being installed. To this day, I still get nervous when I put in a new E-string. But besides squeezing your eyes shut in terror, there are a couple of things you can do to actually minimize the risks of a string snapping. Tune as you go in small increments, trying not to crank the peg. To prevent your bridge from falling from uneven tension, try to keep all the strings relatively in tune after each new string. Once all your strings are in, continue to tune each string a little bit at a time while trying to maintain tension on the bridge. Suddenly straining the string will increase your chance of breaking it and also might over-stretch the string, reducing its lifespan (Pirastro). 

How to  change strings
Winding a string over itself on the peg can also cause a string to break

Of course regular wear-and-tear can also cause strings to break. How long your strings can last, both acoustically and physically, can depend on climate, string material, and your own body and playing habits! 

Like your violin, strings are also sensitive to changes in humidity and particularly, temperature. In the cold, strings will become tighter and in warmer environments, strings will slightly expand. Sudden changes can cause strings to adjust and readjust and besides causing tuning troubles, your strings will become more likely to break. If you travel with your violin in the cold, let it warm up in the case before tuning it. In terms of strings, you should mostly be concerned if it's too humid. Most strings are made of metal to some extent, so moisture will cause rust or other oxidation. 

Another factor to consider is material. As we've talked about before, strings are made of all sorts of metals and other materials. The most delicate strings are gut strings, which are really sensitive to any sort of sharp edge and wear out fairly quickly. Pirastro recommends applying a thin layer of graphite (like pencil lead) to any part of the violin that will be in contact with your gut strings. 

How D'Addario strings are made today

When it comes to steel and synthetic core strings, the material can give you some hints as to how quickly they wear out. The most resilient strings are steel strings but they are more sensitive to over-tuning and may require a lower bridge if you feel like the tension is too high. As a softer metal, aluminum strings will corrode more quickly, which can be problematic for people with more acidic sweat. If you're having issues with corrosion, try strings with chrome steel or silver winding. 

Besides sweat, strings can also slowly break down from salts, oils, and rosin build-up. Some of these factors, you really can't control, but washing your hands before playing or if you eat and wiping off rosin dust can preserve your strings for a bit longer.

What can you do to help your strings last longer? Keep your left hand fingernails clipped very short. Wipe off your strings with a soft cloth after every playing session. If you're struggling with keeping your strings in tune or tuning them, consider Wittner FineTune Pegs or fine tuners on your tailpiece. Lubricate the string notches in the nut and bridge with pencil lead when you change your strings. And if you play outdoors, try to stay in the shade and avoid direct sunlight. 

Hopefully, some of these tips will help you, whether you're installing new strings or maintaining your old ones. No matter how well you take care of your strings, they are a part of your instrument that wears down and needs to be replaced. Change your strings every 6 months to a year (cellists can stretch that timeline out to every year or two), and know that sometimes no matter how well you prep, strings just break! So keep some spares handy. A good dollar saving habit is to mark your old strings as you're taking them off your instrument and keep them in your case. That way, if a string breaks, you have an immediately accessible spare.

Let's say you're one of the many players that ekes out their strings for much longer than a year, or you hate changing strings, or you're on a tight budget. Do we have a recommendation? Yes! For violins and violas, the Helicore strings made by D'Addario often last a long time and sound good throughout most of their life. Even though they're a metal core string, they're soft under the fingers and have a very pure and somewhat mellow sound. And they're less expensive than Dominants or other nylon/perlon core strings. And... They're made in the USA! We sell them and recommend them!

Conclusion? Sorry. All strings break eventually. Even Helicores.

What to do with old strings? Recycle them!


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