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String Types by Ryan Fox

String Types by Ryan Fox

Having found an instrument, I decided to try as many different strings to find which set/combination best suited my viola and playing style. It is important to have the instrument adjusted in order to compensate for lower or higher tension strings, but many of these qualities will be apparent on your instrument, regardless. I hope that my experiences and descriptions can help save time and money for those intimidated by the myriad string choices available to us!

I think it’s important to preface this by saying that just because a particular string or combination may work or respond on one instrument doesn’t necessarily mean it will work on another! I remember certain strings working very well on one trial viola and not at all on another. I have, however, found that most of these strings have distinct qualities, sounds, and speeds of response that are easily produced no matter what kind of instrument or bow you have.

Steel strings!:

While gut strings were certainly the most popular until the introduction of synthetics, steel strings were actually available and used—even back in the time of Stradivari and Guarneri. They have evolved quite a bit since then, and I find that the winding of steel strings has an enormous impact on these strings.

My experience with steel strings are as follows:

Larsen A

These strings are of the highest quality but fetch a high price-tag as well.

A: This is probably the most commonly used (for good reason) A-string on the market for violists. The response is easy, sound is clear and brilliant, complex, maintains its integrity in the upper register, and projects with ease. I also have found that they last a very long time and don’t die the sudden and horrible death that Evah Pirazzis seem to. I found it to have the most “core” of any other La as well.

Low-tension A: I found the sound to be a bit warmer than the medium-gauge A, easier in response, but “whiffed” when urged to play loudly in the high register (the second statement of the first-movement’s theme in the Walton concerto, for instance).

tl;dr [too long; didn’t read]: buy the medium tension and don’t worry about trying A-strings ever again.

Vision Solo A

This string is the only steel one of the otherwise synthetic-core set, and I found on many instruments that it was a bit soft (didn’t resist bow pressure like the Larsens), extremely whiny, thin-sounding, and excessively bright. Its redeeming quality would be the amazingly easy response, but for nearly the same price as a Larsen (but sans the quality of sound). I would go with the Larsen any day unless you are dead-set on having a matching . . . uh . . . set.

Jargar A

Like Larsens, these are popular steel strings with cellists, but MUCH more affordable (I think the in-store price A is like $8 as opposed to the ~$26 dollar Larsen [buy online…]). This string is a very good alternative if price is an issue, and the sound is more than passable. It is less colorful and harder to draw out intriguing sounds, but the response is there, and it is not so banal that it would ever cost you a job or anything (no string should). Not my favorite, but matches the

Vision Solo or Dominant sets WAY better than their respective A-strings . . . possibly better than a Larsen would.

Jargar Forte

I cannot see a situation where this much tension would be necessary except for Cello applications. Absolutely seized up and spoke like it was King George the VI.

Kaplan D’addario A

I like the rest of the set, but no.

Passione A

As an alternative to the aluminum-wound gut-core A, Pirastro makes a Chrome-steel A string for use with more modern and demanding repertoire. While the gut A is simply brilliant, it squeaks and cries above 4th position at mf dynamics and simply wouldn’t endure anything like Shnittke, Bartók, or Don Juan. The Chrome-steel A, however, is low in tension like the rest of the Passione set, but can withstand modern repertoire and has a remarkably beautiful tone! Round and colorful, but can attack sharply when asked. A fantastic option if one is looking to try something beautiful and clear, but lower in tension than Larsen or Jargar strings. And it’s not gut-core like the rest of the Passiones, so it’s vegan-friendly

Evah Pirazzi A

There is a definite reason you rarely—if ever—see the signature green and black Pirazzi designation on the a strings of most violists, despite them having Evah D, G, and C’s. They are shrill, high-tension, absolutely SCREAM, and don’t match the intriguing complexity characteristic of the rest of the Evah Pirazzi set. This one is a no-go.

SPIROCORE G

Comes in two different winding options. Don’t go home with chrome. The silver, however, has a . . . sandy . . . quality that I find quite amazing. Response is different than synthetic G’s, but the density of these rope-core steel strings allows more area of the string to be played (pretty far over the fingerboard, actually), which opens up the potential for expanded possibilities of different timbre than most synthetics, and they can certainly pack a punch. The soft dynamics don’t sound vapid at all—even ppp will still have a great core to the sound, and can even withstand the bow pressure of the wild-stallion Yuri Bashmet.

SPIROCORE C

Comes in three different windings: chrome, silver, and tungsten . . . but when people talk about using a Spirocore C, they undoubtedly are referring to the tungsten. It is everything that the G is, but responds 10x better than it or any other C, G, D, or A string I have ever tried. If you haven’t put one on, at least try it—it’s simply amazing. It’s the kind of tone and response where the first time I tried one, I played an open string and just laughed (for some reason). Many older instruments by legendary makers are described as having a gritty, grainy sound, and when pushed, this string will produce that sound. I don’t feel the need to corroborate my opinions with ridiculously credible credentials, but some other people might . . . so here ya go. Lawrence Dutton of the Emerson Quartet actually said: “Every viola needs a Spirocore C (and possibly the G if it works),” Lawrence Power mixes this string with Olivs, Yuri Bashmet is an advocate, as is Gilad Karni, and Roberto Díaz just uses a full set of Spirocores on his ex-Primrose Amati.

It’ll cost you $52 a pop . . . seemingly expensive, but I kid you not, there is a bass player in the Chicago symphony who auditioned on and played his ENTIRE CAREER on the same set of Spirocores.

They last for a while.

The Rest of the D’addario Kaplan set

I first heard these on the viola of a studio-mate and was flabbergasted at how incredibly clear and responsive they were. I mistook the wrapping near the top of the strings for Passiones but later discovered them to be steel Kaplan wonderbeasts. I was disappointed when I put them on my old Italian thing and they didn’t work, but Marie-Elyse sounds great, so these could very well be a cheaper alternative to a set of Spirocores for you to try. Just goes to show that strings are quite melodramatic in their reaction to the instrument they are applied to.

Synthetics!

Dominants:

Really hard to go wrong with these. I haven’t found a single application in which they “didn’t work” on, but some violas absolutely shone with them (a Vuillaume and Storioni, in particular). Easy response, sweet sound once they break in (they sound pretty metallic for two days), great tone, but they don’t carry like Spirocores, Evahs, or have the nuance of gut strings. Both Dominants and Obligatos come closer to gut strings in sound than any other synthetic I’ve tried (I’m not counting Passiones as synthetic for this review). Still favored by Pinchas Zukerman as standard after a brief affair he had with Vision Solos. I would pair these with a Jargar A, however, as the A string is, in my opinion, totally wrong. James Dunham and Ivo-Jan van der Werff (both famous quartet players) used the heavy-gauge version of these before Passiones came around.

Vision Solo:

A remarkably easy set of strings to play, the C and G responding and singing with very little effort required. As you know, I dislike the A, but I particularly abhor the D—I find it to be the most intriguing and one-dimensional string on the market. With half of the set leaving me wanting, I’d personally shy away from these when you also consider that, despite the ease of playability in the low register, the whole set lacks a palette of colors to keep me captivated. Easy to ply, but just as easy to get bored with. I do, however, use these when I have no performances or auditions coming up and just need to learn notes/build left-hand technique. The ease of sound production allows me to focus on other aspects of my playing and to build my technique.

Obligato:

obbligato or music obligato (ˌɒblɪˈɡɑːtəʊ)

— adj

1.  not to be omitted in performance

— n , -tos , -ti

2.  an essential part in a score: with oboe obbligato

[C18: from Italian, from obbligare to oblige ]

These strings are one of the more commonly used sets, and for very good reason. They have a sound that darkens particularly bright instruments and a lower tension than Evah Pirazzis. This may actually make an instrument louder if it tends to be “choked” by higher tensions strings like Evahs or Spriocores. I don’t want to be redundant in my descriptions, so pardon my rightbrainedness and try to use your corpus callosum here. The sound is chewy and chocolaty on a lot of instruments that I’ve used them on, but my ear found their darkness achieved by suppressing particular overtones; making them dark, but not as resonant. Spirocores achieve their loudness in the same way, by utilizing lots of high overtones and getting a sound that is unique and cuts—Obligatos, I’d surmise, do this too, but by favoring some of the lower partials. This leaves a certain flatness to the sound and is my only complaint with these strings. The C-string is amazing in its response I would dare say it is responsible for the idiosyncratic “viola-sound” we all hear in our heads when someone says, “The slow movement of Beethoven 3.” Like their name implies, they can be an essential part in forming the sound you desire and are certainly worth a try. You will see these, Spirocores, Vision Solos, and Evah Pirazzi used more than any other string out there for viola.

Evah Pirazzi:

By a landslide, these dominate the market as the most used string here in the states (and I assume elsewhere). Their sound is brilliant when provoked but have a beautiful kind of plastic sounding aesthetic. They may lack cello-like depth, but I won’t complain—their sound is so unique that it’s the only other string set besides Spirocores that I can hear a recording and say, “Oh, this person is using Evah Pirazzis.” The Larsen A blends great and is almost essential considering how much of a terrible outlier the Evah Pirazzi A-string is. The C-string may be a bit tubby and require some extra effort to get moving, but the sound feels like a pleasantly full stomach and has a great balance between meatiness core and I-bet-you’ve-never-heard-theviola-part-of-this-quartet-before brilliance. Favored by genius performers, such as Kim Kashkashian, her students, viola-makers, Sergein Yap, Joshua Bell (I know, I know, a violinist . . .), and in between Ivo-Jan van der Werff’s time with Dominants and Passiones, he used these as well. As does Peter Slowik. And, like 8,000 other great and aspiring performers. The only real downside to these strings (besides the fact that they absolutely do not work on my viola despite any type of adjustment I’ve had done . . .) is that they die a sudden, terrible, and heinous death. Like an off-switch. “Hey guys, I gave 100% 24/7, so I’m just gonna die now without warning. Good luck in studio class today.” They are also quite expensive. Definitely worth a try if you haven’t—you may just find your ideal string. I, however, had to keep searching as they choked my instrument and wouldn’t resonate or respond . . . and I found that string when I bought my first set of…

Passione:

We are obviously moving on to Gut Strings!!

Passiones are kind of weirdly in-between synthetic and gut, and since no one wants a science lesson in string theory (*crickets*) let’s just say they are very stable versions of gut strings that can withstand a bit more abuse. Take that with a grain of salt, though, because gut strings can’t take much abuse and are incredibly unstable compared to Vision Solos and other synthetics.

However,

The sound combined with the relative stability is unparalleled, in my opinion. The sound they produce—though you can’t play as lazily with the right hand as you can with Visions—is oh-so dark brown! They cut, respond like you wouldn’t believe (when played correctly—they require obsessive attention to contact point and bow speed . . . closer to the bridge, slower bow speed, tighter bow hair, less pressure, you’ll get it), and may feel/sound soft under the ear, but they produce a sound that carries and sounds particularly unbelievable in the audience. If you try them, have someone else play your viola (preferably a violist) and listen to how they sound from afar. You can feel the chin rest and bow vibrating with sympathetic resonance and can create sounds which other strings just cannot. You can support the music you’re playing by evoking colors such as mournful or plaintive, 1950s, Cleveland Quartet, manic, English, dark-brilliance, water, and “whoa.”

You kind of just need to hear them/try them.

Ivo and Mr. Dunham have chosen these as their current string-of choice, and they also occupy

the D and G slots on my viola. (not Ivo and Mr. Dunham . . . Passiones . . .)

Oliv:

Would be my inner-string string of choice if I didn’t live in Houston. The irascible weather and humidity make these highly sensitive strings commit suicide fairly quickly. But their hypersensitivity will allow you to play with equal sensitivity and a truly special sound. Gut strings were used back in the day for symbolic reasons as well as aesthetic. They are, and were, made from lamb (NOT CATS), in homage to the Lamb of God, and to glorify said lamb by playing holy music on strings made out of materials that paid symbolic reverence.

And they sound worthy of the lamb (when Lawrence Power plays his inner-two strings, at least . . .). With projection, resonance, response and intriguing tone truly unmatched by anything else I’ve tried, the sound of these strings will never become antiquated. They do, however, die faster than every single synthetic.

You must, must, must buy the stiff version of these strings—if you do, they will be comparable in power and projection to Evah Pirazzis and can withstand much more bow pressure. Really worth a try, especially on older instruments that were designed for this type of material and tension. I have no idea how they would fare on a Greiner or Zygmuntowicz.

They carry a huge price tag . . . so give them a chance if you buy a set, don’t string ‘em up and throw them out. They require a different right-hand approach but are so much easier on the left hand. They might even be a great option to anyone unwilling to take a break, but who is suffering from left-arm pain.

Eudoxa:

Cheaper, softer, weaker, but for some reason amazing C-string on certain instruments. I found them to be less suitable for playing anything other than Bach, but the C-string (actually a tungsten-wrapped stiff-gauge string called Eudoxa-Oliv), just sounds glorious. They really are not comparable in my opinion to Olivs and were created to be a budget option to Olivs back in the day, but a dear friend of mine uses the C and sounds magnificent, clear, and loud—so yeah, that’s why we try different strings

OTHER STUFF:

Larsen D:

(These descriptions are shorter because my impression of these strings wasn’t terribly great, and I don’t have much to say on them.)

The Larsen D is quite flimsy under pressure (like 3x as bendy as gut strings), one-dimensional, loud, and quite frankly I have a hard time believing it’s from the same company that makes the A-string. They sound great on Celli, but we don’t play those behemoths.

Larsen G:

Better than the D, but equally weird and uninspiring. Seems to just produce pitch, not actual sound/music.

Spirocore D:

Doesn’t have any of the amazingness of the C or G, but isn’t as bad as the Larsen D. It is clear and full, but requires a lot of activity to make it work, to the point of tendon pain after a while. It lacks the unique qualities of the specially-wound C or G, and just kinda sounds like steel with rosin on it. Especially after hearing a gut string, it leaves a general impression of “whuck?” when you hear it.

Helicores:

Felt like noodles under my fingers (they are like half the width of all other strings). Crazy easy response—the entire Houston symphony viola section with the exception of one person was using them for a while (according to a local luthier). Not much else to say though, you can get so much better sounding strings if you’re willing to give up a bit of easy-bow-response.

To conclude, here’s some interesting c-c-c-c-combos used by famous/familiar people.

Roberto Díaz: Spiros

Lawrence Dutton:

Spirocore C,

Spirocore G

no idea for the D,

guessing Larsen A.

~”Every viola needs a Spirocore C”

Lawrence Power:

Spirocore C,

Oliv D,

Oliv G,

Larsen A

(seriously).

Pinchas Zukerman: Dominants with a Jargar A

Kim Kashkashian:

Evah Pirazzi C,

Evah G,

Evah D,

Larsen A.

James Dunham:

Passione C,

Passione G,

Passione D,

Larsen A.

Ivo-Jan Van der Werff: Passiones all across

Joan DerHovsepian

Evah C,

Evah G,

Evah D,

Larsen A.

Gilad Karni: Spiros

Yuri Bashmet

Sprio C,

Spiro G,

Larsen D,

Larsen A.

There are many, many more brilliant orchestral and solo violists out there whom I did not mention SOLELY because I don’t know for sure what strings they are using these days! Just wanted to give examples of what some of our heroes are using 🙂

P.S.

I am using…

Spirocore C,

Passione G,

Passione D,

Larsen A.


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