12 May 2013
String gauges for bowed instruments
I have done a lot of experimentation with strings playing both the violin, viola and occasionally the cello and double bass.
One thing, which is often overlooked when talking about strings are gauges.
The gauge is the tension or thickness of the string: light, heavy and medium (english) or dolce, forte and medium (italian) or weich, stark and mittel (german) are the way the gauges are described on the different string brands.
Most often the bowed string players just use the medium gauge strings and this is the gauge evaluated in different reviews around the internet and in magazines.
But I feel the other two gauges are greatly overlooked. I do not have a single instrument fitted with only medium gauge strings at the moment.
I seldom use the light/ weich/ dolce gauge, even though they often have the quickest response. I find this gauge to be best suited for older instruments with a delicate sound. Other colleagues have reported that some types of strings generally have a high tension and that they prefer for instance the Thomastik Precision in the light/ weich variety over the mediums.
The heavy/ stark/ forte gauge I find very useful. In some sets I prefer the heavies to the mediums for instance Thomastik Dominants (one of the most widely known string brands) of D'addario Helicores. To me this gauge provides more core and warmth in the projected sound.
Where the three gauge are most handy is when you mix and match them to your particular instrument.
Sometimes an instrument sounds just right with a set of strings, but the volume balance is just a little off: My chinese Hengsheng violin sound really good with Visions, but the G-string is just a bit weak. A change from medium to heavy gauge Vision and the balance is near perfect.
Sometimes an instrument has the right volume balance but one side sound a little harsh compared to the other side: My german trade fiddle is strung with a heavy set of Helicores, which makes it really loud. But the E-string is just a little piercing, so I changed to a Jargar forte, which has a more robust tone.
At the moment I am using these combinations on my different violins and violas.
Hengsheng - G heavy gauge, D A and E mediums in the Thomastik Vision brand
Chinese no name - G D A Vision Titanium Solo, E Westminster 27.5 gauge
German Trade - G D A Helicore Heavy, E Jargar forte
German Trade - C Thomastik Spirocore, G and D Thomastik Dominants, A Larsen
Chinese 15" - G and E Supersensitive Octave, D and A Thomastik Octave
The string brands I have mentioned is just the ones I use at the moment. I believe that the gauge is actually more important when balancing your sound than the actual brand - Pirastro, D'Addario, Jargar, Larsen, Corelli or Thomastik. The gauge makes you able to easily taylor the balance of the instrument and your playing style.
I know there are brands who do not offer different gauges in certain types of strings or at all.
I also would like to say that strings will not drastically change the sound of the instrument you are playing: Strings will not make a bright fiddle sound very mellow or make soft sounding fiddle project very well. The strings you choose helps you drive your the instrument and can provide a little more or a little less of certain charateristics.