Part 2: ONE YEAR LATER…
…and I am still using all gut set ups on both my concert cello and “sarangi-cello” (more on that cello in a future post). I have spent a lot of time thinking about strings, calculating gauges for tension schemes, experimenting with different combos of various brands and string makers. I have a much better idea now of what I like, don’t like, and need from a gut string. Almost a year before I had purchased any gut strings, I had reached out to a couple of viola da gamba playing friends for advice on the subject. Niccolo Seligmann, a fantastic gambist and early music super-nerd, gave me some advice, which I followed: “Start with getting a couple different gauges of each string from Gamut, which is probably the best for its price. Once you’ve figured out what weights (diameter and tension) to use, then you may want to switch over to something more expensive and longer lasting, like Aquila or La Folia… the try-out process is expensive, but you can keep all the not-quite-right strings as spares. It’s always wise to have at least one spare of the top two strings and at least two spares of the top string.”
This advice was for open gut strings, but it applied to the wound gut audition process as well. For instance, getting all three gauges of a Eudoxa a-string is expense, but now I know what works and I was able to re-purpose or keep settled-in spares of the gauges which weren’t right for my instrument or the music I was making at that time.
I have found that I spend more time caring for my cello, making sure the tailpiece, bridge, nut, and peg set up are all staying “healthy”. As a result of learning to play on gut strings, I have made huge strides in my bow technique and left hand precision. Gut set ups have helped me understand how interact with the strings on a much deeper level. There is a greater subtly required when drawing the sound, as a result a wider range of tone and expression. It has taught me how to open up my articulation palate and push through to a next level of playing. Of course, it might not be the right fit for all types of music, instruments, or aesthetics: that comes down to (1) taste & importantly (2) the conditions of performance. I have used wound and open gut string combos for classical, traditional/world, contemporary, jazz, experimental, etc and have found these set-ups chameleon their way through all of these genres very well!
Over the course of this year, I have tried wound gut strings by Correlli (don’t waste your time), Damian Dlugolecki (Ni/Ag gut) and Pirastro’s Eudoxa, Oliv, and Gold (older wondertones) line strings. I have also tried plain gut strings by Dan Larsen (Gamut), Damian Dlugolecki, Toro (venice and high twist), and Aquila & Pirastro’s Chorda (not impressed). Maybe in another post I will examine these comparisons further, however this post will remain focused on Eudoxa and Oliv strings. Again this is for the first time buyer. I have certainly had some frustrating and expensive moments this year, my hope is to let you in on those insights so you don’t have to make the same mistakes.
Suggested Combos/Sets (no particular order):
Eudoxa medium a, d, G + Oliv light C
Eudoxa medium a, d + Oliv light G, C
Oliv light set
Oliv light d, G, C + Eudoxa heavy a
Bonus Tip: try out a number of different rosins to find out what works best with your various string combos. Especially important if you have a mix of plain and wound gut or a combo of different brands/makers.
EUDOXA VS OLIV
I find the Eudoxa tone to be sweet and delightful, like dessert. There is a joy and playfulness in my playing, especially when I’m using the a and d string.
Oliv has a hearty, deep, complex tone which feels more like the main course. My playing is more serious and mature, especially when playing on a full set of Oliv.
I can’t get away with playing on a full set of Eudoxa, (as nice as that would be) unless maybe with medium a, d, G + a heavy gauge C; *but I haven’t tried that yet*… In contrast, I am definitely satisfied when playing on a full set of Oliv. In the last article, I gave a few examples of Steven Isserlis playing on his Eudoxa set up with Oliv C. Here is a good example of the tone capabilities of an Oliv set from Gary Hoffman (with an Evah Pirazzi a-string, I believe). A Hoffman is a very different player than Isserlis. I think their personalities are well captured by the tonal differences of these string setups.
Now that I’ve had a bit of experience practicing and performing on both Eudoxa and Oliv strings, I may choose to string up my cello with different combos that suit the circumstance of a recording session or performance.
- playing with piano or contemporary ensembles: Oliv set
- playing with plucked strings (like Brothers Grimm): Eudoxa set
- solo, unaccompanied: (1) Eudoxa a, d, G + Oliv C (2) Oliv d, G, C + Aquila a (3) Oliv G, C + Toro or Aquila a, d
- Chamber music: (1) Eudoxa top a, d, G + Oliv bottom G, C (2) full Oliv set
For a long time, I used to use Jargar a, d and Larsen G, C (which you can hear on The Brothers Grimm 2012 album Redolent Spires: bandcamp / spotify). Often this set up was too powerful for violoncello + classical guitar. If the Brothers Grimm were going out on tour, I would most likely use a Eudoxa medium set (in this case the quieter C string would be an advantage!).
The warm blend on the Eudoxas with other bowed string instruments is insane, they are perfect for chamber music. If you need to blend inward, I’d go with Eudoxa. If you need to cut through or project outward I’d go with Oliv. For instance, during rehearsals with a pianist for a performance of Schumann’s Fantasiestücke, Op.73 using a Eudoxa set up: I simply could not sing out above the piano without pushing the strings harder than I wished to. For the performance later that week, I had switched to an Oliv set up and no longer had to fight to project. I was able to float on top of the piano sound with out over playing the strings.
My cello projects better with Oliv, than Eudoxa. If you really like the Eudoxa sound on your instrument, but know you need to more power… you may want to try a full set of heavy gauge strings. It will have more tension, bigger tone and might just do the trick. In general, don’t be afraid of the thicker gauges, just make sure that your instrument is set up to handle the width, and that the tension scheme makes sense from top to bottom (less of a problem with a set, more of a problem with mix and match).
Here is a great example of Oliv on C, G and Eudoxa a, with plain gut d from Lynn Harrell (with Orlando Cole). Go for the string sound, stick around for the extended lesson on bow technique!
WHAT’S IN A GAUGE?
Thinner string gauges are lower in tension, with a sweet, reedy tone. Thinner gauges have more treble tone and quicker bow response.
Thicker string gauges have more tension, with a raspy, husky, deep tone. Thicker gauges have more bass tone and slower bow response.
Less tension results in more flex in the string and a quicker bow response. But the more flexible the string is, the quicker it will bottom out when you push it with heavy dynamics. If you often need to play loudly for your style of music, try the heavier gauge string – it can take more bow pressure and give you a bigger sound. The caveat being that thicker gauges with more tension are slower to respond under the bow.
Set advantages – I really like how the full set feels in the left hand and under the bow. It’s very nice to have the consistency of bow response, tension, thickness gradient/feel, tone etc across the whole instrument from top to bottom. (~ with both the Eudoxa medium set and the Oliv light set)
The Eudoxa string response is quick and easy, I liked this for playing unaccompanied solos at events and concerts. When you mix and match, the response is a bit different for the bow from each brand of string, so you have to change your technique a bit from string to string. Olivs are stiffer under the bow than Eudoxa, but when using a full set Olivs, it feels very nice and consistent, I doesn’t really feel stiff anymore.
Here are some quick notes from each string gauge I’ve tried:
light – didn’t even feel like a gut string because it is so thin / easy to play all the way up the fingerboard / you may consider this as an option if the rest of your strings are steel / less of an aluminum sound than the medium and heavy gauge
med – of the three gauges, this is my favorite thickness on my concert cello / great tone / easy to play all the way up the fingerboard / sometimes is a little sluggish to respond compared to the rest of the set
heavy – what I use on my Sarangi-cello / noticeably more tension than the medium gauge, especially up in thumb positions / more power yet it still retains the sweet tone of Eudoxa / very smooth left hand feel
light – sweetest sounding, but didn’t pack enough punch for me
medium – really great d string, one of my favorites, very expressive / I love the mix of the aluminum and silver, and almost wish that’s what they did for the a-string too!
medium – at first I was worried it wouldn’t be bass heavy enough, or feel too small in the hand going from the thicker Oliv C the to thinner Eudoxa G, but it really wasn’t a problem at all, and I enjoyed playing on this string very much / sometimes the sound didn’t project forward enough for certain styles – but created a really interesting inward-depth, kind of hard to describe, but was a really unique way to draw the listener in when playing solo
heavy – held up really well with the Oliv C / big warm bass tone, rich sound / but I felt like the thicker gauge contributed to the tension imbalances on the bridge and caused issues for the surrounding strings with settling in to pitch / projected outward well
medium – tone sounded great, very easy response, but just didn’t cut it when it came to power / very big volume and energy drop when I’d go from the medium G to the medium C string
I love this set up, the first time I strang up with all Olivs, I thought, “ahhh finally, a full set I can use!” / they are very expressive strings, which bring out a completely new mature sound from my instrument / I almost feel like a Character-Actor when I am playing things like Beethoven or Schumann / very bright for the first week, but then it mellows out, in a very warm way
heavy – I am using the heavy gauge d string on my Sarangi-cello and I’ve noticed with both the thicker Oliv (especially the heavy) d strings start to bring out the wolf tone on my cello more. This is something to keep in mind when finding the right balance in gauge/tension for your instrument. It hasn’t been enough of an issue to require a wolf-tone eliminator however.
light – when paired with Eudoxa med set, this over comes the volume/energy imbalance of the Eudoxa C / but response and tone are quite different / can get nice and growly when you push it
I can settle the string up to pitch in two days. Meaning for the first two days, there is a lot of peg tuning consistently throughout the practice/restringing session. On the third day, when I take the cello out of the case, it’s usually pretty close to pitch and I just have to give it one little turn at the peg and re-tune a couple of times after it adjusts to the room. Most of these strings have fully settled into pitch after 1 week. I play every day, which I think helps to quicken the breaking in process (maybe I am wrong).
I perform 100+ shows/gigs per year, and often I found my self planning when to change a string by what type of performance was coming up the next week. In most cases, I changed the string(s) at least 1 week in advance of a concert. This was usually enough time to break in the string and not have any issues with stability during the show. There were a couple of times that I had to change the string 1-2 days before a performance…. This wasn’t ideal, but I was able to perform successfully in all of those cases. I carefully monitored if my pitch dropped, double checking my tuning quietly with a clip on tuner in between movements & pieces. A number of times I performed with the clip on tuner, just to be sure I could lock in my tuning on the new strings; no one complained.
It seems like the Oliv set is more pitch stable than the Eudoxa set. Maybe due to the higher tension or the winding? Or because I have more experience now? I am not sure.
Having the right gauges and tension scheme actually contributed more than I initially thought to stability. Having the bridge and nut properly widened is also important. You don’t want the winding to get caught on the bridge or the nut, especially with all of that peg tuning you’ll be doing. When I had the medium gauge Eudoxa a & d with the heavy gauge G and Oliv light C, I had a little trouble getting the low end to settle and stay in pitch. The tension across the bridge was not balanced. With complete set (medium Eudoxa set & light Oliv set) I felt the strings settle into pitch faster and hold their tuning better. I have experienced some intense pitch swings on the low strings due to weather extremes. In August, when it was very humid, I pulled my cello out of the case and my low C was down to AA! Sometimes I would put it away in the case, after having played in a’=440 and when I pulled it out of the case the next day, my cello would be perfectly in tune at a’=415! Another time, during rehearsal there was a very hot and humid thunderstorm happening but with the air conditioning on full blast and during the finale my C string surprised me by drifting up to C# (luckily the section was in Db MJ…). In my experience this year, if it is humid+hot the strings will drift flat, if it is dry+cold the strings will drift sharp. If it is humid+cold… things get really weird and floppy, good luck. On my cello the thicker lower strings are affected most by the humidity/temperature changes.
For as much as I love these strings and highly recommend them, I have had an unfortunate winding separation issue on both Eudoxa AND Oliv a-strings. This has been the most expensive and frustrating part of the learning process. I already voiced not being crazy about the aluminum edge to the sound of the a-string in Part 1. There is a crunchy squeak sound on the surface if you don’t hit it just right with your bow. I’ve had a rough go at it this past year with the a-string winding separating from the gut core. From the very first string I installed, this happened, in fact some of the issues I ran into with the a-string going false (see Part 1) was actually the result of the winding separating from the gut core.
If you install the string and and the winding separates or goes false, even after taking the precautions of widening and lubricating the grooves at the nut and bridge and lifting the string occasionally at the bridge to reset the winding: contact Pirastro directly about getting a replacement string. I have been in contact with Pirastro about this issue and sent them my faulty strings to be analyzed. I have received replacements for all damaged strings, but I’d rather not have to do the international shipping dance over and over again…
Tip 1: Make sure the groove at the nut has a wide enough channel so it doesn’t pinch the winding – especially at the center point of the nut, where the string is bending the most. You can take your instrument to a luthier with your set of strings to have this done.
For those who are DIY: I’ve been doing it carefully myself with 400 & 600 grit sand paper, strips of leather, blunt sewing needles, rasps, and graphite (maybe a luthier will comment suggesting otherwise – please do, we’ll all learn!).
Tip 2: Wrap the neck of the cello with a cushy cloth where the strap goes over the string (see pic below). I believe this strap-wear contributed to some of the separation around first position, which began the swift death of 3 of my a-strings.
Tip 3: Peg Dope – use a peg lubricant like Hill Peg Compound. Available at most string shops for $10, this really helped my friction peg tuning. The pegs no longer “stick and jump”: I am able to turn the peg slowly and smoothly in a controlled motion without excess force to achieve very small and accurate pitch changes, like when using a fine tuner. Using peg compound in combination with winding the string close to (but not touching) the peg box wall helps to prevent peg slips.
My current set up uses Oliv light gauge C, G, and d strings with an Aquila plain gut a-string (1.20mm), for a’=440Hz playing. I got to frustrated with the winding issues on the a-strings and needed a break from that. So I’m going with an open gut a for now and am very happy with the sound! The Aquila a-string is fantastic, shout out to Curtis from Aquila USA for helping me find a diameter that would match the tension of my Oliv set. …I haven’t given up on the Oliv a string just yet, I do plan on using a full Oliv set for future projects, but I’d like to have a luthier look the nut before I install a new one.
I switched back temporarily to the Oliv a, after the Aquila and Toro a-strings it sounded very smooth and creamy to me. Shifting is obviously much easier on a wound string and I couldn’t help gliding pitches for expression. In the future, when doing a concert of Chinese or Indian music, I’ll make sure to pop on an Oliv or Eudoxa a. The Oliv a really sings in a powerful way, but one of the downfalls coming back to it after the plain gut was that I couldn’t help but play loud, loUD, LOUD! I found myself unknowingly belting out, like an opera singer. It’s good to know what these strings bring out in your playing, so you can use it to the greatest advantage. I have switched back to a plain gut top string for my upcoming performances (a thicker string for scordatura tuning). I found that I lost some subtly in my playing with the wound a, being that it was so fun to play loud. For unaccompanied solo playing, the flexibility of the plain gut and Eudoxas is an advantage to me. But! I love the uniform color, tone, and response on my instrument with the full set of Olivs.
Which string combos have worked well for you with Eudoxa &/or Oliv? Are there other brands that you find pair well with these strings? Wound gut, plain gut, synthetic, steel core? Best rosin pairings? Please share your experiences, I’d love to hear about it! Also comment below if you have string care suggestions or helpful installation techniques.