If you are reading this post, it’s most likely that you are a steel string player who’s looking for more information on the differences between gut and steel strings. So, before you take the leap of switching set ups, I’m going to do my best to break down the main differences topic by topic. All of what I am about to say comes directly from my personal experience with steel, open gut, and wound gut string setups over the past 4 years. Please add your experiences in the comments below, it really helps to round out the discussion and I like learning from all of you too! Also, let me know if you have any questions about subjects I may have overlooked. This entire conversation will be in the context of tuning A to 440 Hz and all tensions listed are in kg tension at A=440. OK! Here we go….
Temperature/Humidity Changes & Pitch Stability
This is always the “elephant in the room”, so let’s get it out of the way early…
Gut is very subject to temperature and humidity changes. This will affect the pitch stability, both in the instrument holding its tuning during a session and with the center-of-pitch under the bow & left hand fingers. Extreme humidity or dryness can kill your strings, even if brand new.
Steel is virtually unaffected by temperature and humidity changes. It’ll hold pitch from session to session with minimal tuning, and generally doesn’t need to be retuned during a session (unless you’ve been playing a lot of forceful FFF passages with your bow).
There are 3 main things that can cause instability of pitch with Gut strings: (1) temperature and humidity changes (2) the low tension of the strings (3) too much pressure from the bow.
Gut is hygroscopic. It will soak up humidity from the air or lose it if it is too dry in the room. When it’s humid and warm, the strings will go flat. If it’s dry and cold, the strings will drift sharp. One thing that makes a huge difference is having a proper hard case with very good insulation protection. You’ll want a case that keeps temperature and humidity changes Out, and holds in the humidification that you control inside the case In. Dampits will help, but a case humidifier system is the best option (I use Stretto). Dampits alone won’t create enough humidity in your case to keep the gut strings conditioned during the Winter (at least where I live in Wisconsin…). I think if you are using steel strings, dampits alone are enough to keep the instrument hydrated.
I recently upgraded to a Gewa Air case (I love it!!), which has an incredible insulation rating. This has made a world of difference for the performance of my gut strings. The strings and instrument have been sitting in the case soaking up all of that humidity from the case humidifier (I keep the case closed at all times, to create an controlled internal climate). Then when I bring the instrument out into the room, the strings feel plump, juicy, and full of life They are louder, more resonant, and much more pitch stable. The strings will last for hours while I teach, practice, or record without drying out or going too out of tune. Currently it’s winter time in Wisconsin and the humidity in my studio is averaging 30%, normally with the wound gut strings they start buzzing and dying on me once the humidity drops below 40%. With the new case and the humidifiers, I was still able to play my gut strings even below 30% humidity. If I noticed the strings drying out too much, I’d pop the instrument back in the case for a while to ‘juice up’ so they didn’t go past the point of no return. Don’t just leave your instrument sitting out in the dry air though! If you are not playing it, put it back in the case.
This new hard case has really been the biggest game changer for me and I think my gut strings will have a longer life span and be able to hold their pitch throughout (future) performances better. If there is a big swing in temp/humidity on stage, for example hot lights, audience bodies, ferocious playing, sweaty hands, then your gut strings may start to drift out of tune (most likely flat). You will have to tune up between movements or pieces. And when you listen to some old live recordings of symphonies and concertos from the early 20th century, when orchestras were still using gut… they did just that! They tuned in-between movements and people coughed and grumbled and harrumphed and stuff. I think the only time that this became an issue, is when I was the only one in the group using gut… I’ll tell ya, it’s a little more awkward for just one person to be tuning in-between movements… That being said, in normal, non-global-pandemic times, I perform about 100+ gigs a year and have been the only one playing on gut at most of those performances. It was only an issue at maybe 3 shows in the last few years, that I can remember. It mostly happens during seasonal transitions or outdoor performance situations.
If your plain gut A and D strings are getting too dry, you’ll need to oil them. You can use olive oil, grapeseed oil, almond oil, or a special compound like Upton Bass’s gut oil 44 (which I use). The oil will soak into the gut and fill up any of the gaps between the fibers, and this will prevent water molecules from getting into those gaps in the string, and effecting it’s elasticity or hygroscopic intake. It will also give a bit of a finish or varnish to the string. The string will become very lively, softer sounding in tone, and rich again with overtones. The one area in tone which I like less after oiling is how your string sounds while shifting or gliding after oiling. But the payoff of protection and longevity for your string outweighs this one negative.
If you are getting lots of squeaks and whistles from your plain gut string, if the tone starts to sound too brittle and harsh, or it stops responding correctly under your bow – the string is probably dried out and just needs a light oiling. That’s where Upton’s gut oil 44 can really come in handy, because it dries very quickly (within minutes) and it doesn’t leave a sticky residue after the string is wiped down!
[* After a few years of trying it different ways, I generally oil everywhere except where I bow – but maybe it doesn’t actually affect the bow hairs… someone add their 2 cents in the comments. Apart from not wanting my bow hairs to soak up any oils, I also found that avoiding oiling where I bow helped to retain more of the original sound of the string. After you oil, the tone of the string will change, there is no way around that Sometimes having an oil coating where your bow made the string too bright/harsh and changed the overall tone in a negative way. This is just my experience and personal preference, I’d love to hear what others have to say about this. In the old days, I hear that luthiers and players would just store all of their spare strings in a bag/sack of olive oil. I tried olive oil, but couldn’t stand the smell of my strings or how they felt afterwards…]
I have successfully oiled wound gut G and C strings which have no silk wrap between the gut core and the winding. I’ve saved a few strings this way &/or re-invigorated them when re-installing the string after it’s been sitting on the shelf for a a few months or even years. However, I don’t recommend oiling a string which has a silk wrap between the gut core and the winding (like Pirastro’s wound gut strings). It may save the string from a buzzy death, but it will sound like a dull, dead string afterwards and never truly come back to life in tone or response. It should only be done if you have no other options left (ie no other back up strings to use for your performance, rehearsal, recording, whatever).
Pro Tip: I try to always have a spare broken in string that will work for my setup. If you already have figured out which string set and gauge works for you. I’d break in a set, and play them in for maybe 2 weeks and then store them safely as your back up set. This way you’ve already stretched out the gut and trained it up to pitch. If you snap a string or a string dries out and dies, you at least have an already broken in replacement string of the same set ready to go. If you try to put on a fresh gut string before a performance, it will be un playable. The string will keep stretching and detuning, it really takes about 2 sessions at least to break in a gut string. Some times it takes a week to settle it up to pitch. So, even if I try a gauge or brand of string, and know immediately that it’s not the sound or response I want – I’ll still break it in completely and then keep it as a spare just in case! Plus you never know when you might be playing a piece which would benefit from that string’s qualities, then at least you have it in your quiver!
Pro Tip: I am keeping my spare gut strings inside my humidity controlled case, to keep them from dying (in the meantime, while I am not using them). That way if I choose to swap them in on a moments notice, they are already hydrated and ready to go!
[** I’ve actually just switched over to housing my spare gut strings in a plastic bin and put some case humidifiers in there to give the strings some humidity while they sit on the shelf.]
If you are in a very stable, controlled environment, you won’t have to tune your gut strings that much. For instance, my room has been consistently between 30-35% humidity for the last few months, and once my gut strings are broken in after a few sessions, they pretty much stay settled to pitch. I was able to pull my instrument out of it’s case and play – my strings would mostly hold their pitch from the last session. Because of Quarantine, I haven’t been taking my cello anywhere, so the gut strings have been very dialed in and pitch stable. But I know from experience, that if I took my cello to a more humid environment (for rehearsal, recording, performance, etc) – the strings would need some time to adjust and I’d have to tune a number of times until the strings settled in. Because of this, I try to get to my performances even earlier when playing on gut, just to give the set up time to acclimatize. Under normal circumstances, you’ll do a lot more tuning and settling into the space with gut.
Pro Tip: If there is a big difference between the temp/humidity on stage vs backstage – do your final tuning on stage, and when you go backstage don’t re-tune! Gut has a “environment pitch memory” and I found that the strings will detune back stage in the new humidity environment. But when walk on stage to perform, they’ll snap back in tune again once they are in that humidity environment that you originally tuned up in. It’s pretty cool!
Steel, there is not much to say here, you barely have to tune these things once they settle in… that’s the beauty of it, you sit down and go! You get to spend more time playing and less time tuning and adjusting your setup. Steel super pitch stable, so you don’t have to worry about it (unless a peg slips). I think it’s a big part of the reason that people switched over in the middle of the 20th century, because it certainly wasn’t for steel’s tone or expression…
This is one topic where steel wins big over gut. It can make or break your decision to string up gut or not. That’s why I wanted to address it first.
String & Instrument Care
On a gut setup, you’ll have to spend a lot more time on maintenance and upkeep with your strings and bridge. You have to care for your instrument more, it’s almost a more “personal” interaction. With steel, you can kind of “set it and forget it”, clean off the rosin and just keep an eye on things. But with gut, you are constantly adjusting the strings, bridge & pegs, requiring more time to make conditions right for your set up. It’s a lot more fussy. If something feels off, sound post, bridge, nut, pegs, whatever – just do yourself a favor and take it in to your local cello doctor.
“The trials of gut…” I said on stage once during a soundcheck, shaking my head while tuning a finicky, detuning string, “No, the Joys of gut!” replied my violinist bandmate. I laughed and kept that one in my back pocket – ever since then that’s how I’ve referred to it.
Due to the lower tension and elasticity of gut strings, it is much much, much easier to peg tune then. I actually find it enjoyable to peg tune gut strings, it doesn’t require as much force or effort to turn the peg. If’n your pegs are in order and well fit, you can fine tune just as easily as with a fine tuner. Steel strings however can be down right scary to peg tune, especially a steel A string! Show of hands (comment below), who else has been whipped in the face by snapping a fresh steel A string?….not so fun. Tuning steel strings with the peg is like a right of passage for young cellists, and it is incredibly challenging because you need so much strength and control to do it. Gut strings a way easier to handle – I also think it’s easier to tune open 5th double stops with gut.
Pro Tip: Make sure to use peg dope if your pegs are sticking and or slipping. When peg tuning, it should be a smooth turn – not a click or a jump.
Pro Tip: Be sure to loosen the string and re-apply graphite to the grooves at the bridge and the nut on a regular basis when using gut. Because you do so much more peg tuning, you’ll want to re-lubricate those surfaces so that the strings aren’t catching, bunching or dragging and getting damaged or pulling your bridge toward the fingerboard.
Flexibility, Scordatura, “Swapability”
One of my favorite things about Gut strings, is they are way easier to mix and match with! You can customize your set up and get really specific about your gauge and tension. I could have a gut setup where each string is made by a different string maker and still have it sound & feel good! I think it’d be much harder to achieve this with steel. If you know you like a 1.18mm A string instead of a 1.16mm, you can order it! Not only is it very customizable, but gut strings sound infinitely better for Scordatura and alternate tunings! So if you are into fiddle styles where you cross tune a lot, or if you like to play in older scordatura and Italian tunings such as CGdg, or you are interested in alternate tunings – gut strings will handle it way better. You can also more easily dial in your gauges to suit your alternate tuning. I’ll talk about this more below, but as an example – I have some plain gut A strings between 1.18-1.22mm for A=440 standard tuning, and then I have some heavier gauges between 1.32-1.38mm for drop G tuning. This way the top string keeps the same tension and the instrument doesn’t loose any volume or sustain. But even just dropping your regular wound gut or plain gut A string down to G sounds incredible!! You’ll love it! It’s really easy to drop the peg and then pull it back up. So, it makes a lot more sense to me that players in the past who were playing on gut strings would have been more comfortable with alternate tunings. Steel strings are so dialed in for that one specific pitch/tension and with their thin diameter, they just don’t hold up at lower or alternate tunings. It’s not the same.
Thickness / Gauge
Steel gauges are very thin in comparison to Gut strings. An open gut A string can be as thick as a medium gauge steel C string! So if you are transitioning from Steel to Gut, decide on you string gauges/tension, order your set of strings, and once they arrive bring your instrument and the new strings to your trusted luthier. Have them fit your nut and bridge to the new string set up or cut a new bridge specifically for the gut strings. They may have to adjust or your tailpiece and soundpost too.
After 2 years of a lot of DIY adjustments to my nut, bridge & tailpiece – and trying out gauge after gauge of gut strings… I did just what I suggested above. I ordered a fresh set of my optimal gauge traditional gut strings (at the time in 2019 this was: Aquila whole unsplit lamb A 1.20mm and D 1.60mm, with Damian Dlugolecki NiAg G 28PM and C 38PM) and had my luthier Nat Taft (Taft Violins, Madison, WI) cut me a new bridge specifically for those strings. I had him make a few adjustments and corrections at the nut too, to make sure it was smooth enough and wide enough to handle the thickness of the gut strings.
Now, I say all of this in the context of switching back and forth between gut and steel. I have currently switched back to steel strings for a few projects that I am working on in 2021. However, I am still playing on the same instrument with extra wide grooves at the nut and the bridge (as it was set up for both wound and traditional gut set ups). I picked out some lower tension steel strings to match the tension of the gut strings that I was using, which it should be noted were fairly thick and high tension gut strings, overall. But a lower tension string, regardless of the material is generally more narrow. This created an issue with my setup at the nut and bridge. But I learned something very important in this process, which is how much the tension of the string will change when stringing it either in the tailpiece or the fine tuner (more on that next)… So even though my steel D strings (mediums of Jargar, Kaplan, Pirastro Perpetual Soloist) all have the same tension as the Pirastro Oliv light D string that I had on (14kg tension), by stringing them in the fine tuner, they actually had less tension than the Oliv D strung in the tailpiece. So, some of the steel strings (especially A & D) were sitting too low in the bridge groove and the nut, plus they were a little too slack when in the fine tuners. One solution was to use thin leather washers on the bridge, smooth side under the string. I normally use these leather washers as a padding/guard between the knot/ball end of the string and the underside of the tailpiece. I regularly use these leather washers as a ‘riser pad’ to add tension to my gut C strings, if I need it. But I found that the tone and tension of my D strings and A strings (Perpetual Soloist light A ~16.8kg or medium-light ~17.6kg gauges though!) improved once I put this leather washer between the string and the bridge (in the groove). It helped get the string out of the bridge groove and brought the tension up to where it should be…
[***Note, this was only a temporary fix and it helped me figure out what changes needed to be made to my setup to maximize the response of the strings. It also helped me determine which gauges would work best for the sound I was after. In the end, I took my cello to the luthier to have it adjusted and fine tuned for that new steel set up. You should do this too, but I just wanted to lay out the process I went through with some of the work arounds or quick fixes that helped me to understand the main principles at play.]
… Keep in mind, using a leather riser pad as a parchment does change the height of the string, but in cases where I had a wound gut A string mixed with a steel D string, or a Steel A string mixed with a wound gut D string, it helped to bring the top of the steel string up to the same height as the top of the gut string. This became very important for Bowing. I had difficulties bowing when the steel string was really low and then the gut string next to it was really high… it just throws off all of your muscle memory, etc. So, this was a way to even out the top of the strings so that bowing a hybrid set up actually made sense. Another benefit is that the steel string will bounce back up to that string height when released, so it makes things like thumb position more natural, because the string will come up to meet your thumb when releasing finger pressure out of the fingerboard. So far, if I want to use the leather riser pad to (1) bring the string height up to match the higher/thicker gut strings, &/or (2) to add more tension to a lower tension steel or gut string, &/or (3) to get a thinner steel string out of the deeper groove in the bridge (or the nut for that matter), &/or (4) to protect the bridge from a higher tension steel string (like a heavy gauge A string)… then I will lace the steel string in the fine tuners. It just helps give you a little more slack so you don’t kill your bridge, table or string when adding the extra height and tension. If you lace in the tailpiece, there will be too much pressure (*unless it’s a really floppy gut G/C string).
However, if I like the string height of the steel string directly in the bridge/nut in respect to its relationship with the surrounding strings and I still need a little more tension from it, I will lace it directly in the tailpiece with no fine tuner. (more on that next)
Gut lower tension
Steel higher tension
Broadly speaking, Gut strings have low tension & Steel strings have high tension. But this can be misleading and there are a number of misconceptions about what it entails. Even though gut strings are lower in tension, they are much thicker and textured. Gut has a lot more tone and complex harmonic content than steel strings. If you have a medium to heavy gauge traditional gut string set up (A = 1.20mm or higher) or for instance Oliv or Passione wound gut strings on your instrument, you can make a lot of noise! Especially if you get your instrument set up right by the luthier for a louder sound. With a set up like this: Passione heavy G & C (both 12.8 kg) + Oliv light D (14 kg) + Eudoxa heavy A (13.6 kg) or Oliv A (light 14.2 kg, med 15 kg), my cello was definitely louder and richer than when I switched to both medium then heavy Larsen Originals, Jargar, or the Pirastro Perpetual Soloist strings I’m trying right now.
If you want this loud sound using gut, you’ll need to play on the heavier gauge strings and lace them in the tailpiece. It’s all about tension. On my cello, sets using an A sting equivalent to 1.20mm was the threshold for being able to play with decent volume. Once you use medium-light plain gut A strings with gauges at/or below 1.18mm, you’ll start to notice a bigger drop off in volume. Also, if you are using the medium gauge Eudoxa set, it will definitely be quieter than a steel setup! If you want a bigger sound, but still use gut strings go with Oliv, or Passione or a heavy gauge traditional gut string set.
[****On volume: I was trying these steel string set ups on my instrument, which had been set up for gut strings. I have since taken my cello back to the luthier to have it tweaked to maximize my setup for the Pirastro Perpetual Soloist strings, and the cello is much louder now, with an even more immediate response. But I feel like it would still be as loud (or louder) if I were to put on the wound gut setup I was using previously… I’d only know that for sure if I switch back to that set up, which I don’t intend to do for a while. I think the main thing making it louder is that we increased the height of the grooves at the nut and put parchments on the bridge for the A & D strings so they don’t sink into the grooves of the bridge. If I switch back to gut strings on tweaked set up, I’ll be sure to come back and update this section to reflect my findings.]
One bonus about regular low tension gut strings, is that it is WAY easier to play in thumb position and to press down to the fingerboard in the highest positions!
Sustain vs Blend
Both with the material and lower tension of Gut, you achieve a more harmonious, deeper Blend between the strings. The voice of the strings become one, especially with double stops – the tones just melt into one another! And of course, the blend with other string instruments is magical. I know that players in the pre-WWII orchestras and chamber music groups must’ve really been enjoying that blend! I think the members of Early Music and Historical Performance Ensembles of today can attest to this. Think of all of those old composers you love who were hearing their music performed on gut – that’s the sound they envisioned when composing their masterpieces. It’s a way to get closer to what the composer had in mind, and the strings will show you a different way to speak your music – invaluable insights even if you switch back to steel!
With higher tension Steel strings, you get more individual string clarity and Sustain. This is one of the misconceptions for sure! People often hear all of that sustain and think that the cello is louder because of the Steel, however this has largely to do with the Tension, especially the tension of the A string. On this matter, I have a very interesting experiment that has been separately confirmed by another Madisonian cellist, Jake Muratore.
In the Fall of 2020, we both had been using wound gut set ups, Jake had on the Oliv light gauge set and I had on the Oliv light D, with Passione heavy G & C strings. During the same 2 or 3 week period, we both independently happened to try steel A strings with our set ups and discovered all of this sustain ringing out suddenly from our instruments. Jake tried the Passione A medium 18 kg and I tried the Perpetual Soloist heavy A 18.5 kg. In contrast, the highest tension for Pirastro’s wound gut A strings are 13.6 kg for the Eudoxa heavy A & 15.6 kg for the Oliv heavy A. So the steel A strings have considerably more tension than even the heavy gauges of wound gut or a normal plain gut A (between 11.8 kg kg to 14.5 kg).
Now, I wanted to confirm whether or not this had to do with the material or the tension or both? So I set out to do a controlled test of various tensioned A strings on the same cello, on the same day, with the same bow tension, keeping the same D, G & C strings for the whole session: I had an assortment of plain gut A strings ranging from medium gauges like 1.18 mm which is 13.2 kg, the same as Eudoxa medium gauge and 1.20 mm which is 13.6 kg, the same as the Eudoxa heavy gauge (for those who are interested to know, a 1.22 mm gut string would be 14.2 kg, the same as an Oliv light). I also had some extra-heavy gauges like 1.32 mm and 1.36 mm gut strings, which have basically the same tension as a light gauge steel string. The 1.32 mm gut A has a tension of 16.4 kg @ A=440 and 13.0 kg when tuned down to G or scordatura or old Italian violone CGdg tuning. The 1.36 mm gut string has a tension of 17.4 kg when tuned to A, which has more tension than the Perpetual Edition A 17.3 kg and nearly the same tension as the Perpetual original A 17.5 kg, the medium gauge Perpetual Soloist A 17.6 kg or Kaplan medium A 17.6 kg or the Passione light A string, Larsen Original soft A, and Versum original A – all which have a 17.6 kg tension. This is clearly a popular range of tension for a light to medium gauge steel A. The 1.36mm gut string has a tension of 14.08 kg when tuned down to G. What I discovered with these extra thick gut A strings (that I really bought for scordatura playing) was that when I tuned them up to A (very carefully!) where they have the same tension as a light or medium gauge steel string, the exact same Sustain effect happened across the instrument!
(see my set up note about this in the Tailpiece / Fine-tuner section below).
The good news about this result is that you can dramatically change the characteristic of your instrument by switching the tension of your A string alone, whether you are using gut or steel! Let’s say you really like how your D, G & C strings feel and play together, but you want want a Darker, more Blended sound from your instrument, use a light gauge A string.
The same goes for if you really like your D, G & C set up but want Louder, more Sustained after ring sound in the body of your instrument, use a heavy gauge A string. For a sustained sound, it seems like the string needs to be at least a 17.6 kg tension to achieve the effect. But strings in the 18.0 or 18.5+kg tensions are guaranteed to give you the extra ring, and more power of course.
Here’s a real example with all wound gut strings where I experienced the difference of changing the A string tension on the whole instrument, re: Sustain vs Blend. I had Passione heavy G & C (both 12.8 kg) with Oliv light D (14 kg) in the fine tuners. With the Eudoxa medium gauge A string (13.2 kg) on top. Even though the lower strings were powerful, heavy gauges and the D string quite thick (Oliv’s are much thicker than Eudoxa), the medium Eudoxa A made everything blend really nice and the whole set up kind of relaxed. It was immediately darker in tone and it helped the whole set up feel supple. When I changed to the heavy Eudoxa A (13.6 kg), and then the light Oliv A (14.2 kg) and medium Oliv A (15.0 kg) strings (successively by order of tension low to high), I noticed the Sustain and power came back to the setup. It also brightened everything up a bit. I noticed that even just going from the medium to the heavy gauge Eudoxa A was enough to get some sustained ‘reflections’ and overtones ringing out in the body of the cello.
So, if you really like the rest of your set up, but want to play around with just swapping in between a lighter or heavier gauge A string of the same brand/style, you can experience a character change in your instrument’s behavior to suit the style of music you are currently preparing. For example, I would go with the medium A string for solo and chamber music, but then put on the heavy gauge A for soloist styles and situations like playing with a loud piano, in front of a orchestra for concertos, when you to pop out in front of a band/ensemble, or for outdoor playing, etc. But I would go with a light A string when paired with a quiet instrument like a plucked lute or classical guitar, for intimate solo sessions and environments where volume is not an issue, or where you will be “close mic’d” or have a clip-on mic – say for a Dance or Theatre performance.
Steel Cold, Smooth, Dark, Outward Projecting, Thin, Separation/Clarity of tone between strings
Gut Warm, Rough, Bright, Wide, Intimate Blending of tone between strings (one sound)
Gut strings have a rougher, warmer, deeper, richer tone. However, the A and D strings can be more harsh or bright than you expect. Sometimes they are buzzing or raspy and other times rustic, throaty, and earthy. It’s a super complex sound, and it can be a little overwhelming to have all of that high frequency content shooting straight into your left ear!
Kindly note that the winding material and style makes an enormous difference for the wound gut G and C strings. The Tone of the low strings will vary wildly from maker to maker. Aquila’s silver wound G and C strings (TOP in Pic) for instance are round-wound in the traditional way, like a bass guitar string, not polished smooth. These were the brightest C and G strings I have ever tired. They are also incredibly thick. I couldn’t quite get the C string to work for my cello, but I LOVED the G string. So Good. Take into consideration that because these strings are round wound, they have “string talk”. A sort of “wwrrrkk/ rrukkkk\” sound as your finger glides over the winding. Also! Your bow hairs get locked in to the C string winding, because it is so huge. You can’t travel the bow down the string, you just sort of get forced into a lane and stay there. Damian Dlugolecki offers the option of a round-wound string or polished smooth, his NiAg gut nickel/silver wound G and C (MIDDLE in Pic) have my favorite tone of all the low strings. Incredible mixture of deep dark colors with a special kind of nickel sparkle that helps the low notes jump out of the instrument and excite the upper harmonics. The polished version of these strings is what I would describe as semi-smooth. There is still some texture there when you rub your finger up and down the string, but it is much smoother than the round wound strings from Aquilla. The winding is pretty similar to the Passione C and G from Pirastro (G Chromesteel, C Tungsten) – both have a little texture to the bands and a really great mix of modern low-end brightness with rich, warm bass depth. The silver wound G and C strings from Gamut are polished smooth and said to be very bright and rich in overtones. I really want to try these strings, I just haven’t had the chance to do so yet. So the round-wound and semi-polished styles of traditional wound gut strings are very bright on bottom and can compete with the modern sounds of steel (in my opinion). But the smoother the polish or plating on the low strings, the more mellow they seem to become. Take Pirastro’s Oliv and Eudoxa G and C strings for instance. The Eudoxa G & C have a more traditional style winding that is mostly polished smooth, so it still has some of that sparkle (like Damian’s NiAg gut), but the low tension results in an extremely mellow, fuzzy sound (especially for the C string). The Oliv strings have the smoothest polish between Pirastro’s Passione, Eudoxa and Oliv string lines. As a result, they have the most mellow, dark tone to me (once they are broken in). I have found the Oliv low strings to have a wider range of tones than Eudoxa or Passione, especially when you start pushing towards the bridge. With the smooth polish on the Oliv, it’s the easiest of the gut strings to travel your bow from the fingerboard to the bridge and it has the best shifting feel. I would say that both the Eudoxa and the Oliv G and C have a darker sound than your typical steel string, but all of the traditional G and C strings (round-wound, no silk wrap) have a much brighter sound than steel. So, the bass strings can be a little tricky to get right for your setup. Just changing the C or G alone, can alter how the rest of the setup behaves and sounds (for instance the Isserlis Setup, pairing an Oliv C with a Eudoxa set).
Steel strings on the other hand have a simpler, smoother, darker tone compared to gut. In fact they really can’t compare to gut in the tone department. Not even close. Steel strings are not actually brighter than Gut – it’s the other way around! Steel strings are thinner and in general more dull and lacking in tone. This is why we need to make much more active use of our vibrato on a steel string, because in general a pure, straight drawn pitch on a steel string is not very exciting or pleasing to the ear, unless expertly bowed… and even then it leaves one wanting more. With gut, there is so much texture to the sound that even an open A string sounds quite enjoyable, so you can do more open or first position playing with resonant pleasing results. Whereas think about how often we shift up on the D string to avoid the sound of the open A string or even a B natural on A on steel strings… With gut you get to relish the open strings and first position.
[*****The exception to this is with the heavy gauge Eudoxa A string or the Oliv A strings, especially when laced directly in the tailpiece. To avoid the Harsh/Crunchy Aluminum sound, try lacing it in the fine tuner instead! (without the cushy felt washer in the way). This will lower the tension just enough to chill out the harsh and crunch of that aluminum A. It worked for me and I hope it works for you! I also found that my Eudoxa and Oliv A strings last longer this way – less peg tuning and less strain on the winding. Let me know if you try this out in the comments below!!]
Concerning depth of tone, it has a lot to do with gauge, regardless of material. If you have a thicker string, you’ll get a deeper, darker, more bass heavy tone (but a slower response). If you have a thinner string, you’ll get a more brittle, harsh, bright or raspy sound (but a quicker response!).
String Talk and Portamento
A follow up note about the winding styles of Gut and the rough texture of plain gut is that there is a lot of string-talk. Portamentos, glissandi, glides and slides do not sound good on gut. Those techniques sound wonderful on Steel and are a integral part of pitch expression for a steel player! However, if you glide on a plain gut A or D string, it can create a nauseating sound. It immediately became apparent why in the old treatises they describe not shifting on the same finger during a passage, but to use a replacement or shift instead. It’s something that makes a lot more sense after you experience it. Doing replacements, diatonic fingerings, or careful shifting on gut gives you a cleaner sound and less string talk. This is such a different approach than how we’ve developed expression and phrasing on steel (*though by the end of the 19th cent., wide use of portamento was popular on gut strings). So when I am on a steel setup, I instantly enjoy implementing same finger shifts and glides. It certainly affects one’s phrasing and fingering choices!
Tailpiece / Fine Tuners / After-length Tension
I have a ‘hybrid’ tailpiece which I can transform by easily taking off the fine tuners to facilitate switching back and forth between steel and gut or hybrid/combo set ups. This may be the way to go for you as well, because it also allows you more flexibility when it comes to after-length tension…
My fine tuners sit above the tailpiece and when the string is saddled in the fine tuner, it has a mellow angle, less pressure on the bridge, and a longer after-length (length of the string between the bridge and the tailpiece). This in turn gives the afterlength a lower pitch (after-length rings sympathetically too). For me it meant a little less tension along the playing length of the string; with a brighter tone, a quicker response, and a more “reflective sound”. With that little bit of slack, you can flex the string with the bow a little easier too (for expression).
If you lace your string’s knot or ball end into the tailpiece itself, you’ll create a steeper angle downwards behind the bridge, with more pressure on the bridge, and a shorter after length (with a higher pitch, on my tailpiece at least). For instance, in the fine tuner, my C string after-length sounded as a F natural 3 octaves + a 4th higher (top line of treble staff). When laced in the tailpiece directly, my after-length tuned to a F# a 1/2 step higher. The string will feel stiffer along the playing length of the string, and have a more rigid response under the bow (unless of course you are playing on medium-light to light tension gut strings). You will notice an increase in bass response, and a thicker tone when the string is in the tailpiece, but it will be a little slower to respond and harder to control due to the higher tension on the bridge and overall increase in string tension. This is of course effected by how long or short your tailpiece’s tail-gut length is.
So I was able to adjust the tension, tone, and response of the strings by choosing to lace them either in the fine-tuners or in the tailpiece directly (in combination with a leather riser-pad between the bridge and string, only when needed).
Here’s an example. My Oliv D was feeling a little to rigid compared to some of the other strings I had on surrounding it, so I laced it in the fine tuner (instead of in the tailpiece), and it really opened up. It instantly became more free, subtle, expressive. Easier to press down to the fingerboard, more reactive to the bow changes, and a little brighter. It made it much easier for me to pair the Oliv light D with both the medium and heavy gauge Eudoxa A strings this way!
Funnily enough, for one recent setup, I had the gut Eudoxa A & Oliv D strings in the fine tuners and the rope core steel Perpetual Cadenza G & C strings in the tailpiece directly! This is because I felt like I needed a little more tension and thickness/darkness of tone from the light gauge Cadenza steel strings, and I needed the gut strings on top to free up in their response with a little bit less tension, to meet the quick response of the steel string half way.
[******Sometimes the only way to know is to try. It can be a fussy process, but after trying so many setups over the last few years (and especially in the last 4 months) I have a pretty educated guess on what I have to do for each set up to maximize it’s output for my desired response. And if it isn’t getting me the sound/feel that I want, then I take it into the luthier for further fine tuning.]
Here’s another example, with the super thick 1.32mm+ plain gut A strings laced in the tailpiece (like normal for gut), the string doesn’t respond fast enough to the bow at such a high tension or in the way you’d want for a gut string to play. They are too rigid and you lose the expressiveness you get from a lower tension gut string and it’s tone gets too brittle. My solution to this was to string up my extra-heavy gauges (for other strings too) in the fine tuners, to relax the tension just a little bit and get some of the flexibility and springiness back (I used 2 – 3 leather washers between the knot and the fine tuner prong).
Gut strings are beautiful, here are some pictures of new strings, so you can see what I mean!
Steel thinner string + more tension = quicker response
Gut thicker string + less tension = slower response
Steel harder, more bulbous callus
Gut broader, more leathery callus
Forming a callus for steel strings is much more painful than for gut. I just switched back to a steel strings and I have had to rebuild all of my calluses. The thinner, rigid, higher tension steel strings will give you a bulbous hard callus, formed in a very specific spot where you need it most.
I have to be extra careful to take care of my calluses when I play on steel strings, so that it is not painful to play the instrument. People make fun of me for this… the way I choose to use/not use particular types or brands of soaps, being careful about cooking oils, not using hand lotion, wearing dishwashing gloves, waiting for my hands to dry out after a shower before I can play… but I don’t care, because in the end, it is I who experiences the pain of a steel string ripping up soft finger pads… not them!
Gut strings are bigger and have lower tension, so you will get a broader, leathery callus. Your finger tip wraps over the string more, so it is less painful to play (the force is spread out over a wider surface area). Even with relatively soft fingers (say after a shower) I can still sit down and play gut strings. If I tried to do that on steel, I would rip up my calluses! Maybe I just have softer hands in general, but again, simply speaking from experience.
Nail Length (short and smooth)
Concerning your left hand fingers: generally it’s best to keep your nails very short and buffed smooth, no matter what material you play on. With Steel strings, you have to keep them short and tend to trimming the nail on a regular basis. The strings are so narrow in diameter that if your nails are even medium long, you can’t properly press the string down to the fingerboard with the tip of your finger. It forces you to change to an unhealthy flat finger, “pad technique”. With Gut strings however, the diameter of the strings is so thick that, if you are lazy about it or not keeping track, you can let your fingernails grow a little bit longer and still play on the string just fine. This is because you are making contact mostly with the string, and not the fingerboard. However!! If you are using plain gut strings, you need to be really careful about your nails, because if they are too long or too rough, you can shred the fibers of the strings and that can mean “the beginning of the end…” If your plain gut strings start getting fibrous “hairs” sticking out, you’ll need to clip them with a nail trimmer (handy for both your nails and the string!) and lightly sand it smooth with some 600 grit sandpaper (maybe even finer, depending on the string – let me know in the comments what you like to use!), and then oil the string to re-varnish it a little bit. So for both styles of string, it’s actually best practice to keep your left hand nails short as possible, and buffed smooth. With steel strings, this allows you to touch down to the fingerboard on the fingertips with healthy curved fingers and bent joints. For gut strings, this ensures that you don’t start shredding your string, and potentially kill it prematurely. This will save you money and frustration, trust me!
on the String or on the Fingerboard?
Steel you really play the string down to the fingerboard, the strings are so thin that your finger makes a lot of contact around the string on the fingerboard.
Gut gut strings are so thick & the top of the string is so far from the fingerboard that you are really pressing on the string itself, and the string then makes contact with the fingerboard.
It’s a very different experience playing on gut versus steel in this regard and it’s taking me some time to get used to how to play on the thin steel A & D strings again. You end up straightening the joint (nearest your fingertip) on your first and sometimes second finger & flattening your 3rd finger to use the pad a lot more in the shoulder and thumb positions on steel (depending on endpin length). Whereas on Gut strings, you can really stay curved at your joints in a healthy way at all times, because you don’t have to press down as far. You can curl first finger to the inside of the string on gut in thumb position, something you really can’t do on a thin steel string. So I feel like my finger technique is really solid on gut, and I have to make some uncomfortable adjustments in the higher registers of the A & D strings for steel.
For me, I like a lower endpin length (or no endpin at all) when playing on gut – the cello is a little more vertical and the bow arm hangs lower (more comfortable for me). With steel strings, I need a really long end pin set up to get my fingerboard more horizontal. This allows me to keep a curve in all of my finger’s joints and helps me have a healthy setup for my shoulder as I go up the fingerboard. The drawback is that I find it harder to bow like this…
Under the Bow
Steel generally very springy and responsive, pitch stable under the bow, more tension so they can handle more weight.
Gut affected greatly by bow pressure, you can easily overpower the string or push the pitch out of tune.
This is a tricky one. Part of the expression of Gut strings is having two simultaneous ways to modulate your pitch expression. With the pressure of the left hand (and of course vibrato) and at the same time with the pressure of the bow. Both are at play in a very delicate dance on gut strings. You have to learn a more subtle and expanded bow vocabulary to play on gut and gain the benefits of the medium (and not fight the strings…). It takes a while to learn this new bowing dialect. Pitch is not stable under the bow for gut, and if you try to play like you do on steel strings, it won’t work.
Sometimes I feel like I am inviting the strings into action with my bow on gut. You also will sink down into the string a lot, due to the lower tension, and that takes some getting used to. With higher tension steel strings, you almost ride on top of the string. This area of technique is massively different and is good to know ahead of time that you’ll need to adjust your approach, bow tightness, and rosin to suit the steel vs gut setup.
One issue I ran into with gut C strings being thick with lower tension, is that they move so much side to side that it can be very difficult to play fast separate bow strokes. The string will actually sometimes just stick to your bow and wiggle back and forth without releasing from the hairs…
Steel wider range of tight or loose bow settings
Gut more specific sweet spot, generally a little looser hair than for steel
(or so I have experienced thus far)
On Gut strings, you have to be a little more picky about your bow tension. I had to have a slightly looser tension than you can get away with for steel, so the hairs could bend, flex and wrap around the thicker strings. With steel strings, you can crank your bow super tight and just start slamming away… but it doesn’t really work like that for gut. On gut strings I noticed that if my bow was too tight, I’d start to get “whistling” sounds, a harsh/brittle tone and a bad response in general.
That being said, you can go too loose for gut strings, resulting in too much stick flex and arm weight will go into the string. This results in a lot of pitch fluctuations … so if your gut strings are toooo responsive under the bow when it comes to pitch manipulation, try tightening your bow bit by bit until you find that threshold where there is enough tension to hold a steady, pure pitch when drawing a long bow, with a little stick resistance in the middle. Think of the tension you feel when pulling a resistance band. You want to feel a little resistance in the middle of your stick, feel the bow working and make sure it doesn’t bottom out in the middle. This will be a good starting point for your sweet spot. Your ultimate spot may lie just a 1/4 turn to a full turn of the screw away from there.
With Steel, you can get away with both looser and tighter bow settings. Steel strings have more tension so they can handle a looser bow setting without your note completely wavering or losing its center of pitch. Because of their higher tensions, they can also handle more bow pressure and a tighter bow setting. So, I’ve found that my bow tightness sweet spot is a lot wider when playing on steel strings. Dialing this in can help offset the lack of expression that a steel string inherently has.
This really depends on the brand of string and the type of hairs, even within the realm of gut. Some rosins that sounded great on certain plain gut or wound gut strings, really didn’t translate to the tone and response of another string makers product. But in general, you’ll need a grippier rosin for Gut to get that mass of string moving! But sometimes even the grippier rosins weren’t the right fit for certain setups and I found myself having to try fine/dark rosins too, in order to dial it in. Some rosins like the Melos Baroque Cello/Bass Gamba or Aquila‘s historically researched rosin formula have a really great combo of grip & glide. Sometimes when I needed a more fine and slightly less grippy rosin, I grabbed the Melos Dark cello rosin, or a Pirastro or Hill rosin. When I needed ultimate grip and dark tone, Kolstein all the way.
In general if you use white hairs, you need to use a lot more rosin. White hairs are finer and smoother, so they naturally don’t have as much grip as black hairs. They will soak up the rosin more, so you can “condition” them with a favorite rosin to help bring out a certain sound and response from your setup. Black hairs (and salt’n pepper) are courser and don’t take up the rosin like white hairs will. You’ll need less rosin in general and it doesn’t take to many passes on the rosin cake to have overdone it. The black hairs tend to shuffle off the rosin anyway, and that’s ok because the hairs are so grippy, you really don’t need much of the sticky stuff! You may find that certain rosins that worked really well with your white hair setups are not the same rosins that work well for your black hair setups… this comes down to trial and error. (example Kolstein is one of my favorite rosins on white hairs, but on black hairs it was overkill: grippy rosin plus grippy hair – it just didn’t work on my setup)
WOW!! You made it to the end! I hope you found this helpful! Let me know in the comments below if I missed any topics that you have questions about. What are your experiences with gut vs steel? Do you have any helpful solutions to share with me and others? Pop it all down there in the comments so we can have more discussion on this very big topic!
Thanks for reading, and as always, Happy Practicing!
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“Which strings should I get for my cello?”
It’s a common question to receive as a cello teacher and quite honestly, a difficult one to answer. The gauge, tension, materials, and action of our strings make a significant difference in the tone and sound production of the cello. Each instrument has a different voice, which requires experimentation in what type of string is best to use. The same brand of strings on two different cellos will ultimately yield unique results. “String-Brand-A” may sound excellent on my cello, but be a totally wrong for yours…. With so many brands and prices, which one do you choose?
Thankfully, Johnson String Instrument Shop has made it easier for me to share cello string combinations via student wish lists! Here are three sets/combos of strings to get you started, in order of low to high price. [ 2020 edit: I am updating all of the product and gear purchase links across my website this year ]
** All string sizes listed below are 4/4 Full Size. If you need to order 1/2 or 3/4 size cello strings, be sure to select that option when ordering!!
Want to book a cello lesson?
Live in Sun Prairie?
Live on the west side of Madison?
Pros: Affordable, yet still sounds good and plays well! I use them on my homemade electric cello (#frankencello) and I find them to be flexible and reliable. They have stood up to some extreme playing conditions encountered during gigs. The nickel winding helps the low strings pop out of your cello. If you need more brightness in your low end, try these strings (rather than the more dull silver winding of the Helicore).
Cons: Not as pitch stable as Kaplans or Helicores. The “center of pitch” feels slightly mushy… this is hard to describe and may be due to the nickel winding, which is on all strings.
- Prelude 4/4 Cello Set A, D, G & C – nickel wound / steel core: Medium
Prelude (D’Addario) set – solid steel core string that is durable and not affected by temperature and humidity changes. Prelude strings have a clear, bright sound without the shrill sound of traditional steel strings, and have a quick bow response.
Brian Grimm D’Addario Kaplan-Helicore Combo
Pros: Great for multi-style playing. Holds tuning very well. Quick response. Fairly loud sound production. This has been the string combo on my concert cello from 2013 to 2017. They have proven to be suitable across many genres… however, I’m now moving on to some other brands of strings in search of a richer, mellower sound.
Cons: As the Kaplan A & D strings age, they get a bit metallic and scratchy sounding (especially in the high end). Not as subtle as Jargar, Larsen, Pirastro strings.
Combo Set Includes:
- Kaplan Cello A – titanium wound / steel core: Medium
- Kaplan Cello D – nickel wound / steel core: Medium
- Helicore Cello G & C – tungsten-silver wound / steel core: Medium
Kaplan (D’Addario) set – strings offer a beautiful, rich tonal palette and superb bowing response. They provide clarity and warmth across the registers and throughout the dynamic range.
Helicore (D’Addario) set – multi-strand, twisted steel core strings have a small string diameter, providing a quick bow response. Thanks to special manufacturing techniques, Helicore strings have a warm, clear sound with excellent pitch stability and longevity.
Janet Marshall (My Classical Teacher) Jagar-Larsen Combo
aka “The Denmark Combo”
Pros: Powerful low end sound. Beautiful rich tone. I very much enjoyed this combo when playing Brahms and other Romantic era pieces. Jargar has since come out with two new lines of string that I haven’t tried: Thin/dolce & Thick/forte. There isn’t a huge price jump on those and are worth trying, depending on your #soundgoals.
Cons: Larsen strings are costly, you pay for that good sound; the C string itself is $100. Sometimes my Jargar A & D strings would be a bit unstable & drop pitch over the course of a piece.
Combo Set Includes:
- Jargar Cello A & D – chrome wound / steel core: Medium
- Larsen Cello G & C – tungsten wound / steel core: Medium
Jargar – Bright, full sound, quick response. Made in Denmark, these steel core strings are favored by many solosits. Jargar strings are known for their powerful, well-balanced tone.
Larsen – Made in Denmark, Larsen strings are aimed at soloists in need of a string with projection.
Additional resources on selecting strings:
- Johnson String – choosing strings
- Shar Music – purchase cello strings
- Shar Music – all about strings guide
Cellist Brian Grimm is a composer, performer and teacher based out Madison, WI. Though Classically trained and studied in Jazz, Brian also grew up surrounded by Chinese instruments. This has pulled him into a life passion for learning music from all around the world. Brian’s teachers include members of Yo-Yo Ma’s Silkroad Ensemble, the Hong Kong Chinese Orchestra, the WuJi Ensemble (Hong Kong), the Buselli–Wallarab Jazz Orchestra, & Sitar virtuoso Pt. Sugato Nag (India).