Ifshin Violins

by Richard Ward


stringsMany musicians and students are amazed and sometimes bewildered by the large number of strings available for the violin, viola, cello and bass. We are offering this information to answer some of the basic questions about choosing strings. We hope that this offering is of help. Each different type of string has its own special characteristics, which can change the sound of your instrument. These characteristics can make subtle (and sometimes not so subtle) changes in the quality, playability, volume and responsiveness of the instrument. In some cases, changing one or more strings can improve a weakness in a specific part of the range of the instrument. Some instruments respond best to a certain kind of string and less well with other types. Each instrument has its own personal characteristics. A string that works well with one instrument may not produce the best sound with another brand. There is also a vast number of playing styles that dictate string choice. A classical violinist might choose strings that would be unsuitable for a bluegrass fiddler. A jazz bass player who plays mostly pizzicato would like a string that symphony bassists would find difficult to use. For centuries, all musical strings were made of sheep gut (not cat gut, as many believe). By the 16th century the lower, thicker strings were wrapped with silver wire to reduce mass. Today, almost all gut strings are wrapped with aluminum or silver. In the early 20th century, all metal strings were introduced to improve stability in pitch and durability. Steel E strings for the violin became popular, primarily because gut E strings broke so quickly. About 20 years ago, strings with nylon cores were introduced. They share many of the tonal qualities of gut strings but are much more stable in pitch as compared to gut strings, which need constant tuning. Today, perlon core strings are the most popular strings among students and classical players.

None of the advice in this article is to be taken as a guarantee that the strings will perform in the manner described on YOUR instrument. The best practical advice you can follow is from your luthier, or a colleague who is well acquainted with the particular characteristics of YOUR instrument.

Always examine strings for defects before installing on your instrument. Examine your instrument for any possible mechanical or tonal issues BEFORE installing strings. Once installed on your instrument, strings are NON REFUNDABLE.

Gut Core Strings

gut stringsMany classical musicians still prefer gut strings for their warm sound, full of complexity with rich overtones. When you play on a gut string, you can hear much more than just a simple uncomplicated tone. The response is a bit slower than synthetic core strings, and has a lower tension, giving them a pliable feel under the fingers. Musicians who perform early music on instruments set up in the Baroque style wouldn't think of using anything else but gut strings. There are however, some problems with gut strings, the most troubling of these is the gut string's instability in pitch. Gut strings go out of tune frequently. For the first week or so after installation, they must be tuned constantly while they stretch. They also are very sensitive to changes in temperature and humidity. In addition, they are more expensive than most other strings. We would hesitate to recommend a gut string to a beginning or even intermediate student because of these characteristics.

Steel Core Strings

stringsSteel core strings came into existence partially because of the drawbacks of gut strings and as a concession to beginning students. Steel core strings are very stable in pitch, even when first installed. They also have a sound that is very different from gut strings. They all tend to have a sound that is simple, clear, direct, pure, and usually a bit hard with few overtones and no real complexity. Often they are bright and a bit thin sounding. This quality is not as pronounced in the cello where all metal strings are more standard. Non-classical players, especially country and folk fiddlers, as well as many jazz musicians often prefer steel strings. They also work well with small size, inexpensive student instruments. In addition, most bass players use steel core strings. There have been some interesting changes in the construction of steel strings and these changes have been of particular interest to cellists. Steel cores (usually thin fibers of roped or spiraled steel) are now wrapped with a variety of metals such as aluminum, chrome steel, tungsten, silver and most recently, titanium. These changes in technology have allowed manufacturers to produce strings with more sophisticated sounds. When we discuss different brands, we will go into more detail about these different materials and their unique sound.

Synthetic Core Strings

stringsOver the last 25 years more and more musicians have switched from gut to synthetic core strings. The more common synthetic used is Perlon, a kind of nylon. These strings share many of the tonal characteristics of gut strings but are much more stable in pitch and generally have a faster response. They need to be tuned far less often, and "play in" only after a day or two rather than the usual week that it takes for gut strings to stabilize. Since the core is synthetic, this type of string can be more consistent in quality than gut, but they do lack some of the complexity of sound that gut strings have. Because of this, some musicians prefer to continue using gut strings. Today there is a large variety of synthetic core strings on the market, each with their own special characteristics.

String Gauge

Almost all strings are available in different thickness or gauges, for example Thomastik Dominants, which are available in stark (thick), mittel (medium), and weich (thin). Pirastro Eudoxa, Olive and Kaplan Golden Spiral gut strings come in a variety of gauges indicated by gauge numbers. The majority of string players use the medium gauges. In general a thicker than normal string will require more tension in order to bring it up to pitch. This increase in tension will produce more volume and sometimes a fuller sound but with a slower response. A thinner string requires less tension and will give a faster response, but with less volume and a thinner, slightly more focused sound. What gauge string you choose will depend on the qualities of the particular instrument you are playing. A violin may need a thicker string to give it more "punch" or power, or more fullness of sound. Yet on other instruments, those thick strings will choke the sound and make it unresponsive and dull. On the other hand, a thinner string might help an instrument with a dull, unfocused, fuzzy sound but might sound shrill and thin on others. We must stress that every instrument responds differently to different strings. The only way to determine the optimum string for you is to try a variety of strings on your own instrument.

Qualities Of The Most Popular Strings

1. Gut Strings

Pirastro - Olive These premium strings have a brilliant sound with rich complex overtones and a relatively fast response. The Olive E is gold-plated and has an unusually pure, clear and brilliant sound.

Pirastro- Eudoxa One of the most popular of strings before the introduction of synthetic core strings, the Eudoxa has a warm, mellow sound with a slower response than the Olive or synthetic core strings. Great on some older instruments, they can be a bit dull on others.

Pirastro - Gold Label An economy gut string with a sound mid way between the other Pirastro gut strings. Available only in medium gauge. The Gold Label violin E string is popular for its brilliance.

Pirastro - Passione Many musicians choose not to use gut core strings because of their pitch instability. They get tired of constantly tuning their instruments. The core of the Passione strings have been stabilized to give them the stability (almost) of synthetic core strings. These strings have a brilliance not unlike the Olive brand strings, with perhaps a bit less complexity. If you like the sound of gut strings, you might want to try these.

Pirastro - Passione Solo This new string has a bit higher tension than the Passione, which gives it slightly more responsiveness and power. A member of the San Francisco Symphony violin section who plays on a Jay Haide á l'ancienne violin has tried a number of strings and so far likes the Passione Solo strings best.

Kaplan - Golden Spiral and Golden Spiral Solo We find these strings to be similar in sound to the Gold Label, with the solo version being brighter in sound. Economically priced.

2. Synthetic Core Strings

Pirastro - Evah Pirazzi In the years that these premium quality (and priced) strings have been available, they have become among our most popular strings, particularly for violin and viola. As compared to the Obligatos, the Evah Pirazzis have a more brilliant and responsive tone with a nice complexity, something like the gut-core Olive which I suspect they were originally patterned after. However, they are darker and warmer than the Tonica strings (see below) or the newer Wondertone Solo strings, not to mention Thomastik Dominant. Evah Pirazzi strings are available for all instruments.

Pirastro - Evah Pirazzi Gold On the right instrument, these premium priced strings have a warmer, fuller sound than the Evah Pirazzi. The G string is available with either a gold alloy or silver wrapping. I recommend the gold version which has more depth and warmth. If you are looking for a string that has great fullness and richness, you may want to try the Evah Pirazzi Gold. They respond very well, especially on viola with a full warm sound and great response.

Pirastro - Obligato These strings are among the latest of the new generation synthetic core strings, using a composite material rather than nylon (perlon). They have a good sound somewhat similar to Eudoxa gut core strings but with a quicker response and slightly less complexity. When I tried them on my own violins I found the sound rather dull at first, but they seemed to "perk-up" rather quickly. The set is supplied with a silver-wound D that I found too bright for the rest of the strings. You may want to try the aluminum wound D instead. I also found the gold-plated E a bit too bright for the rest of the set. Of all the synthetic core strings, the Obligato is closest in sound to gut core strings. Pirastro has also introduced Obligato for viola, cello and bass. The cello strings seem to be an excellent choice for an instrument that is a bit too shrill. In a surprise move the bass Obligato strings have a list price about $20.00 lower than the cello strings, making their price slightly higher than D'Addario Helicore and Thomastik Spirocore.

Pirastro - Violino This new string was introduced as a "student" string which is curious because they are priced higher than the Pirastro Tonica strings. After some experimentation I understood why Pirastro is marketing them the way they are. The Violino has a warm, full tone that seems to work well with new student instruments, especially those of European origin, with bright, somewhat hard tone. These strings seem to take away some of the "edge".

Pirastro - Tonica These strings have been available for a number of years as Pirastro's mid-priced synthetic-core string. Over the years we have used these strings to set up many of our new (and older) instruments. A couple of years ago the Tonicas were re-formulated and have become more brilliant and a bit more responsive. Even though the Evah Pirazzi strings offer a higher overall tone quality, we feel that the Tonica strings offer excellent tonal characteristics for the affordable price.

Pirastro - Aricore This was Pirastro 's first synthetic core string. The tone is quite warm and dark with very little edge to the sound. While they can sound very dull on some instruments, they may be a good choice for an instrument that has a shrill and hard tone. I find them to have the darkest sound of any synthetic string on the market. The D, G and C are popular with a number of cellists who want a warmer, darker sound.

Pirastro - Wondertone Solo These new composite core strings have a clarity and focus a bit different from most other Pirastro strings, perhaps closer in sound to the Thomastik Infeld Blue strings. They tend towards brilliance similar to the Evah Pirazzi.

Thomastik Peter Infeld "π"

The Peter Infeld or "PI" line of strings from Thomastik-Infeld of Vienna are named after the former director of Thomastik. They have a nice brilliance with excellent overtones and core sound. This is a very interesting string and a step above other synthetic core strings in the Thomastik line. They are available with either steel, gold plated or platinum plated E strings. At over $31.00, the Platinum E is a bit pricey though it has an excellent sound. Try the tin plated E as an alternative.

Thomastik - Infeld Red and Blue Thomastik's first new violin strings in over 20 years, these two strings were introduced together. The Infeld Blue is more brilliant in sound. They are designed so that you can mix and match them on your violin to get the balance you need. The tension is the same for either set. I found the Blue set to have a brilliant sound like the Dominant but with more character. I also found that they break in quicker and don't have a metallic edginess when new. The Infeld Reds are warmer and darker in tone but not dramatically so. The difference is subtler than the difference between Pirastro's Obligato and Evah Pirazzi.

Thomastik - Dominant The original synthetic core string, made with Perlon. Dominant strings are bright and responsive and are by far the most popular. When new, Dominant strings have a metallic edge, which fades after a few days of playing.

Thomastik - Vision These high-tech composite core strings have a brilliance and focus similar to the Dominant strings but with a bit more character and a shorter break in time than conventional perlon strings. The stark (thick) versions of these strings have more warmth with only a very slight loss in responsiveness. We have found them useful on smaller size violas, giving a bit more power and edge.

Thomastic - Vision Solo These new strings have some interesting characteristics. When first installed, they have a warm dark sound, almost like Obligatos. They need a week or two to stabilize and they increase in brilliance. These strings have a nice sound and are well priced.

Thomastik - Vision Titanium Solo These strings were enthusiastically received when they were first introduced as Vision Titanium. They have a great deal of power and "sizzle" giving a new life to many violins, especially those that are a bit weak and dull. They can, however, overpower some instruments. At this time the Vision Titanium strings are only available for violin. The E string is titanium plated and has the distinction of being the most expensive on the market.

Thomastik - Vision Titanium Orchestra The latest string in the Vision series shares many characteristics of Titanium Solo, but with a bit warmer sound.

Thomastik -Alphayue (Alpha)
At $19.95 a set, these new strings are the lowest priced synthetic core strings on the market from a major manufacturer. The tone is very brilliant which may be overpowering for some violins, but because of their very low tension, we have found them to be useful on some European student violins.

Thomastik - Spirit
Thomastik has recently introduced a number of new strings. The Spirits have a brilliant, powerful tone somewhat similar to Pirastro Tonica, but with a bit more warmth. They have the same selling price as the Tonicas. Available for violin and cello.

Corelli - Crystal Like the Aricore strings, these strings have a relatively dark, warm sound. Unlike the Aricore strings they do have more edge or punch, which makes them sound a bit brighter and more focused.

Corelli - Alliance These premium priced strings have a kevlar core. Their sound has more brilliance than the Corelli Crystal along with a with richness and complexity. Alliance strings also seem to have a longer life than most other synthetic strings.

Larsen - Tzigane These strings are quite unusual and take some getting used to. They are advertised as being lower in tension than other synthetic core strings and can sound dull and "flabby" on some instruments. I did try them on a violin with a very hard, shrill tone and the sound was improved a great deal. These strings are currently available for violin only.

Larsen (violin and viola) The Larsen cello strings have been around for some time but until recently Larsen made no violin strings. The sound is big, brilliant, and slightly darker than Dominants, with an interesting metallic edge that gives the sound power and punch. The tone also has depth and complexity. The price is high, but a number of musicians feel they are worth the money. Some players have been disappointed by a relatively short life span of these strings. The newest addition from Larsen is the rest of the viola set, D, G & C with a synthtic core.

D'Addario - Zyex When they were introduced, these strings were promoted as sounding closest to gut-core strings of any man-made strings. I don't fully agree. To me they have a brilliant, very focused sound, but without a great deal of complexity. They are very stable in pitch. One Bay Area professional violinist told us that he didn't even need to tune his violin for several weeks while using the Zyex strings.

--> D'Addario - Zyex Composite D'Addario was among the first to use a composite (rather than a simple nylon or perlon core) with their original Zyex. A couple of years ago, the original Zyex was upgraded to Zyex Composite. They remain a good quality string at an affordable price. The tone is a bit darker and warmer than the Tonicas with more complexity to the sound. The Zyex recently became available for bass and is well worth a try. They have a warmer sound than Spirocores and work well for both arco or pizzicato.

Supersensitive - Octava These strings are among the least expensive synthetic core strings we sell. Although the sound is fairly simple and straightforward, these strings might be a good choice for an inexpensive student violin with a hard, bright, shrill tone because the dark tone of these strings will take some of that hard edge off. However, the Octavas may sound dull on other instruments.

D'Addario - Pro Arte These budget priced nylon core strings a designed for student instruments and have a simple, fairly warm sound.

D'Addario - Kaplan Vivo This brand new string from D'Addario has a rather unusual sound compared to other synthetic core strings. Compared to other premium-priced strings, the Vivo has a more gut-like response with more overtones. The response is slower (not unlike the response one finds with gut core strings like the Eudoxa). We found the A string a bit more sluggish in response than the D & G. The Vivo has a more brilliant tone than the companion Amo set described below.

D'Addario - Kaplan Amo The Amo strings have a darker, warmer sound than the Vivo. The response is a bit slower especially on the A string. In initial testing, we found that both the Amo and Vivo strings need three to five days to break in. After that, they become a bit more responsive and easier to play.

3. Steel Core Strings

Thomastik - Spirocore A bright sounding string with some edge. They are especially popular with cellists who need a great deal of brilliance. The cello G tungsten and cello C tungsten are high-tension strings with a big sound. The cello silver G and cello silver C have less of an edge to their sound. Spirocore bass strings are the most popular with musicians who play mostly pizzicato.

Thomastik - Ropecore ("Superflexible") Dark, warm tone. They can sound a bit dull on some instruments.

Thomastik Versum These cello strings have just been introduced and we are very pleased with our initial tests. In general, they have a deep warm tone but with the kind of high overtones most cellists are looking for. We find that the A and D work particularly well with the Spirocore tungsten G and C. If you are looking for an alternative to the Larsen or Jargar A & D, you might want to try the new Thomastik Versum.

Pirastro - Chromcor A bright string, excellent for inexpensive student instruments, especially of small size.

Pirastro - Chromcor Plus Available for cello in A and D and viola A. These strings have a more sophisticated sound than the regular Chromcor.

Pirastro - Permanent A high quality string for viola and cello with a clear, powerful sound. The Permanent cello A is especially good to match with gut strings.

Pirastro - Flexocor A high quality string for viola, cello and bass with a warm sound. This A is also good to match with gut strings. The Flexocor bass strings are popular with classical players.

Pirastro - Flexocor/Permanent These new steel core strings for violin are somewhat similar to the Helicore strings, but with a darker, warmer sound.

Pirastro - Piranito Our recommendation for those looking for an inexpensive string for student instruments.

D'Addario - Helicore This string has become very popular. It has a warm sound, unusual for a steel core string. Cellists and violists especially like the G and C strings. Violinists who play electric instruments have taken to these strings, and there is a new 5-string set available packaged with a low C. The Helicore bass strings are getting good reviews. They are available in Orchestra, Pizzicato and Hybrid. The Hybrid is for players who want both a good bowing response and a good pizzicato response. The Pizzicato is for the player who plays primarily or solely without a bow. The Orchestra version is for players who primarily bow.

D'Addario - Kaplan Solutions The violin E string is a wound E designed for violins that tend to "whistle" when you go quickly from the A to the open E. It seems to be a good all-purpose E string with a warm tone. The viola A is a good choice if you find the Larsen A or Jargar A too bright or shrill. The cello A & D are also a good choice if you want a warmer sound.

D'Addario - Kaplan Solutions for cello D'Addario spent a great deal of time and effort developing these strings. They have very interesting tonal characteristics. They tend to have a warmer and fuller sound than some of the other popular cello strings. The tension is a bit lower as well, giving them an excellent playability. Cellists normally "mix and match" their strings, using a different string on the A & D than on the lower strings. We have set up some of our cellos with the complete set and find that they work quite well together.

D'Addario - Prelude If you are looking for a budget priced set of student strings, we highly recommend the D'Addario Preludes for inexpensive student instruments. The tone is bright, clear and focused.

Jargar These strings have been popular for many decades, especially with cellists and violists, who have made the Jargar A the string of choice. The G and C strings are also available with silver winding for a brighter, more brilliant sound. Jargars have a warm sound when compared to most other all-metal strings. Jargar has recently come out with the new Superior edition string for cello, with a somewhat stronger sound.

Larsen (viola and cello) These premium priced strings were introduced only a few years ago and have become popular with cellists for their pure, clear sound. The Larsen "Solo Edition" strings have a brighter, more brilliant sound. Available as A, D, G and C (tungsten) for cello and A for viola. (Note the new synthetic core D, G & C viola strings mentioned in earlier.)

Prim These inexpensive, bright strings have an edge to their sound that is popular with fiddlers and some cellists.

Supersensitive - Red Label Low price and durability make these strings popular with many school systems. These strings are available for violin, viola, cello and bass in all the standard sizes.

We hope that the above descriptions will assist you in making a choice of strings for your instrument. However, we must stress that the only way to choose the correct string is to try a variety of brands and gauges. Each and every instrument responds differently to different types of strings.

Installing Strings

We recommend changing strings every six months. Over time, strings lose their brilliance and edge and become dull and unresponsive. Most musicians don't realize how the sound of their strings change over time because the change is so gradual. When changing strings, remove only one at a time with all the others up to pitch, keeping the tension on the top. Before putting on the string, use a soft pencil on the groove in the nut and bridge. The graphite is a lubricant that reduces the chance of string breakage. Don't tighten the strings to a higher than normal pitch as this will weaken the string and increase their chance of breakage. Strings should be wound evenly from the center of the peg to the edge of the peg box, but should not push against the peg box. The condition of the nut, pegs, bridge and tailpiece of your instrument is very important. Strings should fit the grooves in the nut and bridge correctly. If the grooves are worn or uneven, your strings will break more easily. We will be happy to examine your violin, viola or cello to be sure that everything is in optimum condition. For more information on instrument and bow care see our Instrument Care Guide.


None of the advice above is to be taken as a guarantee that the strings will perform in the manner described on YOUR instrument. The best practical advice you can follow is from your luthier, who is well acquainted with the particular characteristics of YOUR instrument.

Examine strings for defects BEFORE INSTALLING ON YOUR INSTRUMENT. Examine your instrument for any possible issues BEFORE installing strings. Once installed on your instrument, STRINGS ARE NON RETURNABLE.

Special instances, where strings have clearly displayed some mechanical defect, may be considered.

I hope this guide has been helpful. If you have any questions or would like to share information, please feel free to e-mail me, at rich@ifshinviolins.com.

All of the strings described are available at our El Cerrito store. Please visit or call us.