Sunday, May 16, 2010

Fiddle Strings: Tuning & Bowing

Don't like the sound of your fiddle?  Can't seem to get it in tune?  Or play it in tune?  Maybe it's all in your strings!  This might seem like a strange thing to say, but read on...

First off, I'm going to tell you that if you are using a tuner to tune your fiddle, don't use your bow.  Pluck each string to get it in tune.  If you are more advanced and are using your ear, this probably won't pertain to you.  I actually do both if I use a tuner.  I pluck tune with a tuner, then I fine tune with my bow.  Now I'm going to tell you why.

Bowing and pitch are actually related, especially if you are using a perlon type string.  Perlon strings are generally more popular with classical players because they tend to be more mellow and blend well for orchestra music.  They bow completely differently from steel strings.  What do I mean by that?  I'm going to attempt to explain the difference.

When I first started playing the fiddle, I used only steel strings.  That's what all the fiddle players I knew used.  Super Sensitive Red Label strings were pretty much IT.  Then I met other fiddle players and also cross-over players who played both classically and traditionally (folk, bluegrass, country, etc.).  Naturally, after we met each other a little bit more, we had to try out each other's instrument.  I started noticing that I simply couldn't play perlon strings.  My fingers were in the right place, but the notes didn't always stay in tune.  They tended to bow flat, and then would all of a sudden "right" themselves and be in tune, even though I didn't move my fingers.  Some fiddles this was worse on than others, too, even though they had the same kind of string on them.  The only thing that made this difference was if they were perlon strings instead of steel.

As I progressed in my playing, my curiosity kept me thinking about this.  It was a phenomenon that I kept experiencing over and over.  I saw it in others as well, though most more experienced players who played classically seemed to be able to play perlon just fine.  I started seeing this as a challenge to my playing.  I knew that there must be something that I was doing that wasn't doing the same, and I knew it had to be in the bowing, but I didn't know what it was.  It also seemed that as my bowing got better, I played on perlon better than I used to.

Eventually, I started using a perlon string called Vision.  There were several reasons why, and I will go into them further on down in this blog.  What I started noticing was that if I varied my bow speed, this seemed to affect my pitch -- not just my volume.  The bow speed that I am referring to is the speed of one stroke.  It was also affected by the pressure I put (or didn't put) on my bow, especially for slow songs.  If my bowing was not "just right," which is kind of hard to explain, my notes didn't bow true.  This is where I say plucking notes for tuning for beginners is a good idea.  You take away what I call the bowing factor, and you can be sure that all strings are tuned equally.  I also ended up with a different bow.  And that's a whole other story...

Now, let me talk a little bit about several types and brands of strings in particular.  This will eventually tie into my story, so bear with me.  Fiddle strings are NOT created equally.  If you play other stringed instruments, you probably already know that different strings sound different and feel different.  They are all playable, though you will like the sound of one better than the other.  Or the feel.  With fiddle strings, it's even more the case.  Not only that, but some strings are simply NOT playable.  You can't pull the bow across them without squeaking, especially if you are an inexperienced player.

As with other stringed instruments, the weight or gauge of the fiddle string directly affects the volume.  It also affects how the bow feels on the strings.  If you are aggressive in your bowing, a string that is too soft will "bottom out."  You'll dig in to bow it, and it simply can't take the pressure and produce a good tone.  (Bow speed affects this as well, but I'm now talking a more experienced player that understands this.)

Steel strings are more common with fiddle players because they are less affected by humidity and stay in tune better for the types of places that fiddle players end up playing.  Some steel strings have a bit of an edge on them, which makes them easier to hear when playing acoustically with other instruments.  In a jam session, you want your fiddle to stand out when you are playing a lead.  In an orchestra, you want your fiddle to blend in with the others unless you are playing a solo.  Steel strings are also more forgiving.  You don't get that "out of tune even though your fingers are in the right place" phenomenon.

Students ask me all the time about brands of strings, especially when it's time to replace them.  Many people opt for the cheapest possible strings because they can't believe how expensive fiddle strings are.  That's a very bad way to pick out a fiddle string.  First off, my advice is NEVER to buy a round wound string.  That is a string that is like a wound guitar string.  It has grooves between the windings and if you run your thumbnail along the string, you can hear the windings.  You'll get a lot of squeaks with this kind of string.  It is NEVER worth the money you thought you saved.  You simply won't enjoy playing at all.  Some cheap Chinese strings, even though they are flat wound, will also be very squeaky.  Not all of them are, but a better string will make your fiddle sound better, which translates into more fun for you and everyone else.

When comparing several types of popular steel strings, the most common in this area are Pirastro Chromcor, Prim, Red Label Super Sensitive, and Old Fiddler.  Black Diamond is round wound, so I won't say anything more about this brand.  Red Label is the least expensive and is a popular choice for students of both classical and traditional playing.  It comes in all different sizes, stays in tune well, and costs about $20.00.  It's pretty forgiving as far as bowing goes, and in medium tension (which is what beginners should purchase and most others do anyway regardless of experience & level) stays in tune well and has a decent sound. 

Old Fiddler strings are made by the same company as Red Label, and you can get a wound E string which is nice if you rust out strings quickly.  Fiddle stings are wound with metals that don't rust, but plain E strings, which is what the vast majority of E strings are, will rust if you have a high acid content in your skin.  I have noticed that these strings also seem to break more easily than Red Label, though, so a beginner probably won't like this.  You can purchase a single wound E string if you need it, so buy the brand you want and simply purchase an additional wound E string.  It doesn't even matter if you mix and match brand as long as you keep steel strings with steel and not perlon.

Prim strings are softer strings and are much more responsive than Red Label and Old Fiddler.  They cost a bit more, too.  What is nice about them is that it takes practically no "work" on your part to get a sound out of them.  If you are a light bower, you will really like this.  If you are aggressive, you might get some buzzes, especially out of the D string.  The other thing I really like about Prim is that they have a bit of an "edge" to them.  It makes them easier to hear in a jam situation.  It can, though not always, make a harsh or tinny fiddle sound unpleasant.  It will help balance out a fiddle that is too mellow. 

Chromcor strings are kind of in the middle between Red Label and Prim as far as tone quality and responsiveness goes.  They are a good choice if you have a harsh or tinny fiddle, but want something better than Red Label strings.  They are not quite as responsive as Prim, but if you are really aggressive, they will probably work better for you.  They are similar in cost to Prim, and maybe slightly more expensive depending where you get them.

Now let me talk a little bit about perlon strings.  The most popular perlon string in classical playing is Dominant.  Vision is really gaining momentum at this time as well.  Helicore is a popular string for cross-over players who play both classically and traditionally.  There are many other brands, good brands even, but I don't have enough experience with them, so I won't be talking about them.

The first thing you'll notice about perlon strings is that they are more expensive than steel strings.  Dominant strings blend well and produce a sound that is more mellow than most steel strings.  I have always had problems with them coming unwound, though, especially the A string.  Others I know have had the same problem, so be prepared with extra A strings if you like this brand.

Vision strings are very responsive.  They also will bring out the bass end of a fiddle if it has a good bass end.  They are tough strings and you can really dig into them if you are aggressive.  They "set in" quickly and stay in tune fairly well in fiddle type venues, though not quite as good as steel strings.  There are several different types of Vision strings including Titanium, Solo and Regular (unmarked).  I am writing about the regular Vision strings.  They are expensive as well, but they hold up better than Dominant.  Vision also seems to be the loudest in volume of the three perlon strings I am writing about.

Helicore is more mellow (not in volume but in tone) than both Dominant and Vision in my opinion.  This brand of string holds up well and I've not had a problem with the strings coming unwound.  Volume is equal to Dominant in my opinion as well.  Price is a little less than the other two brands of perlon.

If you want more volume in a particular brand string, you can try a heavy weight string instead of medium.  I think all the brands I wrote about come in medium and heavy weight.  Orchestra gauge is the same as heavy weight, though most orchestra players I know use medium gauge so it's kind of a misnomer.

Not all brands come in smaller sizes, either.  If you are purchasing strings for a fiddle that is not full size, you may be limited to what brands you can get.


Séamas said...

Hi there,

A couple corrections/comments:

D'Addario Helicores are in fact steel core strings, not Perlon. Helicores are more warm and sound more like gut or synthetic than other steel strings, but they are definitely steel.

Perlon is not the only synthetic, by the way, and I understand that Visions are made out a composite synthetic material. Just what this composite consists of I haven't been able to discover (maybe they don't want us to know).

Happy New Year, and happy fiddling.

tootall1121 said...

So, for a beginner like me, the Red Label are probably the best idea? With what I'm using now, I'm breaking strings all the time, usually the E, like most. I'm beginning to think I need a few dozen E stings. I play hard, with a fast stroke and lots of pressure.

Chris Talley said...

If you are breaking strings often while playing, something is wrong.