Guitar and fiddle strings

Guitar and fiddle strings

At last night’s session one of the musicians (guitarist / fiddler / banjo player) asked me why fiddle strings are a lot more expensive than guitar or banjo strings. That question had never occurred to me and I didn’t have an answer.

Some ideas came to me later. Is it because fiddle strings are bowed, not plucked, and therefore need a special kind of construction over guitar strings? Or is it because the string makers do a lot of expensive research trying to achieve the holy grail of getting non-gut strings to sound like gut (when the evidence today is that a lot of players are quite happy with strings that don’t sound in the least like gut)? Or is it "market forces"?

Does someone have an answer, please - no matter how technical?

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I don’t have a clue, but I’d hazard a guess that it’s a combination of much higher demand for guitar strings over fiddle (probably 20:1 or 40:1, maybe higher), plus cheaper manufacturing. Plus the whole image game with better "violin" strings.

FWIW, you can buy the totally misnamed Supersensitive steel fiddle strings for about the same price as a pack of guitar strings. We pay extra for unobtanium wrapping, famous virtuosi names on the packets, etc.

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Economies of scale.

HAR!!!

I’ll be here all night folks. Please tip your waitresses.

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Pricing rules usually comes down to charging whatever the manufacturer can get away with.
People generally change guitar strings 4 times as often as fiddle strings so obviously they reckon we can pay 4 times as much.

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Violin strings use a much smaller, flat winding & the cores can cost more too. I don’t know if this justifies the price tho

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I think it does come down to the image - the violin is a "serious" instrument, the guitar is for hobbyists. The manufacturing costs must be roughly similar. Guitar strings probably have a significantly higher advertising budget, but the people doing the advertising are clearly selling a lot more units, so as a unit cost it’s probably similar again. Distribution will aggravate any differences in wholesale cost, since it’s ideally a straight markup (100% is the the classic number for retail). With all of that, I doubt you can spend more than US$15, maybe $20 tops for a set of six steel strings without really going to some work to do so. If I remember correctly, $20 is towards the low end for violin strings, and they go up seemingly without limit. So putting it all together, the only factor that I can see really accounting for that kind of discrepancy is that the violin is used for "serious" music and the guitar, in the eyes of the world, is not.
Notice also that the pricing of classical strings spans the range from low-end steel guitar sets to high-end fiddle sets. While there is almost certainly something to justify the higher end of that range, it’s hard to imagine that there isn’t also a prestige tax involved.

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You were closest with the "bowed not plucked" thing, but don’t forget the fact that violin strings need to be an octave (or so) higher, and also much louder. Violins are far more sensitive instruments (which is why the nicest ones sell for over a million dollars).

If you ever tried to put a guitar/mandolin string on a fiddle, you’d hear the difference in very short order. Sounds like fingernails on a blackboard. Decent strings make enough of a difference on a violin that they are worth their price.

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"Sounds like fingernails on a blackboard."
Huh. You mean they sound different with decent strings?

😀

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I am a player and teacher on both instruments, guitar and violin, so I know both sides.
Marketing and prestige issues put aside, violin and guitar strings are a completely different thing.
Most wound guitar strings are a single wire wound with one single layer of cheap round wire. Wound nylon strings are also very simple, even when they are wound with silver plated copper.
Strings for bowed instruments use (nowadays) high tech cores and elaborate layers of different materials (silver etc.). The windings have to be made very precisely so the surface is perfectly flat and the intonation consistent.
The production effort is much higher.

And then keep in mind that while typically guitar strings in the hands of an ambitious player last just one evening, good violin strings can last one year or more even in the hands of a pro (pro players use to talk about ca. 120 hours of hard playing).
Of course there are cases where, for example, one uses the same guitar strings for some years. This is no problem with flat wound guitar strings for jazz players, but roundwounds completely lose their brilliance and intonation.

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An octave higher, yes, but they are half the length: problem solved.And guitar strings don’t sound so good if you put them on a fiddle because they are made for guitars. If they were made for fiddes they would sound like, erm, fiddle strings. But the price is extortionate however you look at it. Mummy buys the strings, so that’s OK. Whack the price up.

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Oh, I forgot to mention gut strings. Many players still use them, and one can easily find information how they are made and how elaborate it is to make them.

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My violin strings-Infeld blue-seem to last about three months before they start unwinding, esp. the A. Can’t imagine violin strings lasting a year! Anyway, after 2 months or so the sound quality deteriorates noticeably.

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Because violins are better than guitars….

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guitarists put on new strings for every gig - that’s why they’re cheap. Violinists are willing to spend a little more so they don’t have to do that.

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"Economies of scale.
HAR!!!
I’ll be here all night folks. Please tip your waitresses"

I’ll wait for the interval.

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Violin strings are louder because of the way the energy is transferred to them - it’s not the string itself that is responsible.
Guitar strings need changing because they are pressed down behind the fret and bent slightly over the edge of it to define the length, producing metal fatigue, fiddle strings are only pressed down onto the flat surface of the fingerboard for the same effect.

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Because violin strings have to have a higher tensile strength?

Mary

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No, it’s the bow that continuously adds energy to the vibration of the string, so the player can hold or even increase the volume while playing, while on a guitar there is only the one energy transmission when the string is plucked and the sound level decays at once.

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This is an enlightening and useful discussion. In my original post I mentioned gut strings. Here is an opportunity to hear what a gut-strung baroque fiddle and bow sounds like - a live performance in a living room (not a studio). The sound is probably fairly close to what Bach, Handel, Vivaldi and the rest would have been used to hearing. It is one of Professor Todd Ehle’s violin teaching videos on YouTube.
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GhHtErHVENA&feature=digest

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Gut strings.
This is a bit like religion or football, not always a matter of serious discussions. Ok, they sound great. This has been a fact since centuries.

But…

We have been to the moon, we have the internet, ballpens and working birth control.
Gut strings are very delicate and detune when temperature or air humidity change. They break easily and don’t offer a constant quality level. They are very expensive.
And there are great synthetic strings without the disadvantages that sound great as well. That genuine baroque sound is a matter of many different details, it depends a lot on the instrument, not so much on the strings.

Now my personal opinion. I don’t like the thin sound of some "historically informed" players, I think progress can be a fine thing. And I would never use parts of dead animals, when there’s an alternative. I play wondertones or dominants. They sound great and last long, but there are many others available. Many of the greatest violinists use synthetic strings, even when they could afford anything they like (Hilary Hahn uses cheap Dominants, they sound great, but last not so long).
Its important one tries out some different strings. What can sound dull on one fiddle can make another sing like heaven.

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Oh, goody, a tangent! I’ve been mostly pleased with the results of the modern movement to produce “historically informed” music. The early years of the movement were often disappointing, but much has been learned since then and amateur players no longer dominate the field. Like all art, these performances are self-justifying. Or not. A few years ago, I heard some Mozart played by a chamber orchestra with period instruments and I thought it sounded wonderful. And I’m not normally a Mozart fan.

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Have you used gut strings Scotty? because I use them for years and most of your points sound like myths. . They are not delicate and dont break easy, they offer a consistant quality, sound great, expensive? no more than good synthetics. Yes they are more suseptable to humidity changes but it dont bother me or my fiddle. The thought of going back to thin scratchy steel strings would not even occur to me, the tone of both syntheitcs and steel are no where near as nice as good gut strings. IMO.
I have tried many many different strings over the years and Pirastro, gold, black labal or Eudoxa are pretty much the only strings I use unless its for an electric where synthetics[Evah} or steel do fine as quality of tone comes from preamp , reverb and amp.

LH, I learnt that tune[ from todd]years ago on mandolin but I still cant play it on fiddle right! sigh, perhaps another 10 yrs?! he says hopefully.

he should have repeated the 2 part right? and whats with the position changes?is that in keeping with the period?

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@the wicked hacker
I think that it is up to the player to use position changes in accordance with his personal interpretation of the music; likewise the omission of the repeat of the 2nd part of the Bach. I’m not worried about either.

Unlike the alleged unwritten "rule" about not going up the fingerboard beyond the first position in Irish fiddle playing (a rule which I ignore when it suits me) there were no such restrictions in Baroque music, and the players didn’t really distinguish between the first and second (or even third) positions - those artificial pedagogic devices beloved of later violin teachers - because they (the baroque players) must have developed the required flexibility in the left hand. They also used open strings (esp the E and A) much as Irish fiddlers do today.

Some of Bach’s and Vivaldi’s violin writing goes up to the 7th position, and Locatelli went stratospheric in the cadenzas of his Opus 3 concertos - all without the supposed benefit of chin rests or shoulder rests which were unknown in the Baroque era. What Todd Ehle does in his video is to show how easy it is to move fluidly up and down the fingerboard when playing a baroque violin. Part of his technique is that he holds his chin on the treble side of the tail piece; this stops the fiddle from moving downwards towards his right, and stabilizes it. In the video there appears to be a strip of material between his chin and the instrument, presumably to protect the varnish.

I agree with your comments about gut strings. That’s been my experience too when I’ve used them. I also think an uncovered gut A gives a better tone than covered gut (and it’s a lot cheaper), but beware of the dreaded whistling E if you’re not using a gut E. Most steel Es don’t work well with a plain gut A but Pirastro make a covered steel E that is designed to do just that.

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I agree with the cat - why use gut when there are so many nice strings that aren’t made from animal parts? And gameover on Baroque reenactors who use Internet forums, video blogs, and probably even modern plumbing.

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Guitar strings have to priced cheaper, or the deadbeats who play the instrument wouldn’t be able to afford them;
Q: What do you call a guitarist without a girlfriend?
A: Homeless!

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lol!

2 guys were walking down the street. One was destitute.
The other was a guitarist as well.

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Thanks lazy, thats answered my questions. I have been using unwound A’s quite a bit but prefer the wound. I found the unwound string would star to fray a very small bit which meant I was unable to slide into my notes. If I recall you suggested a tiny bit of olive oil … on the finger? or string? might that be a possible solution to the issue I discovered?

I tried gut E’s and with those strings Id agree with Scotty, they broke much too easily. Perhaps thats where the idea came from? I use the Pirastro Eudoxa E, with whatever other strings I am useing.
cheers.
Interesting in the second video I linked She talks about all the string makers coming from the same mountain village! Savarez, Dedario, etc

In reply to airports question;>>why use gut when there are so many nice strings that aren’t made from animal parts>>

Because they sound so much better!.
Im not a vegan, my shoes are made of leather. As a vegan, yes use synthetic strings , for the rest of us why limit yourself to using IMO poorer sounding strings just because they are made from lambs gut? If anyone can recomend a synthetic string that can match gut for tonal quality Id be interested.
I also like the connection to history. The strings are made using similar technology as they were 3 hundred years ago!
I like that.

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do you like riding in mule carts instead of cars?

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Not instead of, as well as. Definitely the way to travel, you get to really see where you are , feel the weather, great way of life altogether. Some of my best memories are of travelling by horse and cart. Better than driving around at break neck speed in a bubble.
Just because something is new does not make it better, just because someone calls something progress, does not mean that it is. Adopt what suites you through choice rather than blind obedience to fashion.
Why play such an old fashioned music? on an old fashioned instrument? Why don’t you play modern music on modern electronic instruments?

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Hear! hear!

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sigh. I suppose you both belong to one of those illegal clubs where people go to eat exotic pets

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airport - I don’t know if the animals eaten in those clubs are pets so much. Though for some, I suppose that would add a little something to the experience…. Sigh, there are always nut cases out there.

But as far as the strings go, presumably the sheep (I believe "cat gut" strings are typically made of sheep intestines) are killed for their meat in any case, so it might be seen as "tail to snout" usage of the animal - surely the market for haggis is not sufficient to use up all of those guts! When I was a kid, the "Indians" (nobody ever said which Indians, which made me suspicious, ilke hearing of an "African" custom) were lauded for using every part of an animal they killed. Presumably that’s still a virtue.

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Sheep are also kept for their wool. Goats are kept for their milk and some for their meat - I can’t think of any other possible use for them 🙂
airport’s supposition as far as I am concerned is no more than that. I don’t know TWH so cannot speak for him or her, but any meat consumed by my household would come from legal sources such as butchers and high street stores.

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Come to think of it, why would eating exotic meats be illegal? Unless the meat comes off an animal that’s listed as endangered, the only restrictions would be the ordinary ones on any butcher, wouldn’t they? I mean, if someone wanted to eat, I don’t know, koala or something (heartless bastards, eating something as cute as a koala!) what sort of laws would stop them, assuming the slaughterhouse and butcher followed the same procedures as they would for an ugly old cow or a goat or something?

(I should point out that I subsist happily on a vegetarian diet, and this is purely a matter of academic interest to me. I should also point out that I have never eaten koala, and have no desire to- probably taste like eucalyptus, anyway, ick)

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I almost forgot to mention that we always have unicorn eggs during the Beltaine festival.

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Never heard of those clubs, don’t get much exotic meat round Co Clare! 🙂
Though I did eat Crocodile, Emu and Zebra many yrs ago in Africa. Is it somehow better to eat commercially farmed battery animals than animals that live in the wild and are hunted? Personally I don’t think so.
I do think that if an animal is killed for consumption that its right all the parts should be used.

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(A comment from the person who posed this question at lazyhound’s session) .

I use Ernie Ball custom guitar strings on my tenor banjo, which works out at £5 to replace all four.

… whereas a set of fiddle stings costs me £30 +

I might concede that the fiddle strings cost more to manufacture, but that’s offset by the fact they are about only half the length.

So why do the fiddle strings cost six times as much?

No reason at at, except that’s what they charge, and musicians have no option but to pay it …

Fiddlers - you are all being diddled!