Wednesday, April 23, 2014

When Should I Change My Violin Strings?


by Lora on August 20, 2010

I have been practicing a lot lately, trying to get the Mozart Violin Concerto in A Major ready to record. I have not been happy with my sound, and I kept working harder and harder, trying to energize my vibrato and digging in with my bow….but I just wasn’t getting the resonant sound I wanted.

My hands were hurting and getting tired quickly. I started wondering if my technique had slipped—maybe I was squeezing the violin or something.

Then I bought a new set of strings. I got them so that I could put them on my instrument and get them all broken in by the time I have to record the concerto.

OMG! I can’t believe I didn’t realize that my strings were the problem all along! They were DEAD as a DOORNAIL (whatever that means).

As soon as I put them on and played my first scale, I felt so stupid. My instrument sounded resonant, loud, ringy, responsive, the soft notes were clear, the loud notes were rich. My vibrato is finally doing what I want it to do. Eureka!

The moral of the story? New strings can transform your playing! But how do we know when it’s time to get new ones? There are several things to consider. Are you a professional or amateur? Beginner or advanced player? How much are you playing daily? What brand of strings do you use, because different strings have different durability.

You know how Jiffy Lube recommends you change your oil every 3,000 miles or every 3 months, whichever comes first? Same goes for violin strings.  When I’m putting in A LOT of miles, I have to change my strings very frequently. For instance, when I’m performing in an orchestra pit EVERY DAY, plus practicing at home, I will change my strings every month, at a minimum.

Yes, it’s expensive, but so is tendonitis. New strings help you work less to get the sound out.  When I’m not doing a lot of high-pressure performing, and I’m just practicing an hour or two a day, I will change my strings every 3-4 months.  Honestly, this last set of strings was on my instrument for about 8 months, and that was WAY TOO LONG from a professional standpoint.

If you are an amateur, and you would call yourself a beginner, I would say you need a new set of strings on your instrument every 9 months to a year. No if’s and’s or but’s. It is a necessity. If you are intermediate or advanced, change your strings every 9 months at least. If you have a recital or important performance coming up, put new strings on a week before your performance, and save the old ones as spares.

It’s a very good idea to keep a half decent set of STRETCHED strings on hand, in case of a broken string during a concert, or the day of a concert or something like that. (it’s happened to me twice and I was prepared both times!)

Should you change just one string, or all of them? Change all of them. I know it’s expensive, but let’s go back to the automobile analogy. Would you put a brand new tire on your car with 3 worn tires? Most people agree this is not a good idea. I hate spending a ton of money on strings too, so here are three good compromises:

  1. When you buy your strings, buy an extra A and E string. When it’s time to change your strings, put on the new A and E. They tend to wear out the worst.
  2. Keep a brand new, full set of spare strings available at all times. When one string starts to unravel or go “false”, replace it with your spare, then get another spare. You’ll notice you will be replacing your A and E most often.
  3. When you have a big performance coming up, SPLURGE and get a FULL new set, and take the old ones off as emergency, stretched spares.

How do you change a violin string? There are many tutorials online showing this process, including my own:

Part 1:

Part 2:

The topic of what strings to use is way too involved to attempt to cover it here. But string suppliers have gotten very good about describing the tonal qualities of their strings. Read up on the different brands, and try a few!

I love Dominant strings because they are affordable, consistent, and of professional quality. They are still very expensive, though, at about $45 per set.

A student of mine recently showed up with a new set of D’addario Prelude strings and I was quite impressed with them for beginning to intermediate players. I think the whole set cost him $15!

Finally, the best prices I found recently on violin strings was at www.gostrings.com.

Life is too short to play on old strings!

{ 23 comments... read them below or add one}

  1. Stephy

    Great video(s)! I just changed my D string and will change the others as well. I have been looking for something like this for a while. It would be nice if you added some comments on difficulties of tuning. I had a peg that would slip and the string was too wounded up to use again. I’m in love with peg dope. A slipping peg is the biggest reason why I hadn’t touched the violin for a long time.

  2. Stephy

    I just tried out the new D string today and I’m not sure why I hadn’t changed the string sooner. I had a little recording of today and yesterday’s string and there is definitely a difference (aside from limited video recording capabilities). It was more pronounced when I tried the G on the D string. It sounded like I was strangling someone. The new string is a whole lot better and dare I say pleasant to someone like me. It does sound like there is a light cloth covering the string since it sounds just a tiny bit muffled, hopefully that’ll go away soon.

    That old string really kept me back because I thought I couldn’t move on until I made it work. Thanks for the article!

  3. Lora

    Stephy– I’m glad your D is “ringing” better. Still, it’s not normal for your D string to sound like a light cloth is covering it…unless you mean that “Raw, new, glassy” sound, which will go away in 3 days. If it doesn’t, let me know. I’ll troubleshoot with you.

  4. Stephy

    Sorry about the late response. College just started up for me and I’m living with three other girls over a landlord. I do go home on the weekends. I meant to mean more that it’s new. I also replaced the g and A string but find that the D has this little squeaking noise that you hear if you were to shorten the string (finger closer to the bridge) that is not the case on the G or A. I am using d’addario helicore.

  5. Lora Post author

    Helicores are great strings, so it’s not the strings. I have a feeling you just need to have your nut adjusted, or the bridge. Those are both quick and inexpensive adjustments….if it drives you nuts, I’d take it into a shop and have it fixed. I bet it would be under $40….still alot of money, but a squeaking D string is going to hold you back.

  6. Stephy

    I think it got better. I didn’t notice anything funny when i played yesterday. I can now only play every week but there is a little progress each time.
    I just started playing with the fingers on the strings and working my way through twinkle twinkle. It’s quite slow and changing strings are a little difficult while keeping with the beat. I also got the feel of a straight bow but need to just adjust the positioning of my wrist which does make a difference. It greatly tickles me when I put down my fingers and hear a difference in pitch.

    1. Joey

      “I can now only play every week”

      That’s nuts, if you are being held back because you can’t make noise. Get an electric violin and some amplifying headphones to avoid annoying anyone. Or maybe get a mute.

      Then you can practice as much as you have time for.

    2. Lora Post author

      That’s a good idea, Joey. (although I can’t see who you are talking to….for some reason, all comments aren’t showing for me)
      I know Keiko bought a nice electric (silent) violin, and is loving it.

      I got a Cecilio (very inexpensive) and I’m really struggling with it.
      I think playing on Electric violins is a totally different type of finesse….you have to let the electronics to the work for you. If you over-play on those things, it just wears you out, and the violin doesn’t really respond any differently.
      But for easy, quiet practice, it’s probably a good idea.

  7. rose

    I replaced all the strings in my violin, as they are very old. As you said they sounded lil odd “Raw, new, glassy” in the beginning. Its slightly better now but I would like to hear the normal sound. What can I do because its been almost five days? *confused*

    1. Lora Post author

      Hey Rose—My first suggestion to you, is to “re-calibrate” your ears to the new string sound. We get accustomed to the old, muffled sound of worn out strings, and it is more pleasant to our ears, but in reality, it is an inferior sound, less pleasant to an audience, and makes our hands work harder than they should. So try to accept the new sound.

      Second suggestion is to play ALOT, to break in the strings. Not only will you break in your new strings, your ears will adapt more quickly than if you only play 5 minutes a day.

      Third Suggestion: Play on the new strings as CLOSE to the bridge as possible, with a HEAVY, SLOW bow. This is torture, and makes awful, harsh sounds, but it does help to break in the strings quickly. (it’s also a great exercise in bow weight and bow speed and sounding point control, so it’s not a waste of time!)

      Last Suggestion: If the sound is really really bad, your sound post may have slipped out of adjustment, or tailpiece could be out of whack. If it really seems just horrid and off, take it in to a shop and ask them to check for you. Violins that sound horrible make us hate violin…and it kills enthusiasm, because nothing we do makes them sound any better…it’s like going for a bike ride on flat tires….it’s no fun, so we just quit! Make sure you address this problem and kick it’s butt.

  8. John Kelly

    Really great information! Gave me the confidence to quickly change my own strings. What a difference! Thank you, thank you, thank you!

    1. Lora Post author

      Great! I’m glad you benefited from the article! If you want some really helpful instruction about changing each string (because each string is a little different) you can check out my YouTube videos “How to Change Violin Strings” there is a Part 1 and Part 2. This is the link to Part 2, and you will easily find Part 1 from there.

      See you around!
      –Lora

  9. Jordan

    Hey Lora, I have had a violin for 10 years and finally have mustered my mustard to play it. I got all I need but I have a question about the strings. The strings on the violin are basic/ cheap strings and they were put on 5 years ago. I have not touched it since except for once a blue moon to look at it and pluck a string or two. I have gone to a shop about it and they ‘ guess’ the strings ‘might ‘ be ‘ok’. What is your opinion?

    1. Lora Post author

      Hi Jordan!
      My opinion: It’s a shame to waste those strings, but after 5 years, they are most likely deadened.
      You have 2 choices which will help you to not waste the strings.
      1) Buy new strings and put them on your violin. Use the others as “pre-stretched” spares to carry in your case. They would be good in a pinch if you broke a string and needed a stretched replacement. I always carry used strings with me, because you do NOT want to put a new string on at a concert or even a rehearsal. You’ll spend more time tuning than playing.

      2) Go ahead and play on the old strings. It won’t hurt….but you will not get the full response that you should from them, because they will be deadened. This option won’t do any permanent damage to your playing, and I’ve certainly played on dead strings plenty when I couldn’t afford new ones.

      I would encourage you to go with #1, unless you are really strapped for cash. For one thing, if you put on a whole new set, you have a matching set, and they will stretch and age together. I love putting on a whole new set of strings, because you get a sense of evenness from string to string. When you start replacing strings one at a time, you lose track of what string is how old…and a G string can last forever…..even though it’s “dead”….it won’t break….and your tone suffers.

      Also, with option #1, you will enjoy your debut on the violin much more, because new strings are just more resonant and responsive. You will be playing under the best case scenario.

      SO, go with #1, and keep the old strings as back-ups.
      –Lora

  10. Cortney

    Thank you so much for this information. It was really helpful. I haven’t played the violin in awhile, and my Dad some how just randomly found a violin in the trash. Weird huh? So…again. Thank you for this information, it was really helpful. (^_^) I wounded up changed the A string, and it seems to be working nicely.

    1. Lora Post author

      OMG! I would like to find a violin in the trash…. preferably a Strad or a Del Gesu!
      That’s awesome! It’s like you were MEANT to play that violin!

  11. Laura

    My daughter needs to play for a wedding that is about a week and a half away (a week by the time we get new strings). Is it too late to try to change her strings now?

    1. Lora Post author

      A weeks is plenty of time for a new set of strings to stretch and break in.
      If they are synthetics, like Dominants, even just 2 days is enough.
      If they are gut strings, then a week is about right.
      Good luck!

  12. Phil, Cornwall

    Hi, Lora
    This site has been so helpful; it’s the first place I’ve seen any mention of strings taking days to break in, or of how to do so. I’ve just taken a new set of D’Addario Preludes OFF my violin because they sounded so dreadful, and replaced them with some Astreas, at a quarter of the price, only because I’d had Astreas before – and they sound dreadful too; the top two are all right but the response on the D and G is really slow, feeble and scratchy. I’ve been suspecting the bow (not a bad one), too much rosin, not enough, the bridge, the soundpost, not having the little rubber washers under the string (never used those before: never needed them); now I know I just need to be patient and they’ll settle in with a bit of hard playing. I suppose if I’d changed my strings in the past three years it would have helped, but they were really expensive ones that were on it when I bought it and I knew I couldn’t afford a new set of those…

    1. Lora Post author

      Hi Phil
      How are your strings sounding now? Did they settle in nicely, or are you still experiencing cat scratch fever?

  13. Liz

    I usually use Solos on my violin, but my a string was wearing out in December and I had to get a different brand (Dominant) because I live in a small town and the music store here only had red labels and dominants. I just noticed my a string starting to unravel where the D on A is. I have a whole new set on solos ready, but I go to music camp in like 5 days. I was wondering if I should replace the whole set now, or wait for camp to end.
    And for next time I need an a string immediately and ddont have time to drive 6 hours to the place the carries solos…is it ok to have different brands on at the same time?

    1. Lora Post author

      Hi Liz
      I hope this reply reaches you in time.
      It is FINE to have mixed sets/brands of strings on your violin. Some people mix them up intentionally….but most people keep matching sets on. It is personal preference.

      It is also fine to have strings of different ages (different number of miles on them)…..of course, it is best to have them match….but I frequently buy 2 A’s and 2 E’s with each new set of strings…..so that I can put a fresh A and E on….because they wear out faster and get played more than my D and G…..

      If you feel you need the extra edge and advantage of playing on your favorite brand of string, I would put them on today. They will be stretched by Day 1 of camp. If I were nervous about camp, I would put the new set on, and keep the others as spares.

      Now, check this out: Does your case have a velcro strap that goes around the neck of the violin, to secure it in the case???? And I bet the strap goes right across where your 3rd finger goes……(where your string is unraveling)….
      That is a common failure point, and most people think it’s because they play that note the most…..but it is caused by friction from the strap. To eliminate this problem, put your “violin cloth” UNDER the strap, so the cloth is on your fingerboard, and the strap goes over the cloth. I do this religously, and although I still unravel from time to time, I have tripled the life of my strings.

      Good luck at camp!

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