Sunday, February 18, 2018

Defective Strings

Turning to more practical matters, one of the issues that one has to deal with as a string instrument player is, of course, strings. A while back I gave some simple advice to guitar players about how to improve and it boiled down to three suggestions:

  1. Change your strings!
  2. Either buy a better guitar or have the action gone over on yours
  3. Practice a lot slower!
Unfortunately, because of the frets, guitar strings have to be changed a lot more often than bowed instrument strings. When I was an active professional soloist I played around thirty hours a week and my strings would only last a couple of weeks before they became unusable. What goes wrong is the treble strings get dented by the frets and their pitch starts to become ambiguous. The bass strings start to go dead and the 4th string winding wears through on the second fret. There are guitar players who keep their strings on for a very, very long time, but this is why they sound so bad!

As you are constantly replacing your strings, you are also looking to find the best strings for your instrument and individual approach to tone color. A very popular string for many players that is consistently good and well-priced is the basic Pro Arté brand:

They also have some higher-priced sets that I tend to prefer such as:

A while ago I mentioned trying some new Italian strings that I really liked. I just put another set of their strings on, these ones are called "Rubino" and the trebles are colored red:

Alas, these ones are not working out as the second string (and also the third, to a lesser extent) is defective. We used to run into this problem very frequently with Augustine strings. The frequency or pitch of a string depends on three things: the length of the string, the tension and the mass per unit length or linear density. So:
  • the shorter the string, the higher the frequency of the fundamental
  • the higher the tension, the higher the frequency of the fundamental
  • the lighter the string, the higher the frequency of the fundamental
On the guitar the strings are all the same length so the difference in pitch is achieved through changing the tension with the tuning mechanism and by each string having a different mass, which means that the thinner strings are a higher pitch than the thicker ones.

The problem arises with the mass of the string. With the wound strings, this is pretty easy to control, but it is different with the treble strings. If they are not exactly the same diameter throughout, the pitch will not be clear and defined. Nowadays most trebles are reliably consistent, but you can still get a defective string. Amazingly, some guitarists don't even notice but just struggle a bit with tuning until they replace the string. But it is easy to detect a defective string. Just pluck it and watch closely how it vibrates against the dark background of the sound-hole. A good string will show a smooth band of vibration that grows narrower as the vibration ceases. A bad string will have a jerky, jagged vibration because it is trying to vibrate in more than one frequency due to the variation in the mass or diameter. It will not sound good and you will never get it in tune!

The solution (which I am going to apply this morning): take off the string and replace it with a new one! Luckily, I have a number of sets of extra trebles because sometimes I just replace the basses as they usually go dead before the trebles start sounding bad. With the old Augustine strings, about a third of them were defective. Nowadays it is pretty rare. But now you know what to do.

For our envoi today, the Carora-vals venezolano by Antonio Lauro played by me on a pretty good set of Pro Artés:

No comments: