String theories: what are the best strings for old-time fiddle?
I have a string problem. This is a picture of my fiddle string graveyard—all the strings I’ve bought, and tried, and re-tried over the years. I cycle back through them periodically, trying to get my fiddle to sound a little warmer, or smoother, or brighter, or louder, or quieter. I’m going to share a few things I’ve learned, and maybe, armed with this knowledge, you can find your perfect strings without wasting as much time and money as I did.
I’ve learned that when I first put on a new brand of strings, I almost always think they sound better. But it’s just the novelty effect. After 24 hours, all their problems come to the fore. It’s a running joke around our house that whatever extravagant claims I make for the new brand I’m trying, I’ll do an about-face and hate them within a few days.
There’s a reason most fiddlers love Prims. Any kind of steel-core string is going to be much more forgiving when your bow strays too far away from the bridge, and this seems especially true for Prims. They’re very easy to play, and their sound has a nice razor-sharp bite. More advanced wound-core steel strings like Helicores and Super Flexibles are a little harder to play, synthetics like Dominants harder still, and real gut is extremely difficult. With gut and most synthetics, if your bow isn’t the optimal distance from the bridge, your sound disappears (there are lots of other variables, too, but this is the most dramatic).
Recently I got Bill Peterson to ask Dwight Lamb what kind of strings Bob Walters used. Get this: he played a set with a wound-gut G and D, plain gut A, and steel E! I forget the brand name (lil help, Bill? Was it Wondertone?). Apparently it was a very common setup back in the day, but it’s unheard of among fiddlers now. When Bill told me this, it truly blew my mind. After I recovered, naturally I went right out and got the exact same set. As usual, they were fun for 24 hours but the next day I realized that every other note I played started off with a horrible scratching sound. I think you need at least some classical violin training to make gut strings work (which I ain’t got, but Bob had). Or you need to not care and just embrace the scratchiness. David Kerr, owner of one of the best violin shops anywhere, Kerr Violins in Portland, always used to tell me he would love to see more old-time fiddlers trying gut strings. If you think about it, there’s nothing old-timier. Some of those those archaic fiddlers we love must have played on gut. Well, at least I can say I’ve made the experiment. If nothing else, the whole experience gave me a new appreciation for Bob Walters’ playing.
It used to be that I’d always circle back around to Prims. A couple of years ago I might have just said that if you play old-time fiddle, don’t mess around with other strings. That might still be my advice if the sound you’re after is in the ballpark of Tommy Jarrell. But as I’ve gotten interested in more notey styles, like Bob Walters’, I’ve found I crave a more refined tone and a string that responds a little more.
I used Evah Pirrazzi synthetics for a year. They’re beloved by many classical violinists and increasingly more fiddlers. They made my fiddle sound gorgeous, but I ultimately decided that for a lowly self-taught fiddler like me, they were just a little too much work to play, especially for notey tunes at square-dance tempo. (I know several great fiddlers who love them and sound incredible on them. Grace Forrest for one.) But when I tried going back to Prims, I couldn’t do it. They just seemed so one-dimensional and wirey. The year of Pirazzis had ruined me. Then I remembered D’Addario Helicores. They’re not a true steel-core string, and I always used to think their intonation was a little squirrelly—I think they have a lot of winding on a very thin core and they seem to wiggle around under your finger a little bit. But compared any synthetic string, they’re a breeze to play. They also sound much fuller and warmer than Prims. Sure, they’re a compromise, but I’ve been pretty happy with them for a few months now: they’re fast and almost as easy to play as Prims, and they have a fuller and warmer sound, although nothing like the Pirazzis.
I’ve occasionally been seduced by the high-tension or “orchestra” gauge strings some companies offer, including Prim and Helicore. But for me they’re always a dead-end. For those first 24 hours, sometimes longer, I love how deep and warm and loud they make my fiddle. Then I try to tune up to A and they become ridiculously tight, with weird wolf tones. Or they break. And they seem to have more bow noise, too, maybe because it takes more bow to make them speak, or they have a little more surface area.
Light-gauge strings can be a really nice option if you want a softer sound. I hear light Prims are popular among some hard-core southern-style fiddlers. I often encourage beginning fiddlers to get light Prims because they’re easier to press down and to bow, and they’re easier on the ears too. Here are two more strings I have opinions about—some of the many in my string graveyard that never get resurrected:
- Visions: very stable and retunable synthetics (like Pirazzis), but the ones I’ve tried (they have a few varieties) always sound to me like plastic, not like gut. If you want to fool around with synthetic strings, I say go with Pirazzis. They seem really stretchy when you first put them on, but once they settle, they change tunings pretty well. The standard affordable classical string, Dominant, has a nice “buzz” but doesn’t retune well.
- Jargars: they’re steel core, and people with bright fiddles sometimes use them to try to mellow out their sound. They do work well for some people and some instruments. One of my favorite fiddlers here in the northwest, Peter Boveng, sounds great with them. I’m told jazz violinists love the heavy Jargars. But to me Jargers always sound like they have cotton batting under the windings or something. They thump when you pluck them, they don’t ring. They make every fiddle I’ve tried them on sound dead. On the other hand, the Jargar E string is really nice—very smooth and clear.
If you have a natural tendency towards tinkering, like me, trying different E strings can be an inexpensive and fun way to indulge yourself. If you do that, though, for God’s sake don’t be like me and throw them into a bag all together so they get completely tangled up like in the picture. Keep the envelopes, label and date them.
I’d love for people to add comments about their favorite strings, or their pet string theories. And next time I post about strings, I will probably have changed my mind about everything I just said.