The Monteverdi violins
of the Gabrieli Consort & Players

by Oliver Webber

This is one of the most important aspects of violin set-up. As any violinist of any age will agree, choosing the right strings can be a matter of much agonising, experimenting and misunderstanding, and there is no greater satisfaction than that of finding the perfect stringing for one’s instrument. It has a profound impact on the sound, articulation, feel, balance and blending capacity of the violin, and it is worth investing considerable effort in getting the stringing right.

For a full account, both scholarly and practical, of baroque stringing,
Oliver Webber's Rethinking Gut Strings: a Guide for Players of Baroque Instruments is available from King's Music

In the early years of experimenting with Baroque instruments, it was deemed sufficient simply to replace metal strings with gut in order to approach the 17th and 18th century sound-world. Recent research has shown that there is a good deal more to it than that. (You can find a selected reading list here if you’d like to pursue this fascinating and tricky topic.) George Stoppani and Oliver Webber have been at the forefront of this research, and, at Real Guts they have pioneered the practical applications of this research. They have been responsible for the historical stringing of hundreds of instruments world-wide, and a number of entire orchestras, including the Gabrieli Players.

Differences between “standard?and
Baroque stringing

What this research has shown is that the standard stringing used on most Baroque violins today has been based on a number of misunderstandings, and consequently does little to imitate the true Baroque sound. There are several aspects in which true historical stringing differs from this “standard?stringing:

Equal tension

This is the most fundamental and far-reaching difference. The modern system of stringing, which was developed towards the end of the 18th century and has remained in place until today, has the highest tension on the E string and the lowest on the G. This system is ideally suited to other aspects of the modern set-up which developed around the same time: higher bridge and angled neck, larger bass bar etc.

The system in place before the middle of the 18th century was equal tension: each string had the same tension. Note that the tension is the horizontal stretching force in the string ?this is not to be confused with the vertical force acting through the bridge onto the belly of the instrument.

In practice, equal tension means much thicker strings at the lower end of the instrument, as the following table shows:

Comparative gauges of modern and historical Baroque violin strings:

Comparative tensions of modern and historical Baroque violin strings:

Another way of imagining the difference is in terms of pitch: the standard system of tension is roughly equivalent to tuning the A string down to G, the D down to B and the G down to Eb! So this is by no means a subtle refinement, but rather a radical re-think of the sound and balance of the instrument.

Stoppani bass violin click on image
Equal tension stringing on the bass violin by Stoppani, used in the Vespers recording.

Note the colour, translucency and thickness of the lower strings.

Photo: James Gilham

Wound strings

Wound strings were invented in the 1650s for use on the lowest strings of bass instruments - “the basses of viols, violins and lutes?according to Playford in 1664:

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John Playford’s advertisement in “An Introduction to the Skill of Music? 4th edition, London 1664

They were an attempt to solve the problem of resonance often associated with very thick bass strings, especially those of lesser quality. This is perhaps best illustrated by the bass violin, the largest instrument in the regular violin band, often tuned like the modern cello but also sometimes (especially in France and England) a tone lower. There are two approaches to getting sufficient string tension to achieve a good bass sound on this instrument: you can have a large instrument with a long string-length, or a smaller instrument with thicker strings. The larger instrument succeeds better tonally, but is awkward to play, especially in fast passages; the smaller instrument gains agility but loses resonance in the bass. It was not possible to achieve a ringing bass tone and a truly manageable size. Winding a gut string with metal increases the density, which means a thinner and/or shorter string can do the same job: this means it is possible to have a manageably-sized instrument with a good rich bass tone. It has been convincingly argued by Stephen Bonta [1] that such an instrument became known as the violoncello.

While there is much to be said about the development and use of wound strings (they were by no means universally taken up), our decision for the Monteverdi violins was relatively uncontroversial, as our target period was some 40-50 years before the invention of this technique!

Viola with all-gut stringing Wound C string by Real Guts
in historical proportions
Commercial wound C string
Note the relative thickness of the C strings.
Viola after Guarneri (1676) by Robin Aitchison.

Level of tension

It is a commonly repeated myth that Baroque stringing was generally at a lower tension than modern. This is probably caused by a confusion between string tension and the force acting vertically through the bridge: this latter force was indeed lower in early set-ups, because the lower bridge and straighter neck mean that the strings pass over the bridge at a shallower angle:

String tension (ST) and Bridge Force (BF) in one of the Stoppani violins (1) and a classical violin
after Stradivarius, late 18th century set-up, by Robin Aitchison. In the early baroque set-up (1), BF is about 35% of ST; in the classical set-up (2), BF is about 45% of ST.

This confusion, combined with ignorance of equal tension, is what had led to the typical “Baroque?stringing we so often find today, in which a graded tension stringing with very light strings is used. This has ironically created a system of stringing almost certainly never known before the second half of the 20th century!

[1] “From violone to violoncello: a question of strings? Journal of the American Musical Instrument Society, iii (1977), 64-99. Many of Bonta’s other writings will be of interest to visitors to this site: highly recommended is his collection “Studies in Italian Sacred and Instrumental Music in the 17th Century? Ashgate Publishing Ltd, Aldershot, 2003.

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