Strad readers submit their problems and queries about string playing, teaching or making to a panel of experts
In the next of the series, a violinist describes a recurring problem with unwinding strings in the middle of the fingerboard.
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The dilemma I am an amateur violinist living in Nairobi, Kenya, and I have a recurring problem: my A strings, and sometimes my D strings, tend to unravel after only four months of playing. I usually practise for around three or four hours each day, and they often unravel in the centre of the fingerboard. My question is: what causes strings to unravel in this way? Does the hot Kenyan climate have anything to do with it? And is there anything I can do to guard against this happening in the future?
KEN MWITI, NAIROBI, KENYA
FRANZ KLANNER To investigate the effect of perspiration on strings, Thomastik-Infeld worked with the Vienna General Hospital dermatology department to analyse the composition of perspiration within different climates and age groups, as well as the effect of other influences, such as stress and nutrition, on different materials. Sweat is aggressive, breaking down the outside of the string and soaking into the layers of the winding. That’s why cleaning the string does not really help to stop the corrosion from the inside. It’s like dental caries slowly destroying the tooth from the inside out.
First we tested a variety of new as well as established materials to compound the ideal aluminium alloy, to make the string more perspiration-resistant and stop sweat from soaking in. After playing the string for a while the top layer can wear off a little, so the next step was to develop and incorporate a protective interlayer to avoid sweat from penetrating the inside of the string altogether. You are probably using aluminium-wound A and D strings; I would recommend that you use a silver-wound synthetic-core D string and a chrome-wound steel-core A string to extend their lifespan.
Gold-plated strings will have a warm sound while still retaining great clarity. Platinum-plated strings convince with the same clarity but offer more power at the same tension level. Chrome-plated strings are a lower-budget alternative to platinum-plated strings. They are more powerful than gold-plated strings, but also more metallic-sounding.
All of our strings mentioned above work well in any chosen combination. They are all perfectly attuned with identical tensions and enable you to modify your tone and assemble your sound while solving the corrosion problem.
FAN TAO The violin A string is fragile because it typically has very thin windings of aluminium, a soft metal. Modern synthetic- and steel-core strings require metal windings to sound their best. Aluminium, which has low density, is used for the violin A because that string needs very little mass, owing to its high vibration frequency.
Several months of string life are typical for synthetic core violin strings if one plays for several hours a day. Steel-core strings usually last longer than synthetic-core strings because the steel core is more durable. Synthetic cores stretch and elongate much more than steel ones, and this can cause the metal windings to pull apart and be more susceptible to damage.
Human sweat can also damage strings. The corrosive power of sweat varies enormously with individuals, and hot weather can make the sweating problem worse. Many violinists press their fingers too hard on to the strings and fingerboard. Being a very soft metal, aluminium can easily be damaged by excessive finger pressure, which makes aluminium-wound strings susceptible to breaking. If the underside of your string looks deformed and flattened, you are likely using too much finger pressure.
The pedagogue Simon Fischer has written that excess finger pressure is one of the most common and most damaging problem areas of technique. He says the correct amount of finger pressure is ‘as much as necessary (to stop the string properly) but as little as possible’. This advice will improve your playing technique and may increase your string life as well.
ERIK MARTENS It is difficult to say for sure what is causing your strings to unravel without touching and seeing the strings first hand, but there could be several reasons:
*Hand perspiration can be a problem, especially when it comes to aluminium-wound strings, because the acidity of the perspiration attacks the aluminium. This problem could be solved by cleaning your strings with a soft, dry cloth whenever you finish a practice session or performance. If that doesn’t help, you could try using chrome-wound strings, which are less susceptible to perspiration.
*As you correctly surmise, it could indeed be the climate in Kenya that affects the materials, especially if the environment is on the acidic side. A combination of humidity and acid could be damaging to aluminium strings in the same way as perspiration. Chrome-wound strings would help here, too.
*From the photo you sent (right), it also looks as though the strings unravel in a specific place on your fingerboard. In that case, it might be a good idea to have a violin maker check if there are any problems with the fingerboard itself. A scratch, or even minor damage, on your fingerboard could easily affect the upper winding of your strings and cause them to unravel.
In summary, it is most likely that you have been using strings wound with aluminium. I would try to buy A and D strings that are chrome wound, and see if that solves the problem. The next time you visit your local luthier, you could also ask them to check your instrument to make sure that there is nothing wrong with the fingerboard.
Franz Klanner is the director of product development at Thomastik-Infeld Strings in Vienna, Austria: www.thomastik-infeld.com
Fan Tao is the director of research and development at D’Addario, based at Farmingdale, NY, US: http://daddario.com
Erik Martens is administrative manager at Jargar Strings, based in Copenhagen, Denmark: www.jargar-strings.com
Do you have a burning question about string playing, teaching or making that you need answering by people who really know? Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.