Saturday, July 24, 2021

My Violin String Journey

I feel like today is a good day to just give a little bit of history of my experience with violin strings over the years. I began playing the violin in 1971. Strings for bowed instruments have changed quite a bit in the last 50 years. (It's hard to believe that it's been 50 years! I should probably celebrate the anniversary in some way.)

My first recollection of strings as an important component of my violin set-up and playing really goes back to the mid-1970s. As a young violin student, I am sure that I broke a string here or there and needed to learn how to change them. Learning to change strings was something that happened about the same time I learned to tune strings. It's hard to even remember the process of learning. I do remember that in the 70s, we used (Pirastro) gut strings. I remember that new A, D, and G strings took forever to stabilize once they were on the instrument. And, I remember that after a few months of wear and tear, I could see and feel the string beginning to degrade under my fingers. I was fascinated by the notion that there was some kind of organic gut material in the middle of the string. I also remember that the E string stabilized much quicker then the others.  I learned how to wind a perfect spiral up the peg and was pretty proficient at changing strings by the time I was 10 years old or so. 

I got my first full size violin when I was about 12 years old. That would have been around 1977. I remember learning about synthetic strings at about the same time. My teacher told me about the new material which was an important innovation and encouraged me to try Dominant strings right around that time. My first impression was that they stabilized so much faster. It didn't take three or four days for my strings to settle down. They would stay in tune within a couple hours of solid practice. I, like many other violinists of my generation, grew to trust Dominant strings and the innovation that they represented. I, like many other violinists, also learned that the Dominant E string probably wasn't going to do the job. I struggled with the E string whistle for several years and eventually switched back to the Gold Label E string as a compliment to the A, D, and G Dominant strings. This became my setup of choice for many years. Like most everyone else, I did this at my teacher's encouraging, and really never questioned the strings I was using.

Fast forward to the late 1990"s. I was doing extensive work with Zeta Music Systems, the electric violin company. As part of that work, I found myself frequently in the company of Sandy Neal, who worked as the Brand Manager of D'Addario Bowed Strings. I was familiar with D'addario as a guitar string company but didn't realize prior to that time that they were now designing and manufacturing strings for bowed instruments. Sandy encouraged me to try D'Addario Strings and sent me a couple sets to try. If I am being honest, I was very hesitant to try them. (How good could they possibly be? After all, D'addario is a guitar string company!) I remember putting the Helicore strings on my violin and immediately feeling good about their tone, stability, and reaction to my playing. 

Helicore violin strings are crafted with a multi-stranded steel core, resulting in optimal playability while producing a clear, warm tone. These strings are known for their quick bow response and excellent pitch stability, making them a go-to choice for players of all musical styles.

I also spent a good deal of time with D'addario Zyex strings on my violin.
Zyex violin strings are made from a a new generation of synthetic materials, which produce strings that are incredibly stable under drastic climatic conditions. Within a matter of hours, Zyex violin strings settle in on the instrument with a sound that is warmer than other synthetic core strings.

The Zyex strings were a little bit harsh on my violin and somewhat loud to my ear. Helicore, on the other hand, we're warmer and more subtle. They matched my style of playing and sounded great on my instrument. At some point, I settled on Helicore strings for my playing but I wasn't entirely happy with the E string. It had that same whistle as the Dominants and it didn't quite work for me. Within a few short years, D'Addario's non-whistling Kaplan E was introduced to the marketplace and it really did the job for me. I played Helicore strings with a Kaplan E for many years and really never looked back... until the introduction of D'addario's Kaplan Vivo strings. 

I liked D'addario Helicore's so much that I eventually (~2003) entered into an Artist/Educator agreement with D'addario and galvanized the relationship which has been so pivotal in my teaching career to this day.  Around 2015, I got a call from my friends at D'addario, encouraging me to give their new Kaplan Amo and Vivo strings a try and provide some feedback. 

Kaplan violin strings offer professional-level players an unprecedented combination of beauty and power in two options, Kaplan Amo and Kaplan Vivo. Kaplan Vivo delivers brilliance, clarity, and a robust feel for darker instruments. Kaplan Amo violin strings, on the other hand, provide warmth, richness, and flexibility for brighter instruments. These strings settle quickly, exhibiting a rich tonal color palette and superb bow response. 

My old German violin is certainly a darker instrument and the Kaplan Vivos really bring out it's wonderful character. It took me a while to get used to them, but I have grown to really love everything they offer me.

An important step in this process was gaining perspective of others in playing situations. I remember one day in particular that had a very strong impact on my decision. I play in my church very frequently. I have a dear friend, Leslie, who runs sound at the church. She has heard my violin for many years and knows the sound and character of the instrument. On the first day that I had the Kaplan Vivo strings on my violin, Leslie asked me if I had changed something on my violin. She told me that the instrument was cutting through the rest of the ensemble in a new and different way. She told me the sound was sweet and appealing, but different. That was a really encouraging comment and probably gave me the confidence to make the switch. She, a non-violinist, had noticed the upgrade. I felt really good about it.

After using Helicore's for nearly 20 years, this was a big change for me. But, the rich pallet of colors the Kaplan's offer, was a no-brainer change. I have fallen in love with these strings. 

I still recommend Helicore's for all of my students. And, in fact, I use Helicore's on all of my electric violins. But, for my acoustic instrument, the Kaplan Vivo is my string of choice. 

Choosing strings is a tricky process. It definitely takes time, patience, and a great deal of listening.  I had the sound of Dominant's under my left ear for nearly 20 years. Then, I had the sound of D'addario Helicore's under my left ear for another 20 years. Making a switch feels odd. My instrument truly does sound different (better) with Kaplans. I have been using the Kaplans now for about 2 years and absolutely love them. But, it wasn't instant. It took some time of playing with the strings and listening for their detail and characteristics.

Let me encourage you to spend some time with a variety of strings. I love D'Addario strings in every way. Helicore, Zyex, Kaplan Amo, and Kaplan Vivo provide an amazing array of tonal choices and variables. In the end, I always know that D'addario is doing everything in their power to provide an amazing string experience for players of every level. I have so much confidence in their products and recommend them without hesitation.

By the way, I have grown to trust D'Addario strings for all of my instruments. I used them exclusively on my electric and acoustic guitars, bass guitars, mandolins, viola, electric violins, and violins. 



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