An Introduction to Gut Strings

by Jerry Fuller

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Gut strings are most often made fom sheeps’ intestines and come in two varieties:  plain gut and gut wound with metal.  I believe the great advantage of using gut strings is that the performer has much more direct control over the tone colors produced by changing the bow pressure and/or speed of the bow. I find both metal and synthetic strings produce a generally pleasing , but far more generic sound regardless of the bow technique used.

When choosing the type of gut strings to use, I think it is critical to match the strings with the particular instrument.  If the instrument is slow to respond, one might want to try a thinner string which has more flexibility and speed of response. If this results in a loss of volume however, one can increase the string gauge until the sound becomes choked or ones loses the flexibility required. At this point, simply go back to the previous, smaller gauged string.

Once the appropriate string gauge is determined for the particular instrument, a number of benefits occur besides the aforementioned increased control over tone color.  The additional benefits include very quick speed of response, and the initial “chiff” in the sound–like the sound of air rushing through an organ pipe at the beginning of a note– is simply delicious.  Another benefit of using gut strings is the dynamic range they offer.  An instrument with well chosen gut strings has a fabulous “overdrive” capability.  I find metal strings break down and flatten out at dynamic peaks.

When playing on gut strings it is important to remember to draw the bow without too much pressure.  Too much pressure on the bow simply dampens the sound.  It is very important to remember to use the big muscles of the back and stomach, and let the arm muscles relax.  The fingers of one’s bow hand are used for all the subtlties and inflections that gut strings allow.  When playing with gut strings, the contact point where the bow meets the string becomes much more critical.  Perhaps the most important aspect of playing on gut strings is to be aware that the tilt of the bow makes a big difference to the tone color and if the bow hair is too flat when drawn across the string, the sound will easily choke.

I believe that all string players benefit from experimenting with playing on gut strings.  If you perform baroque music on period instruments, it will simply be expected that you play on gut strings.  If you play on a “modern” instrument, working with gut strings will broaden the palette of both tone color and articulation that are available to you.