This is my personal story of how I came to use gut strings and why I like them better than anything I have used before. In fact, only since I am using gut strings do I feel I can truly call myself a lute player. If you are already playing on gut, you will know what I am talking about. If you are still playing on synthetic strings, it is not too late to better your ways: go for gut, start today!
My first lute came strung with nylon trebles and metal-wound Pyramid basses. After two years I changed to carbon and Kürschner basses. I was pleased with the stability of the carbon strings and the full, ringing sound of the bass strings. With a rather high string tension and using nails, I was able to make a strong, clear tone. I felt my lute was singing and I could always play loud enough in any ensemble. But something kept nagging at me, because, after all, lutes were made for gut strings, so what was I doing but kidding myself? A series of events then began to nibble further at my satisfaction with carbon and metal-wound strings. I borrowed an early 19th century guitar, strung with nylgut, for me a very unsatisfactory string as it combines the worst characteristics of both nylon and gut without having any of either advantages, but nonetheless pointing in another direction than carbon. When I had my own 19th century guitar, I had it strung with gut. It was love at first sight; it felt like a homecoming. But still, I did not change the strings on my lutes. In the summer of 2003, things got to a head. In May I had experienced that keeping the gut strings on my guitar in tune during concerts even in the most unforgiving climate of Japan was quite manageable. In July I was present during recordings of Toyohiko Satoh, of course playing on gut strings. His previous recordings, articles for Nostalgia and frequent talks about gut strings had made me enthusiastic before, but listening to the sound of those gut strings during the recording sessions really convinced me: how could I do otherwise than change to gut strings for my lutes?
So, I put gut strings on a 6-course a’-lute first, and had my first concerts one week later. It was a revelation. Never had I imagined the change would be so fundamental. Had I been singing on my lute before, now it felt like I could speak; my lute had been given a voice that could talk to the audience. I could express my musical ideas infinitely better with an incredibly increased range of nuances in articulation and dynamics. The tone colour had become so much warmer, so much more interesting and so much more likable. The instrument, and with it my playing, had become really alive. After this positive first experience, I have changed the strings on all my lutes, for I know now that for me there is no other way.
Of course, living with gut strings is a continuing learning experience. I had to change to a lower string tension, cut my nails and adapt some of my technique to get the most out of all the possible nuances in tone colour and dynamics. Gut is less stable than carbon, but it also turned out to be much easier to tune. It is more expensive than synthetic strings, but especially the basses last much, much longer. Handling gut strings is something I had to learn. It is not more difficult than handling other strings, just different.
So, I hope you will take my advice and change to gut strings. Doing is believing, and already I cannot even imagine anymore being a true lute player with synthetic strings on my instruments.
12/2003 David van Ooijen
Postscript: In December 2004 I wrote a next part to this article, ‘Gut strings, a work in progress’, relating my experiences with gut strings one year on.