Gut strings, a work in progress.

Gut strings on Van der Waals 10-courseAbout a year ago I wrote an article called ‘Go for Gut’ in which I told about my then recent switch from playing with nails on carbon and metal-wound strings to playing with fingers on gut. I was enthusiastic about the change and urged all lute players to do the same. Now, a year and a half after my first steps, I want to tell you about my experiences since then.

Reactions

Let me begin by telling you about the reactions from other people. I play in several orchestras and chamber music ensembles and I accompany a number of singers on a regular basis, so there are several colleagues who have witnessed the change from nearby.
In one baroque orchestra with which I yearly play a number of St. John Passions on my archlute both one of the flute players and the violone player came to me after a rehearsal. They had noticed the change and loved it. They said my notes could be heard more clearly and the sound of the instrument was so much warmer. In another, rather small baroque orchestra where all the string players use equal tension gut strings (for violins and violas the latest thing in authenticity is to use gut strings of an equal tension, resulting in very thick guts for the lower strings) they love my new strings because the sound blends with theirs so much better than before.
One of the vocal soloists in a Bach cantata came to me wondering what kind of strings I was using, because I was playing so loudly!
In ensemble playing I had a wonderful experience of playing my 10-course renaissance lute in Dowland’s Lachrimae with five viols. I had done it the year before with the same group on an 8-course with modern strings. All players were extremely positive about the change. Again, my sound blended so much better than before with theirs, especially in the bass range.
Not all lute playing colleagues like my new sound. Some find my basses too dull compared to their metal wound basses. But some are impressed, so much so that they too are changing or at least feel that they should. I have some very brave pupils who took the step to gut strings.
The singers I play with are pleased with the increased dynamic range and in particular with the increased sensitivity in the piano passages. But not all singers are patient with my initial technical struggles in keeping the instrument under control.
In the cd-recordings I did since my change to gut I’ve had two kinds of comments from recording engineers. Each and every one of them is in love with the sound of gut, praising it no end. But not all are impressed with the added amount of playing sounds from in particular the hand on the fingerboard. I remember one particular recording session with my baroque guitar where I wanted to play a piece very softly and tenderly. The recording engineer kept complaining about my hand shifting position when in fact I didn’t change position at all. When I finally played the whole piece through rather loudly and not so musically, just to time the connections for the pieces before and after my little solo, he was so pleased he said he would use that take! In the recordings of Corelli sonatas on my archlute (tuned down to a’ = 392Hz) I also had trouble keeping the playing sounds under control because the string tension was so low the strings kept rattling against each other and the frets. It was the same producer complaining again, this time when I played too loud, but luckily the volume was not an issue, so I was able to play softly and to concentrate on being careful with my fingers.
Some people in the audience have noticed the change too. But as not all of them know about lutes or strings, they come to me saying my playing has changed. They find it clearer, more musical and it touches them more. Almost all are impressed by the piano passages that they can still hear. But people also tell me I can be heard so much better in large groups. In obligato parts they can hear every note.

My own impressions after a year and a half of playing with fingers on gut strings are varied, though overall I am positive. The sound is so much better that I cannot imagine going back, ever. But not all change is easy. Some of my difficulties arise from not having found the right string tension yet for every instrument (experimenting can be expensive!) and with the process of learning a new technique. Some of that simply takes a lot of time. And, of course, I suddenly find out why single strung theorbos are not supposed to have string 7 and 8 on the fingerboard, like my theorbo has. These strings are so thick, that the sound is very dull. The transition to the extended basses is not in balance. But playing strings 7 and 8 in chords with their octaves all problems are gone. Therefore double strung theorbos are a good idea.
I have found it more difficult to transpose, because keys with too many flats or sharps are more difficult to play; somehow they don’t sound as well as before. Also the effective range of in particular the bass register is more limited, and especially when the bass line gets too low it doesn’t sound well anymore. As a consequence I find myself breaking up bass lines to make them fit in the perfect range whereas before it was no problem to play a bass line even very low. And because the gut basses are very much thicker than their octave strings, I cannot use a capodastro on my renaissance lutes anymore.

Tuning

I recall my first gut rehearsal on 8-course lute with some shame: I had never played so out of tune. I must say the strings were rather new, but still. With the consort of viols I have had mixed experiences with tuning. Although it was not always easy to stay in tune during the concerts in draughty or very warm concert halls, I remember one concert where I have played spectacularly out of tune for some pieces, but at least we all went out of tune in the same direction because of our similar strings. The year before it was actually a problem that my tuning stayed so constant when the viols around me were collectively going up or down with the changes in temperature and humidity in the concert halls. In one St. John Passion I couldn’t keep the basses on my archlute under control for the whole of the concert, so I ended up playing rather interesting continuo on the top three strings only for the last couple of arias. But on other occasions I have remained surprisingly stable. In the autumn for example I travelled with my 10-course for over one hour in public transport and on foot to some chapel in another city. I took my lute out of its case and practised a little at the location and then gradually the chapel filled with people. But neither during practice nor during the concert did I need to tune at all. My theorbo I am able to keep in tune during concerts thanks to the single strings: I have developed the habit of tuning the basses while playing. When I just started using gut strings I used Gimped basses. These were difficult to keep in tune, and kept going out of tune in the other direction than the plain gut strings. Now I use Pistoy basses and no longer have those problems.

Breaking strings

When still playing on carbon strings I once broke a first string on my 8-course during a concert. I was accompanying four singers in Dowland’s Come, heavy sleep. I managed to play on anyway, refingering the tablature part as I went. Luckily it was the last piece in the programme. Now, on gut, I’ve had the same experience. In the last choir of the St. Matthew Passion the first string on my archlute broke. But although playing continuo, this time I quite lost my orientation on the instrument. Once I came to a concert to find the first string on my romantic guitar had broken. I put on a new Gamut string. This was a mistake. During the concert, I had to play only three pieces, but the string gradually unravelled before my eyes. It did not actually break, but the sound was completely gone by the time I had to play my third piece. A Kürschner, Savarez or Sofracob string would have been better, as they don’t unravel so much; when they have weak spots they just break. In one particular rehearsal with my a’-lute I used up three or four top strings. I had to use a 0.38mm string as the instrument had to be tuned to a’ = 440Hz. In one general rehearsal just before a concert, I changed the top string on my 8-course, as it was about to break. I had no trouble staying in tune during the concert, as gut strings have very little stretch.

Technique

I am not yet in full control of my new sound. Especially the thumb on the bass strings is difficult. But I enjoy the process of finding a good sound; it is very inspiring and brings me closer to my lutes and closer to the music I am playing. With modern strings I took the sound I made for granted. After all, it was so easy to make a constant tone with strings of such an even material and quality. The complexity of gut strings make the sound so much more complex and interesting, too. I can find so much more nuances to colour the music with. The complexity of the sound also draws out more of the nuances in the instrument; gut strings work better with my lutes, with modern strings I felt less of such a connection.
I realise much of these observations are highly subjective, but talking to other lute and early guitar players who have changed to gut strings I found they have much the same experiences. One very fine player of romantic guitars always preferred modern strings, although he had tried gut, too, until he heard himself on a recording. Everything he always disliked in other people’s sound was in this recording. This convinced him to change to gut.
It took some experimenting to come to the strings and tensions I use now, and I am still learning. I started with Gimped basses by Gamut, but quickly changed to Pistoys because I like the sound better: less metallic. The choice of strings for the middle range is not so critical, or perhaps I am simply less critical here. For the top string I like Gamut strings for their sound, but dislike their unravelling: all the frayed bits make the sound dull. Cutting these off with a nail clipper helps, but the fraying is usually the start of untwisting. It can take a long time before they finally break, however, and in the mean time I find myself stuck with a string that lost its good tone but that I don’t want to change if I don’t have a concert. Sofracob strings are cheaper, less beautiful in sound, but offer a good balance between price and sound. They don’t last so long, however; they break after only a little bit of fraying, lasting perhaps two or three weeks on average. Kürschner strings show hardly any fraying, last longer but break quite unexpectedly. Their sound is much sharper than Gamut, but I found that after some practice I can make a warm sound on them as well. I have a mix of these three brands in my lute cases, using the ones I find most appropriate for each circumstance. I still haven’t tried Aquila or Barocco strings yet, but friends tell me both are very good.
After playing a full weekend of Monteverdi’s Maria Vespers without nails I have a sore thumb that has lost most of its sensitivity, so playing another lute is difficult then. Playing classical guitar with high tension strings without nails is painful for my fingers. I have put low tension strings on the guitar I use for teaching. It helps a little.

Of course, by now I am highly biased in favour of gut strings, but listening to other lute players on lutes with modern strings, or to myself on old recordings, I miss much of what for me has become a beautiful lute sound. It is as if these lute players use different instruments to play the same music as I do, like modern guitarist do. There is nothing wrong with that, but these modern lutes are no longer real lutes for me. I can still hear the musicality of the players, of course, and I can enjoy their performances, but the sound and therefore the music truly lacks a dimension. A good friend of mine, a lute player, says gut strings make a three dimensional sound, while modern strings only two.

So, I can conclude I have found my voice, but it is still a work in progress and will be for a long time to come. This process of change and improvement, of searching and finding, is what makes making music interesting. Gut strings have helped me in my playing, why don’t you find out what they will do for your playing?

12/2004 David van Ooijen