String Choice

People sometimes ask me why I play on strings made of gut, in stead of on one of the more convenient modern alternatives. The most important reason is that I like the feel and sound of this natural material. That in itself is enough to justify my choice, but there are a few more considerations that make using historical strings on a historical instrument the logical thing to do.

A lute is what we today call a historical instrument. It was very popular in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries and gradually went out of fashion in the eighteenth century to all but vanish in the nineteenth century. The lutes played nowadays are, with a few exceptions, copies of old instruments. It is not so easy to make a perfect copy of an old lute, however, as can be seen in the development modern lute making has undergone since the revival of the lute in the twentieth century. On the one hand modern luthiers have to rediscover many of the lost arts of lute making and, on the other hand, they have to evade the advances modern technology has made. An electrical band saw, for example, will enable a luthier to cut a piece of wood to even thickness in a matter of seconds. Hand cutting and planing the same piece of wood will take much more time, but will make the luthier feel the wood and look at it, thereby appreciating its strong and weak spots. The result will be a less even piece of wood, perhaps a little thicker at the weak spots and a little thinner at the stronger spots. But crucially, a luthier following the grain of the wood with his tools will cut through fewer fibres. Such a piece of wood, used for a sound board or rib, will result in a better instrument, as it is more flexible as well as stronger. Furthermore, it will sound better as the acoustical properties of the wood will be taken into consideration by the luthier who works with his hands and eyes in stead of power tools. Modern wood glue, another example, will give a strong and permanent bond and is easy to use. Old fashioned glue made of animal bones, on the other hand, is much more of a bother as it has to be heated before use and spills easily when applied. But instruments made with bone glue can be taken apart for repairs and the resulting bonds have superior acoustical properties because the pieces of wood are really connected whereas modern glues leave a thin layer of elastic material between the pieces of wood, thereby damping the vibrations of the wood. These, and many more traps of modernity stop us from discovering the real qualities of historical lutes. So, modern techniques in lute making cause many deviating details that add up to a modern in stead of a historical lute. Like the modern luthier, the modern lutenist has similar traps to evade. The pit most difficult to escape, once fallen into, is the one of string choice.

A historical lute has always been strung with strings made of gut, cut into long strips that are twisted together. Gut strings have disadvantages. One that concerns especially lute players is that the lute’s thinnest string, about 0.40mm in diameter, will break easily. But as with lute making, modern string making is partly to blame for this, as today’s string makers are also faced with rediscovering lost techniques and evading modern improvements. For example, hand-cut strips of gut are stronger than strips cut by a machine. The machine cuts an exact size, but the string maker who cuts the strips of gut with his knife follows the fibres and damages less of these. And it is precisely these fibres that give strength to the resulting string. Furthermore, cut-through fibres will stick out of the string as hairs or frays, causing a dull sound, followed by annoying buzzing and eventually premature breaking. Strings made by a machine are rectified by sanding them to exact diameters. This is nice for lute players, as this gives strings of an even thickness that are much better in tune than the unrectified strings that can be quite uneven and therefore false. However, the sanding of the strings causes many fibres to break, causing the aforementioned frays, buzzes and breaks. Thick gut strings used for the basses on lutes, another problem, can sound very dull, especially compared to the bright bass strings on modern plucked instruments we are used to hearing today. But recent rediscoveries in old string making techniques have led to gut strings that are made heavier and therefore thinner, as well as more flexible and therefore brighter, by adding metals in various ways or by different twisting techniques. Here, too, are some pitfalls to evade, as some string makers in their zeal to make the perfect string have come up with new varieties of strings that have no historical precedents whatsoever.

The most serious disadvantage of gut strings, however, is that they react strongly to changes in humidity. A gut string is like a hygrometer, translating every minute change in humidity in a change in pitch. Humidity depends on temperature, but also on air pressure, an open door or window (draught!), sweaty fingers, stage lighting, floor heating, wet coats in the audience and a thousand more lutenist’s fears. An 11-course baroque lute from the beginning of the eighteenth century has no less than 20 gut strings, so it is no wonder Johann Mattheson in his Neu-eröffnete Orchestre from 1713 wrote: ‘Denn wenn ein Lauteniste 80. Jahr alt wird / so hat er gewiß 60. Jahr gestimmet.’ (When a lutenist reaches the age of 80, he must surely have spend 60 years tuning.) To which he added: ‘Das ärgste ist / daß unter 100. insonderheit Liebhabern / die keine Profession davon machen / kaum 2. capable sind / recht reine zu stimmen.’ (The worst is that among 100 amateurs, those that do not make a profession of it, hardly two will be able to tune really well.) We should not be surprised, then, that today’s lutenists, fearing all these serious disadvantages, opt for a modern solution. They can choose between strings of such modern materials as nylon and carbon, materials that show hardly any reaction to changes in humidity and are therefore extremely stable in tuning. There are bass strings made with a nylon core, overspun with a thin metal wire that sound a lot brighter than the dull gut basses. All of this is tempting, why then do I choose for those breaking trebles, dull basses and endless tuning? The answers can be found in the music.

Firstly, a gut string will respond immediately when plucked, so it has a quick attack. This in contrast to for example a nylon string, that has a little slower attack. A gut string, especially a thick bass, does not continue to sound very long after it has been plucked, so it has a short sustain. This is in sharp contrast to a carbon string or a metal-wound bass, strings that seem to go on ringing for ever. To dampen these, new lute playing techniques have even been developed in the twentieth century. These two factors, attack and sustain, will influence the speed, and therefore the musical tempo, with which I will be able to play my pieces. And more important still, they will influence my articulation: how much time can I put between notes to still glue them nicely together in a cantabile melody? Or: won’t the fast notes bleed too much into each other in a jumpy theme? Secondly, gut strings are irregular in structure and rich in harmonics. These two aspects make a natural sound, rich and alive. Modern strings are uniform in structure and therefore produce a more even, boring and flat sound; there is not much happening in the sound once the string is plucked. Thirdly, the balance in a lute strung entirely in gut, the trebles just under breaking point and very present, the middle register comfortable with strings that are neither too thin nor too thick, and the clumsy, dull basses that are given extra harmonics by pairing them with octave strings that must be plucked simultaneously, cannot be imitated by modern, uniform strings that sound good and evenly in all registers in a much wider range of diameters and tensions. Fourthly, gut strings have a smaller, but much more refined dynamical range than modern strings; perhaps they are not as loud as some modern materials, but they are capable of making more fine nuances in dynamics.

Of course, as with modern lutes, modern gut strings are not the same as historical gut strings. We don’t know how lutes really sounded several hundred years ago, and our attempts to recreate the strings of olden times can never be more than attempts. But we do know that all the attempts to recreate historical lutes and historical strings are getting us a little closer to the sound and music of bygone ages. Modern lutes, made with modern technology, and modern strings of twentieth and twenty-first century materials are definitively not getting us closer to a historical sound. They might lead the way forward to musicians interested in new developments, but for lutenists trying to understand the music that was written for their instruments ages ago, there is but one choice of string material: gut. Because these are the strings that the lutenists of old had to work with, strings with a similar attack and sustain, with similar possibilities of tempo and articulation, with a similar tone colour, creating a similar balance within the instrument and with similar dynamical possibilities. If I want to understand what a composer wanted with his composition and if I want to play his music in a way he envisioned, I have to start with the same material he had. With modern strings I will find modern solutions. It is so obvious: if I want to find solutions that a lutenist of old could have found, I must give myself the same means he had available, and that includes strings made of gut. Hence, for a lute player seriously interested in rediscovering early music, there is no such thing as string choice.

David van Ooijen 2009