If at first glance it seems that guitar strings and violin strings are similar and interchangeable, let me tell you that they really are not. However, the differences are fascinating and they’re very interesting to understand if you are practicing one or both these instruments. In this article we’ll cover the many ways guitar strings and violin strings are different including why the strings need to be different and how they are made for specific purposes.
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Why Violin And Guitar Strings Need To Be Different
The question we must start with is obvious: Why are violin and guitar strings different at all? Violin and guitar strings need to be different because they are made for different instruments and different purposes. Guitarists pluck or strum the strings either with their fingers or a plectrum (a guitar pick). Violinists bow their strings with the violin bow.
In fact, the sound that a violin produces depends on the friction created between bow and strings. These playing styles create a completely different level of tension on the strings themselves producing different sounds.
Guitar Strings Are Plucked, Violin Strings Are Bowed
That difference in tension means that a guitarist’s strings won’t need to be as robust as a violinist’s strings. Besides the way each instrument is made and how they’re designed to handle string tensions, the player matters too. There are lower levels of tension placed upon guitar strings, which is good. A guitarist’s fingers would certainly feel the painful difference after a few minutes of play if they were using the same strings as violinists use.
Now, there can be a little crossover in play styles at times, no matter what kind of strings your instrument is using. You can pluck a violin’s strings and you could bow a guitar, as we can hear in Led Zeppelin’s 1969 hit Dazed and Confused (from the 2 minute 10 second mark) for example. Yet, these exceptions to the general rules don’t change the way that the strings are designed for these instruments.
Violin And Guitar Strings Are Made Differently
Technically, you can make violin and guitar strings in a similar fashion, but the two tend to be quite different in most real-world applications. Guitar strings are either roundwound or made of a single material. Violin strings are usually flatround. This doesn’t mean you can’t find some outliers in both string industries, but these are less common. Specialty strings for violins and guitars do exist, but let’s stick to the basics for this article.
About Guitar Strings
Guitar strings tend to be made of a single material or they are roundwound. It is possible to buy other types of wound string for guitars, however, they’re not very common. The sound they make isn’t often compatible with modern musical genres. They also tend to cost quite a bit more than your standard single material or roundwound guitar strings.
The roundwound string is easy to make, and it’s a low-cost manufacturing process. It consists of a single round wire that is wrapped in a second material. This wrap forms a tight spiral coating over the inner core. Strings made of a single material are manufactured to the right diameter and then simply cut to the right length.
The most common materials for electric guitars are a steel string, a nickel string, and a steel string with a nickel coating. Steel guitar strings offer a brighter, livelier sound. Nickel guitar strings provide a richer tone that has more body. The nickel-coated steel strings offer a nice halfway point between the two.
Acoustic guitars that use a steel string don’t usually use a steel string at all. They use either a brass or bronze alloy string. People tend to favor the brass strings to give the sound a bright and cutting edge. Phosphor bronze can reduce this to a warmer, mellower tone, though.
You can also find nylon strings which tend to be used on classical guitars. These guitars are not compatible with metal strings.
About Violin Strings
While guitar strings are generally single-material or roundwound, violin strings are usually flatwound.
You can use either a round wire or a hexagonal wire for the core material in flatwound violin strings. The wire on the outside, the wire that is wound around the core, has a shallower profile than a roundwound string. It forms a sort of rounded square cross-section when it’s been properly done.
Flatwound strings make the violin easier to play than when using roundwound strings. They also produce a much lower rate of wear and tear in the instrument. Additionally, they can also last longer than roundwound strings because the winding affords less opportunity for grime and dirt to worm its way into the grooves along the string.
However, flatwound violin strings don’t bend as easily as the roundwound strings do. They are more expensive to produce as well. Add to that the additional cost because there is a lower demand for these strings.
Three Types Of Violin Strings
Just as there are many kinds of guitar strings to choose from, there are some options for violin strings, too. There are three main types of flatwound violin strings:
- Gut-cored – gut comes from a sheep’s intestines. It’s then wound with a metal overlay. They produce lovely, rich, warm sounds. Professionals often prefer gut strings for their violins. However, gut cored strings are more likely to need regular tuning and they are more fragile than other strings. They need replacing more often as a result. They are also, comparatively, expensive.
- Steel-cored – steel strings offer up a brighter, cleaner tone than gut. They tend to keep the pitch more stable too. They are also very easy to tune. However, you do lose quite a bit of complexity in the sound when compared to gut.
- Synthetic-cored – a relative newcomer to the scene, the synthetic core offers the warm sound of gut and the reliability of steel. Thus, they stay in tune, they don’t need changing very often, and they’re very affordable. Synthetic-cored strings tend to be the top pick among violinists learning their trade.
Violin And Guitar Strings Are Measured (and Marketed) Differently
Violin strings and guitar strings are sold and measured in different fashions. While the marketing aspect may not be an important difference, the way the strings are made, measured, and described are.
Guitar Strings Go By Gauge
Guitar strings are described by the gauge. That is, they are defined by the diameter of the string. As the tone produced by a guitar string will depend, in part, on the weight of the string, you can get a better feel for weight by describing the diameter of the string. Gauge is typically given on a scale based on Imperial measurements relating to 1/1000th of an inch.
As you might expect, the higher the gauge, the bigger the diameter, and the more weight in the string. What you might not know is that the heavier a string is, the harder it is to press to the fingerboard to create the right level of vibration. This means that if you change the string gauge on a fretted instrument such as a guitar, you may also need to adjust the height of the string on the neck above the frets. This ensures that they can be played easily.
When you buy strings for a guitar they tend to come in a set of matched strings. The gauge references on the packet are for the first string and the last string. Acoustic guitars typically use a heavier string than an electric guitar. You can use either wound or plain, single material strings on most guitars.
Violin Strings Go By Tension
Bowed instruments, on the other hand, don’t refer to the gauge of the wire when they’re being described. Instead, they are described by the level of tension that they can produce.
There are three levels of tension available: heavy, medium, and light. Unfortunately, there is no standard definition as to what precise level of tension these three grades produce. That means that violin strings can vary enormously between manufacturers.
That’s not to say that a violin string is not influenced by the diameter of the string. It is. The thicker the string, the more tension that is required to bring them to the right pitch. However, this will change the overall level of responsiveness of the instrument. Thicker violin strings deliver higher levels of volume and fuller sounds, whereas thinner strings are quieter but produce a great level of clarity.
The majority of violinists will opt for a medium-gauge string. Though they may have to experiment to find the right one for their needs.
As mentioned above, violin strings are flatwound with either a gut, synthetic, or steel core. These material choices are listed on the packaging along with the tension levels.
Can You Use Guitar Strings On A Violin?
In theory, you could use guitar strings on a violin. After all, you’d only need a pair of scissors or a sharp knife to cut them down to size, right?
But in reality, this is a dreadful idea. A guitar string is optimized by design to produce the right tones on a guitar specifically. It has the right length, the right mass, and the correct tension in the string when pushed against a fret. The violin lacks these attributes. After all, violins don’t even have frets! Thus, while it’s physically possible to do, in practice it’s not going to make sounds you want to listen to!
As you can see above in the Amazon widget guitar strings are not expensive. You can buy budget violin strings for much less money than a packet of guitar strings. That would make it practically pointless to try to use a guitar string on a violin. Unless you happen to have a huge stock of guitar strings you were hoping to repurpose. But if that’s the case, you should probably sell them to a guitarist and use the funds to buy actual violin strings.
Can You Use Violin Strings On A Guitar?
No. You can’t use violin strings on a guitar. That’s a short and firm answer, because it’s absolutely true. You can’t use violin strings on a guitar because violin strings are too short to be of any use on a guitar.
Hopefully, this quick guide has helped you understand the key differences between guitar strings and violin strings. Between manufacturing methods, materials, size, weight, and sound, it should be obvious that these two types of strings should stay on their respective instruments.