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Gut Strings

Author(s): Djilda Abbott and Ephraim Segerman

Source: Early Music, Vol. 4, No. 4 (Oct., 1976), pp. 430-431+433+435+437
Published by: Oxford University Press
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Gut strings


Whenever, on a lute having reasonably authentic con-

struction, one replaces the plain nylon strings with gut, the

as high as it will go without breaking,

the above relationships between length

result invariably makes one marvel at the more interesting,

and absolute pitch obtain, as well as we

lively tone of gut. This is probably because gut, being a

can determine it. These pitches are not necessarily the same

natural material, is not as uniform as nylon, and this leads to

as the names of the notes early writers gave-'nominal

slight mistuning of the harmonics which sound simul-

pitch'-because of varying pitch standards. Most lute players

taneously with the fundamental note.

will find that conversion to gut strings would require them to

Whenever one replaces the metal higher strings of a viol or

play their instruments at unaccustomed pitches-a powerful

violin with gut, there may be a loss of some ringing edge in

deterrent. We do not mean to imply that their lutes are the

the tone, but most players appreciate the greater warmth of

wrong size, only that they are expecting to tune them at non-

gut tone.'

authentic pitches for their sizes.

If, in the interests of pre-18th century authenticity, one

replaces the overspun strings on either of these instruments

2. Pitch distortion

with the appropriately thicker plain gut strings, the result is

Pressing a string down on to a fret stretches it slightly. Press-

not as immediately attractive as before. The tone sounds

ing it hard down behind the fret stretches it some more. The

thicker or duller, since some of the glitter of the higher harstretching sharpens the pitch. Strongly bowing or plucking a

monics that come through with overspun strings is missing

string also stretches it so that the average tension over each

with gut. In addition, intonation problems start to appear on

cycle of the vibration is greater, thus sharpening the pitch.

fretted instruments.
Bowing can be disconcerting when varying loudness also

Half-way measures are rather irksome. Mixed stringing

varies pitch. Our perception of the pitch of a plucked note

creates its own tuning and balance problems, and one's

may be disorientated when the pitch drops as the note dies

'authenticity conscience' is not well satisfied. What does one

away. In each case the rise in pitch is negligible for treble

strings but can get disturbingly big with bass strings.

We offer no magic solution to this dilemma. There are

differences between the gut on the market today and that

3. Pitch ranges

available three centuries ago. And there are perhaps

Pitch distortion on the bass strings can be reduced by

differences between expectations of tone quality and intona-

making them more elastic. This is the main advantage of

tion accuracy common at that time and earlier, and our own.

overspun strings (alternatively called 'wound' or 'covered'),

Our intention here is to share some of the understanding

where the total mass of the material creates the low pitch

we have acquired of the properties of gut and their effect on

but only the elasticity of the core governs the pitch distor-

musical use.


There is no convincing evidence of overspun strings being

available in England or elsewhere before the 1660s.2 Jean

1. String lengths and highest pitches

Nylon and steel have greater tensile strength than gut, so gut

treble strings cannot be tuned as high as these other

materials for a given string length. Thus, trying to use a gut

Rousseau in his Traite' de la Viole (Paris, 1687) says that

'Sainte-Colombe introduced the seventh string about 1675 at

the same time that he introduced the use of strings spun with

silver wire for the three lower strings'.3

treble string on a lute with 60 cm string length tuned to g'

will lead to disappointment, since the string will not last

more than a week or so if played regularly. A pitch of f'

The tonal discontinuity in going from plain trebles to

overspun basses was soon bridged by using open-wound

strings, as mentioned by Forqueray.4 We suspect that over-

would be much more comfortable as well as conforming to

spun strings were slow to be adopted in England, since

early practices of relating pitch to length as can be deduced

Talbot's manuscript5 as late as 1690 only mentions Venice

from Praetorius's 'data'. Other recommended pitch-length

relationships are given in the first two rows of Table 1.

When lute or viol tutors recommend tuning the top string


Before the introduction of overspun strings, instruments

usually used plain gut for every string. The lower strings were


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thick and suffered from pitch distortion. The lowest note an

ably stretchy for a bass string. The trouble with these strings

instrument could play was determined by (i) the amount of

was that they had already been polished, making them hairy

distortion that was tolerated, and (ii) how forcefully the

strings were played. We can deduce this only from noting the

maximum ranges of the instruments in use.6 The maximum

range increased in steps in the course of time, and may be

associated with advances in the technology of string twisting.

The more twist there is in a gut string, the more elastic it is,

and the less pitch distortion it offers.

Gut with a low twist is found on treble strings and tennis

racquets where strength or stiffness are needed. Moderate-

twist bass strings sounded acceptable to medieval ears if

tuned within about an octave and a sixth of the highest pitch

and excessively bumpy on re-twisting, and that having been

compacted in their first twisting they were not as flexible and

twistable as fresh gut would have been. To make Venice Cat-

lines properly requires the normal twisting process in the

string manufacture to be replaced by the Catline twisting

process. So far we have not been able to convince any gut

manufacturer to do this or to provide us with the material to

do it ourselves. Our experiments with fresh gut from the

abattoir have convinced us that it is not feasible in the time

we can devote to this project for us to develop the basic skills

and equipment for gut selection and processing on our own.

a string of that length could reach. From the late 15th to late

16th centuries, high-twist bass strings (as high as the straight-

5. Authentic way of coping with pitch

forward traditional technology, as is still used today, would

distortion on fingering
allow) offered a range up to two octaves and a tone. From the

The obvious and logical way to minimize pitch distortion on

late 16th century until overspun strings replaced them,

fingering is to have the lowest possible action and the lowest

maximum-twist bass strings (using special rope technology)

possible frets. Making a low action was certainly an authenoffered an open-string range of two octaves and a fifth. They

tic practice, but the grading of frets for fine adjustment of the
were known in England as Venice Catlines. At each advance

action made them remarkably thick at low positions (near

of string technology the new, more elastic strings were used

the nut).' This implies an aspect of technique that modem

to improve the quality of courses within the old range

players have not yet developed: having the frets positioned

besides offering courses that extended the range. There was

flatter than theoretical and controlling intonation by fingerno significant change in tone quality or cost in these changes,

pressure on the string. This aspect of technique offers

so there was no serious delay in acceptability as there was

another dimension of expression yet to be explored by

with overspun strings.

modern exponents of early music on fretted gut-strung


4. Venice Catlines

Even Venice Catlines did not have anything like the elasticity

6. String uniformity
possible with overspun strings, so pitch distortion will be a

new problem that the player converting to gut will need to

cope with. The only evidence we have on the construction of

Venice Catlines lies in their name. As Dowland explains in

the Varietie of Lute-Lessons they '... are made at Bologna in

Gut strings, being natural products, are inherently less

uniform than alternatives. Historically, metal-strung instru-

ments had frets placed at permanent positions while gut-

strung instruments had movable frets. This was because of

Lumbardie, and from thence are sent to Venice: from which

the difference in uniformity, and the frets were movable to

place they are transported to the Martes, and therefore com-

make the best compromise against out-of-tuneness of the gut

monly called Venice Catlines'. They must have needed

strings. Capirola8 used a most complex system for fixing

special skills, being in such widespread use yet only made in

strings, some with the thick end at the nut, some with the

one place. The 'catline' in the name indicates something of

thick end at the bridge, to effect this compromise. Various

the construction. On a ship the catline is the rope used to 'cat

sources indicate that a string that is out of tune may be im-

the anchor' (i.e. to lash the anchor to the 'cathead', a beam

proved if the direction in which it lies is reversed, i.e. the

fixed to the side of the ship for that purpose). The job needs

string is turned end for end, since the end of the string at the

to be done quickly and so the catline is an especially flexible

rope. This flexibility comes from the way the rope is made.

Any rope is made from a number of small ropes twisted

together, but when the twisting together of the small ropes is

in the opposite direction to the twisting of the strands that

make up each small rope, the result is a highly flexible and

somewhat stretchy rope, of which the catline is an example.

(The other kind of rope, where both twistings are in the same

direction, is less flexible and stretchy but stronger.)

As an experiment we imitated the catline rope con-

pegbox might be truer than the end near the bridge.

Non-uniform strings give rise to another problem which

affects both fretted and unfretted instruments, in that the

harmonics of a non-uniform string are out of tune with one

another and with the fundamental. Thus they beat with one

another instead of developing a steady vibration.9 On

plucked instruments this can cause poor or attenuated tone;

on bowed instruments it can, in addition, make the string

difficult to control. The extent to which this is a problem

depends both on the degree of non-uniformity within the

string, and on the acoustic response of the instrument.

struction in gut, twisting half-a-dozen wet thin strings

individually, then twisting them all together in the opposite

Generally the more resonant the instrument, the more it is

adversely affected by non-uniform strings. This problem can

way. The result is very encouraging in that the string is suit-


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be particularly acute on those extremely resonant instru-

ments which are built in a modern tradition to cater for

modern concert hall conditions.

Treble strings are most affected by non-uniformity. Lutes

before about 1580 had single first courses because of the

difficulty of getting two treble strings to sound in tune

together on all the frets. More uniform treble strings were

available from Munich from Capirola's time (1517), but they

seem to have been in general use only by vihuelistas until

double first courses became standard (in Italy and England,

at least). They were called 'minikins' in England and were

very expensive.'1


Though minikins were a vast improvement over other thin

gut strings they certainly were not up to the standard of uni-

formity to which we have become used in nylon or metal

wire. Thus lower standards of intonation are to be expected

if using authentic gut.

7. Testing for uniformity

Since strings were variable in gauge along their length,

players could not expect simply to buy a string and put it on

an instrument, and practically every lute tutor explains how

to test strings to be sure that they are true, except for


Dowland" who says, 'it is so ordinaire and so well knowne, I

hold it not fit to trouble you with the relation'. Others,

BurwelHl' for instance, are more helpful: '.... their goodness

is known thus: holding the two ends in each hand and strik-

ing the string with the middle finger, if they part in two only;

...' Illustrations from Ganassi'3 and Mersenne14 show what

Fig. I

is meant (Fig. 1).

Nowadays one can also use this method to economize by

maker's art, now as well as then, is to twist the string so uni-

buying cheap, less uniform strings, and finding the best parts
formly that a minimum of polishing is necessary.

to use for the bit that vibrates. Note that a treble string, to

sound right, needs to be truer than a bass, and how it per9. Tuning ease and stability

forms in the test will depend on how tightly you stretch the
If a player is converting from nylon to gut on an instru-

string. Some experience is necessary to get the best out of the

ment, he should make sure his pegs are very well fitted since,

method, but it is well worth learning. One point which the

for the same increment of pitch and the same tension,

old authors could not have anticipated is that fluorescent

because of the difference in elasticity and density, he will only

lighting confuses the vibration pattern, and should therehave about - of the peg movement that he had with nylon. If

fore be avoided. Daylight is best. An indication of how stanconverting from single-strand iron or steel, he would enjoy

dards of intonation for gut-strung instruments have changed

ten times more peg movement than he was used to. Metal

through the centuries is that when the early tutors described

stringing of viols can well exert twice the tension of gut, and

this method there was never a hint that it might have been
the steel is often made of twisted strands which increases the

inadequate, but in the late 19th century Heron-Allen'5 stated

elasticity so the increased peg-movement for a given pitch

that it was not a sure test.

increment could well be no more than double. If the player

is used to fine tuners on his strings, he will have to accept

8. String polishing
more difficulty in tuning as well as the need (see next section)

It is possible by very careful polishing to get good uni-

formity, but the more polishing a string is subjected to, the

more the microscopic fibres are broken down when they

appear at the surface. This tends to lower the tensile strength

and invites more breakage of higher strings. (Bachmann'6 in

his description of violin string-making mentions that violin

E strings were usually not polished.)

String polishing is not new. Mersenne mentioned a dried

grass abrasive used for this purpose. However, the string-

for tuning more often.

Gut tends to swell when placed in moist conditions

because of water absorption between the fibres. Since the

fibres are twisted, the swelling would shorten its length if it

could, but on an instrument it can only increase the tension,

which tends to raise the pitch. The increased moisture also

adds weight, thus tending to lower the pitch. The more twist

a string has, the more important we would expect the tension

effect to be. With a slight increase in moisture the tension


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effect usually predominates and the pitch goes sharp, but as

/ Fibre Angle /Fibre Angle

moisture increases, mass overcomes tension and the pitch

goes down.

Dry heat lowers the pitch because of the tension effect as

the moisture is dried out of the string.

/ Moderate Twist / High Twist


10. Effect of treatment to improve

-- 30< >40< > 50 < >55

Some modern strings are varnished to resist moisture abLow Moderate High Catl ine

sorption. The increased density without increased tensile

Fig. 2

strength resulting from this treatment lowers the breaking

that music gut needs to be twisted more than tennis-racquet

pitch and thus decreases the life of treble strings. Many

gut, but they do not seem to appreciate the significance of

authors mention oiling strings, which helps them to resist

increasing the tightness of twist for musical applications.

moisture swelling as well as preventing bacterial decay.

Occasionally one finds the high-twist gut amongst a batch of

Bachmann (fn. 12) mentions olive oil and recommends the

music strings, but the manufacturers we deal with will not

addition of 1/10 its weight of laurel oil to prevent it turning

accept orders specifically for these.

rancid. We have found almond oil, as mentioned in Burwell

The other way to get a high-twist string is to take a

(fn. 16) to be satisfactory.

moderate-twist string and soak it thoroughly in water, then

hang it up to dry with just enough tension to keep it from

11. Chemical attack

coiling on itself while twisting it up as much as it will take.

Gut strings are more susceptible to chemical attack from

The diagram (Fig. 3) shows one possible set-up for doing

sweat, an effect that can decrease the life of strings, particu-

larly treble ones. Antiperspirant spray on the fingertips

: ---c r


gut tied to a hook ->

* 0 : c=== c

12. Converting nuts and bridges

All-gut strings are thicker than overspun strings. When con-

verting to gut on viols the notches on the bridge and nut

r wall =

need to be widened so that the strings run freely. The widen-

ing is concentric on the original positions. This is not the

case for lutes because of the closeness of the strings within a

vice-grip pliers - C== 0 ce

course and because of the different type of bridge. To avoid

:---:C :2 C: t--

strings of the same course slapping together, the distance

between their nearest surfaces must be preserved, which

stick El cJC--c
means that the notches on the nut are widened outwards

from the centre of the course. On the bridge where the string

Fig. 3

goes through a hole, that hole is similarly widened out-

this. The stick wedged into the vise-grip pliers is there to

wards, but also upwards as well so as not to lower the action

catch against the wall and stop the gut from untwisting. As

and cause slapping against the frets.

the gut starts to dry out it will be able to take more twist. The

The widening of a notch or hole in a non-symmetric way

result can be hairy and bumpy to look at, but provided the

without making it deeper leaves a flat bottom which can

string has not become too uneven it cbuld work well.

cause trouble if conversion back to overspun strings is ever

Since Venice Catlines are not available we simulate them

wanted. Replacement nuts may be preferred.

(and high-twist strings) with open-wound and close-wound

To give an estimate of how much an effect we are con-

overspun strings designed so that the moderate-twist core

sidering here, let us give Mersenne's statement (pp. 79 and 17

gives the same elasticity as the original string. The tone of a

of Chapman's translation) that the thickest lute or bass viol

string depends on its elasticity, its mass per unit length and

string is one line in diameter, i.e. 2.35mm or 0.093 inches

its sound-absorbing properties. Metal absorbs very little

(conversion to modern units on p.573 of the translation).

sound and on a plain metal string the first two factors are

Overspun lute strings rarely exceed Imm in diameter.

adequate in specifying tone quality."8 Plain gut strings have

considerable absorption. Overspun strings have absorption

13. What to do to approach the authentic

characteristics beyond that of their components due to their

gut sound

In Table 2 we summarize the appropriate types of gut strings

used at different periods, and in Figure 2 we show how to tell

the amount of twist in a string."7 Moderate-twist gut is what

is generally available nowadays. Gut manufacturers realize

construction, but their total absorption is still less than that

of an equivalent plain string. Thus the simulated early gut

strings that we make do not match the absorption charac-

teristics of the originals but they are the best we can do at



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modation, the smoothness of transition from string to string

There are no difficulties in reproducing early overspun

and the purity of tone confers a unique beauty of sound


which is well worth the trouble. If a player agrees to cope

In conclusion, gut strings do not last as long, are more

with all these disadvantages, he will be rewarded by a

trouble to keep in tune, are inherently more out of tune, and

developing relationship with his instrument which parallels

allow much less latitude in pitch than usual modern alter-

that of the early players, with the consequent impetus to dis-

natives. In addition, gut bass strings have less brilliant tone

cover authentic components of technique and tone pro-

and their sound dies away faster after being plucked. They

duction which he would otherwise never have predicted, and

are harder to start sounding with a bow (especially near to

which will, of course, add to the rediscovery of the life of the

the bridge), and they emit a hiss during bowing which can be

music itself.

disconcerting if one is not used to it. Nevertheless, we have

found that after a remarkably short period of accom-

8 Compositione di Meser Vincenzo Capirola

Table 1. Usable pitch ranges of the different types of gut strings

(c. 1517), ed. O. Gombosi (1955).

9 E. Heron-Allen, Violin-Making as it Was,

STRING LENGTH cm 43 45 48 51 54 57 61 64 68 72 76 81

and Is (1885), p 213.

10 Import duties in 1660 on 12 dozen knots

Highest pitch b' b' a' g"' g' f' P e' eb' d' c'? c'

of minikins were ?1.6s.8d., while the duty on

the same quantity of thick strings was 2s.8d.;

Lowest pitch

and for comparison that on a dozen lutes

Moderate twist e e d c$ c B Bb A G G F' F

made in Cologne with cases was ?8 (see

'Import and Export Duties on Musical

Lowest pitch

Instruments in 1660' by Guy F. Oldham,

High twist B B A G G F F E E D Cs C

Galpin SocietyJournal IX (1956), p 97). In

contradistinction, Thomas Mace in Musick's

Lowest pitch

Monument (1676), p 66, said that minikins

Venice Catlines FS F E E D C$ C B E A G G

were the same price as Venice Catlines.

These are the usual ranges. One semitone or more higher is possible with particularly high
Burwell (see note 12 below), p 7, called a

quality gut but was not the usual practice because of the short life of the string.
knot a 'bunch' and said it was hard to get two

Plucked instruments often go one tone lower, bowed instruments rarely do since bowing thick
good strings out of one of them, but those

gut near the bridge is quite difficult.

were from Rome, not Munich. Her

Instruments played forcefully rarely had strings tuned so low.

explanation of the first two courses on the

lute being singles parallels that given above

for single first courses before the 1580s.

Table 2. Types of gut strings used at various times

11 John Dowland in Robert Dowland,

Varietie of Lute-Lessons (1610), facs. Edgar

Hunt (1958), p 14.

Low or I Low or I Low or I Low or

12 The Burwell Lute Tutor. Reproduction

Moderate Twist Moderate Twist Moderate Twist Moderate Twist

ed. Richard Rastall; introduction by Robert

Spencer (1974); or transcription by Thurston


Dart, 'Miss Mary Burwell's Instruction Book

Moderate Twist Moderate Twist Moderate Twist, Moderate or

for Lute', Galpin SocietyJournal XI, (1958),

or High Twist 0 High Twist or 0 High Twist

p 3.

, Venice Catline Venice Catline

13 Silvestro Ganassi, Lettione Secondapur della



prattica di sonare il violone d'arco da tasti (1543).

Facs. Forni.

14 Marin Mersenne, Harmonie Universelle

Moderate Twist C High Twist Venice Catline Venice Catline or

(1635), transl. Robert E. Chapman (1957),


p 79.

1s E. Heron-Allen, op. cit., p 208: 'It is often

1 Our experience is contradicted by some

2 Ian Harwood, 'An introduction to

laid down that the truth of a string may be

statements by early authors. Michael

renaissance viols', EM (October 1974), p 235.

determined by vibrating it between the

Praetorius in Syntagma Musicum II, 'De

3 Translation from Edmund S. J. van der

fingers, and that if it present only two even

Organographia' (1619), p 48, said that metal

Straeten, History of the Violoncello, Viol da

lines it is true, and if more, false. It is certain

strings offered smoother and more beautiful

Gamba, their Precursors and Collateral

that if it produce an irregular or multiplied

resonance. J. Matheson in Das Neu-Erdffnete

Instruments (1914), p 16.

figure it is false, but it does not follow that if

Orchestre (1713), p 282, described a viola

4 Lucy Robinson, 'La Basse de Viole', French

the lines be clear and distinct it is true. .. .'

d'amore with metal melody strings as

Music and the Fitzwilliam (1975), p 33.

16 Alberto Bachmann, An Encyclopedia of the

'languishing and tender'. Jean Rousseau in

1 Robert Donington, 'James Talbot's

Traiti de la Viole (1687), p 22, mentioned a

Manuscript', Galpin SocietyJournal III( 1950),p 27.

Violin (1925, repr. Da Capo Press paperback,

1975), p 146.

viol d'amour as a treble viol with metal

6 Djilda Abbott and Ephraim Segerman,

" A magnifying lens helps to see the angle of

rather than gut strings, but he objected to

'Strings in the 16th and 17th Centuries',

the fibres on the string surface.

their effect on the bowing and to their shrill

Galpin SocietyJournal XXVII (1974), p 48.

1' William R. Thomas and J.J. K. Rhodes,

tone. We suspect that modern metal strings

' Ephraim Segerman and Djilda Abbott,

are at much higher tension and are played

'On Lute Bridges and Frets', EM (July 1975),

more forcefully than those used then.

p 295.

'The String Scales of Italian Keyboard

Instruments', Galpin SocietyJournal XX (1967),

p 48.


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