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Choosing Strings: Gauges & Tension

Gauges and Tension

There can be some confusion surrounding string gauge (or gage) and tension for bowed stringed instruments. To help you to determine the best strings for your particular violin, viola, cello, or double bass, we will attempt to present facts and brief definitions of gauge and tension, as well as explanations for how their different properties can result in different tonal qualities and playing responses on a bowed stringed instrument.

  • The gauge (gage) of a string is the measurement of its diameter; in other words, its thickness.
  • The tension of a string is the horizontal stretching force in the string. It is a function of its mass (or weight) per unit of length, the vibrating length of the string, and the pitch of the note produced when the string vibrates.
  • Gauge and tension can also be referred to in terms of weight; i.e., heavy, medium, or light gauge or tension.
  • The tension of strings can be determined by the metals they are wound with.
  • Some string brands offer different gauges, thicknesses, or tensions of strings.
  • Tensions and gauges of strings vary from brand to brand. One brand's middle gauge may be significantly different than another brand's middle gauge.

Tone & Response Qualities of Different Tensions

Medium Gauge: Medium, also known as mittel, gauge strings are the most popular because the tension has been engineered by the manufacturer to result in an even, balanced tone and response on most instruments. (Manufacturers vary greatly in their categorization of string tension; one brand's middle tension formula may be significantly different than another brand's middle tension formula..) We recommend trying middle tension strings first when experimenting with new strings on your instrument.

Heavy or Thick Gauge: A thicker string, also called stark or forte, or heavy, requires more tension to stretch it up to the pitch it's been engineered for. A thick-gauge string will bring more volume and a fuller, more powerful sound to most instruments, and also will result in a slower response time when you apply the bow to activate the string. A choked or dull sound, or an unresponsive effect means that the gauge and tension of that string is too high for that particular instrument. Try a smaller or lighter tension string!

Light or Thin Gauge: Thin strings, also known as weich, soft, light, or dolce, require less tension to bring the string to the pitch it has been engineered for. They are used to brighten up the tone of an instrument, and/or quicken the response. If the sound of one of your strings is dull or unfocused, you might try a lighter tension string. A shrill or overly bright sound, or an overly-sensitively responding string may mean that the gauge and tension of the string is too thin or light. Try a middle tension or a thicker gauge string!

Next Section: Strings for Electric Instruments

Notes About Strings

  • The most popular strings are the mid-priced synthetic-core strings.
  • Using gut-core strings can warm up an instrument instantly; the Passione brand stabilize in pitch very quickly compared to other gut-core strings.
  • Players often start with the medium gauge or tension of strings (when offered a choice) to see how their instrument responds to the manufacturer's generally balanced tension, before experimenting with different gauges and tensions.
  • If you have remaining questions about which strings might be best for your instrument, please contact us and we will be happy to help!

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Additional Resources

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