Finding the Best Viola Strings
As with violins, there are three main types of viola strings: steel core, synthetic core, and gut. The best viola strings for you will depend on the musical style (or styles) you play, your technique, and overall, personal preference. A reputable shop should carry a wide assortment of all three categories.
Gut and Gut-Core Strings
For centuries, gut strings were the only strings used on violas. Though originally the strings were all gut (actually bird tendons or the intestines of lions or sheep), by the 1800s string-makers had created strings composed of a gut core wrapped with metal. Today, silver and aluminum are the main wrapping materials.
Offering the richest, most complex sonic quality with numerous overtones, gut or gut-wrapped strings are especially prized by violists playing renaissance or baroque music, as well as other more traditional styles.
The challenge is that they are less tonally stable than other string types, and are especially sensitive to variances in temperature and humidity. They take longer to settle in to consistent intonation, go out of tune more easily, and need to be replaced more frequently than the other types. When using gut, players have to be more cognizant of their string tuning.
Synthetic-Core: The Latest Development
The most recent advancement is synthetic-core strings. Composed of a variety of composite fibers and materials like nylon, these strings have much of the rich, warm tone of gut strings, but boast vastly improved stability. They “adjust” quickly once they have been installed on the viola, hold their intonation consistently over time, and weather swings in temperature and humidity extremely well.
There are many good reasons why synthetic-core strings are preferred by the greatest number of bowed string players.
Synthetic Core Strings
Constructed of various synthetic materials like nylon and composite fibers, synthetic-core strings’ complexity and tonal spectrum fall between gut and steel-core strings. They have much of the warmth and richness of gut, with the stability and durability of steel, which makes them the most popular type for bowed string players.
Even more recently developed are the composite-core strings, which combine multiple materials to create denser, stronger strings that are highly resistant to humidity and temperature swings.
Steel-Core Viola Strings
Compared to gut strings, steel-core strings do hold their pitch well, though not as well as synthetic-core. Since they have a smaller diameter than either gut or synthetic-core, steel-core strings tend to have a bright, focused tone and a very fast response from the player’s point of view.
Both of those qualities make them especially popular with electric viola players, since they project strongly through amplification systems. In fact, electric violas with magnetic pickups require steel-core strings in order to trigger the pickups.
Finding the Right Viola String Gauge
Unlike violins (which are fairly uniform), violas vary in size, affecting how they respond and sound with different string gauges. You may have to experiment with different gauges (usually separated into light, medium, and heavy) to find what works best for you. A good approach is to start with a medium gauge string set and experiment from there.