Steel violin/fiddle strings are very responsive and some of them will give you a strong, warm fundamental tone that suits bluegrass and old-time music perfectly. (If you’re interested in trying out steel strings, I wrote about some of my favorite brands here.)
But if you’re a classical, jazz or Irish traditional player, you might find steel strings a little too bright, brash and bold — a little bit like painting in all primary colors.
The most popular alternative to steel strings — in fact, the most popular string period — is the synthetic-core string. These strings have nylon or nylon composite at their core, with some kind of metal wrapped around it, usually steel or tungsten.
As a side note, some players also use gut strings, as string musicians did for centuries. As you may have gathered from the name, these strings are made out of an animal’s gut, usually a sheep’s intestine. Gut strings have a nice sound, but they’re a bit a quiet and fussy, reacting to swings in temperature and humidity more than steel and synthetic-core strings, so nowadays they’re seldom used.
Here’s a round-up of synthetic core strings that I’ve used and can recommend.
Dominant is a line of perlon-core ( a kind of nylon) strings that was introduced by an Austrian company, Thomastik-Infeld, in the 1970s. When they came out, they were considered revolutionary — finally, a string with the warmth and complexity of gut, but without all the hassle.
Over the years, they’ve become very popular. If you’re a classical violinist, chances are, this is your string. And for good reason — the Dominant is a lovely sounding string. They play easily, hold up well and have nice, complex overtones.
But if you’re a bluegrass player, be warned: playing bluegrass on Dominants is a miserable experience — like running a marathon in leather-soled dress shoes. Their response isn’t nearly fast enough, and the beautiful overtones that sound so rich in other kinds of music turn to mush in a bluegrass band.
I haven’t seen sales figures, but I suspect that the Evah Pirazzi string is the strongest competitor to the Dominant today.
The Evah Pirazzi is a big, warm, bold-sounding composite-core string made in Germany by Pirastro. To my ear, this a louder string than the Dominant, every bit as warm but with a steely edge that’s missing in the Dominant. I think it also responds a little quicker. For this reason, you’ll find some bluegrass fiddlers using Evahs.
The downside is that at around $80 a set they’re pretty pricey, and they wear out pretty fast. Evahs are also a fairly high-tension string, so they can be tough to play, especially if you’re used to a lighter string.
But if you play bluegrass in addition to classical, give up Starbucks for a while and start saving up — this may be your string.
Thomastik Vision (Titanium Solo)
There are two versions of the Vision string: the Titanium Solo, which is a bit louder and steelier, and the Orchestra, which is softer and voiced to blend well in an orchestral setting. I only have experience with the Titanium Solo.
For multi-genre players, the Vision Titanium Solo could be the best compromise. You have the warmth of the Dominant and Evah Pirazzi, the faster response and brighter edge reminiscent of a steel string in a fairly light-tension string. Visions are priced in between Evahs and Dominants at around $70 a set.