Unlike violins, which can sound beautifully for centuries when well-cared for, violin strings need to be replaced regularly. If you don’t change them as needed, the strings will sound duller, less resonant, and may even fray or snap causing potential physical injuries.
The problem is that violin strings’ resiliency slowly degrades over time. That means many violinists aren’t consciously aware of the diminishing sound quality as it is happening. If you were to record yourself playing using a new set of strings, and then re-record at 30-day increments, we bet you’d hear the difference in how your strings sound between recording 1 and recordings 2, 3, and 4.
SIGNS (AND SOUNDS) IT’S TIME TO CHANGE VIOLIN STRINGS
Rather than wait until they break, here’s a list of the most obvious signs (or sounds) telling you it’s about time.
First, a note about gut strings. Gut strings are more fragile than synthetic or metal core strings, and require more frequent changing. Many luthiers advise that gut strings should be changed at least every 120 to 150 hours of playing time to sound their best.
If you are using gut violin strings, we assume you know exactly when they need to be replaced. Therefore, this post is dedicated to those violinists who play on synthetic and / or metal-core strings.
250 TO 300 HOURS OF PLAYING
Are you practicing on a regular basis? Most serious violinists play about two to four hours per day. That would mean changing strings every two to six months, depending on your rehearsal hours. Once you begin playing more intensively, for instance when you’re in a school orchestra, you’ll want to change strings more frequently to accommodate heavier use.
YOU’VE PLAYED ON THE SAME SET FOR THREE MONTHS
If you have practiced regularly for at least three months, or you can’t remember when you last changed your strings, they probably need to be replaced. We recommend setting a calendar reminder on your smartphone, computer, tablet, or writing reminders on a physical calendar, so you remember when it’s time to put on a new set.
YOUR SOUND QUALITY HAS CHANGED
Again, this is a trickier thing to notice because it changes incrementally over time. However, your strings will beg for replacement when:
They sound dull, lack brilliance or volume
They instrument sounds less resonant (NOTE: It could be time for an adjustment by your luthier as well.)
It's very difficult, if not impossible, to tune precisely to pitch, or play two or more notes ("double-stops") in tune.
They produce a quieter sound when you're not choosing to play that way
If you need to keep re-tuning frequently (NOTE: If your strings are newer, this could be a sign the pegs need attention to prevent them from slipping out of place.)
If you see that the winding is: visibly damaged, distorted, or corroded (rust, oxidation); separating from the inner windings / core material. (This occurs from sweating hands and fingers and/or humidity in the environment.)
Any of the above are signs that a new set of strings is in order.
We recommend watching The Short Story of Changing Strings, where Professor of Violin Mimi Zweig, of Indiana University and StringPedagogy.com, sits down with Bill Lee, from the W.H. Lee Violin Shop in Chicago. Together, they discuss when strings should be replaced, and Bill provides a visual tutorial on how to replace them.
ADDITIONAL FACTORS THAT CONTRIBUTE TO STRING DECLINE
Other factors contribute to strings have a shorter lifespan than usual. These include things like:
The salt and acids found in sweat break down the materials used to make strings. If your hands and fingers tend to sweat more than normal, you’ll probably need to replace strings more often.
There are so many reasons to practice good instrument hygiene. First and foremost, wiping down your instrument after each time you finish playing protects its expensive body and finish. However, excess resin and grime on the strings negatively impact their sound and speeds up decomposition. Visit our post How to Clean Violin Strings & Other Instrument Strings to remove excess rosin and build-up. Then, be vigilant about cleaning your instrument and its strings after you play.
FAILING TO LUBRICATE THE NUT AND BRIDGE GROOVES
When you replace the strings, it's a good idea to lubricate the nut and bridge grooves with pencil lead. This prevents the windings from becoming damaged, which leads to snapped or frayed strings.
WHAT COMES NEXT?
Are your strings overdue for replacement? Read In What Order Should I Replace My Strings, which provides all the information to replace your old set. Once the new set is all tuned up, the resulting sound will be notably brighter and more vibrant, a testament to your new strings.