Thursday, March 6, 2014

The truth behind expensive violin strings

I wrote this a few years ago, so the prices are outdated.
Violin strings are breathtakingly expensive, and the prices continue to rise. I use a brand called Dominant, made by Thomastik-Infeld of Vienna. Dominants have the rich, clear sound of gut strings but are more stable, not needing constant tuning as temperature and humidity change. Three of the strings are made from metal wound around multistrand nylon cores, and the fourth, the E, is either a plain metal wire or metal wrapped around metal. When I began buying Dominants in the early 1990s, they listed about $20 for a set of four. Now list is around $80, and I buy them for $50, which will soon increase.
Compare this to mandolin strings. I pay about $4.50 for a set of eight mandolin strings, which are phosphor-bronze wound around a wire core, so that’s less than 60 cents per string, compared to an average of $12.50 per violin string. (An average gives a false price for individual strings because heavier strings cost more than lighter strings, but it will serve for this comparison.) Cheaper violin strings are available, but get too cheap and you have poor tone; lower-priced sets of good quality range around $22 to $30 or so — less than that and you should just buy baling wire. String tone deteriorates with playing, caused by a combination of friction, skin oil, humidity and tuning. If you play daily, you’ll get a few weeks from a set, and if you play several hours a day, they’ll die more quickly. Expensive strings may sound better, but they don’t last any longer than cheap strings and must be replaced just as often to retain optimum tone.

I don’t understand the extreme disparity in prices between violin strings and mandolin strings, but I have a theory. Wind players are trying to drive string players from orchestras — they’re angry because they always sit in the back. String players always sit in front, and the leader of the orchestra, after the conductor, is the principal first violinist, while wind players sit in the back and bleat and blat when the strings try to tune. String players outnumber wind players because brass instruments and most woodwinds are louder than string instruments, so the orchestra is manned by several string players for each blowhard, er, wind player. The wind players’ advantage in decibels is thus offset by a disadvantage in numbers, and with every decision, from union meetings to what bar to frequent after rehearsals, the strings always win.
So I figure if you dig deep enough, you’ll find that wind players own the string companies and are setting these exorbitant prices to drive poor-as-church-mouse string players off the stage and into back alleys playing for dancing monkeys. Small orchestras pay relatively little, and community orchestras are often volunteer gigs, so, unless a string player plays in a major orchestra, more than likely he funds his music with a day job, lives with a working spouse, or still lives with his parents. If prices rise, the string player must decide whether to continue funding an expensive hobby or forsake his craft for bass fishing, allowing the winds to take over and play band arrangements of the great classics. Mandolin strings are cheap because mandolins don’t normally play in orchestras, so they’re no threat to winds, and the prices have remained the same since at least 1990.
I haven’t even mentioned the price of rehairing bows. Bow hair is cut from the tail of a special horse that is raised in Bohemia or Mongolia or some such place, its tail pinned on its back to prevent soiling. I figure those horses are fed a diet of grain saturated with Lindeman’s Framboise lambic, a Belgian wine-like raspberry beer that resembles Budweiser as closely as the price of Dominants does that of mandolin strings. Minuscule barbs on the hairs grip the strings, lifted from the hairs’ surface by rosin, the lift providing the friction that keeps the bow moving in the right direction. (Good rosin ain’t cheap either.) Just like string tone, bow hair deteriorates in proportion to playing time. Playing wears down the barbs until the bow slides around on the strings, turning good players into shrill squeak-makers. Nothing traumatizes a trained string player like a bow sliding down the fingerboard, because in his youth he devoted years of aggravation — sometimes called practicing — to removing that sound from his repertoire. Bow rehairing costs around $50 too, and I suspect those horses are owned by a wind player-backed conglomerate that knows those horses would just as easily thrive on Miller Lite.
Despite the prices, I continue to play violin, which means I continue to pay for costly strings and bow rehairs. I don’t play in orchestras and am thus no threat to wind players, but I suffer their wrath nonetheless. The best I can hope for is to get enough Celtic gigs to pay my expenses. It’s either that or quit and focus on the mandolin. If I do, I’ll spend the money I save on Framboise and on the stock market — I heard about a string-backed corporation that is distributing woodwind reeds and brass mouthpieces.

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