Left to right: Viola C, Harp, Piano Bass, Cello G, Bass, Horse Hair, Piano Treble, Violin A. Photo by Rob/Harris, Inc.
Pull a string tight enough, thump it, and make a sound. Strap that string to a box with a hole in it, and voilà! Guitar. Or violin. Perhaps cello or double bass. Forty-seven strings on a frame equals one harp, and if there’s a complex enough box and frame built around 230 or so strings, it turns into a piano.
Music wouldn’t be much without the humble string. But, what about strings?
That is an excellent question, and one whose answer includes the Greek messenger god Hermes, Spanish super-guitarist Andres Segovia, barnyard animals, a world war and thousands of years’ worth of metal-working evolution.
The history of strings begins modestly and logically, with regions using the most easily-accessible and readily-available material: silk strings in the East, horse hair in Scandinavia, plant fibers in the tropics, and here in the West, animal guts.
Although exactly how and when the Greco-Romans first discovered the connection between animal intestines and the soul-stirring tone of the lyre remains unknown, the ancient myth tells of Hermes inventing the lyre from a turtle shell, stringing it with strips from cattle he stole from his brother Apollo, who happened to be the god of music and easily forgave his little brother when he heard the beautiful new instrument.
Harp. New Kingdom (mid-2nd millennium BC), recovered from the Tomb of Ani in Thebes, Egypt. From the British Museum.
Historically, some of the earliest instruments — harps excavated in 1823 from tombs in Thebes — still retained their gut strings and, according to the archaeologists, produced a tone some 2,000 years after interment. So, gut strings, if properly processed, last. Even today, some luthiers, artisans who make stringed instruments, swear that gut strings still produce the most resonant, authentic sound.
String-makers work in many corners of the globe today, and the trade requires an expert craftsman. Gut strings cost more than synthetic or metal strings primarily because of the craftsmanship involved as well as the multi-step process that begins at the abattoir and concludes with the wrapping of fine decorative silk thread around the end of the finished musical string. What string-makers need is the collagen inside the intestine which, after dressing, selecting, crushing, dehydrating, rehydrating, splitting, cutting and fermenting the gut casing, creates the ideal material to make strings perfect for violins, cellos, harps and double basses. The collagen threads are stretched on spindles to create pretty white ribbons that are then bleached to remove any discolorations. The string-maker bundles ribbons together to create the correct gauge (treble strings require less ribbons; bass strings require more), and then the string-maker subjects these ribbons to a multi-day drying process so the collagen bonds, creating the one unified, solid string we purchase as an A string, E string or D string. Strings are ground to create an even diameter and to remove imperfections. The finishing touch requires the string-maker to apply a light oil/pumice mixture to the string with a cloth. Some craftspeople choose to polish their strings with grass lubricated with olive oil.
Although the traditional string material, gut is not the only game in town, especially as times changed and modern music demanded harder, louder tones from stringed instruments, especially guitars. Around the 12th century, wire strings emerged as equally valid music-making material. Because thicker gauge wire, needed for low notes, loses elasticity, the technique of twisting multiple wires to increase elasticity developed in the 16th century, followed a century later by winding wire around a core string of gut or silk, which created what we know as “wound” strings.
Eventually, human developments with metals including bronze and steel laid the path for steel strings, whose strength and loud sound required instrument redesigns. Banjos and mandolins responded well to steel strings, but perhaps the greatest beneficiary was the guitar, overhauled by a luthier named Orville Gibson, whose Gibson guitar dynasty created one of the most famous guitar body designs of the 20th century. Steel strings made rock ‘n’ roll possible. The world of music was forever altered, thanks to the humble string.
You can play the opulent brass wires of the giant String Theory Fin Harp here on our campus. The harp sits along the Riverwalk and the strings are attached to the roof of our building.
Perhaps, though, the most fascinating string story occurs in the unassuming world of the nylon string, relegated almost specifically to classical guitar. In World War II, when hospitals needed catgut on the front lines for sutures, there was a worldwide shortage of traditional material for guitar strings. New York City luthier Albert Augustine, desperate, retrieved nylon fishing wire from a city trash can and created a viable nylon guitar string with the help of his wife, Rose, a chemistry teacher. They pitched to DuPont, who denied them, rightfully understanding that classical guitarists would never change string types — until Andres Segovia commissioned a guitar from Augustine in 1946, encouraging Augustine to develop nylon strings. Augustine and his wife did, with Segovia not only acting as their biggest booster but also as their roommate for 11 years, and DuPont supplied the nylon, spurred by Segovia’s stature as the world’s leading Spanish guitarist. Nylon strings were born, and with them, a new age for classical guitar.
It’s no wonder stringed instruments provide such a visceral experience for many music lovers. Music continues to move forward, pulled along by the small but mighty string.