String Theory

The mandolin and violin share some interesting intersections.

From the cave paintings at Three Brothers Cave in France came evidence of the proto-proto-mandolin, a crude lute-like instrument with one string. Or perhaps this cave drawing, which depicts a hunting bow converted to a musical instrument, represents the great-great-great-great-great-great-grandmother of what we know as the violin.


An Obu man playing a musical bow in Nigeria, circa 1909-1913.

These two seemingly different instruments share the same tuning – G, D, A, E – so a violin player could switch to mandolin and crank out the same Bach sonatas. Likewise, a mandolin player could heft a violin under her chin and spool out “Rickett’s Reel,” transmuting said instrument from violin to fiddle.

As humans traveled, pillaged and collided culturally, their instruments ended up in new hands to be played around new fires with new types of fermented beverages. Thus, common roots stem from Middle Eastern instruments influencing European instrument makers, as both the mandolin and violin chart back to Arabic origins. (The mandolin traces to the “oud” and the violin to the “rabab.”)

oud-rebab collage

An oud (left) and a rabab (right).

The two share a notable historic turn in Italy albeit 100 years apart. In the 1500s in northern Italy, an instrument evolved from the design of the viola di braccio, and an instrument maker named Andrea Amati of Cremora landed on record as the first known creator of the modern violin in 1555. The oldest surviving violin dates to 1560 and belongs to Amati. The most well-known Italian violin maker, Antonio Stradivari, apprenticed with Amati’s grandson. Stradivari set the standard for the violin in the late 1600s and early 1700s, at the time when the Latin mandora, part of the lute family, entered the stream of Italian life.

The Italians invented a smaller version of the mandora, called it the mandolina, and by the 1800s, the mandolin enjoyed a happy, abundant life in Italian music. During the great immigration of the late 1800s to America, Italians packed their mandolins and introduced this delightful little instrument to the New World.

gibson mandolin family

The Gibson Mandolin Family at the National Music Museum in Vermillion, South Dakota.

In 1898, an American luthier named Orville Gibson won a patent for an arch-top design on the traditional bowl-backed Italian mandolin. The American mandolin was born. Gibson instruments became a household name. Gibson’s iconic mandolin design continues to symbolize American folk music to this day.

The roads converged for the violin and mandolin in the United States, where the Italians had created a great mandolin fever in the 1900s. Violins in the guise of fiddles partnered with mandolins, banjos, guitars and upright basses to codify a particular type of Americana music that exploded in the 1930s once commercial radio became a fact of life. Bill Monroe, a mandolin virtuoso, created a new style of finger picking based on the frenetic fiddle techniques of Uncle Pen Vandiver. Monroe added “blue” notes and phrasing from a bluesman mentor named Arnold Schultz, named his band The Blue Grass Boys, and invented bluegrass music.

Several generations later, another mandolin virtuoso who creates celestial interpretations of violin music on his mandolin, Chris Thile, borrowed from Monroe’s tradition of lightning-fast finger picking with his breakout band, Nickle Creek. Now the inheritor of Garrison Keillor’s A Prairie Home Companion, which he is refashioning to exhibit outstanding, burgeoning musical talent, Thile stands as possibly the greatest mandolin player in the world.

From humble and possibly apocryphal beginnings on a cave wall in France to stages here at The Straz, the convergence of the mandolin and the fiddle presents an intriguing intertwining of the lives of two fascinating instruments that found a common home in bluegrass bands – not a bad twist of fate for our four-noted friends.


We have an exceptional selection of great string-fueled performances this fall. For our other exciting musical acts, visit

Colter Wall – Fri., Nov. 17

Lindsey Stirling’s Warmer in the Winter Tour – Fri., Nov. 24

Ben Haggard – Fri., Dec. 15

The Grahams – Mon., Dec. 18

This Story Comes with Strings Attached

Strings Cover by Rob-Harris

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_tomb in Thebes

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.

close up string theory playing_jeremy scott

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.