As the title says, choosing the right string for your instrument and playing style can be very confusing. There are so many different options in so many different price points. What kind of strings do you really need?
Strings can be divided by both their core material, and their wrapping (or lack there of). There are 3 main types of string cores, gut, steel, and synthetic. After you choose the string core, then you need to choose the kind of wrapping; gold, aluminum, chromium or other kinds of metal.
Gut strings have been the standard string core since the creation of the violin family of instruments, as we know them today in the 17th century. The natural fiber, made from sheep intestine, is either plain, with no metal winding, or wound with different metals to give the string the specific weights and tones needed. Many professional musicians swear by gut strings. They will give you the best overall sound, with many rich, wonderful overtones when played. The overall warmth of gut strings is also something to take into consideration. They can make an instrument have a very dark, deep sound. Gut strings take a few weeks to break in and fluctuate pitch greatly with changes humidity and temperature, requiring lots of retuning. Because gut strings stretch so much, fine tuners are almost useless, so you better be good at tuning with your pegs before trying gut strings! Gut strings can be moderately to high priced, and because gut strings also wear out relatively quickly, (usually within 6 months of moderate playing) they can cost a lot more over the lifetime of your playing. Because of this, more and more players are switching away from gut core strings. Older instruments tend to have gut strings on them because of the lower tension and warmer sound. Switching an instrument to gut strings takes more than just replacing the strings. The lower tension of gut strings requires a new bridge to compensate for the extra room needed for the oscillation of the string. Some instruments may even require some work on the fingerboard to increase the "scoop" to keep the strings from buzzing against the board when played. Passione Strings, from the Pirastro company are a great set of gut strings.
Steel core strings, introduced in the late 1950's, are a great student string. They have the shortest break in time, stay in tune well, and are relatively low priced. A lot of student instruments are fitted with steel core strings. Steel core strings last a very long time, years possibly, and are a great backup string to have in your case because of the ease of tuning them up and pitch stability. Steel strings have a very stark sound, lacking depth and complexity of gut, with few overtones. They also tend to have a very bright, sometimes even shrill sound. Steel core strings can be broken down into 2 more sub categories, solid and stranded. Solid steel core strings are just that, one thick wire running the length with the wrapping put around it. These are the easiest to produce and cost the least. Many very basic steel strings have a solid core. More advanced (and more pricey) steel strings tend to have a stranded steel core consisting of many thin steel wires wrapped tightly together and covered with a wrapping. Stranded strings tend to be considerably thinner under the left hand compared to their solid counterparts, and much easier to start and stop with the bow. Steel core strings tend to have a higher tension compared to synthetic and gut strings, making them feel "tighter" under the left hand. To compensate for this, bridge heights can be reduced and a flatter fingerboard can be used with steel core strings. A great example of solid steel strings would be the D'Addario Prelude strings, and stranded would be the D'Addario Helicore strings.
Synthetic core strings, introduced into the mass market in the 1960’s, are considered the best of both
worlds. They can last a long time, but have good overtone ranges. Most synthetic strings are based on some type of nylon (plastic) strands wrapped together with a variety of metal windings around them. Synthetic strings are good at recreating the sound of gut strings, with their warm and complex sound, but can lack the depth of gut strings. There are so many different brands of synthetic strings with an even wider selection of sounds. Most strings produced today in both the student and professional markets are synthetic core. They can be mass produced with a relatively reliable tone. I always tell customers the a year of moderate playing on synthetic core strings is about the limit, but many people stretch this to two years. Synthetic strings are moderately to high priced, depending on their winding and exact synthetic core. Most people in the orchestral industry will use the Thomastik Dominant string set as their standard set. When people compare string sounds, it is usually compared against Dominants.
String windings are a whole different ball game, or should we say, orchestra concert. We’ll discuss a few of the most popular here; gold, tin, chrome, nickel, aluminum, and tungsten.
Gold is primarily used as plating on violin E strings, but is now being applied to other strings as well. It reduces the shrillness of hitting the E strings during fast string crossings and heavy, loud playing. It also gives players a warmer tone compared to standard steel E's.
Tin is used in the same way as gold. It is electroplated to violin E strings. It adds a warmer tone that standard steel E's, and is much cheaper than gold, making the overall price of the string much cheaper.
Chrome and Chromium are used on a variety of strings. Chrome plated E string are very much a standard, and chromium gives strings a darker tone without adding much thickness or weight. Lots of higher end cello strings are wrapped in Chromium.
Nickel is used to add weight to a string. It is used as the standard wrapping on most standard sets of steel strings. It adds a darker sound to the string, without adding to much weight or thickness to it. If you are allergic to nickel, then be sure to look for nickel free strings, such as Thomastik Belcanto Gold cello strings, and no, they do not contain gold.
Aluminum is also used to reduce the piercing and whistling of violin E strings. It does add to the thickness because unlike the gold, tin and chrome that is electroplated to the string, it is wound, culminating in a much thicker feel under the fingers.
Tungsten, used on expensive cello strings almost exclusively, adds a great deal of mass without adding to the thickness, especially on the cello G- or C-string. These strings feel much thinner under the finger and bow compared to a nickel wound string, and are easier to start and stop than a standard nickel wrapped string. The tungsten wrapping also adds to the overtone range of these lower strings. With the added mass to the string it tends to ring longer, and play louder due to the momentum of the string. Because of the price of tungsten, the strings tend to be very expensive, sometimes over $100 for a single string!
One more thing, Soloist sets of strings are very similar to a standard set of strings, but with one important difference. The tension of the set is usually higher. The added tension makes the strings louder and cut through a full orchestra better. This creates more stress for the instrument to cope with. Before putting on a soloist set of strings, ask your local string repair shop if your instrument can handle the added stress.
This is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to strings. Other things can be taken into consideration when choosing strings, such as price, tension, quality, pizz vs arco sound quality, the dampening material added to strings, and so much more.
When in doubt, ask your friends, or teacher, as they will always have a recommendation on strings!