THE SILK ROAD











The search for Bottesini's silk strings...
Holy Grail or Urban Legend?
Where did this story come from, in the first place?
Is there any historical, written source that mentions Bottesini using such strings? Is this (another) question of believers and non-believers?


Giovanni Bottesini

We're not the first bass players looking for answers, or trying to go beyond the level of rumors. Ten years ago Robert Nairn of Juilliard experimented with silk bass strings, with some interesting results.


Robert Nairn

Here we will collect all that we can find on the subject. Once you start looking, there's a wealth of fascinating information about the use of silk as a musical string material throughout history: silk was used for Violin and Gamba strings, and in some cultures it's still used for the Oud and for a lot of Asian ethnic instruments. So the idea of a silk bass string isn't all that far-fetched after all.

Whatever the conclusion at the end of our search will be (did Bottesini, at one point or another in his career, use one or more silk strings on his bass?), the journey in itself promises to be fascinating. And of course the journey is the only thing that really matters...


How it started

I don't recall exactly when was the first time i heard about Bottesini having played on silk strings. I think it was my old teacher who mentioned it, some thirty or forty years ago. There was some connection with the fact that Parma, Bottesini's hometown, used to have an important silk industry. Or at least that's what i think i remember.

Some years later i read the following, in the preface to Yorke Edition's collection of Bottesini works:



So that made two references already. 

For some reason this idea of silk strings kind of hibernated in my brain for many years. When i started to study Ancient Music, it popped back to the forefront of my mind, and i became curious enough to try and pursue it further. I contacted Robert Nairn at Juilliard, and i found out that around ten years ago he had actually gone so far as to find a silk string maker who was willing to manufacture some silk bass strings. His first reply to my query sounded promising. He said that they worked pretty well - "like very thin high tension gut strings with extraordinary harmonics, and the silk feels very different". One of his students at Juilliard used them in a Bottesini work, and "it sounded great".

Latest Developments

Last September, at the entrance exam for the bass class, an Italian student named Pasquale Massaro showed up with two basses and three bows. One of the basses had three gut strings. As he explained, his purpose in joining our bass class was to develop a project around the Italian historical three-string bass in solo, chamber and orchestra music.

This triggered my still relatively dormant Silk String button, and i decided this was the time to push forward and to find out all there is to know about the subject - including practical experiments, if possible.

Mails were sent out and replies came in very quickly. Thomas Martin, great virtuoso and Bottesini specialist had this to say:

"I have seen old silk violin strings but i've never seen an old silk bass string. I have seen lots of very old gut strings on basses. Bottesini doesn't mention them in his method and in all the photos the strings appear to be gut. I have seen and played on Dragonetti's bass with the old strings which were gut. I know Bottesini's bass well and we recently tried three gut strings on it and it sounded wonderful. As i say - i've never seen a silk bass string."

Back to square one, it would seem. It's a Square i'm very familiar with, but it's also the best stepping-stone there is. "Absence of proof is no proof of absence", i thought to myself. So the quest continued. Davide Botto wrote this:


Davide Botto

"Les cordes en soie peut-être que c'est seulement une légende (selon Tom Martin)"

Still dancing around on my little square.

Pasquale told me that there is one witness account of Bottesini using a top-string in silk. The challenge now is to find that source. The fact that Bottesini doesn't mention silk strings in his method can have several reasons. Maybe he simply started using silk after the method was published. And maybe he just tried a silk string as an experiment (just like bass players today do: we want to try out what's new and what seems promising). In the meantime more mails are coming in. Here's John Feeney:


John Feeney

"As to Bottesini - yes it is said that he used silk strings - though i doubt that he used them for all applications. There is someone who does make them now for the double bass - but i haven't got that information."

But that's not all. John offers this valuable piece of advice that resonates strongly with my own views (always a nice feeling):

As far as playing technique - the bow is really everything and the best way to developing a great bow arm is to practice with an incredibly SLOW bow - being sure to always achieve the maximum resonance - spinning a tone in which you can hear many harmonic partials resonating vibrantly above the principal pitch you are playing. The slower the bow the quicker the path to a profound tone. But it is important to always follow the tone and achieve maximum resonance while observing the nuances that bring this resonance to its fullest. I play scales in each key proceeding chromatically from the bottom string up through twelve keys - first thing every day. This takes at least one hour, sometimes two - depending on how slow i am bowing. When i am finished - everything else seems easy!"

If that isn't great advice from a fantastic musician...not only for gut string players, by the way.

These last few days and weeks i've been browsing for any information i can find about silk instrument strings. The Internet is absolutely brimming with such knowledge. It appears that silk strings have a long history, both in the Far East (where they are still being used for traditional instruments) and in Europe. I found out that "catgut" has probably absolutely nothing to do with the intestines of the feline species but instead refers to... silk!

But before we get to that: here is what Gerold Genssler, string maker to some of the world's greatest bass players, wrote to me today:

Zu Seide: ich weiß, daß Bottesini eine Zeit lang Seide gespielt hat. Allerdings hielten die Saiten nur ein Konzert lang.
Hatte vor vielen Jahren mal einen Bericht in der Hand über Versuche, Violinsaiten aus Seide, verklebt mit Öl und Bimsstein oder so etwas herzustellen.
Da wurde auch über die Haltbarkeit geklagt.
Der Ausgangspunkt meiner Fibre core Saiten, die ich bei Velvet entwickelt hatte, war ursprünglich Seide. Leider hatte ich auch Probleme mit der Haltbarkeit der Seide. Klang war ok, aber für meine Begriffe hohl. Es gab nicht die Wärme des Darmes. Nach einiger Zeit gab ich dann das Thema auf.
Seit ich bei Velvet weg bin, habe ich ja meine ganz eigenen Produkte entwickelt, vor allem Darmsaiten, aber auch moderne FaserCore Saiten, die um einiges besser klingen, als Seide-Saiten und die jahrelang halten, abgesehen von der extrem leichten Spielbarkeit (und phantastischen Flageoletts).

Here, Mr. Genssler mentions that Bottesini used silk strings for a while, but the strings only lasted for the duration of a concert. He also read about attempts to manufacture silk violin strings that were "glued" together with oil and pumice or something like that, but with the same complaints about durability.

Mr. Genssler's own Fibre Core strings, which he developed while he was working for Velvet, were based on silk. But he too had problems with the strings' durability. The sound was OK, but "hollow" to his taste, and without the warmth of gut. After a while he gave up on silk and developed his own products: gut and modern FaserCore strings that sound better than silk and that last for years, are extremely easy to play and produce fantastic harmonics.

An intelligent remark that Pasquale made today: maybe the eye-witness (or ear-witness) who allegedly wrote about "silk strings" only meant to say that Bottesini's bass had a "silken sound" or words to that effect... this would seem entirely possible or plausible. But until we actually find such a written description, we're on the slippery slope of speculation. Which is not such a bad feeling, in a way. A bit dangerous, a bit exciting. Cheap thrills, surely. But thrills anyway.


Recently i had a chance to take a look at some of Robert Nairn's more precise comments from the time, around ten years ago, when he actually tried out silk bass strings:

"I have only had the G string on my solo bass for a day but was delighted at the tone which really is somewhere between gut and metal so much thinner than gut which makes playing difficult passages in a high tessitura much easier". 

"I had just finished playing the Bottesini Grand Duo Concertante with an Orchestra here and thought it would be great to see how it replaced a steel solo string, tuned up to an 'A', then had it tuned to the normal'G' most of the rest of the week.
The string sounds fascinating - a real cross between steel and gut -the harmonics ring out very clearly. It held pitch much better at the 'G' tuning than at 'A' and the tension was better suited for that pitch as well. Since Bottesini used the higher tuning and since my hope is to play the Grand Duo Concertante in Boston with the Handel and Haydn Society on all silk strings, I wonder if it is possible to have a slightly higher tension? If not I'm sure the string will be fine but I think a slightly higher tension will improve the projection.
I rubbed it down with Corn starch which fixed the stickiness. I wonder if it is possible to polish the surface of the string at all ? The gut strings I use for solo playing are highly polished, making it easier to shift around quickly and the silk felt a little rough, though again if it is not possible to change that, one could get used to it. 
It seemed to hold the pitch better when tuned to 'G' (i.e. normal orchestral tuning) but it may just take a few extra days to settle in - I will try it again. I'd hate to see a thicker diameter for an "A" as at the moment the width is ideal for playing solos and concertos."

"I actually put the D and G on my little solo bass along side the old  G string to do a comparison. I think the new strings are definitely better - they are smoother to the feel so enable you to shift much faster, also the lack of the stickiness of the earlier string was nice. They seem actually a little brighter, tension seems about the same (or if anything just slightly less - I think perhaps a little more tension might help them to project even better?) but they certainly hold together better when you take them off the bass. Please let me know what else you would like me to check. I'm looking forward to trying a thicker A string and will certainly put them on again this week to try them at a scordatura tuning with some Bottesini."

These days i've been trying to reach Robert. I hope maybe we can find some way to collaborate on this project, creating a Silk Road across the Atlantic...

...and here he is! I just got a mail from Robert Nairn. Here is what he has to say:

"The earliest reference I saw to Bottesini using silk strings was from Rodney Slatford in the Yorke Complete Bottesini edition. I can't remember where Rodney got that from but he is quite a scholar and would have researched that well. I have come across many mentions here and there as well but nothing definitive, other than so many soloists at that time did use silk strings, so it would not be that unusual. I've seen ads from Chicago circa 1917 and in the Strad magazine from 1907 advertising silk violin strings so they were still in use then.

Please feel free to include me in any project/discussions.

I had a lot of fun with my students at Juilliard trying out the various stings that Alex Rakov made for us and they were very illuminating. Very easy to get around, incredibly loud (almost amplified ) harmonics but not much volume or tone on the lowest string (G or A)

Gut string-wise I also use Nicholas Baldock's strings. It's hard to know exactly what Bottesini used but I have again seen ads from the early 1900's in London decreeing that 'Italian Gut' was by far the best for violin strings - I can imagine a similar prejudice with bass strings!"


While all this mail traffic was going back and forth, i succeeded in contacting Alexander Rakov, the original manufacturer of Robert's silk bass strings. I have good hopes he might come up with a set of strings for us to experiment with. That would really be fantastic...

And look what came in today. Rodney Slatford is here with some very interesting information!


Rodney Slatford

"Thank you for getting in touch. It is always good to hear from colleagues from the distant past! The first Isle of Man event is now on YouTube and has been seen by thousands of people. Though many of those on the documentary are now no longer with us, it's always interesting to see what became of some of the young competitors, many of whom have enjoyed great careers.

My Bottesini research is all packaged up and temporarily in store, following a major office relocation, so I can't say where I found the quote about Bottesini's strings. It's a fascinating topic and I'm quite sure that I wouldn't have mentioned silk strings in my editorial if I hadn't discovered a quote somewhere. The blog makes good reading, especially Robert Nairn's experiments.

At the time I was working on Bottesini, my later partner was working in the harp restoration business and the firm was regularly in contact with string manufacturers - quite a lot of harp strings were supplied by a firm making gut strings for tennis racquets! Early harps were apparently routinely strung with silk strings, though they had a property of 'spinning' if they weren't taut enough, hence they would only work when used for the upper octaves where the lengths were shorter.

It was this property that might have led Bottesini to use scordatura of varying kinds, sometimes tuning a third or more higher than 'normal' (not that there ever was such a thing as 'normal' in the history of our instrument). A slack G string would have 'spun' and would not have responded well under the bow, but when tightened, would have been less likely to 'spin'. I suspect that a silk top bass string would have been of a much finer gauge than a gut one, and that possibly the tone produced would have been capable of greater refinement. This may well account for Bottesini's tone being reputedly sweet, as opposed to that produced by Dragonetti which was frequently criticised as being rough, although of course Dragonetti's somewhat cruder bow would have lent itself less well to refinement than Bottesini's.

Sadly we have no recordings to use as a basis for any theories, so without the sort of serious research with which you are engaged, we may never know the answer.

I'm going to be away for a few weeks, so can't delve around in my archive for a while, though when I return I'll see what I can unearth. I've been collecting books and papers for years, though things aren't really properly catalogued or indexed - it is a huge task and one I'm likely to leave to those who are unfortunate enough to inherit everything on my demise!

This probably doesn't answer any questions, but may be an interesting theory to add to your files.

With all good wishes,
Sincerely,
Rodney

Now is as good a time as any to sincerely thank all those people who are helping us in this Silk "Whodunnit". Without Robert, Thomas, Davide, John, Gerold, Rodney, Alexander, we would be nowhere at all. I hope we'll get more information in the weeks and months ahead, and that one day we will be able to present some conclusions. In the meantime, enjoy the ride!


Some interesting Sites:

http://www.mikeouds.com/messageboard/viewthread.php?tid=10010 

http://www.reuters.com/article/2015/07/17/us-italy-silk-idUSKCN0PR0FA20150717



Here is a truly fascinating article that i found on the Internet. In addition to giving you the link, i thought it would be a good idea to print at least part of the text (there is more where this came from, notably about the latest developments in Alexander Rakov's research).

http://www.silkqin.com/03qobj/strings/raykovstrings.htm#top



How to make silk strings for early instruments


Alexander Rakov


Alexander Rakov, 2013 (Left)





(Note: all the underscoring is mine)

Why silk?


I am not going to make claims of authenticity for silk strings being used on medieval, renaissance or baroque instruments. This discussion seems to be ongoing (see Comm 1796 by John Downing vs Comm 1767 by E. Segermann). Missing from this discussion are the actual strings. Unless silk strings are made, tried by musicians, and collectively developed, it is very easy to dismiss their usefulness or their attractive qualities. These same qualities should be a part of the argument of whether our predecessors would be interested in going to the trouble of making silk strings, or whether they would be totally content with sheep gut. Some of the best arguments for early gut strings are made as result of direct experience of modern gut string makers. Similar arguments cannot be made for silk strings because there appears to be only one person, who is not a commercial string maker, making silk strings for early instruments at the moment. Whatever discoveries I have made in the process, are staying right where they were made. I believe that by changing this, and sharing the practical process itself in as much detail as I can muster, I can give the silk strings a better chance, in addition to contributing to the discussion.

There are additional considerations. As a process, making silk strings is definitely simpler, less time consuming, and can be mastered by a willing musician. The results, however, can be very satisfying. Not only can silk strings match in their qualities the gut ones, but a wide range of twisting techniques and twist angles can be tried. Only recently we noticed a discourse on gut strings with higher twist than the one once preferred by the 19th-century romantic violinists. Such higher degree of twist offers possibilities that may not be experienced with gut strings now considered the norm. Music making for the enthusiasts especially can become much more satisfying experience, as the more flexible strings are definitely less demanding and more forgiving, if slightly less loud.

Not the least, at this moment in history, raw silk is extremely cheap. I am buying it for about $40 a pound. That is a POUND! Enough to make strings for over 50 bass viols. The price of gut by the weight sometimes exceeds that of gold. For the business minded, silk strings can be made by machines as easily as modern fly-fishing lines are made. They also can be made by hand with some $20 worth of equipment.

Silk components, processing and their use in string making

I will speak primarily about Bombyx Mori silk, the cultured silk used by modern textile industry. This is the one I used mostly. I also experimented with the Tussah, a wild silk. This helped me realize that wild silks of the Saturnae family (very widely spread around the world, including most of Europe, primarily southern France and Mediterranean, with some recently discovered Celtic burial sites containing fabrics made of wild silk) can make good strings as well.

Any silk consists of two major proteins, Fibroin and Sericin. Fibroin, as its name clearly implies, is the actual fiber, with a very strong molecular structure (there is an abundance of printed source material on silk). Raw silk, the silk simply reeled from cocoons without any processing, usually comprises from 65% to 80% of Fibroin. The remainder is Sericin, a gummy glue, designed to keep Fibroin fibers together and the cocoon intact, protected from the elements including the ultraviolet radiation from the sun. To exit from the cocoon, the caterpillar secretes an enzyme that hydrolyses Sericin. Removal of the Sericin from silk makes it vulnerable to UV and in the wild, leads to its quick decomposition. Fibroin, however, is relatively chemically inert and insoluble in practically all of the organic solvents. Both Fibroin and Sericin have about the same specific gravity.The raw silk is produced by placing cocoons into a tub with hot water to soften the cocoons. The temperature varies depending on the process, but commonly is from 65°C to 98°C. After combining about 12 strands together, the thread is reeled off the softened cocoons. Sericin glues these strands together to produce what appears to be one continuous hair-thin filament. The usual industry standard is a 21 denier thread (denier is the weight in grams of 9000 meters of filament... don't ask...). This is the filament I use to make silk strings.

I will describe the process of a string being made and explain the reasons for procedures as we go

I re-reeled the raw silk from industrial skeins onto spools myself. Whereas many silk suppliers will provide the silk on cones, one can never be sure how long the filament has spent on the cone, or how deformed and weakened it has become. Also you can not be there to supervise the tension setting on the machine. Silk coming in loose skeins is guaranteed to be undamaged and at its strongest. However, if anyone considers reeling the 21 denier silk from a skein onto the spool, he should not undertake it lightly. A well made vertical adjustable reel (to put the skein on and spread it) as well as reeling device with electric motor and oscillator (you just can’t sit there for a few hours moving filament right and left) needs to be designed. Now to our string.

I have made a gadget to hold 26 spools with 21 denier silk (an arbitrary number, just happened to be so). After a couple of years I have enough data to predict how many filaments are needed for a particular string diameter. Incidentally the final diameters coincide with those of gut strings of the same pitch.

We start with making a smooth, directly twisted string (i. e. twisted in one direction), say a top string for the bass gamba, diameter 0.68 mm. First a few calculations. According to my data I will need 208 filaments of 21 denier thickness. I need to know how long the finished string needs to be, L cm, and the coefficient of twist, Co. The first relates to the length of the dry filaments assembly; the second I found in practice to vary from 25 to 37.6, with the number 30 in my experience working well in most situations. Of course, this number was determined experimentally from the thickness of the filaments. The formula I use to calculate the number of turns, N, to give the filament assembly is:

N = Co × L / #½,

where #½ is the square root of the number of filaments. This formula effectively gives a string of any diameter about the same twist angle, as determined by the coefficient of twist, with the thicker ones getting a little more twist, as they end up shorter than the thin ones.

I want to make three string lengths, so I start with L = 305 cm. I choose a twist coefficient of 32 (enough body, but good flexibility as well). It might be important to touch slightly on the question of the amount of twist for silk strings. Whereas overall the strings twisted to a degree related to gut string twist will exhibit similar qualities as gut, the Fibroin in silk has more lateral stiffness than collagen, and appears to favor slightly more twist without much loss of strength. There is however a question of string compression on the bridge or the nut at the lower twist degrees. I intend to touch on this later.

The number of filaments is, as I mentioned, 208. This gives N = 677 turns to be put into the string. I use a few hand cranked gear boxes with different gear ratios. This way I can count the number of turns precisely. Another possibility is to use a computer controlled step motor, though I personally found this to be bothersome to program and use.

After calculations I can assemble the filaments into a string. I have a board with a number of sturdy hooks. Some hooks are needed to make rope twisted strings, some hold weights for stretching silk etc. The board is attached firmly to the wall, and from the opposite wall a chain is connected tightly to this board. The tightness is important. As I start assembling the string, I use small (about 1.5 cm) brass hooks to which to tie the silk. I also have some heavier hooks for really thick and tight strings. With all 26 filaments (see above) tied firmly (!) to one hook, I run them back and forth between a hook at the 305 cm position on the chain and another larger hook attached to my wall board. 8 passes gives me 208 filaments. Running such thin filaments requires attention, clean hands (watch for any rough skin that can break filaments) and well fixed end points. With every new bunch added the assembly tightens, and if the chain is not tight to begin with, the filaments will be of different lengths. This would distribute the tension unevenly in the finished string. After assembling all 208 filaments, I tie off the end (learned the way from our friendly fly fishing makers), of course without losing any tension on the last bunch.

Now we have a bunch of filaments, which we need to moisten. For this I attach the small hook to a rope with movable hooks, instead of the chain. This way I do not get the chain wet, and can control the stretch of the silk. I use distilled water to moisten the filaments THOROUGHLY. Minerals in water can affect silk. Japanese silk string makers leave their silk in water overnight, to be sure (of course, they use this also as a gentle degumming technique). In any case, the Sericin takes a few minutes to soften. It is a good idea to moisten silk, let it hang maybe 20 minutes, and moisten again. As the silk becomes moist, it starts stretching. This provides a good opportunity to work some filaments around the hook to ensure all the filaments have the same general tension. Theoretically, silk can stretch up to 25%. After allowing the silk to soak in water thoroughly, I start twisting, while stretching. The twist adds handsomely to the stretching process. Twisting can be done all at once, or in stages. The important thing is that by the end, the string is twisted and stretched as tightly as possible. Of course, with thinner strings it requires good judgment, not to break them. Also, it is very important that the string stays moist. If some parts of it manage to dry out, the string will not be uniform. I moisten it regularly throughout the process.

One particularly attractive technique of twisting, used in both China and Japan, calls for hanging the silk assembly vertically. They build high wooden structures for this, or use barn-like high buildings. What is good about this, is the use of measured weights, which are turned to give the twist. These measured weights give a consistent stretch to a twisted string. After being twisted, the Chinese cook the string. The reason for this is that, whereas the Fibroin will hold applied twist after being heated, for the string to be uniform and stable the Sericin must melt to penetrate the fibers. This process will create a very uniform string, having a smooth gut-like appearance. It is possible to make strings from degummed silk or silk thread, more on this later. One important aspect of cooking is to find the right time and temperature for cooking. An undercooked string will have one set of problems; overcooked strings will have another set of problems, one of which will be reduced strength, due to the breaking of outer filaments. So, especially thin and highly stressed strings need to be watched closely. I do not cook the strings without a good timer involved. In general it is preferable to keep the temperature 15-20 degrees C below boiling point of water. My take on Bombyx Mori silk is from 18 minutes for thin strings, to 28 minutes for the thick ones. There will be some variations depending on the variety of silk used.

As mentioned earlier, the string has its own natural glue in it already. It has to be melted and has to penetrate the string. When it is done under tension, the string is better packed, as the filaments get closer together and force more Sericin to the outer layers. For this it can be steamed. I use my own steamer (a traveling clothes steamer is a good bet) where I can put a steam tube about 30 cm long around a string, and move it over the whole string length, with steam going inside. Now, if the temperature is too high, the string will develop waves, so watch out if you try this, the pipe diameter that works well for me is about 4 - 5 cm. If it is smaller, the steam will be hotter. Steaming is just one possible technique, and needs to be mastered to work well. The advantage arises from forcing Sericin to the outside of the string which creates a natural "finish". Alternatively this Sericin can be wiped off some thinner strings, reducing the weight of the string. This helps the string to be thinner for a given strength.

It is possible to go from twisting to cooking without steaming in between. First, it is a good idea to let the string, wrapped, let us say, on a copper cylinder, rest a few minutes in cold distilled water. To cook a string, this copper cylinder will be placed in olive oil at 80 - 85C. The quality of olive oil has to be food grade, as some cheaper varieties contain undesirable ingredients. The temperature is important, as lower temperature will need longer exposure, and higher temperature may damage some outer filaments. Oil cooking allows already moistened sericin to melt and shape nicely without loosing any water in the process. Plus, it allows a string to dry slowly under tension. For a string of such diameter (of 208 filaments), about 20 minutes in 85C oil will be enough. A second hand deep fryer with temperature control makes good equipment for cooking. I use a thermometer, to be sure of the right temperature.

As the string is twisted very tightly, very little oil penetrates to the inside. The Sericin also prevents this from happening, as it is designed to protect a caterpillar inside cocoon in natural conditions from all kinds of substances save water. Thus the oil conditions the very outside of the string and helps the string to dry just at the right pace. After coming out of oil (HOT, be careful!) the string is stretched. For this particular thickness, I would use about 4 kilos. While on the instrument the tension can reach somewhere to 6+ kilos, but at this stage the string is still wet, and is more fragile. The stretching part is made possible by a system of hooks and chains, firmly attached to the walls or ceiling, as well as some weight lifting equipment stolen from exercise prone children.

Here comes an important part. After anywhere from 6 to 12 hours, depending on air temperature, humidity and string diameter, the string will become practically dry. When removed from its stretching rack, a beginning string maker will encounter a strange phenomenon. The string will be quite stiff: melted Sericin acts exactly like beeswax. If you ever tried to bend a wax candle wick, you know it would be possible only if it is warmed. Otherwise it will crack. The same will happen to this freshly dried string. It will crack if sharply bent. While overall it is not going to damage the string, it can be inconvenient. To avoid this problem I roll the dried and still oily string around a piece of wood dowel of about 5mm diameter. I make one string loop around the dowel and roll it, still under tension. You will hear a distinct cracking sound, as the Sericin will develop regularly spaced cracks. After this, the string can be straightened and stretched a little more. Again, the Sericin does act like beeswax, and the longer a string is left to stretch after rolling, the less flexible it will become as the Sericin will flow slowly and reconnect. Fortunately oil helps, and the string will never become as hard as when merely cooked in water. The rolling also introduces some oil inside the string, conditioning it. It is worth mentioning here, that olive oil does not seem to present any problems to the bows or fingers unless there is too much of it. It mixes happily with rosin, and leaves skin soft and conditioned. String balm and cosmetic in one!

To seal in success, the string can be cooked a few more minutes in oil after being "crunched". This produces a very smooth pliable string where it is hard to see its twisted structure even under magnifying glass. If the string is intended for a bowed instrument, at this point it is worth to start watching how much oil is left on the string. It can get to that too much point. A simple rag and good judgment will do the work.

In Chinese string cooking, instead of oil, a mixture of animal and vegetable glues is used. One difficulty in this process is, again, that high temperature of cooking reduces the final string strength, primarily by damaging some outer filaments. This may compromise the outside of a smooth, directly twisted string, as well as create a certain "hairiness" in the strings (ironically, a quality ascribed to "Acribelle" silk violin strings fashionable in the 19th century). It is especially of concern for the top lute and violin strings. If the temperature of the glue mixture is reduced, the glue has a hard time penetrating tightly twisted string. The second problem is that personally, I could not find any glue combination that would match the sound quality produced by the Sericin. It does not mean, of course, that such a glue does not exist. The third problem arises after twisting and cooking, as the string needs to be stretched and dried. If it dries too quickly, some of the outside filaments will break. In China they make their strings during the rainy season, to slow down drying. I felt I needed something to naturally slow down the drying, without waiting for rain. Good glues for cooking include hide glue, rabbit skin glue, sturgeon glue (isinglass), rice starch, gum arabic in any combination. Adding sugar or honey to the mixture has its own good qualities. They make hide glue and isinglass more flexible. Much can be learned and applied from such disciplines as candy making. The possibilities are limitless, and I encourage others to experiment.

This concludes the basic procedure for making a smooth, directly twisted string. After drying and stretching I measure the final stretched length, and record it - 209 cm. The diameter measured as 26 thou (0.66 mm).

Water and… honey

Following all the same procedures, but using distilled water at 80-85C instead of olive oil will create a very nice string as well. However the drying speed needs to be watched closely. It may be slowed down by drying in damp air. A good trick is to drop the string right after cooking into cold water for a few minutes. The brittle quality of melted Sericin in the water-finished string definitely will be more pronounced. The string will have a certain dryness in sound as well. It appears that when cooked in oil, more Sericin is forced outside the string, and there it flows and reconnects, creating a shiny protective layer. The combination of oil-water cooking can be tried in different ways. One observation, oil cooked strings have more stability when humidity and temperature changes, and are less inclined to collect finger oils and dirt. Silk (including Sericin) is not affected by common enzymes, therefore stays happy with certain personal skin chemistry. As some know, gut can start disintegrating mysteriously.

Overall I personally could not find a way to keep the Sericin at least as flexible as the collagen glue in gut strings. Adding a little honey to the water bath acts as a humectant, and lowers the flexibility-humidity barrier by about 5%, but still leaves the string "crunchy" at regular levels of humidity. For fly-fishing the Japanese made a silk-worm gut substitute, a very transparent and uniform string, in a similar way to that described above. The silk is first degummed (removing the Sericin) and then cooked in a flexible glue, often a seaweed gel. However it is not easy to degum raw silk without loosing some of its strength. This, and the fact that the Sericin prevents destructive affect of UV on silk, may explain the easy breaking of such a string (as experimented by both John Downing and myself). Such a string snapped at about 310 Hz (d#) on a 62 cm lute, while a raw silk top string lasts over a month of good use at 370 Hz (f#).

The "crunchiness" of Sericin is one peculiar aspect that would be important to resolve. If Sericin is left in the string dry and inflexible, it will crack at the points of stress, the string holder, lute bridge, or nut. The stress distribution will become very different. Thin strings, like the top lute or violin string, will very likely fail much sooner than in a well conditioned string. In bowed strings, especially at low humidity levels, dry Sericin on the string surface might feel somewhat slippery. Thus the importance of finding a way of keeping the string unified and flexible. Again, there is a beauty to the sound of Sericin, and a degummed string has quite a different sound. I will return to this.

Rope-twist strings

We are accustomed to strings being smooth. Modern gut strings are polished for example, though that might not be the case for medieval or renaissance times. Above I gave the technique for making such a smooth string of silk. However there is a different way of putting a silk string together, in the manner of a thread or rope. Chinese string makers definitely preferred this way. The advantages are these: although the string is twisted, at the same time it has minimal inner tensions and pulls. Such a string settles on the instrument very quickly and stays very stable. Secondly, the outer filaments, which on a directly twisted string run on the outside, create hairiness when they fail whereas in a rope twisted string the failed filaments tend to hide inside. Thus if the outer layer is damaged by say friction, like a pick used on medieval lute or oud, the string does not start getting loose outer filaments. On Chinese instruments like the Qin, the way of playing itself puts so much stress on the string that it has to be twisted like a rope. Thirdly, the rope twist has its own structural integrity, so the question of Sericin, or glue in string cracking, becomes quite unimportant.

The disadvantages are: the "bumpiness" of the string (which makes it easier to pluck a lute, as fingers grab the string effortlessly, but requires some adjustment to bow). Also, the rope twisted string has lower strength limit comparing with a smooth one. For example on a 62 cm lute I would not use a rope twisted string above the second (d) string, as it will not last long.

I will explain how such a string is made using an example of a string equivalent to one described above, with the same final diameter, length and characteristics. Start with three bunches of 60 filaments each, 210 cm long. You can see that the number of filaments in this case is just 180, not 208 as in case of directly twisted string. Moreover the starting length is greater, as in case of this particular string, I will get in the end 209-210 cm out of the starting 210. It is easy to deduce that what is missing in length, goes into diameter.

I will not go into the design and principle of a rope. Information is abundant. One difference I need to mention here. Whereas in the rope making the three (or two, or four) primary bunches after twisting counterclockwise are allowed to twist clockwise on their own to guarantee the optimal secondary twist, in the string making we are dealing with some very thin lines, and we want to be completely in control of the final twist arrangement, so we will twist every bit of it by hand (or an appropriate machine).

First the calculations. We will make an S twist string as opposed to a Z twist. To have a well relaxed twist, as described above, we will give the same amount of twist to the initial bunches and to the string assembled of all three. I set the twist degree coefficient at 29, lower than 32 used for the direct string. Calculations give me 786 turns for 210 cm and 60 filaments (same formula as above). I assemble three bunches of 60 filaments each, each hooked up equidistantly from the central hook, where they all come together at 210 cm from the board on the wall mentioned above. After being moistened thoroughly, the bunches are twisted each counterclockwise 786 turns (it can be done individually or to all three at once with a three gear gadget, if you happen to have one lying around) and hooked up individually to 1 kg weights. This puts each bunch under exactly the same tension while twisting the assembly clockwise, otherwise the string will be no good. For those who will really get to making such a string, I will mention that the spread of the bunches and weights should be such as to allow the ends come together at about 1/3 of the final number of turns (in the above example, somewhere after 260 turns). After clockwise twist of the string, the three-hook end is tied together to one hook, the string is put on copper cylinder and cooked according to individual taste. It is worth mentioning that while the equal amounts of twist are suggested above, the primary bunches can be twisted more or less than the final string. Every variation will offer some differences to the final string. For example by twisting the primary bunches much less than the final twist it is possible to get an almost smooth in appearance string, while keeping some of the advantages of rope twist. Experiment!

Obviously, the thicker the string, the more twist it needs to have to work properly. A string made of two rope parts instead of usual three, will take more twist, and be more flexible.

Strings made of degummed silk and silk thread

It is entirely possible to make some very good strings from degummed silk. Some musicians may prefer the airy, wispy sound of silk without the gum in it. Such a sound is clearly preferred by the traditional Japanese musicians. The issue becomes how to keep the string reasonably manageable. If the string is made by twisting directly, some gluing substance needs to be applied, as the outer filaments will break and attempt to unravel. This substance needs to be light and strong at the same time. One definite oriental favorite is the so called Chinese Wax, now impossible to find in the West. This wax melts at slightly above human body temperature. Also, as the string will be very pliable and soft, the twist in it, especially in lower twist coefficient numbers (on my above described scale, from 25 to 31) will tend to redistribute from the high stress places like nut or bridge, increasing the possibility of breaking filaments there. This will be more pronounced at the lower twist degrees, as the string will tend to "flatten" on the nut or bridge without Sericin helping it to stay together. Certain heat-steam-water treatments can be devised to make the filaments stay better together. It will require fine judgment, however, as it will be easy to stress and damage the outer filaments, and wind up with extremely hairy string. To remedy this Japanese string makers polish the string with rice paste, which removes fine broken filaments and fills in a starchy paste. While this procedure sounds simple, it requires a good amount of practice or instruction. The rope twisted string, however, does not have all these problems, and might be a better way for degummed silk. There are some threads on the market made of continuous filament silk, for example Japanese "Tire" thread (a common silk thread, like cotton or linen, is made of short broken filaments, called spun silk thread). The price of such a thread (while it is a very good quality silk) is astronomical compared with raw silk. Spun silk thread can make some reasonable strings, but you always need to consider direction of twist already in the thread and calculate the string accordingly. I should mention that cotton, linen and hemp can make some surprisingly good strings, as hard as it might be to believe, following the techniques described above for the silk. These, in my opinion, work better on bowed instruments than plucked.

Other string treatments worth trying

One possibility is a tanning process, using tannic acid or tea. The string is still cooked for about usual amount of time, in strong tea, or using tannic acid, stretched, dried and "crunched". But then, it needs to be left alone for a couple of weeks (read up on tanning process, if curious). I found that tanning in silk continues at the usual humidity levels. The result is a very flexible, uniform, well sounding and strong string, good for the top string of a lute or violin. The color is nice, too. All together such a string reminds somehow of a well tanned leather.

Another treatment is linseed oil. Linseed oil has been used for a few hundred years to treat silk fishing lines. As some hundred + years old silk fishing lines are being used even now (by crazy enthusiasts, but aren’t we all, aren’t we all…), this means that linseed oil offers silk a good protection against the elements. One definite fact (I claim this not only from my experience): the silk needs to be degummed before any serious interaction with the linseed oil (save just light rub-on finish), otherwise it will spread unevenly and the string will be a mess. (The silk is degummed usually with soap-detergents in water. However I find that about 30-45 min cooking in water with about 5-10% alcohol in it, degums nicely, without as much damage to the filaments. This method is not used in industry probably because of the cost, and maybe the addictive nature of alcohol). I would suggest cooking at 80-85C in linseed oil, but working with linseed oil is much more difficult affair than with olive, or almond, or even walnut oil. It is neither very safe, nor could I come to a definite conclusion as to how well it works under a bow, or finger. On bowed instruments I did not use linseed oil treated strings in all the seasons. It works very nicely outside of the heating season (low humidity). In plucked instruments there was an element of whistle – finger against string, possibly needing the addition of a varnish material, like copal resin, or such. The quality of oil might be very important, using raw oil instead of boiled or vise versa, but then the whole affair becomes so complex as to discourage one with other things to do (to play music, for example). Another oil with similar potential and difficulties is tung oil, or a mixture with linseed oil.

Definitely both are easier to use as a finish rather than in a penetrating bath, but this does not reduce possible advantages. Linseed oil was favored in many uses all the way back to medieval times.

Loaded bass strings and Demi-File

It is claimed by textile specialists, historical preservationists and chemists that silk readily absorbs up to 300% of its own weight in metallic salts. This is rather large number. A string made of such silk would sound more than an octave lower. Apparently many old silk American flags from Civil War era were made of silk weighted with lead and mercury salts. Makes you shiver, doesn’t it! 

Starting with the 20th century the industry standard became tin salts or aluminum salts. Both are not as heavy, but also not as poisonous. I am not chemically inclined and did not go for the whole weighting process, including acid baths and such. But I did try a simple watercolor-like technique, using a copper powder pigment in a gum arabic base. To work, the silk needs to be degummed, and then what really is a copper paint, is applied to filaments which are then twisted. There is a reasonable gain in mass of the string, and a certain interest in the sound In my experiments, pitch was not as stable with temperature change as with plain silk strings. Nevertheless metal weighting of silk, followed by finishing with linseed oil, would be an easy way to make smooth bass strings that would match in appearance the iconographic evidence from the 17th century.

If such a procedure was ever used to make bass strings (I am threading this ground very carefully, with a respectful hand wave to Mimmo Peruffo and Ephraim Segermann), those strings in all likelihood would follow the fate of all the old weighted silks – they disintegrate disastrously after mere hundred years or so, like those old Civil War flags do.

While silk weighting requires some chemical witchcraft, there is a good technique of making bass strings that would use a rather simple machine. Mine is made of two old kitchen mixers on a frame and a sewing machine pedal switch. They are arranged against one another, to turn the string core, on which winding is made. Older versions would use small boys turning a handle. Definitely a simple way to make say a nice low D for gamba using an old C string. No wonder 17th century instrument makers and even some musicians used to do it right at home. I am speaking of the Demi-File technique. It can be done on a smooth string, which does not require my expertise, or the wire can be inlaid in a rope twist. To make the string tighter, I usually inlay the wire (the 2 section rope twist seems to be better) a few turns before the desired amount of twist, and then twisting the string together with the wire in it. The wire does not stretch, really, so it can break if it is twisted too much. There is a way to make a Demi-File string without kitchen appliances. First the silk string sections are twisted (counterclockwise usually) and the wire is twisted the same way as well, then they are brought together and twisted clockwise. This requires a bit of practice and experimentation, and results can be varied. Again, experiment.

Overspun basses of silk

Everyone is familiar with wire-overspun bass strings, with wire wound around gut or synthetic core. If you aren’t, you are reading the wrong magazine. Silk overspun basses, with silk wound around silk core, were made in China for at least 4000 years. As I found some problems with traditional technique, (which can be seen at http://www.silkqin.com/02qnpu/05tydq/tystring.htm (now changed to http://www.silkqin.com/02qnpu/05tydq/ty1b.htm), as far as applied to western instruments (for example the strings are wrapped while wet, after drying and silk expanding, the wrapping becomes a separate buzzing entity), I developed my own technique, described here briefly.

The core and wrapping are calculated and made separately. If the core is thick and the winding thin, the string will be less flexible but have more ‘body’. If the proportion is changed towards more winding thickness, the string will have more flex and sustain, but less body. The core can be made in a variety of ways,- smooth, rope of three, of two or four parts. Different coefficients of twist will produce different results.

Also, a demi-file core can be used, to reduce the final string diameter. The wrapping is calculated as to diameter and length and twisted separately from the core. To work well the wrapping has to be twisted to the highest degree it can take. For silk and above formula, Co would be 37-37.6. A silk or even cotton, linen or hemp thread can be used as wrapping, as long as it is uniform and tight, and the results will be good. The important part is to do all the wrapping dry, since wet silk still expands, and buzzing will result. The ends of wrapping can be fixed with some thin silk filaments and a bit of glue (I use gum arabic). Wrapping with silk and wire next to each other makes a good quality strong string.

In conclusion

I hope this brief description will convince more people to try making strings of silk, as the process is not of such complexity as gut string making. As these strings are made and tried, some different acoustical possibilities will be discovered and new inspirations created. The author has tried to be brief but clear. If some reasonable questions arise, he would be willing to offer clarifications.

I would like to express my appreciation to Alan Dobson, John Downing, and everyone who gave me this or that piece of information to ponder on. 

As you can see, there is a lot of information to be found on the manufacture of silk strings. There's plenty more on the Internet. Still, no proof yet of the existence of such strings for the Double Bass. 

In February i'm going to Japan to visit some workshops where silk strings for musical instruments are still being made. Curious to find out more about the thickest and lowest specimens: maybe some strings for the Bass Koto (the Jyushichi Gen - meaning "seventeen strings") could be used as Double Bass strings?

http://www.marusan-hashimoto.com/english/

In the meantime, if anybody out there comes across the mythical eyewitness mention of Bottesini's use of silk strings, break the news to us in a gentle manner...  we wouldn't want to risk a heart attack.


Just had a long telephone conversation with Gerold Genssler, bass  string maker and expert, on the different ways to manufacture gut strings and how different types of gut, different ways of twisting, different ways of treating the gut, result in very different playing and sounding properties. Very enlightening.

On a different note (literally), we talked about his new Viennese Tuning strings. He's sending them over to me, and i'll try them on the Charton B21 bass. This will give us a chance to compare modern state-of-the-art strings with the pure gut on the three-string bass.

And just today, October 28th, i got this interesting news from Master String Maker Nicholas Baldock. I've been using his strings ever since i started using gut. I had asked Nicholas a few questions concerning pure gut vs. metal-wound strings, different types of twist etc.

"It's so interesting to read what you are doing with three string basses and Bottesini: I've been saying for about the last thirty years that these are the instruments that should be used....and everybody just converted any three string instrument to a four stringer!

Silk strings: it's easy to forget that on plucked instruments silk has been used for a very long time as the basic material. Also, at around 1600 the string makers in Rome were fined for using Gut instead of silk for making strings: a cheap alternative or a bit like VW cars???

Years ago I made some violin 1st e" strings from silk: they held the tension and the sound was good but they would break without any warning, so technically I don't see any great problems in making silk Bass strings: just the cost of the raw material and actually getting hold of plain untwisted silk to make the strings. I heard that someone in America was experimenting in this direction but perhaps that is what Rob Nairn contacted you about.

A basic difference between a four string bass and a three string instrument: it's easy to ignore, but when you only have three strings on an instrument you reduce the tension by 25%, this means that you free the table of the instrument from tension or you can increase the tension on the three strings without going over the total tension of a four string instrument. In England many of the old English and Italian Instruments where originally three stringed: converted to four at a later date, the danger is that you clamp the instrument up which is why in America and England the players favour extensions over five stringed instruments.

When I gave my talk/demonstration at the museum in Berlin I had an Italian "De la Costa" instrument in its original 3 string set up: it had an amazing sound and would be ideal for solo playing.

The whole idea of Solo tuning was that one kept one's orchestra strings on and just tuned them up, giving more tension and projection, this works far better with a three string set-up than with four.

I'm certain that you know the article from Tom Martin over Bottesini; I made gut strings for Tom when he went to play the Bottesini Instrument in Japan. All the information that we have is that they were using three all gut strings: The italian string makers were seen as the best for making gut, but one hears very little about them making metal wound strings: even on four string basses (earlier at least) I have read about tuning the 4th string to a GG or FF because thy would not work at EE! We know that in other places wound AA strings were used at quite an early period, but also plain gut AA strings coming well into the 20th century.

Different types of gut: I am coming to the conclusion that both the gut types that I make: Kathedrale and Antiquus can both work in most positions but that it is very much a personal choice; probably based mainly on bowing technique: I have some customers that like the Kathedrale even as an AA string and are going for really high tensions with strings at 4,40mm for the AA: others would find this far too stiff. Conversely, other players find the Antiquus for the 1st string (be it an A or G) too soft and not offering enough resistance under the bow. Obviously this also depends on the string length of the instrument but I think the playing technique is the most important point.

I'll get the three strings out tomorrow, but if you want to use gut for a three string Bottesini Project I would suggest as a starting point relatively thick strings with the top string as Kathedrale and the lower two as Antiquus".


This coincides with our first practical experiences in our Bass Class: the lowest string seems too low in tension as compared to the top two strings, which was to be expected anyway. Second, i asked Pasquale about the possibility that Bottesini might have used a wound 3rd string. The answer was no, and we're now looking into written indications or evidence in the old Methods. 

Interesting too, to read about the 4th string being tuned up to FF or even GG, which resulted in odd tunings for the 4-string bass, such as F-A-D-G or G-A-D-G. In fact, Johann Hindle's bass method was written for the F-A-D-G tuning, although Hindle himself (who lived from 1792 till 1862: quite late in terms of the Viennese Bass) was one of the last virtuosi on this instrument - clearly a sign that Viennese Tuning was on its way out.

More practical explanations from Nicholas Baldock:

"One really needs to look at the 3 string bass as a different instrument to exploit its full potential. But rather than me sending strings that I "think" will work it's better if you do some tests with strings that you have: You write that the 3,80 & 3,70mm strings for the 3rd BB sound too flabby. What you need to do is take one of these strings and tune it up to a pitch were it sounds good, then tell me the pitch and gauge, something like "the 3,80mm sounds good at C#" then I can calculate the gauge of string that will give you this tension at the right pitch. If you can do this with the 1st and 2nd strings too that would be really helpful.

You need to leave each string at the pitch were it works best because the total tension is important to how the individual strings work, if you start with the 3rd and have the 1st and 2nd strings at the A and E you might find that you need to back off a little when you tune up the top strings. Tests like this are never 100% because a thin string at a high pitch doesn't work exactly like a thicker string at a lower pitch (even when the tension is the same) and obviouly the instrument has resonances that sound better than others, but the tests give a very good idea as to the direction one needs to go".


13 November 2015

Alexander Rakov's latest report on the silk bass strings he's making:



"Having made the strings for the first bass, i can see that the first(top) string is pretty decent, the second, quite smooth, but i do not know how it will feel to the fingers. But the third, no matter how i try, i cannot make it smooth enough. As silk is continuous filament, it cannot be rectified like gut (the outer layers of gut can be shaved off, to make the surface smooth, rectification). The filaments would stick out like porcupine's needles. I will still heat treat it, smoothing the string surface somewhat, but i can clearly see it is a waste of good silk. I doubt such a string would be useful in solo playing. Any other design i use to make basses would not be smooth, as well.

If you think that the lack of smoothness of the third string  is important, i will make just the top two for the second bass. A good gut string for the third would do the trick, i'm sure. It's the very top 
that is very pronounced as different in silk. If you think that a layered design might work, i could try that. I am attaching a picture. The very left string is silk core wrapped with wire and silk, laid together. This would be thicker then wire wound string, sounds much less pronounced then metal wrapped strings, very much like a natural silk would.


The four right of it are silk core wrapped with silk. They are much
"fluffier" than with added wire, their diameter would be equal to what straight twisted silk would have, but more flexible and relaxed sound. A string twisted in six layers, without wrapping, would have more body, and similar surface to what you see on the picture. Of course the surface is not smooth, finger slide is noisy"


Now we're just waiting for the strings to arrive. Very interesting to note the problems with the lowest string: these last few weeks we've been examining the possibilities of getting more resistance from the 3rd gut string. Nicholas Baldock suggested taking a thicker gauge. Solo playing requires a different way of playing. The "regular" gut strings work quite well in chamber music and in a (small) orchestra, but for solo playing something quite different is needed. So Alexander's idea of using gut rather than silk for the deepest sounds seems to correspond with our own findings.



4 December 2015




The strings are here...





















After a couple of Mug Shots for our files i opened the envelope that Mr. Rakov sent me. Inside were six silk strings: two sets of three, in different gauges. 






A few weeks ago i converted my Farcas bass from a 4 to 3-string set-up with gut strings. Contrary to Pasquale's bass, i use "normal" string gauges, i.e. "orchestra tuning" diameters but tuned a whole step higher. Pasquale uses a very heavy gauge orchestra string which he tunes up as well. Tuning to B-E-A gives more tension, which is of course the idea. We're not using special thinner "solo tuning" gauges because we figure Bottesini wouldn't have used them either. 

The silk strings by comparison are thinner. I'll give the heavier set to Pasquale and i'll try the thinner ones on my own bass. In the coming days or weeks we'll be back with some first results. Since we're having our Class Concert on December 14th, i don't suppose Pasquale is going to change to silk strings right away. 



Notice the twist in the bottom string...
Curious to find out how it behaves under the bow.



30 December 2015




At last i found some time for the first experiments with the new strings...

Three days ago i unpacked the 1st string, diameter 1.84, to install it on my Farcas bass. I had already converted it to a three-string gut configuration a few weeks ago by filing three new slots in the nut and bridge, and by adding a hole in the tailpiece for the middle string.

Pasquale has the heavier silk string set, i chose the lighter gauge: he is a lot taller and more muscular than i am, and he likes to really "dig in" when he plays. For gut strings he uses a very heavy type: his low B-string (3rd string in solo tuning) is almost 4 mm thick (3.8 to be precise). Some players use that gauge for the 4th string in orchestra tuning.

I'm used to a lighter gauge gut string, especially in Viennese Tuning: heavy strings don't really work for the Viennese Violone as a solo instrument. It's very interesting to realize that there is no panacea in the world of gut strings: every type of instrument, every musical style needs its specific string. The Bottesini-style solo contrabass benefits from a tauter, heavier string than the Viennese bass. And though the sound colors of both instruments have a kind of "family" air to them, they're still dramatically different within their specific musical contents.

Still, being used to the lighter type of string, i don't mind trying the thinner gauge that string maker Alexander Rakov was so kind to make for us. I like the challenge of trying to produce a full, round sound with a light bow, very low string action and thinner strings, rather than going the obvious way of brute force.

I think it's very important for students and players in general to find a set-up that works for one's own very personal needs and tastes. Imitating someone else's playing preferences, for whatever reasons, isn't such a great idea. Playing "schools" typically don't take into account personal inclinations or specific physical qualities. By forcing students to adopt a certain way of playing one may hit the bull's eye every once in a while: some of them will become good musicians if the applied method corresponds with their innate proclivities or predispositions. But many students will end up playing below their natural capabilities if this is not the case. It's a subject for another discussion, but it's worth mentioning.

So, back to our silk strings. When Pasquale took one of the strings out of its package, a few weeks ago, we noticed it was a lot stiffer than any comparable string, steel or gut. Trying to uncoil it resulted in a distinctly visible "crack" in the silk where the strands became unstuck. As i unpack my 1st string, the same thing happens. The string is so stiff that i have difficulties in tying a knot at the tailpiece end. I crack the string over a length of about 7-8 cm, which makes it a little more flexible, and i can tie the knot. 


Knot in place, i try to mount the string on the bass, but it keeps snapping back to its original coil shape and like an angry snake it twists itself around the other two strings that are on the bass. Disentangling it results in more white spots where the string cracks, which makes me panic slightly: the silk strands separate here and there and i'm afraid that even before playing a single note i may have ruined one of these valuable strings that we have been so patiently waiting for. A few four-letter words spring to mind but i control myself.




Anyway, there is nothing i can do about it, so i proceed to bring the string up to pitch (A at 440 Hz, solo tuning). Compared to gut, this takes only very few turns of the tuning gear. Gut typically takes a loooong time of stretching before it reaches its pitch. Not so with silk, which reacts as fast as a steel string.

Apart from the knot, which needs stretching before it becomes really tight, tuning stability is reached really quickly. Time for first impressions. The white spots where the string has become unstuck are still visible, but the string under tension becomes more homogenous again. There's just a very slight "bump" that you can feel under the fingers.

The sound in pizz, as i tune up, is very clear and trebly, which makes me think this would be a fantastic jazz string. The feeling to the fingers is different from smooth gut. It's a little rougher but in a pleasant way. The sound under the bow is very silvery. It seems to contain a lot of high harmonics, it's brilliant without becoming harsh. It also contains enough bottom end, so that it really feels like a bass string. It behaves very well when bowed: the bow has a good grip on the string, even though it's just been re-haired and there's no rosin residue on the string yet.

I decide to let the string rest a bit overnight. The next morning, it has gone down a whole tone or so: nothing dramatic and much less than a brand new gut string. Today i have no time to play much or to install the second string, so it has another 24 hours to get used to the tension. 

By the way, the string's visual aspect is very similar to gut. Even up close, it's not immediately obvious this is a very different material, and one might be forgiven for believing these are ordinary gut strings. I just mention this because there would be no way to distinguish gut from silk in an old photograph or painting. Only the 3rd string stands out with its distinct twisting pattern.






The next day i'm trying the 2nd string. I take it out of its envelope and i decide to make some photos of the uninstalled string: you can see how it remains stiff and coiled. Being warned about the string's behavior, i try to be as careful as possible. Again, i crack the string's end to make a knot, which is even harder than yesterday: this string is 2.35mm. Despite all my care, i manage to crack the string in even more places than the A string... 




I write a mail to Mr. Rakov, and he replies almost instantly:


My mail:

I noticed the strings are very stiff. They resist being uncoiled and they want to go back to their "coil spring" position (see photo). Making the knot is hard, but i "crack" the string's end so as to make it a little more supple. The real problem comes when i install the strings on the bass. However careful i am, as soon as the string is twisted ever so litlle in a counter-direction to its coil preference, it cracks open and becomes flat and white. It kind of desintegrates, or the strands become unglued. On the 1st string, once tightened, there are just a few white spots where the string became a bit "undone" but it came back more or less diametrical.

I put on the 1st string first (1.84) to compare its sound to the 2nd, gut string. It sounds more silvery, more brilliant than gut, a sound i could get addicted to. Less powerful. There is a noticeable drop in sound volume as i go from the 2nd to the 1st string, and a marked difference in timbre.

Today i wanted to do the 2nd string but it "cracked" open in more places than the 1st one, despite the fact that i was aware of the danger. Right now i'll make a few pictures before i stretch it to pitch.

Do you think that immersing the string in water would help to make it more supple? Right now the strings are really dry and brittle, and very fragile.

Tentatively, i would be inclined to think that soundwise they might be very good. Quite different from gut, but a valid alternative (to be checked for volume against a piano or so). I suppose the heavier gauge might have more power, but they have the same problem: my student (who has the heavy set) unpacked one string and the mere unpacking caused the string to "split". Again, once under tension on the bass, this might turn out to be no problem. We will see.

Alexander Rakov's answer:

It must be quite dry in your house, a problem often encountered in winter months. Silk seems to dry out this much somewhere below 50% humidity. This cracking does not affect the sound. You may "pre-crack" the string by fixing one end at the string holder, holding the other end, turning string once around a pencil and rolling it all along the string. The string acquires uniform flexibility without cracking in 8-10 months, a seasoning of sorts. I found that playing the string does not change this seasoning time. I could not keep you waiting for a year. This cracking with a pencil would improve the volume somewhat, as the string would not be as stiff.

Since i've already installed both strings, i decide not to take them off the bass to crack them - i'm afraid that taking the strings off and putting them back on might damage them - so i just release their tension and i crack the loosened strings with my fingers over their entire playing length. They do become a bit more flexible. The second string has quite a few spots where it's become undone, and the bumps are very noticeable in the left hand. But i won't let it bother me too much, and i spend most of the afternoon playing (Bottesini Tarantella, Concerto in b minor, some scales, open strings, a bit of "noodling"). 

What can i say? I just love these strings. The sound color is amazing, it's unlike any string i have ever played (and i must have played dozens of string types). They are very responsive, and they react to every little movement of the left hand. A great string to teach you how to play in tune... kind of zero-tolerance string. But this reactivity also enables me to find subtleties in vibrato and in shaping the notes. The sound is very distinctive, with a silvery quality that reminds me of Viennese Tuning. Double stops are as clear as a bell. The harmonics seem to speak a little less directly at this moment, but as with every change in instrument set-up i need time to find out how to play again. That's one of the great things about being a musician: every change in bows, basses, strings, set-up, rosin, will stimulate your sensitivity and will inspire you. 

It's still early days. If the "seasoning" really takes months, like Alexander wrote, i'm looking forward to more sonic and tactile discoveries, and i'll be sure to post my findings here. Tomorrow, time permitting, i'll install the bottom string. For now, the balance with two silk strings and one low gut string is near perfect: with the all-gut set-up the 3rd string was the weakest link (it's a light gauge string. Precisely the reason why, contrary to myself, Pasquale uses a 4mm low B-string), but in combination with the silk, the balance is restored.





5 March 2016

On my recent Japan trip i found more silk strings.
The idea of going to the east in search of silk strings came as i was reading about the Japanese Koto.
There are different sizes of this instrument, one of which is called "Ju-shichi" (which means "seventeen", referring to the number of strings it carries). 
I figured that the lowest strings of this giant Koto must be thick enough to serve as double bass strings, and anyway at least long enough.
Only later did i find out that in reality all of the Koto's strings are the same thickness: difference in pitch is not obtained by varying the string diameters but by positioning its bridges (one for each string) at different lengths.



Thanks to my partner in crime Haruko Tanabe, i was able to establish some preliminary contacts with one of the three remaining silk string manufacturers in Japan, and we made an appointment for a visit.
Indeed, even in this age of electronic messaging a real face-to-face encounter is worth more than a thousand e-mails.
To make a long story short, we arrived at the silk workshop and we stayed there for over two hours. I had a lot of explaining to do. A Koto is a very different animal from a double bass, and the idea of using plucked Koto strings on a bowed bass needed some time to sink in. 
In recent times, the workshop has been experimenting with silk violin strings, so Haruko had a chance to try them for a few minutes. Their sound, just like the silk bass strings we got from Alexander Rakov, is very brilliant, eerily silvery, fascinating.

Silk violin strings




We measured gauges, we compared the Koto strings to the gut and silk strings i had brought, and in the end i bought six different gauges, destined for the top two strings on the bass.


The yellow Koto strings, together with one of Rakov's whitish silk strings (below left)
 and a darker gut string. 

The strings are available in their natural white color or in a bright yellow. We were told that long ago the silk cocoons were sometimes naturally yellow. This particular workshop offers a silk that is dyed yellow as a reminder of, and an homage to, the historical material.
Unfortunately all of the strings are 3 meters long, which makes them too short to yield two usable string lengths for a full-size bass: 150 cm is really risky, especially since we need to tie a knot (or two) at the tailpiece end. Still, we may find a solution to that problem. The G-string needs less after-length for the peg anyway, and we could use a piece of gut to lengthen the string at the tailpiece. Or i can use the left-over part for my violone or viola da gamba.

After we had concluded our business we were shown around the workshop. Methods haven't changed for many, many years and most of the work is still done by hand.





Next step, of course, will be to cut up the strings (i'm reluctant to do it, i confess) and to install them on the basses. As can be seen in the pictures, the strings are twisted together, much in the way of one of Rakov's 3rd strings:




This is one of the strings we didn't try yet, so we have no idea how it behaves under the bow (or under the left hand fingers). This cable-like texture looks a bit daunting. We'll find out soon enough whether the strings are indeed usable or not. We'll keep you posted...

Since this whole silk string thing is getting a bit out of hand, i've been thinking about consecrating a whole new Blog to this topic. There is so much information now that i can't imagine posting it all here: there is the spider silk that some scientists, through genetic manipulation, extract from goat's milk (!) and that seems promising as a material. Not for instrument strings, mind you. Well, not for now... And there is a lot more information that i gathered on my recent Japan trip, but that would take up too much blog space.
If and when a new blog is created, you'll be the first to know :-)

3 comments:

  1. Toch een leuk en lief clubje, dat van de contrabassisten :)

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  2. Gewoon geweldig hoeveel vriendschap en kollegialiteit we ondervinden. Je zou bijna in de mensheid gaan geloven :-)

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  3. I am very curious, how it will sound!!!

    ReplyDelete