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When should I change my viola strings?
Like all string instruments, violas require regular maintenance to ensure they produce the best sound possible. One crucial aspect of maintaining a viola is changing its strings. But how do you know when it's time to change your viola strings?
In this blog, we'll look at 3 signs your viola strings need changing and why it's important to do so.
The information in this blog is only relevant to players using metal/metal-wound synthetic core strings; however, we'll be sure to cover gut strings for Baroque players in a separate blog later on.
Firstly, it's important to note that the lifespan of a viola string depends on several factors, and these can be split into three main categories:
1. The construction of the string - the type and quality of the materials used to make the string, how it was made (wound or unwound) and by whom it was made.
2. How the string is being used - the frequency of use, the player's biological makeup (how much a player sweats and the acidity of their sweat), the player's bowing style, the player's ability to tune with the pegs, whether the string is cleaned after each use, whether the player keeps their nails cut short and the environment in which the instrument is being played/stored.
3. The setup of the instrument - If a viola hasn't been set up by a trained luthier, then it's not uncommon for strings to break at the nut or bridge of a viola whilst playing or tuning. For more info on this, check out our blogs: 'What is a professional string instrument setup?' and 'Why do my violin strings keep breaking in the same spot?'
It's also important to note that viola strings have a shelf life, regardless of whether the strings are being played. We have personally found that most viola strings have a shelf life of around 2 years (longer for strings made of certain metals e.g. Chrome steel and shorter for strings stored in a humid environment).
This is because as soon as a string is made, it begins to degrade. The metal will start to corrode due to oxidisation, and the inner core and dampening agents will begin to dry out. Both of these factors affect the string's sound quality and structural integrity.
If you've had a set of strings on your viola or 'spare' strings sitting in your viola case for longer than two years, we recommend replacing them with fresh strings if you want to have the best sound possible and avoid strings breaking while you're playing or tuning. More info on this can be found in our blog: 'How to increase the longevity of your strings'.
On average, how often do strings need replacing after they've been installed on a viola?
We find that beginners playing around 15 minutes per day usually need their whole set of strings changed every 12-18 months if they are being cared for well, whereas professionals playing 4+ hours a day can require a full string change every 3-6 months. A and D strings wear quicker than the G and C strings because they are thinner and often made of steel or aluminium, so regardless of the amount of playing you do, we find that A strings generally need changing every 6-9 months, and D strings every 9-12 months.
There are of course exceptions to the above, which is why when we assess the strings of an instrument, it is important to not only go by timeframe, the player's ability and how often the strings are being played, but also the look and sound of the strings as well.
Below are the 3 things we look out for when assessing whether the strings of a viola need to be replaced:
1. THE SOUND - One of the primary indicators that it's time to change your viola strings is when they start to sound dull or muted. If your viola strings are not producing the same vibrant sound they once did, it's time to consider changing them. Over time the strings' tone quality may deteriorate, and they won't produce the same resonance as new strings.
2. PITCH STABILITY - Another sign that it's time to change your viola strings is when they start to lose their pitch stability. If your strings aren't holding their tuning, are slipping out of tune frequently, or if they are no longer in tune with each other (i.e perfect fifths - most noticeable and most frustratingly when playing in double stops) it's a sign they have reached the end of their lifespan. New strings will provide better pitch stability and ensure that your instrument sounds its best.
3. APPEARANCE - Visible signs of wear and tear on your strings are a clear indicator that it's time to change them. If you see any fraying, corrosion (especially if your strings are rusty), or other forms of damage on your strings, it's time to replace them.
Below is an example of an A string on a violin that has started to fray where the player puts their fingers. This is most commonly caused by long fingernails. To avoid this, keep your fingernails clipped nice and short and round them off with a nail file.
If your strings are starting to rust within a few weeks of use, this is usually caused by one of two things. Either the viola is being stored in an area with high humidity, or the player's hands are perspiring a lot while playing. The latter is surprisingly common, especially with teenagers. In this instance, we recommend using Pirastro Chromcor strings as they are more resistant to moisture.
Damaged strings can break while you're playing, leading to an unpleasant experience, and potentially damaging your viola. Most of the time, damage to your viola strings can be easily avoided. Check out our blog on 'How to increase the longevity of your strings' for tips on how to increase the lifespan of your strings.
Still unsure about whether it's time to change your strings? Our experienced workshop staff are always happy to give you some advice.
If you'd like our trained workshop staff to change all or some of your viola strings, be sure to book an appointment via our online booking form.
Please note that if your instrument needs 3-4 strings replaced, we ask that you leave it with us for 24 hours so that the strings can settle overnight. If you're only changing 1-2 strings then these can usually be changed on the same day.
For instructions on how to change a string at home, please watch our video below: