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 already experimented with silk bass strings, with some interesting results.

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 greatcareers.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

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).

 

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 🙂

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