The Cat Gut Comeback. Can You Still Buy This Classic String?

History of Cat Gut Strings

Cat gut strings have a long history dating back to the Middle Ages. They were first made out of sheep or goat intestines that were cleaned, stretched, and twisted into strings. According to ProfessorString.com, the first known guitar string made of cat gut was noted in the 13th century.

For centuries, cat gut was the main material used for strings on string instruments like the violin, cello, lute, and guitar. Cat gut remained the dominant material for these instrument strings well into the 20th century. The intestines, also known as catgut, provided excellent tonal quality and resonance for the strings.

However, cat gut strings also had significant drawbacks. They were sensitive to changes in temperature and humidity which impacted tuning stability. They also wore out relatively quickly compared to modern synthetic strings. As new materials emerged in the 20th century, most musicians switched away from the traditional cat gut strings.

What are Cat Gut Strings?

Cat gut strings are a type of musical instrument string that dates back hundreds of years. Despite their name, cat gut strings were never made from actual cats (URL: https://www.quora.com/Who-started-to-first-use-cat-gut-in-tennis-rackets). Instead, cat gut strings were traditionally made from sheep or cow intestines. The intestines were cleaned, twisted, and stretched in a lengthy process to create thin strings with excellent acoustic properties.

To produce cat gut strings, the intestines of sheep or cows are thoroughly washed and soaked, then twisted and stretched while drying to achieve the desired diameter. The strings are then polished and coated to improve their longevity. Though synthetic strings have largely replaced them, this traditional production process results in strings with a warm, mellow tone.

Advantages of Cat Gut Strings

Catgut strings, made from the intestines of sheep or other animals, have been used on stringed instruments like violins, guitars, and harps for centuries. Many musicians still prefer the warm, mellow sound and responsive feel that catgut provides.

Compared to synthetic strings, catgut offers a richer, more complex sound. The natural fibers vibrate freely to produce overtones that fill out the sound. Catgut also provides excellent grip on the bow, allowing for more control and nuance in playing techniques. The strings have a soft and supple feel under the fingers that many musicians find appealing.

Additionally, catgut strings are appreciated by some for being made of natural materials rather than plastics. The source material is sustainable and biodegradable. While this may not affect the sound or playability, some musicians value the traditional origins and organic nature of real catgut strings.

According to violin soloist Elmar Oliveira, catgut offers a “big, warm sound” and “fantastic tactile response.” Despite the availability of synthetic strings, many professionals and amateurs continue to prefer the traditional option. While catgut may not be as long-lasting or stable as other materials, the unparalleled sound keeps it popular centuries after its invention.

Disadvantages of Cat Gut

Although cat gut strings have some advantages, they also come with some downsides that musicians should consider before choosing them. One major issue with cat gut strings is that they are extremely sensitive to changes in temperature and humidity (https://thebigreason.com/blog/2012/01/15/pros-and-cons-of-gut-strings). This means the strings can easily go out of tune as the environment changes. Musicians playing with gut strings need to constantly tune and retune their instruments while practicing or performing. This sensitivity makes cat gut impractical for some performance situations.

Another problem with cat gut is that the strings tend to fray and break more easily than synthetic strings. The organic material is simply more fragile over time with use. Repeated stress from the bow causes gut strings to develop weak spots and unravel. Musicians must change them more frequently to prevent breakage at inopportune moments during a performance. The short lifespan of cat gut strings increases costs due to frequent replacements.

Finally, the natural elasticity of cat gut makes the strings harder to keep in tune compared to artificial alternatives. The organic material stretches and settles during playing, throwing off the pitch. Synthetic strings hold their tension extremely consistently. While musicians can certainly learn to manage the tuning instability of cat gut, it requires constant listening and adjustment.

Synthetic Alternatives

While cat gut strings were once the only option for stringed instruments like violins, advancements in materials science in the 1970s led to new synthetic alternatives that had advantages over traditional cat gut.1 The most common synthetics used today include:

  • Nylon – Nylon polymer strings have a warm, rich tone similar to gut but with more stability and playability in fluctuating weather conditions.
  • Polyethylene – Polyethylene synthetic strings are extremely durable and stable, making them last longer than gut.
  • Steel – Steel wound strings have excellent projection and volume. The steel maintains tension and pitch.

Synthetic strings have several key advantages over traditional cat gut:2

  • More durable and stable than cat gut, which can degrade over time.
  • Easier to mass produce using industrial processes, keeping costs down.
  • Engineered for consistent tone and pitch across entire sets of strings.
  • Playability is consistent across fluctuating weather conditions.

While many musicians still prefer the classic tone of cat gut, synthetics now dominate the market due to their practicality and reliability.

Musicians Who Still Use Cat Gut

While many modern musicians have transitioned to using synthetic strings, there are still some who prefer the traditional cat gut strings, including:

Some professional violinists and cellists involved in historically informed performances still utilize cat gut strings to recreate the sound of the Baroque and Classical eras. These musicians strive for historical accuracy and want to produce music as the composers originally intended it to be heard. Using authentic strings like cat gut is an important part of that process. Baroque ensembles like the Academy of Ancient Music and the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment have musicians playing on gut strings.

Other classical musicians prefer the warmer, more mellow sound of gut strings compared to steel or synthetic strings. While they may use steel for solos or projecting sound in a large concert hall, some turn to the flexible, resonant cat gut for chamber performances or studio recordings where subtlety and nuance are desired.

Guitarists like John Williams, David Russell and Carles Trepat also occasionally use cat gut strings, particularly for older compositions from the Renaissance and Baroque eras that were originally written for gut strings. The softer sound can help capture a sense of historical authenticity.

While cat gut strings are less commonly used today, there are still musicians who appreciate their unique sound, flexibility and historic origins enough to use them in certain performances and recordings.

Where to Buy Cat Gut Strings

Cat gut strings may seem like a relic of the past, but they are still produced and available for purchase from select sources:

Specialty luthier shops – Local luthiers and specialty guitar/string shops are one of the best places to find cat gut strings, especially for less common instruments like lutes and harps. The staff often have deep expertise about string construction and can recommend the right cat guts for your needs.

Select online retailers – Some online stores specializing in folk instruments and historical music carry modern cat gut strings. They offer more variety than general music stores. Sites like StringsByMail.com have a wide selection of cat gut strings for violin, guitar, lute and more.

Auction sites – Collectors sometimes sell packages of vintage cat gut strings on eBay and other auction platforms. This can be hit or miss but is an option for finding authentic old strings, often in bulk. They require careful inspection before use.

With some diligent searching, musicians can still get their hands on quality cat gut strings today. Brands like Aquila Corde, Gamut, and D’Addario offer modern cat gut strings with optimized construction while retaining their classic warm, organic sound.

Cost of Cat Gut Strings

Cat gut strings are more expensive than synthetic strings. A full set of cat gut strings can cost $100-300 depending on the instrument and brand. Individual strings may cost $20-50 each. The high cost is due to the intricate production process and limited supply of cat gut material.

Top classical guitar brands like Savarez, Hannabach, and D’Addario offer premium cat gut strings ranging from $150-300 per set. Violinists can expect to pay at least $100 for a set from reputable brands. Harpists may spend over $300 for a full set of gut strings given the larger number of strings.

The cost per string is multiplied by the total number needed for the instrument. For example, a classical guitar set has 6 strings while a harp may have 47. So the per-string cost results in very high total prices for instruments like harps. The premium quality commands these prices as handmade cat gut can’t be mass produced like synthetics.

Caring for Cat Gut Strings

Cat gut strings require special care and maintenance to preserve tone quality and extend string life. Keeping strings in the proper humidity is essential. Cat gut is hygroscopic, meaning it absorbs and releases moisture from the air. Store instruments with cat gut strings in spaces with controlled humidity between 40-60%. Avoid subjecting strings to extreme humidity fluctuations that cause swelling and shrinkage, compromising tuning stability.

Gently stretching cat gut strings after playing helps maintain elasticity. Lightly tug on strings along their length after use. Be careful not to overstretch, which can damage strings. Wipe strings down with a soft dry cloth after playing to remove skin oils and rosin buildup. Avoid using liquid string cleaners on cat gut as moisture can be absorbed into the string.

When changing strings, remove and replace one at a time to maintain constant string tension on the instrument. Tuning stability requires consistent tautness across all strings. Replace cat gut strings at least every few months as oils from skin eventually degrade them. With proper care, cat gut strings can provide warm, rich tone and response.

Source: https://www.mozartproject.org/unveiling-the-melodic-myth-decoding-the-use-of-cat-guts-in-violin-strings/

The Future of Cat Gut Strings

Even with the dominance of synthetic strings, cat gut continues to have a niche but dedicated following among certain classical and historically-informed musicians. While challenging to use and maintain, cat gut’s unique tonal qualities lend an authenticity to early music that modern materials have difficulty replicating. As interest grows in performing early music with period-accurate techniques and equipment, demand for cat gut persists.

String makers continue working to improve cat gut’s stability and longevity through advanced treatments and production methods. By optimizing moisture content and carefully monitoring changes in climate, the best cat gut strings today last longer and hold their tune better than their historical counterparts. Makers like Gamut Strings use computer-controlled machines to produce extremely consistent strings with precision not possible historically.

While the majority of musicians today opt for easy and consistent synthetic strings, a niche market for cat gut endures. Top early music ensembles and historically-informed performers help drive demand. As knowledge grows about ancient playing techniques, interest increases in capturing historically accurate sounds. For an authentic performance, many musicians conclude nothing quite compares to the warm, organic tone of real cat gut strings.

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