Do Catgut Strings Have the Same Twang as Steel? The Surprising Truth About These Classic Guitar Strings

Introduction

Catgut and steel are two common types of strings used on musical instruments. Catgut strings are made from animal intestine fibers while steel strings are made of metal alloys. Though catgut was historically the most popular string, steel became widely adopted in the 20th century. The different materials used in catgut and steel strings result in variations in tone quality, volume/projection, durability, playability, tuning stability, and cost. This article will compare and contrast catgut and steel strings to understand the sound characteristics of each and help instrument players decide which is best for their needs.

What are Catgut Strings?

Catgut strings are made from the intestines of sheep, cows, or horses [1]. Despite their name, catgut strings are not made from actual cat intestines. The term “catgut” likely originated as a shortened form of “cattlegut”, referring to the use of cow intestines [2]. To make the strings, the intestines are cleaned, stretched, dried, and twisted into strings. Catgut strings were the primary type of string used on string instruments like violins, guitars, cellos, and harps before the 20th century. They produce a warm, organic tone preferred by many musicians.

What are Steel Strings?

Steel strings are the most common type of guitar string. They are composed of steel wire wrapped around a steel core 1. The core wire provides the foundation and stiffness of the string, while the wrappings determine the string’s tone and flexibility. Steel strings deliver a bright, crisp sound with plenty of volume and sustain.

Steel guitar strings are manufactured from high carbon steel wire. The wire is drawn through a series of graduated dies to achieve the desired string gauge. It is then heat treated and precision ground to exact tolerances. Some steel strings have a nickel-plated wrapping over the steel which helps protect the steel from corrosion and provides a smoother feel.

Tone Quality

Catgut strings are known for their warm, rich, and complex tone. The natural fibers of catgut tend to produce overtones that “bloom” more slowly compared to steel strings, resulting in a softer and more mellow sound overall. This allows for more resonance and sustain. Many musicians find the sound of catgut to be pleasingly organic and natural.

The tonal qualities of catgut lend themselves well to certain instruments and musical styles. For example, on violins and other bowed string instruments, the warmth and responsiveness of catgut allows musicians a greater range of tonal colors and nuance. The rich overtones bring out the instrument’s resonance and complexity. Baroque and other early music often utilized catgut strings to achieve an authentic and historically accurate sound.

However, the drawback of catgut’s complex overtones is that the tone can lack clarity and focus in some situations. The relatively slow and gradual onset of catgut’s overtones can make rhythmic playing less articulate. The warm, soft quality may not produce enough brightness or projection for some musical styles. So while catgut offers unique tonal qualities, it may not suit every instrument or genre.

Volume and Projection

When it comes to volume and projection, steel strings generally produce a louder and brighter sound compared to nylon strings. The higher tension of the steel strings allows them to be struck harder, producing greater volume and increased responsiveness. As this source explains, steel strings vibrate more energetically than nylon strings, generating louder tones. Steel string acoustics are known for their punchy and driving sound.

Nylon strings, on the other hand, have a mellower and warmer tonal quality at lower volumes. While classical guitars with nylon strings can be played loudly, they may not project as strongly as steel string models. As one expert compares, steel strings often sound up to 4 decibels louder than nylon strings when played with the same force. The increased tension allows the top to vibrate more freely. However, nylon strings have their own nuanced charms in tone and touch.

Durability

Steel strings are more durable and long-lasting compared to catgut strings. Catgut strings are sensitive to changes in temperature and humidity, and can degrade over time with use. They generally need to be replaced more often than steel strings.

Steel strings first became popular as an alternative to catgut because of their improved durability. The metals used in steel strings are less prone to stretching and losing tension compared to natural materials like catgut. Steel holds its structural integrity well even with heavy use. While catgut can begin to fray and weaken over time, steel strings retain their strength and stability for longer.

According to Wikipedia, after World War II, most classical and flamenco guitarists switched from catgut to the new nylon and steel strings for their greater smoothness, durability, and stability. Steel gave guitarists a more durable and consistent option compared to catgut [1].

Ease of Play

Catgut strings tend to be easier on the fingers compared to steel strings, especially for guitars like classical and flamenco guitars where the action is low and fingers press directly on the strings 1. The soft and smooth texture of catgut allows the fingers to glide effortlessly during fast passages. Steel strings have a rougher, harder feel which can be more taxing on the fingertips over time. Many classical and flamenco guitarists prefer the feel of catgut strings for this reason, as they allow for fluid playing and faster tempos without hurting the fingers. The ease of play with catgut strings makes intricate techniques like tremolo, rasgueado, and trills more comfortable to execute.

Tuning Stability

Steel strings tend to hold their tuning better than catgut strings. As noted in an article on violinist.com, “If gut strings are already well settled in on the pegs, move smoothly in the nut and bridge grooves, and are warmed up with 5-10 minutes or so of playing, they should hold their pitch quite well.” However, they are still more susceptible to changes in humidity and temperature than steel strings (https://www.violinist.com/discussion/archive/20493/).

With catgut strings, players need to be prepared to tune more frequently, especially when moving to different environments. As one bass player commented on a forum, “Keep in mind that while gut does become more stable, they will always be affected by humidity and temperature changes. It is a trade off for the tone” (https://www.talkbass.com/threads/gut-tuning-problem.229016/).

Proper installation and break-in of catgut strings can help improve tuning stability over time. As noted by Aquila Corde, “The insertion of the strings in the nut slots and bridge notches has to be very accurate, otherwise lack of tuning stability will occur” (https://aquilacorde.com/en/blog-en/early-music-blog/how-to-correctly-install-gut-strings-avoiding-breakages-and-assuring-tuning-stability/). However, steel strings will always be less prone to going out of tune.

Cost

Catgut strings tend to be significantly more expensive than steel strings. As the Early Music Shop notes, a set of plain gut strings can cost $30-60, while steel strings are often $5-15 per set. The higher cost of catgut strings is due to the intricate handmade manufacturing process required to produce them from animal intestine fibers. Each string must be individually stretched, polished, gauged and tuned – an expertise that fewer and fewer string makers possess. The limited supply and high demand for quality catgut strings drives the prices up. In contrast, steel strings are mass produced efficiently and cheaply. So catgut’s higher cost can make them prohibitive, especially for beginner and hobbyist players.

Conclusions

In summary, there are several key differences between catgut and steel strings:

Catgut strings have a warmer, richer tone quality preferred by many musicians, while steel strings are brighter and project more. Steel strings are more durable and hold their tuning better, while catgut strings are more responsive under the fingers. Catgut strings are also significantly more expensive than steel.

There is no universally “better” string type. The choice between catgut and steel strings depends on the needs and preferences of each individual musician. Many claim the superior tone of catgut is worth the higher cost and lower durability. Others prefer the convenience, reliability and affordability of steel. In many cases, the ideal solution is a blend – using steel for the lower strings which take more stress, and catgut for the higher strings where tone is paramount.

The differences in tone, feel, and other characteristics mean both catgut and steel strings continue to have their proponents. There are merits to each type, with the “right” string being the one that allows each musician to best reach their artistic goals.

Scroll to Top