Cat Guts in My Strings? The History of Catgut Musical Instrument Strings

History of Catgut Strings

The origin of the term “catgut” is unclear, though it’s believed to date back to at least the 1550s. While some sources speculate it refers to actual cat innards being used to make strings, this is likely not the case. Instead, the name may come from catgut strings’ similarity in feel and function to actual cat guts used for sewing and cordage [1]. Other theories suggest the name could be a corruption of the word “cattlegut”, referring to cow or cattle intestines used to make the strings [2].

As for when catgut strings were first used on musical instruments, they have been employed since at least the 16th century. Some of the earliest references to musical instrument strings made of animal guts come from 16th century Italy. Premium quality strings were produced in Italian cities like Rome and Naples. Catgut strings remained the preferred material for instruments like violins, cellos, guitars, and harps well into the 20th century. Their smooth tone and responsiveness were highly desired traits. It was not until the 1960s and beyond, with the advent of nylon and steel strings, that catgut declined in popularity among musicians.

Manufacturing Process

Catgut strings are made from the intestines of cows or sheep. The intestines, known as beef gut or sheep gut, are cleaned and processed to create the strings.

The manufacturing process involves several steps:

1. Selection – The intestines are inspected and the best sections are selected for string production. The thickness of the gut determines the gauge of the string.

2. Scraping – The intestines are scraped to remove fat, unwanted tissues, and mucous membranes.[1]

3. Salting – The intestines are soaked and packed in salt, which begins breaking down the collagen fibers.

4. Stretching – The guts are stretched out and twisted to align the collagen fibers parallel to one another.

5. Drying – The strings are hung up and air dried, which further aligns the fibers.

6. Polishing – The dried strings are polished to a uniform diameter and finish.

7. Coating – Some synthetic coatings or treatments may be applied to prolong the life of the strings.

The end result is a strong, stretchy string made entirely from the natural collagen in beef or sheep intestines.

Properties of Catgut

Catgut has unique properties that make it a desirable material for musical strings.

Strength

Catgut has a high tensile strength, meaning it is quite strong and resilient under tension [1]. This allows catgut strings to withstand the high tensions placed on them by stringed instruments without breaking.

Tone/Sound Quality

The natural fibers in catgut produce a warm, rich tone admired by many musicians. The texture and elasticity of catgut contributes to its unique tonal qualities and sustain [2].

Durability

Catgut strings tend to be less durable than synthetic options like nylon. The natural fibers can degrade over time with use and exposure to sweat and oils from musicians’ hands. Many players need to change catgut strings frequently to maintain tone and playability.

Instruments that Use Catgut Strings

Catgut strings have been used for centuries on various musical instruments. Some of the most common instruments that use catgut strings include:

Violin: The violin has used catgut strings since the 1600s. Traditionally, violinists used catgut strings for the higher registers like the E, A, and D strings. The warmth and resonance of catgut blended well with the violin’s wooden body. Nowadays, many violinists prefer synthetic core strings, but some still use catgut for a vintage tone. According to this article from the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, baroque era violins were designed for catgut strings.

Cello: The cello also commonly used catgut strings during the Baroque period. Like violins, cellos were designed and constructed during that era with catgut strings in mind. The mellow tone complements the cello’s warm, rich voice. Catgut produces excellent playability on cellos when used for the higher A, D, and G strings.

Harp: Harps utilize catgut for higher registers, often the top 2-3 octaves. The flexibility of catgut allows for dynamic playing and the bright, crisp tone blends with the harp’s overall resonance. Many pedal and lever harps from the 19th century were built for higher catgut strings.

Alternatives to Catgut

While catgut was once the main material used for musical instrument strings, there are several alternatives that have been developed and gained popularity over the years:

Nylon – Invented in the 1930s, nylon quickly became a popular alternative to catgut for many instruments. Nylon strings have a warm tone but are more durable and stable than catgut. They are commonly used for classical guitars and other plucked instruments like harps. Nylon maintains consistent tuning and has a smooth feel. However, some musicians complain it lacks the tonal nuances of catgut.

Steel – Steel strings have high tensile strength and bright tone, making them popular for instruments like pianos, guitars, banjos and mandolins. The core of wound steel strings is often made of several smaller steel strands twisted together and then wrapped with various metal alloys. They hold their pitch and tuning well. However, steel can deaden vibration and has a shriller, metallic sound compared to other materials.

Synthetic gut – Also called composite strings, these attempt to mimic the tone of natural gut while improving durability. Most commonly, synthetic cores are wrapped in various metal windings, often silver or aluminum. They provide warmth that is comparable to gut but with extended playable life. Some brands like Pirastro Oliv and Thomastik-Infeld Dominant strings are considered excellent composite gut strings.

While nylon, steel and synthetic gut have gained popularity, many musicians still prefer the distinctive sound of natural catgut strings for instruments like violins, cellos, harps and others. However, catgut alternatives provide more options to suit different playing styles, instruments and budgets.

Catgut String Brands

There are several major manufacturers of catgut strings. Some of the most notable brands include:

Pirastro

Pirastro is a German company that has been making strings since 1798. They are considered one of the premier makers of catgut strings. Pirastro offers a wide selection of gut strings for instruments like violin, viola, cello, and double bass. Some of their popular gut string sets include Oliv, Eudoxa, and Passione.

Thomastik

Thomastik is an Austrian company that has been producing strings since the early 1900s. Their catgut strings are handmade and known for their warm, rich sound. Some of Thomastik’s most popular catgut strings include Dominant and Vision. They make gut strings for violin, viola, cello, bass, and harp.

D’Addario

D’Addario is an American string company that also manufactures catgut strings. Their Pro-Arte line includes gut strings for violin, viola, cello, and bass. D’Addario catgut strings are designed to have optimal playability and retain their sound over time. They offer both traditional and synthetic gut options.

Caring for Catgut Strings

Taking proper care of catgut strings is important for maintaining good tone and playability. According to Gamut Music (https://shop.gamutmusic.com/blog/care-cleaning-of-gut-strings/), there are a few key things to keep in mind:

Keeping the strings clean is essential. Change them regularly, as dirt, oil and rosin buildup can degrade the strings. Use a dry, soft cloth to wipe down the strings after each use to remove debris and perspiration. Do not use liquid cleaners, oils or polishes on the strings.

Proper storage is also important. Store catgut strings in a cool, dry place, preferably in a sealed container according to Gamut Music. Avoid excessive heat, humidity or direct sunlight, which can cause the strings to rot or unravel. Keeping them in the product packaging or a resealable plastic bag works well.

With proper cleaning after each use and ideal storage conditions, catgut strings can maintain excellent tone and playability over their usable lifespan.

Cost of Catgut Strings

Catgut strings range in price from around $8 per set up to over $100 per set depending on the manufacturer, materials, and quality. Some of the key factors affecting the cost of catgut strings include:

  • Type of Material – Strings made from pure gut tend to be the most expensive while composite strings blending gut with nylon are more affordable.
  • Gauge/Tension – Heavier gauge strings or higher tension strings usually cost more than lighter ones.
  • Brand – Premium brands like Pyramid and Pirastro cost more than lesser known brands.
  • Source of Gut – Strings using premium gut sources like sheep tend to cost more than basic cat or cow gut.
  • Handmade Craftsmanship – Strings that are handmade in smaller batches from high quality materials command higher prices.

So in summary, expect to pay anywhere from $10-50 for basic nylon/gut composite string sets from standard brands, and $50-100+ for top grade all-gut strings from premium brands and materials.

Pros and Cons of Catgut

Catgut strings have some key advantages and disadvantages compared to other string materials like steel or synthetic strings:

Pros:

  • Warm, rich tone. The natural material of catgut resonates beautifully, producing a complex, warm sound.
  • Excellent playability. Catgut strings are flexible and responsive.
  • Traditional and historic. Catgut has been used for centuries by musicians.

Cons:

  • Less durable than synthetics. Catgut wears out faster than other materials.
  • Expensive. Catgut strings can cost significantly more than synthetic strings.
  • Sensitive to changes in temperature and humidity. Catgut strings need to be tuned more frequently.

Many musicians feel the unparalleled sound quality of catgut is worth the downsides. However, the high cost and frequent restringing required makes catgut impractical for some players.

Future of Catgut Strings

Though once the main type of string used on stringed instruments, the use of catgut strings has declined over the years as synthetics have become more popular and accessible. However, catgut still maintains a niche appeal, especially among traditionalists and those looking for a specific sound.

Many musicians have switched from catgut to synthetic strings like nylon or steel for their increased durability, stability with changes in temperature and humidity, and lower cost. The smooth feel of synthetic strings also appeals to some players. Brands like D’Addario and Ernie Ball cater to the high demand for quality synthetic strings.

However, catgut is still valued for its warm, mellow sound quality. The organic material resonates differently than modern synthetics, producing a tone some describe as “sweet” or “singing.” Catgut users also note the quick response and playability relative to stiffness. Violinists, cellists, harpists, lute players, and other instrumentalists seeking a traditional sound continue using gut strings.

Small boutique string makers produce high-end catgut for this niche market. Companies like Gamut, Aquila Corde, and Dlugolecki Strings handcraft premium gut strings for discerning musicians. Though more labor intensive to produce, these strings fill an enduring role in historically informed performances.

The future of catgut likely depends on the preservation of musical traditions. As with many handmade products, gut strings may become more of an artisanal specialty item. However, their unique voice continues attracting devotees to carry on catgut’s legacy.

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