What Should I Know About Gut Strings?
A lot of players love the soft feel and organic sweetness of natural gut strings. If you want the sound of vintage, all-natural bass, or you are a rockabilly player wanting the most authentic sound, you may want to consider trying them. They are easy on the hands and provide “the sound” for bluegrass and old-school jazz, among other styles.
On the downside, gut strings do require a little maintenance; for instance, it is advisable to gently clip any "hairs" (hair-like little strands of gut that develop with play). You may also need to oil them as part of your routine (more on that below). Finally, they’re on the costlier end of the scale, owing to their costs of the raw materials and the time and effort of manufacture.
If you take the plunge, preventing damage before it occurs is really key – gut strings can be especially susceptible to cuts from nuts and bridges with sharp edges or overly deep grooves. Keep in mind that guts are usually larger in diameter than strings of other materials, and you may need to modify those string grooves to prevent the strings from getting caught up in them.
We get regular calls and emails from players asking about whether they should oil their gut strings, and what sort of oil to use. While many players do put various oils on their gut strings to preserve them, you may opt to not bother with the (sometimes messy) process, depending on your circumstances.
If, for instance, your hands perspire a lot when you play, or you play (or live) in a very dry or very humid area, it might be a good idea to consider occasionally oiling your strings to protect them from these extremes. Also, if your fingers are particularly rough, and tear up the strings’ surface easily, a little oil can help create a "skin" of sorts to protect from excessive damage.
What to use? Definitely keep it light; walnut oil, almond oil or “salad oil” are usually good bets. We (and others) also sell a kit that includes a bottle of string oil. Our oil is natural, and animal-based (like the strings themselves), and it works very well.
Use it very sparingly – not a lot is needed. Most players simply put a small amount on a clean, soft cloth and run it up and down the string. Let it sit a bit, then use another clean cloth to wipe off any excess. You’ll want to avoid getting it on the instrument’s finish, and if you bow, you should probably avoid the area where the bow hair contacts the strings – it’ll mess up the “grip” that you’ve worked (and rosined) so hard to achieve. Also, while oiling plain gut strings is easy, the oil may not work as easily on “wrapped” or “wound” gut strings. I suggest trying in a small, inconspicuous area to ensure that it can penetrate between windings (without leaving behind a sticky mess.)
As you can see, there are some minor sacrifices to playing gut strings – namely, cost and maintenance. If you’re not willing to keep an eye on the strings and maintain them when needed, then you are probably better off looking at other string choices, including the many synthetic alternatives to the gut sound (like Innovations, Pirastro Obligatos or Eurosonics, among others). However, with a bit of attentive care, the strings can last a good long time – and for some players, there ain’t nothin’ like the real thing, baby.