Bluegrass Instrument Strings Trivia

This Contest is Closed
The winner is Andy Bing

In the old days, pre-20th century, nearly all stringed instruments used strings made of natural “gut”. Some say it was “cat gut”, but commercial quality instrument strings were actually made of sheep intestine in most cases.

At the turn of the 19th to the 20th century everyone wanted to be LOUDER. Gut strings were expensive and finicky (especially to weather) and not very loud, although in general their tone was luxurious. Instrument makers and string makers cooperated to develop metallic strings, made of steel, copper, brass or bronze. The instruments had to be built a bit stouter to stand the tension of “steel” strings, as metallic strings were known. Martin for awhile offered guitars braced for either gut or string, but by 1930 had pretty much made steel strings the standard. Fiddlers switched to “steel” strings, although sometimes the most expensive violin strings were wound with silver or even gold! Hawaiian guitars like Dobros had always used steel strings, to get the nice sliding sound (Hawaiian guitars in fact led the conversion of guitars to steel strings). Banjos had fooled with conversion to steel strings in the late 1800s with mixed acceptance, but by the 1910s had switched nearly entirely to steel for volume and power. Bass fiddles followed the lead of violinists. Mandolins, at least as designed by Orville Gibson in the 1890s, relied on metal strings to get volume from the tiny instrument.

However, gut strings survive in some forms of music, notably classical, “classic” banjo, and some folk music.


So here’s the trivia question. In bluegrass music, from 1946 to now, which (if any) instrument ever uses gut strings sometimes?

A. Banjo
B. Fiddle
C. Guitar
D. Bass fiddle
E. Mandolin
F. Dobro
G. No bluegrass instruments ever use gut strings


Additional Bowden Comments

It is true that CLASSICAL guitars, and some “folk” guitars, still use “gut” strings. But not in bluegrass where volume, brightness and low cost are more important.

Some old time banjo players, and “classic” banjo players, still use “gut” or Nylon/gut hybrids. They want that ancient banjo tone. However nobody seems to want to get as old timey as the original African banjoists who used strings made of twisted horsehair!

Certain string quartets playing archaic classical music might use gut strings on the violins, viola and cello for the really old soft, low volume sound. Again not bluegrass though.

Bass fiddle players in bluegrass LOVE the old gut string tone. But they are EXPENSIVE ($500 a set is not uncommon) and they require a lot of maintenance such as oiling with walnut oil to prevent them drying out and fraying. And if they do fray a tiny bit, you trim the frayed extension with nail clippers! They are the B.E.S.T. bass strings for slapping, and that is still popular with some bluegrass bass players. I find that gut strings are easier on my tenderfoot fingers than steel strings Finally, gut strings have the best tone for making records. Top bluegrass bassists usually have multiple basses set up with strings and action for outdoors, indoors, amplified, recording studio, etc. Most of the classic bluegrass records from 1946 on had gut string basses. Also in classic country…

Every bluegrass bass player should break down at some point and spend the bucks for at least one set of gut strings, just to enjoy the tone and ease of playing.

Dick Bowden

Dick Bowden recently retired after a 45 year career in the paper industry, and moved from Connecticut to Big Indian NY (Ulster County) where he ekes out a precarious existence as a groundskeeper. Dick has been performing bluegrass music on banjo and guitar since 1966 in his home state of Maine, throughout New England, and internationally with The Case Brothers - Martin & Gibson. He has performed for HVBA with the Old Time Bluegrass Singers, and also sent in a squadron of Dick Bowden's Flying Circus. Most recently Dick has played Dobro (tm) with the Tennessee Mafia Jug Band. Dick has written many articles for Bluegrass Unlimited, Bluegrass Today, MoonShiner (the Japanese bluegrass magazine) and HVBA.

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