Optimum Strings Lengths for Gut Strings

One of the most important considerations in musical instrument design is that of optimum string length. The length of the string relates to the tone and response of the instrument, playability, and even the performance and longevity of the string. A too-long string length for a given pitch that brings the string close to the breaking point of the gut will cause endless trouble for the musician.

The table below is a simple guide to the limits of functional string lengths for certain pitches. Lengths longer than these for the given pitches will certainly result in a problem with breaking strings. Slightly shorter lengths will offer more stable stringing. Some of the things you should consider when deciding on a string length are:

  • Long, thin strings have a certain tonal quality that tends to be reedy
  • Short, thick strings have a tonal quality that tends to be robust and a little coarse
  • Lighter tension gives a more delicate tone
  • Heavier strings give a louder tone that carries
  • The thickness and tension of the strings my influence the thickness of the plates and weight of the instrument
  • Longer string lengths require the hand to stretch more when playing
  • Shorter strings lengths may cramp the hand, especially on small instruments

I think it is a good idea to consider the strings you intend to use on the instrument during the design phase. This way you will have strings and instrument that match, making a more successful instrument. You can use the string calculators to play with different string lengths, pitches, and tensions. If you do not see the calculator listed for the instrument that you are working on, you can use the "Quick Calculator" to work on each string individually. In this way you can use the limits outlined below with your own experience to design a set of strings that will work perfectly. Questions and comments should go to: dan@daniellarson.com

Recommended Pitches for Gut Strings from Gamut Strings
 
Note Pitch Longest Recommended String length in CM
 
d" (Soprano) 587.33 39
c# 554.37 40
c" 523.5 45
b' 493.88 46
Bb' 466.16 48
a' (Alto) 440 52
g# 415 56
g' (Alto / Tenor) 392 59
f# 369.99 62
f' 349.23 67
e' (Bass) 329.63 68
eb' 311.13 72
d' 293.66 76
c#' 277.18 80
c' 261.63 82
 
Years ago, one of the first lute players to seriously consider the optimum length for instruments using gut strings was Donna Curry. She conducted her own experiment with strings that were available to her at the time and came up with a list of lengths and pitches that she found relevant to her aesthetics as to how instruments should play and sound. I offer her data here because it highlights another approach to this issue, with another set of conclusions for your consideration.
Recommended Pitches for Gut Strings from Donna Curry
 
Pitch of highest string (a-440) Recommended Length Longest Possible Length
 
d" (Soprano) 35-36 38
c# 37 - 38 40
c" 39 - 40 42
b' 41 - 43 45
Bb' 44 - 45 47
a' (Alto) 46 - 48 50
g# 49 - 51 53
g' (Alto / Tenor) 52 - 54 57
f# 55 - 57 60
f' 58 - 61 63
e' (Bass) 62 - 64 67
eb' 65 - 68 71
d' 69 - 72 75
c#' 73 - 76 80
c' 77 - 78 84

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