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How old are steel strings?

08 Sep 03 - 02:38 PM (#1014890)
Subject: How old are steel strings?
From: GUEST,Les in Chorlton, Manchester

Thanks to all those who contributed and continue to contribute to the Uillean pipes post.

It set me thinking on a related issue. How old are steel, for that matter any metal strings, and what affect did their introduction have on musical instruments and the music so produced?

08 Sep 03 - 02:56 PM (#1014903)
Subject: RE: How old are steel strings?
From: GUEST,Martin Gibson


A Brief History of the Steel-String Guitar

The steel-string guitar story begins in 1796 with the birth in Mark Neukirchen, Germany, of Christian Fredrich Martin. Fifteen years later he was apprenticed to Johann Stauffer, a Viennese maker of guitars and other instruments. He worked there for fourteen years, returning to Mark Neukirchen in 1825 - to find himself in the middle of a long and bitter dispute between the Violinmakers' Guild and the unregulated cabinetmakers, over who should have the right to make guitars. The final ruling, when it came in 1832, was in favour of the cabinetmakers. Martin, however, had his sights set on greener pastures, and the following year, he left with his young family for America.

Arriving in New York, Martin opened a music shop, selling everything from violin strings to instruments, including guitars which he made in a back room. But life in New York was a struggle, and in 1839 Martin sold his shop and bought some land at Nazareth, Pennsylvania, where there was a substantial community of German immigrants. Here, Martin concentrated on making guitars, gradually abandoning the Stauffer characteristics of his instruments as he responded to the demands of the rapidly-developing American market.

It was at this time that the distinguishing feature of American guitars was developed. Just at the same time that Torres was revolutionising the sound of the Spanish guitar with his development of fan-strutting, German immigrants to America started making guitars with an X-brace under the soundboard. Whether or not Martin developed this himself is not known, but he certainly made it his own, and by the 1850's most of his guitars were built this way. The advantage of this arrangement was probably mainly commercial at this stage, as the X-brace used less wood than Torres' fan-struts. The main virtue of the X-brace lay unsuspected by makers and players alike for the next fifty years.

One of the big disadvantages of the early guitar was its lack of volume. Torres made great improvements with the wider bodies and fan-strutting of his guitars, but American guitarists wanted an instrument which could hold its own against much louder banjoes and fiddles. They got what they wanted around 1900, when steel strings came out. But steel strings exert more than double the tension on a guitar soundboard than gut strings do. A slight strengthening of the X-brace was all that was needed to cope with the extra tension, and by the 1920's it had become an industry standard for the steel-string guitar.

08 Sep 03 - 03:18 PM (#1014915)
Subject: RE: How old are steel strings?
From: GUEST,Les in Chorlton, Manchester

Thanks a lot, says so much about the development of the guitar. I didn't realise Martin was so important.

So, were steel strings the first metal strings? When were they first fitted to the violin family?

I remember reading somewhere that Morris Dancing was changed significantly when musicians moved from pipe and tabor to fiddles. Something about the volume of noise enabling dancing to be more physical. Sorry I have no origin for this. And anyway people say anything sometimes.

The other angle on this enquiry is concerned with how developments in technolgy foreshadow changes in musical instruments and how this relation could help us to have a more accurate understanding of how traditional music has developed over however many years you care to study.

I have a question about metalic free reeds but will leave that for another thread.

08 Sep 03 - 03:52 PM (#1014933)
Subject: RE: How old are steel strings?
From: Sorcha

I think the earliest metal strings were probably brass harp strings, but I can't give a date.

08 Sep 03 - 04:15 PM (#1014945)
Subject: RE: How old are steel strings?
From: Bee-dubya-ell

I have a hard time even concieving the hammer dulcimer without wire strings of some kind. A harp or a viol or a psaltry can be strung with organic (gut or silk) strings and plucked or bowed. But I just don't think gut strings on a dulcimer would work. They would break too easily and surely wouldn't produce much volume. And since the dulcimer is mentioned in the Bible (Book of Daniel) that would mean that, if it has always been wire-strung, musical wire existed over 2,000 years ago. I'm no archeologist or anthropologist, but I would bet that the technique of drawing metal into wire was originally developed for use in jewelery and that the use of wire on musical instruments came not much later.


08 Sep 03 - 04:26 PM (#1014949)
Subject: RE: How old are steel strings?
From: Ned Ludd

I'm happy to be corrected Bruce, and my Knowledge of the bible is sketchy to say the least, but not all dulcimers are Hammered, and are you sure that the term dulcimer was not introduced in a later translation?

08 Sep 03 - 04:33 PM (#1014950)
Subject: RE: How old are steel strings?
From: GUEST,Les in Chorlton, Manchester

I would be reluctant to accept the bible as a historic document on its own.

Has anybody written the History of Wire? It has been done (I think) for salt.

08 Sep 03 - 05:15 PM (#1014972)
Subject: RE: How old are steel strings?
From: Q (Frank Staplin)

The earliest stringed instrument known is the nanga, from ancient Egypt (examples in the British Museum). Dulcimer-like instruments were developed by the Assyrians, but were plucked. Gut, etc., at first. Biblical references would be to this type. The hammer dulcimer, cymbalo, etc. came later with the development of ear flaps on head gear and early calls for the elimination of noise pollution.

The first wire was gold, but useless for musical instruments. Don't know when brass wire came in. In the Middle Ages, the trick of wire pulling was invented. It was one hell of a job, the wire puller sometimes suspended in a cage or chair to add more force to the pulling. Only smaller gauge wire could be drawn, and lengths were relatively short. Stones with small holes suggest that the Assyrians were drawing wire, but the evidence is not clear-cut. Of course not the strong steel wire we know today. A while back, there was a thread on the development of steel wound wire strings, and this may fit in with the post by Les at the start of this thread. I have forgotten the history.

All of this is European-slanted history; the civilizations of the Far East are not included.

08 Sep 03 - 05:32 PM (#1014978)
Subject: RE: How old are steel strings?
From: Padre

The ones on my 00-18 are about 6 years old

08 Sep 03 - 05:33 PM (#1014979)
Subject: RE: How old are steel strings?
From: Burke

Here are a couple of snippets from Grove Music. Keyboard instruments had them first.

Keyboard instruments mostly use wire strings. Although there is evidence of drawn gold wire as early as the 5th or 6th century bce in Persia, it seems that the draw plate was not used in medieval Europe until the 10th century, from which time iron wire was available for musical instruments. The wrought iron produced for wire drawing was probably given particular attention at all stages of its handling. Recent analyses have shown the impressive purity that could be attained. The ingots of iron or brass were forged to smaller strips, cut into rods, hammered round and finally drawn down to the sizes required by instrument makers. It is known that trade in drawn wire was highly organized at an early stage, and certain areas acquired a reputation for the quality of their products.

In regard to harpiscord strings:
In order that the strings may reach the desired frequency with a short length, the mass must be increased. It was historically the case that different types of string material were used in the bass if the treble was designed to use iron wire. Thus strings of yellow brass (about 70% copper, 30% zinc alloy) were used in the tenor of iron-scaled instruments, with red brass (about 85% copper, 15% zinc alloy) for the last few notes. The scalings in the bass were designed to match the tensile strengths of the different materials (see O'Brien, C1981 and Wraight, C1997, chap.5). Silver and gold strings were used in a similar way; because of their higher specific gravity and lower elastic modulus they offer an acoustical advantage over brass strings.

The most significant solution to the problem of density, in which metal wire is wound around a core of some material (in modern times, gut, metal or nylon), seems to have been invented in the mid-17th century, probably in Bologna. On 'overspun' ('overwound' or 'wirewound') strings density is increased considerably, thus much reducing the length of string required to produce low notes. This invention was crucial to the development of the bass member of the violin family, as it permitted the cutting down in size of the violone (or bass violin) and its conversion to a violoncello.

'String', The New Grove Dictionary of Music Online ed. L. Macy (Accessed 8 Sept. 2003),

08 Sep 03 - 05:34 PM (#1014981)
Subject: RE: How old are steel strings?
From: GUEST,Les in Chorlton, Manchester

Excellent again Q. Steel strings do seem to look like a step change in the sort of noise, quality, consistency and so in the musical instruments to which they were attached.

Still waiting for a Historian/Technolgist to flesh this out. Between this and that thread dating songs by the use of of other references within them I feel sure we can get a better understanding of how songs and tunes have evolved.

08 Sep 03 - 05:39 PM (#1014983)
Subject: RE: How old are steel strings?
From: curmudgeon

Les, you say:

"I have a question about metalic free reeds but will leave that for another thread."

You might want to pose this one at While we are fortunate to have the likes of Crane Driver and Bob Bolton here, the lot over at have a vast amount of knowledge and opinion -- Tom

08 Sep 03 - 05:45 PM (#1014986)
Subject: RE: How old are steel strings?

I was told I was built to be destroyed -IMAGINE_tee hee
Excuese me puleeese

08 Sep 03 - 07:40 PM (#1015059)
Subject: RE: How old are steel strings?
From: GUEST,marthabees

This is a fascinating thread.... mind.....
Look how much we've all learned about metalworking!

I have always maintained that world history should be taught through the lenses of music and shoes.
Everything fits into one of those categories.

(That statement is seriously close to a troll. Or droll.)


08 Sep 03 - 07:48 PM (#1015068)
Subject: RE: How old are steel strings?
From: The Fooles Troupe

As old as the folk musos' guitar..

"It was in tune when I bought it!"


08 Sep 03 - 08:46 PM (#1015105)
Subject: RE: How old are steel strings?
From: Q (Frank Staplin)

A little more in thread 37339, including a note that gut and silk strings were used on the banjo during much of the 19th century.

08 Sep 03 - 09:56 PM (#1015134)
Subject: RE: How old are steel strings?
From: Thomas the Rhymer


Carlos Paniagua has been reconstructing period instruments, mostly ancient psaltries, "using all available preserved elements"... "direct, traditional, iconographic, musical and documented sources, whether poetic or historic, literary or scientific."

"As no medieval instruments of this kind still exist, the construction of each one of them has been approached as a thesis that combines religious,court, and popular elememnts."

12th century Rota...17 simple courses, diatonic gut strings...

13th century psalterion...17 steel triple courses, diatonic, tuned in chords of a fifth and an octave

15th century Qanun...26 single courses in unison, gut strings, diatonic

14th century Large Wing...30 courses, the first four are brass simples, the rest are doubles, gut and in unison...

1781 Barroque Psaltry...26 courses of 4 or five strings each, brass and steel respectively, chromatic...

I am wondering about the steel strings on the 13th century psalterion... could it be true?

Taken from Begona Olavide's wonderful CD entitled "Salterio"


08 Sep 03 - 11:58 PM (#1015188)
Subject: RE: How old are steel strings?
From: Q (Frank Staplin)

Difficult to say when true steel springs came in, certainly people like Paniagua have done the research. Steel depends on the right amount of carbon and temperature; Able metallurgists could have found the formula before the Renaissance.

09 Sep 03 - 04:13 AM (#1015260)
Subject: RE: How old are steel strings?
From: Murray MacLeod

I doubt it. Being aware of what would be required in a steel string is one thing, having the technology to manufacture it is another.

Drawing a steel string requires a die made of a harder material than the steel itself, and these materials (tungsten, vanadium etc) were unknown before the nineteenth century.


09 Sep 03 - 04:25 AM (#1015268)
Subject: RE: How old are steel strings?
From: Steve Parkes

There is a big difference between modern steel, from the time of Bessemer on, and pre-Bessemer steel. Modern steel has much more carbon than the steel used for swords and armour. It's been too many years for me, as I've forgotten most of what I used to know about it! I'm sure there are 'Catters with mch more usefulknowledge than I have who can expand and explain.


09 Sep 03 - 05:16 AM (#1015280)
Subject: RE: How old are steel strings?
From: GUEST,Davetnova

From -

The English guitar was known in France as the cistre or guittare allemande (indicating its German origin), and in Italy as the cetra. Italian musicians apparently introduced and started the fashion for the instrument in England. The earliest music for it in England is Pasqualinide Marzi's Six sonatas for the cetra or Kitara ... (c. 1740; copy in London, British Library). It soon, however, became known simply as the 'guittar'.

The standard tuning for the instrument was to a C major chord, beginning with C below middle C: c, e, gg, c'c', e'e', g'g'. The strings were of brass and steel and were played with the right-hand fingers. At first, tablature was used, but this soon gave way to staff notation, entirely in the treble clef. The music relied upon the use of many open strings, and the use of parallel thirds, which were easy to play with this tuning. Hence, the things to look for in order to distinguish English guitar music from Spanish guitar music are: the predominant useof the key of C; much use of parallel thirds; the lowest notes as middle C on the staff (the instrument sounds an octave lower than written); and the typical configurations of chords, ...

09 Sep 03 - 05:30 AM (#1015285)
Subject: Steel making: history & tech
From: Steve Parkes

Ifyou're interested in the technicalities of iron/steel, here are a couple of websites woirth a look (although nothing on wire-making): the first one is (fairly) brief and to the point, with very little technical language; the second one is translated form German (and loses something -- although it gains a bit too!), and has more technical stuff, but also a lot of interesting historical stuff about mediŠval smiths and sword-making.


09 Sep 03 - 11:52 AM (#1015524)
Subject: RE: How old are steel strings?
From: GUEST,Les in Chorlton, Manchester

Thanks again. Murray's point sounds good to me. Making musical instruments is a technological task and must be based in available materials and technology.

Are we about to pin down the time when steel strings beacame seriously available? If so what was the consequence for the music so produced?

Thanks again

09 Sep 03 - 02:31 PM (#1015620)
Subject: RE: How old are steel strings?
From: Q (Frank Staplin)

Steve is right. Dies for drawing wire the draw plate- are known from Assyria and even South Africa (1600 years old). Wires for musical instruments were mostly brass-bronze.
The psaltery and other old stringed instruments with wire strings used brass. Otherwise, gut, etc. was used.
Steel goes back a long ways, but not the quality alloy steels of today.
Wires of bronze have been found in Egyptian tombs. The Romans hand-forged small rods down to the required size.

The process of wire production as a cold-working operation by drawing wire rods through a reducing die was first introduced into Great Britain from Germany about the middle of the 19th century, the first plant being established at Tintern Abbey.

In the clavichord, the wires were brass. Too much pressure, and the strings went out of line and out of tune. Cast steel wire was introduced in pianos about 1800, and the steel frame in 1820.

Encyclopaedia makers seemingly have little interest in the development of wire strings. The little scattering above was gleaned by thumbing through several volumes in two sets. I am sure that there is more, but I got tired. I have not looked through the booksellers for something specific.

It must be remembered that steel wire was not a prerequisite for stringed instruments. In biblical times they made do with brass and gut. (Many guitarists still stay away from metal strings). We are just spoiled by modern technology and noise pollution and demand more noise from instruments.

09 Sep 03 - 02:31 PM (#1015621)
Subject: RE: How old are steel strings?
From: M.Ted

Murray, is a fine person,with musical taste is of the highest order and a taste for the best coffee--however, his speculations fail to account for the fact that the piano and its predecessors use and have used metal strings--the Persian Santur, which we tend to call a hammered dulcimer, has been around since the tenth century, as far as I know, it has always been strung with wire--

09 Sep 03 - 03:08 PM (#1015644)
Subject: RE: How old are steel strings?
From: GUEST,Les in Chorlton, Manchester

But which predecessors had steel strings and how back do they go? What evidence exists concerning the strings on 10C Persian instruments?

09 Sep 03 - 03:31 PM (#1015656)
Subject: RE: How old are steel strings?
From: Q (Frank Staplin)

These might help:
Encyclopaedia of Musical Instruments, Robert Dearling.
Vol. 1. Non-Western and Obsolete Instruments.
Vol. 4. Keyboard Instruments and Ensembles.
Vol. 6. Stringed Instruments.
Vol. Histories, Descriptions and Uses of the World's Instruments.

Try your library for this set.

09 Sep 03 - 03:32 PM (#1015657)
Subject: RE: How old are steel strings?
From: Q (Frank Staplin)

The Histories, etc., is Vol. 7

09 Sep 03 - 03:44 PM (#1015664)
Subject: RE: How old are steel strings?
From: Murray MacLeod

Now, Ted, if you check back you will see that my post was in direct response to Q's post immediately preceding, which read

"...........Difficult to say when true steel strings came in .......Able metallurgists could have found the formula before the Renaissance........"

"True steel" I take to mean high-carbon steel, and I stand by my conjecture that it was technologically impossible to manufacture such a string before the development of "super-hard" alloys in the nineteenth century.

I don't dispute that metal strings of different composition may well have been used in ancient times, but I am willing to bet that Jerry Donahue wouldn't be able to have used them on his Telecaster ....


09 Sep 03 - 04:02 PM (#1015679)
Subject: RE: How old are steel strings?
From: GUEST,Les in Chorlton, Manchester

I think Murray is correct. I have read quite a bit about the history of science. It is better documented and organised than the wild conjectors (?) of some other (not so) disciplines.

We all need great respect for old cultures particularly Chinese and Arab/Muslim cultures but I don't think they had much in the way of instruments with steel strings and I think this brings us back to the 18 / 19 Century, post Abraham Darby et al.

Please don't misunderstand me. I am not making any kind of point about Western European anything. ( See that book Jared Diamond about Guns and something and something that gives a pretty good account of why we Europeans colonised etc the Eat and not the other way round).

09 Sep 03 - 04:03 PM (#1015682)
Subject: RE: How old are steel strings?
From: Thomas the Rhymer

...something about the 'incidental' influx of carbon into the new and spongy 'pig iron'... However, it is said that the lower heat makes better steel... look to Augsburg and Nuremberg in 1351 and 1360 respectively for the for the 'new' designation 'wire drawers' or 'wire millers'...

before that, the 'styled wire smiths' formed wire by the use of hammers alone...

The importation of Iron wire into England was prohibited in the middle of the 1400s...

I'm starting to think that those early musicians really had alot of guts, but the wealthy could steel your heart away... ;^)ttr

09 Sep 03 - 04:28 PM (#1015702)
Subject: RE: How old are steel strings?
From: M.Ted

I don't really know what the strings were made of--I only find it hard to imagine non-metal strings on anything that is struck with a hammer--

I think the Telecaster was originated in Samarkand in the eighth century and had made it's way to Persia in time for Omar Khayyam, Al Malik, and the notorious Hassan ishi I Sabah to have their own "Shadows" cover band, which broke up because Hassan wasn't allowed to play a bass solo in their version of "Apache"--If they had only given the "Old Man of the Mountain" a verse and a chorus, the history of the Middle East might have been very, very, different--

Sorry for the diversion, but I am trying to get my self in the mood to argue with a man named Himmelfarb who wants to me to pay for about five hundred dollars worth of unwanted painting--

09 Sep 03 - 05:59 PM (#1015795)
Subject: RE: How old are steel strings?
From: Murray MacLeod

Ted, spot on with the provenance of the Telecaster, except that by the time Omar Khayyam got hold of it, it had metamorphosed into the Stratocaster (much more voluptuous contours, and we all know how old Khayyam loved a voluptuous contour ...)

FWIW my theory about early "metal" strings is that they were never metal cored but consisted of gut with exterior metal windings. It should be remembered that early production of wire was almost exclusively for decorative jewellery purposes, and the wire had to be soft enough to wrap into bracelets, necklaces etc.

The wire used in these artefacts would never have possessed the tensile strength to be stretched to pitch on a musical instrument, but may well have been ideal for windings. The techniques required for drawing thin gauge soft metal wire were certainly known in ancient times.

Best of luck with Mr Himmelfarb. Contemporary American abstract expressionism isn't really my bag, but maybe you should look at it as a long term investment?