Luke Challinor - Playing Early Instruments Takes Real Guts!
Since ancient times, gut has been the preferred material choice for the strings of stringed instruments, and Ancient Egyptian instruments have been found with gut strings on them dating as far back as the Third dynasty (2686–2613 BC). However, the knowledge of making the strings was almost completely lost during the twentieth century, and we are still only just rediscovering how to make the strings as they were made in the past.
With the invention of metal wound gut strings around 1659, flexible gut bass strings slowly died out, and were almost extinct by the late eighteenth century. Fast-forward to the late twentieth century, and the primary use of gut strings was as cores for metal wound strings. This meant that all strings went through a machine called a ‘centreless grinder’ that made the surface of the strings perfectly smooth, and reduced them to the required diameter. This was far from the light hand polishing that was done in previous centuries using horsehair, and the modern machine polishing method actually makes the strings weaker, causing the thin strings to go ‘hairy’ after they have been played in. In fact the historical method for making thin strings like violin ‘E’ strings still hasn’t been rediscovered, and many string makers simply make a thicker string and polish it thinner with the centreless grinder!
In the early 1990s, the luthier George Stoppani and the baroque violinist Oliver Webber decided to begin making gut strings in the way they were made in the seventeeth and eighteenth centuries, and so ‘Real Guts’ was born. Following on from the roped ‘Catline’ strings made by Northern Renaissance Instruments in the 1980s, this was an important event in the early music movement, especially for players of renaissance music, as for the first time in hundreds of years, people were able to string their instruments in an all gut set-up, with no metal wound strings, just as they were during the renaissance.
In the Real Guts method, the gut goes through an intensive washing process for a week, where it is treated with various different substances (all based on historical treatises) that soften the gut and allow it to take in lots of water, making it easier to work with. The gut is then graded by size, and strands of a similar diameter are twisted together to ensure that the string is not false, and has a smooth surface (Fig.2). After all the strings have been twisted together, and stretched on racks, the twist is topped up, so that the finished product is very flexible (Fig. 3). When I am making my own strings, at this point, I seal them in a chamber and subject them to a sulphur dioxide treatment, which is mentioned in many historical sources, but often overlooked. The final stage of gut string production is the hand polishing and oiling with olive oil. A common misconception about gut strings is that they go out of tune all the time, however this is not the case with strings that have been properly treated with oil!
After 1660, silver wound strings were used and are essential to the function of certain instruments that require very low notes (for example the seven string bass viol) but on a short string length. Although I have been making wound strings for some time, I am continuing research into more authentic options; historically, for close wound strings, there was a higher ratio of gut to metal than many modern strings utilise, and also, the thinnest silver wire that was available in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries was 0.152 mm thick, and it is for this reason that the Demi File (Fig.4), or semi-wound string was invented – this is an area which I am currently very interested in!
Luke Challinor studies viola da gamba at the Royal College of Music in London with Richard Boothby, having been awarded a Foundation Scholarship as ABRSM UK Scholar. He also plays baroque cello, having recently completed eight years studying cello at Chethams School of Music where he developed a passion for baroque music, playing in ensembles led by Alan Davis and Chris Orton. He has just completed his first year of study at RCM during which he played in a masterclass for Vittorio Ghielmi and in the RCM Festival of Viols.
Luke began learning the bass viol with Alison Crum in August 2013, purchased a 7-string bass viol with a generous bursary from EMI and was soon invited to play in a Masterclass with Paolo Pandolfo at the Greenwich Early Music Festival in November 2013. In 2015, he played in Christophe Coin’s masterclass at the RCM Festival of Viols, and in 2014, he performed in both Hille Perl’s masterclass at the Vielklang Festival in Tübingen, and Guy Johnston’s masterclass at Chethams in Manchester.
In 2015, 2016, and 2017, he was awarded a full scholarship by the Dartington Trust to attend the Advanced Viol Consort course with Fretwork at the Dartington Summer School, where he performed the second movement of Orlando Gough’s ‘Birds on Fire’, as well as earlier works from the viol consort repertoire. This year the Robinson Trust have again awarded him a scholarship to attend the Viol Summer School in Marnavres.
Luke is a dedicated member of a number of baroque chamber ensembles and during his first year at RCM began studying theorbo with Jakob Lindberg as a related study. Since then he has relished playing continuo on theorbo. He also composes new music for viol, has been involved in performing new compositions for viol by other composers, and is prolific in producing recordings on viol. His aspiration is to bring the viol to the forefront not only with performances of historical repertoire, but with modern compositions too.
Luke spent three years as a string technician at Northern Renaissance Instruments, and now works with George Stoppani at Real Guts, whilst continuing his own independent research into historical stringing and instrument set-up.
He regularly performs in fundraising concerts for The Mathieson Music School in Calcutta and is aware of the many differences music can make in the community, not just in the concert hall.