UKULELE MUSINGS, 21 January 2022: A Bit of Musical Mythology–“Catgut” Strings

I ran across this photo of our cat, Sylvie, just waking from one of her snoozes in one of my ukulele cases.  The scene reminded me of one of those mythologies we have all been living with for generations—musical instrument strings made of so-called “catgut.” 

Understand, gentle readers, that what are more humanely called “gut” strings have never been made from a cat’s insides!    The word “catgut” may have been an abbreviation of the Old English word “cattlegut.” Alternatively, it may derive from the Welsh word “kit” meaning fiddle—certainly more bovine than feline!  Who knew?

While the word origin refers, more or less, to cattle, “catgut” strings for musical instruments are nearly always made from the intestines of sheep.  Out of sympathy to all those pet cats out there with ears perked up, let’s just call them “gut” strings from here on out.  OK?

To prepare gut strings, workers clean the small intestines, free them from any fat, and steep them in water and potassium hydroxide. 

They are then cut, stretched, dried, smoothed, and twisted or woven—ready for musical instruments,

tennis racquets (in the past),

and surgical sutures (still today).   

After twisting and drying, workers polish the strings to the required diameter. For a long time, gut was the most common material for instrument strings and, not surprisingly, remain a natural choice for many classical and baroque string players. 

They find they give a richer, darker sound as well as withstanding high tension within lower alto, tenor, and bass ranges.  Worth a careful listen at the next concert you attend.

Click or tap on the next image or link to hear some rather nice sounds from a gut-strung guitar.  

Gut strings were, of course, used for ukuleles until the advent of nylon and other polymers  that became standard right after World War II. 

You can still get gut strings for your uke and, just for fun, I keep a set on one of my older Martins. 

They sound great provided that you don’t mind retuning every time the humidity goes up or down a notch!

Click or tap on the next image or link to hear some commentary as well as strumming on a gut strung uke.

This bit of trivia leads me, as would be expected, into the vast and wild world of cat and kitty songs—a seeming staple of the Tin Pan Alley oeuvre. 

I touched that base in one of my musings from a couple of years ago so some of you might want to re-explore that.  Alas, few of these deal specifically with our, shall we say, gutsy subject. Here’s just another musical tidbit!

So, let me use a little intestinal fortitude to forego a rerun and focus on just a couple of gutsy gut and cat songs just for fun.  There is one song (only one!) from my aging musical memory bank that makes a direct, albeit somewhat oblique, reference to catgut.  Only one! 

Click or tap on the next image or link to hear the song “Freddie and His Fiddle” from that 1940s musical homage to the great Norwegian composer Edvard Grieg.  Listen carefully to the playful, folksy lyrics to pick up the appropriate reference!

Let’s wind up this musing with a bit of ukulele “Cat” music (No cats were harmed or otherwise misused in the preparation of this video!) from our fellow strummers, the Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain. Click or tap on the next image or link for a look and listen and laugh!

And now, gentle readers, let us return to our at-home, sequestered strumming sessions—complete, I’m sure, with safe and happy musical kittens. 

So stay safe, stay masked,

stay musically gutsy, and STAY TUNED!

Author: NohoBanjo of Northampton and, now, Easthampton, Mass.

Hi friends, neighbors, and fellow strummers. These “musings” are based on my interest and study of Banjo and Ukulele history, lore, and music. My goal is to both educate and enlighten by sharing what I have learned within a broad musical and historical context—with honesty and, at times, a bit of humor. Needless to say, your thoughts and comments are, as always, welcome.

One thought on “UKULELE MUSINGS, 21 January 2022: A Bit of Musical Mythology–“Catgut” Strings”

  1. I just want to thank you for all your “musings” but especially for using two violas da gamba in this one (a 6 string and a 7 string) and for the wonderful cartoon at the end. I play the viola da gamba and violone with gut strings, the lute with fake gut strings (too many strings to tune) and my uke has the usual nylon but maybe someday…

    Thanks again

    Mai

    Mai-Lan Broekman 50 Orchard Ln Wayland, MA 01778 508-873-1689

    Sent from my iPad, which accounts for any odd autocorrects

    >

    Like

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