Strings 101 - Cat Gut
Cat gut strings are perhaps one of the earliest forms of the
guitar string. Back in the early days of guitar, particularly
classical and Spanish guitar, players would install strings made
from dried lamb or bull intestines. If you were to envision an
empty sausage casing stretched out, you would be on the right
track. The gut string making process has varied over the years,
with much of it's earlier development being in Europe. The
process of making strings focuses on getting the intestines as
clean as possible. Getting the excess fats away from the muscle
tissue is cumbersome. Often the guts are soaked in water for
many days and treated in ash water. The guts are then stretched,
scraped, and twisted. In the final stages of the process, they
are bleached with a sulfur dioxide solution, dried, sanded and
treated with a final coating of olive oil. Some acoustic
guitarist still use this type of string today. Complete sets are
still made available to today's market. The lower part of the
string set use cat gut as the core with a thin metal wire
overstrung around it. These strings are easy to spot on a guitar
as their coloration is a unique hue of yellow. The inherent
problem with cat gut strings is their reliability. These strings
became dry, weak and brittle over time. In case you are
wondering, the unwrapped strings do leave a unique (but weak)
smell on the fingers over extended periods of playing time.
Their sound is truly warm and vintage renaissance. In more
recent years, some players have referred to these strings as
Why the strange name?
If you are a cat lover, don't worry. Cat gut strings have nothing to do with the furry friends. However, there are a couple of theories that suggest where this "cat gut" name came from...
Theory #1: It was noted sometime in middle part of the 13th century that the first known "guitar" string was made with the intestinal tracks of various sheep live stock. According to Britannica, the term cat gut originated from the Italian word for violin. The word for violin was "kit" in Italy. So, the term "kit gut" was the original reference to the strings. Over history the term evolved into "cat gut."
Problem with Theory #1: The Italian language does not appear to have the letter "k" in it.
Theory #2: Another theory suggests that the term "cat gut" was used in reference to an early string maker in Catagniny Germany (or Catigniny sometimes cited). Back in the day, many violinist obtained their strings from the popular German string maker.
Problem with Theory #2: There are a couple issues with this theory:
1. Catagniny does not actually appear to be a known location in Germany today. Perhaps a lost city like Atlantis? (laugh!)
2. The letters "c" or "y" do not appear to be common in the German language.
Theory #3: Around 1300 AD, European saddlers discovered that gut from sheep of the mountainous region made not only excellent twine for sewing saddles, but excellent strings for musical instruments as well. To disguise the true origin of their string material and discourage others from stealing their trade secret, they simply made up the claim they were using guts taken from cats.
Problem with Theory #3: One of the problems of this theory is the flawed business logic cited. In reality it would not only discourage other string makers from using feline, but musicians would also take issue with the practice and not use the strings.
In short, like many things with such early historical roots, much of the very early historical info about cat gut strings teeters towards folklore. The origin of catgut dates back pre-guitar era. Quite frankly little is know about the "true" beginnings.