Of Strings and Tuners

Precollege band directors are expected to have at least rudimentary instrument repair skills in order to keep student instruments playable for imminent rehearsals and performances.  String orchestra directors are often surprised by and ill prepared for the repair and maintenance needs of their students.  For this column I would like to address changing strings on the violin family instruments and the correct use of fine tuners.

String students who do not feel comfortable tuning their instruments with the pegs should use four steel strings and four fine tuners.  Normally this would include string students in elementary school grades 4-6 and middle school, depending on when the string program starts at a particular school.   Tuners are metal screw devices that attach the ball or loop end of the string to the tailpiece of the instrument and allow the student to adjust the open string pitches without turning the pegs for each string.  Tuning with pegs involves using a sophisticated turning/pushing motion that is better suited for an older student’s larger hands.  There are pegs on the market that act like fine tuners and are much easier for a young string student to turn.  One of the best such pegs is a Caspari™ peg.  While these pegs work quite well it is still recommended that young students have a fine tuner installed for each of the four strings.  (Because double bassists have easy-to-turn machines with gears to tune their strings no fine tuners are made for bassists.)

Steel strings should be used for elementary and middle school violins, violas, cellos and basses. Steel strings are preferable to gut or synthetic strings for young players.  Steel strings respond quickly to fine tuners and generally have a longer playing life than other strings.  One of the most reliable brands of steel strings is Super Sensitive, Red Label™.  Steel strings may be purchased in fractional sizes for smaller instruments.  Except for an emergency the string size should match the instrument size.  Using a ¾ string on a ½ size instrument will leave too much wrapping in the peg box and the string will not vibrate well due to improper tension.

When installing a string the student or teacher should follow several steps.  First: Change only one string at a time.  If all four strings are removed at once the bridge will fall and the sound post could fall, necessitating a trip to a string repair technician.  Second:  Lubricate the string groove in the nut with pencil.  Graphite in lead is a great dry lubricant.  Use an old white candle (paraffin) to lubricate the groove in the bridge.  Pencil lead can be used on the bridge but it leaves a black mark.  Third:  As you install a steel string start at the peg, winding the string wrapping evenly so that the string drops straight from the peg down through the string groove in the nut, across the bridge groove and into the receiving arm of the fine tuner.  (When re-stringing a double bass start by threading the string through the narrow slot of the keyhole in the tailpiece.  Then wind the string wrapping onto the machine at the peg box, keeping the string as straight as possible from tailpiece to machine.)  Fourth:  If time allows only bring the string up to within a half step of the correct pitch.  This prolongs the life of the string, especially those that are gut and synthetic.   After settling overnight the string may be brought up to pitch.  In an emergency any type of string may be brought up to pitch immediately.  Steel strings will hold their pitch with minimal re-tuning.  Gut and synthetic strings need several days of re-tuning before they will hold their pitch consistently.

Steel strings come with either a loop or ball on the end that attaches to the fine tuner.  When the ball end of the string does not fit between the two prongs of the fine tuner the prongs can be spread further apart with a flat head screwdriver.  Exercise caution during this operation or the prongs will break.

Fine tuners should not normally be used for non-steel strings.  Non-steel strings are not designed to fit fine tuners and they are much less responsive to fine tuners than steel strings.  When a student graduates to gut or synthetic strings a fine tuner is left on the tailpiece for the E string on the violin.  Violists often use a steel A string and have a fine tuner for it.  Cellists will often use a steel A and D, necessitating the use of two fine tuners.

Finally, students and teachers should regularly check to be sure that fine tuners are not “digging” into the top of the instrument under the tailpiece.  Having the teacher loosen the fine tuner and re-tuning with the peg will keep such damage from occurring.

This article first appeared in Lines & Spaces, a newsletter published by David E. Smith Publications, and is used here by permission.

Jay-Martin Pinner teaches over 40 violin, viola, cello, and double bass students at Pinner Studios, a private string studio in Greenville, SC.  He served as head of the String Department at Bob Jones University for 25 years and is the founding director of the Bob Jones Academy and Junior High Orchestras. For 25 years he supervised the University’s String Repair Shop maintaining the University and the pre-college inventories of string instruments, bows, and cases.  He worked with Pecknel Music Company repairing instruments owned by South Carolina school districts.  He was privileged to study at the University of New Hampshire with Hans Nebel, one of the most respected string instrument restorers and repair techs in the United States.