Laurie's Violin School: Don't Tolerate Impossible Pegs!

September 29, 2014, 11:23 AM · Do you have impossible pegs? Does your student have impossible pegs?

Don't let that situation stand. It's important to have very high standards when you tune your violin, every single time you play. There's really no "almost" when it comes to tuning your violin. There is "in tune" and "out-of-tune." If you play on an out-of-tune violin, nothing else will be in tune. It's as simple as that!


When pegs stick or slip, then tuning the violin becomes a constant struggle. I know, from personal experience; as a high school and college student, I had terrible, ill-fitting pegs. I fought the battle every time, but not everyone is willing to do so. I finally had my peg-box rebusched, a labor-intensive operation for the luthier and an expensive solution all-around. (It turned out that I had four completely different pegs, all somehow jammed in there over the century-long life of my little German fiddle.) With four new pegs lodged in holes that fit them, it solved my problems with that fiddle.

But there are other solutions you can try for impossible pegs, and not all of them are expensive (though some are!)

First, see if you've installed your strings correctly. Traditional pegs stay in place simply by being wedged into the holes made for them. If they aren't wedged in enough, they can slip. When you tune, you can push the peg in as you turn it, to make sure the peg is staying wedged in. (It doesn't work to push in the peg after you've turned it, you have to push it in as you are turning it.) Also, when you install your strings, wind them up against the peg box, and this also has the effect of wedging the peg inward. Of course, if you push too hard or wedge the peg in too tight, then the pegs get difficult to turn. In that case, unwind the string and re-roll it, making it a little less tight against the peg box. (See the pink-threaded "D" string, right)

Secondly: see if your pegs are lubricated well enough. If they are sticking and clicking, they may need lubricant. Peg compound (or "peg dope," as many refer to it) is widely available and not too expensive. It looks like a tube of brown lipstick, and one tube lasts forever (as far as I know). To use it, take the string off and take the peg out. Draw a little "lipstick" onto the two places where the peg rubs up against the holes in the peg box. Put the peg back in and turn a few time to spread it around, then put the string back on.

For a more homespun solution: instead of "peg dope," use dry soap for lubricant and baby powder for friction. Don't get fancy with the soap; use something simple and fairly unscented like Ivory. Again, remove the string and take the peg out. Rub the dry (I repeat DRY!) soap onto the areas where the peg rubs against the holes. Then put the peg back in and turn it a few times to spread it around. Then take the peg back out and apply a thin coat of baby powder over the areas you've "soaped," re-insert the peg, and re-install the string. I like this solution a lot and find it to sometimes work better than the peg dope. My luthier in Denver used to do this, and very often I'd see that little dusting of baby powder when I got my fiddle back from him! (By the way, when you have a string off, this is a good time to clean the fingerboard. You can clean the fingerboard with alcohol, but don't get alcohol on any other part of the fiddle. I use pre-packaged alcohol mini-swabs, the kind you would find in a first-aid kit, because they are less likely to drip than something like a cotton ball. I rub the fingerboard clean then immediately wipe the alcohol dry with a tissue)

Pegs still impossible?

Put fine-tuners on all your strings. This solution requires getting over age-old directive that if you have a full-sized violin, you should have only one fine-tuner on the "E" string, and all other strings should be solely peg-tuned. This is fine, if you have well-fitted pegs and can tune your string to the finest fraction of a cent with the peg. But what if that is very difficult? This can be a bad situation for an adult beginner or a young student who has just graduated to a full-sized violin and is still getting the hang of tuning. They can get it close with the peg, but when it's just a little tiny, tiny bit sharp, and that peg doesn't want to settle in between, then the student gets very tempted to just leave it. The whole struggle takes up valuable practice time and has the student heaving in frustration before even playing a note. It can be very frustrating to the student in situations that require fast tuning: at orchestra, before an audition, etc. So invest $15 in a set of four fine tuners. You can easily install them yourself, Shar tells you how, even. I'm sure other stores have such helpful videos as well. I just helped a student install her own fine-tuners and I'm looking forward to the added control she will now have over her violin. This doesn't preclude peg-tuning at all; it just gives you the extra ability to get the pitch within a finer gradation.

And finally: planetary pegs! Made by Wittner, Knilling, they can expensive to install, but they transform the pegs into something a bit more like a guitar peg, and way easier to use. I welcome feedback on these. A few of my students have them, and though they have made it far easier for them to tune, the main problem seems to be that they are geared, and sometimes it's hard to stop the pegs between gears and thus get the precision. I don't know if this is a problem with the brand or with the installation, because it's not always the case. Some planetary pegs are completely smooth and do not seem to have this problem at all. And it's not just students that benefit from these; Elizabeth Pitcairn installed Wittner planetary pegs in her "Red" Strad!

So I hope that these ideas help you find a solution to difficult pegs, and please share any ideas or suggestions you have on the matter. Whatever your thoughts about any of these ideas, don't tolerate impossible pegs! Do what you can to ease this situation for yourself or for your students.


September 29, 2014 at 05:11 PM · THANK YOU! AMEN!

September 29, 2014 at 05:48 PM · Thanks for the detailed and practical article. I have witnessed so many young students struggle with tuning during the recital and they still continued to play flat even after getting help from teachers. I often wonder whether that is an accumulated effect of not being able to tune properly at home. My daughter's full size violin is equipped with both four fine tuners and geared pegs (against her previous teacher's recommendations). Tuning is simply a non issue and her intonation is pretty good, I think.

September 30, 2014 at 07:22 AM · I like to ensure the strings run smoothly through the grooves in the nut and bridge - especially if they are plain gut. It may be necessary for a luthier to size the grooves so that the strings fit as they should, a quick and inexpensive procedure. Nevertheless, I rub pencil graphite (3B or softer) into the grooves for lubrication. I always do this when changing a string.

And there are the time-honored tricks of on-the-fly tuning of a string, usually gut, that has gone flat or sharp because of temperature or humidity changes, by firmly pulling on the string at the middle of the fingerboard if it's gone sharp, or pressing on the fore-length within the pegbox with a finger if it's gone flat. This works usually only with the D and A.

But wasn't it teachers like Leopold Auer, and others after him - Jascha Heifetz comes to mind - who expected their students to continue playing in tune on strings that had gone out of tune? ;)

September 30, 2014 at 10:45 AM · About 2 years ago, I had the peg holes on my 1883 German fiddle re-bushed. I had bought the instrument in 2005 and loved playing on it from the start; but before re-bushing, peg stability and time-consuming tuning sessions were sometimes a nuisance. I managed to live with this till the end-piece button, possibly original equipment, began to fray and could no longer safely hold the tailpiece. So I decided to have all parts replaced -- button, tailpiece, pegs -- and get all holes re-bushed. Tuning is now consistently easy and fast.

I, too, use pencil graphite on the nut and bridge grooves each time I install new strings. Ditto for peg dope. At present, I use a fine-tuner only for E on all three fiddles.

September 30, 2014 at 11:43 AM · On an inexpensive instrument it really doesn't matter too whatever works. However I would be loathe to put geared pegs on a quality instrument. If the instrument has well fitting pegs...and still proves difficult to tune...I would rather have the 4 fine tuners - which are not "as"permanent.

September 30, 2014 at 03:23 PM · Yes, Trevor, the graphite pencil on the nut groove and the bridge is an important step that I forgot to mention! Thank you for bringing that up, it should be done every time one changes the string.

Also, after a given string is tightened and installed, I also lift the string on both sides of the bridge, just a fraction of a millimeter to let out the tension so it's not more on one side of the bridge than the other.

September 30, 2014 at 06:42 PM · Fitting strings "a little less tight against the peg box" seems an odd idea. Like a door "almost imperceptibly ajar ". The string should not touch the wall of the box ,surely . When you press the peg inwards how is the violin being held ? My teacher would be standing and put his foot on the corner of a chair and the scroll against his knee .The A string peg tuning under the chin is a contorsion in itself. All the pressing and twisting is done with one hand . The most awkward of the pegs is the most important one to get right . How typical of a violin . Violins are more perverse than cats .

October 1, 2014 at 01:11 AM · I have pegheds on my violin, my daughter (12) has knillings. They are wonderful, but like anything else you do have to learn to use them. The pegheds are a little better, it seems. I had them installed at Potters in Bethesda. Lots of pros use them, not just Pitcairn. I think David Kim uses them. Chuck Herin claims to have installed hundreds of sets and nobody has ever asked to go back to wood pegs. Theres no loss in precision, the action is very smooth. One trick is that you need to start by tuning down to release the static friction on the nut groove. And the when you tune back up you push in gently. Just like its supposed to work with wood pegs. Except it actually does work, and no soap, no pumice, no dope, etc. $200 installed, how does that compare to what you paid for bushings?. Every violin I own will have these, forevermore.

October 1, 2014 at 01:22 AM · About playing on a violin that is not perfectly in tune, lets think about that for a moment. How many players go through a whole recital without retuning? The only reason to retune is if your violin has gone out of tune. And what that means is that the last piece you played before intermission was played on a violin that was not in tune. And you know what? 99% of your audience and probably pretty close to that percentage of professional violinists didnt notice.

October 1, 2014 at 05:56 PM · In the book online being written by Michael Darnton under Setting Up the Fitting of sSrings is described .One clear sentence says "The strings should not touch the pegbox walls ."

October 1, 2014 at 06:42 PM · In an ideal world, your pegs fit perfectly, and the string windings don't need to play much of a role in keeping the pegs from slipping. But not all pegs fit perfectly -- I'd venture to guess that a great many do not. The winding is one factor that you can play with to help them stick. If you really wind up tight against the wall, it can be bad because it's actually enlarging the hole. But touching? I'd be happy to hear more from luthiers, but this is a very common solution.

October 2, 2014 at 08:22 AM · Yes the closest the string gets to the box wall is not what you see at the top but underneath the peg .The wall tapers inwards as it gets deeper and thin strings can be forced into the hole which would damage both the peg and the hole. Michael advises to align the windings by gently pulling the peg outwards before finally tuning and pressing in .

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