V.com weekend vote: Is your instrument difficult to tune?

April 6, 2019, 2:12 PM · Chances are, when you take your violin, viola or cello out of its case, the instrument will be out of tune.

Mozart tuning his violin

It's just the nature of stringed instruments; temperature and humidity cause the strings to expand or contract, and the same elements also cause the entire instrument to do the same. Even after you tune your violin, you might find that, 15 minutes later, it's once again out of tune as the instrument has warmed to your body or adjusted to the temperature in a different room.

So if you have difficulty tuning your instrument, then you are going to have a lot of difficulty! Many factors can contribute to problems with tuning: ill-fitting pegs that slip or stick; fine tuners that don't work; old strings that have gone false.

One of my adult students this week had decided to get fine tuners on all his strings to make it easier to tune. Then he noticed that I only had a fine tuner on my E string.

"Wait, am I not supposed to have fine tuners on the other strings?" I had to explain that, back in the day, we sadistic violinists made this almost a moral imperative: one fine tuner on the E string, and for the other strings, you can just figure out how to use the pegs, little missy.

I'd like to give everyone permission to put fine tuners on every string, if it helps. Of course, you'll still have to use the pegs when things get quite out of tune, but it could help with the day-to-day smaller tunings. And another thing: you can install planetary pegs on your violin, and make it way, way easier to tune. If Elizabeth Pitcairn can get Wittner pegs installed on her Red Stradivarius, then I think it's safe to install them on any violin out there.

I spent many years playing a violin that had absolutely horrible-working pegs. Over time, the pegs on that old violin had been replaced, and none was the same size or design as any of the others. Certainly none of them fit into their designated peg-box holes. I grew adept at amateur measures to get them to stick or to move again: winding the strings right up against the peg box, using dry soap as peg lubricant and baby powder as stopper; taking the violin off my shoulder every time I had to tune. Thankfully I now have a violin with well-installed pegs.

What is your tuning situation? Is it easy for you, or quite difficult? If it is difficult, what is making it difficult? Is it the pegs? Fine tuners? Some other situation? If it is easy, did you ever take measures, such as re-bushing the peg box or getting geared pegs, to get your pegs to work better? Or did your violin simply come with well-fitting pegs and a good fine tuner or tuners? Please participate in the vote and then share your thoughts and experiences in the comments section.

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Replies

April 6, 2019 at 07:21 PM · Both my violin and viola hold their tune pretty well. I rarely have to do much when I take them out of the case, and when I do it's usually because of a sharp change in the weather or temperature. This makes them easy to tune, so I haven't bothered to do anything about it.

When I was starting the viola as an adult, my rental came with fine tuners on all the strings, which I appreciated when I first started playing the instrument, and decided to keep when I bought my own viola. But my violin has the more conventional setup, with only a fine tuner on the E. Both work.

April 6, 2019 at 07:46 PM · I mean, it was always fine, but having stuck Perfection pegs on it, tuning is a 5-second process. Pretty darn stable, too, even with gut.

The only thing that still annoys me is the latency between turning the peg and the string changing its pitch (specifically going up). You never notice it with normal pegs, but with a finer turn ratio it becomes apparent. You get used tobit after a while, though.

April 6, 2019 at 08:03 PM · Apart from my D peg tending to stick a little, my viola is easy to tune. It has a fine tuner only on the A string.

My violin is a bit harder to tune at the pegbox, because all four pegs slip a little if they're not jammed in. Fortunately, it has fine tuners on all four strings. It's the violin I started learning on, and I haven't bothered to make any changes because I switched almost completely to viola when I was still a beginner.

April 6, 2019 at 08:43 PM · I have trouble in the winter with my G string peg slipping, other than that it’s not so bad.

April 6, 2019 at 09:25 PM · I am a String Specialist. That means I play and teach violin, viola, cello, double bass, guitar, piano and mandolin. On the bowed string instruments I use Wittner FineTune pegs. They are the best thing since "sliced bread". I never have problems with the change of seasons, I live in Phoenix, AZ. They are genius! I think fine tuners inhibit the sound of the string to the violin.

April 6, 2019 at 09:26 PM · It might be training, it might be the instrument(s) but I find mine easy to tune. Except for those occasional times when somehow a string just won't cooperate and it's sharp, then flat, then sharp etc.

April 6, 2019 at 10:00 PM · Very easy to tune. My 1883 fiddle, which I got in 2005, needed its peg box re-bushed, but I still did surprisingly well with it even before the luthier did the needed work. After re-bushing, no more slippage. The two other fiddles have never had this problem.

I use steel E on all three instruments -- with composite-core A-D-G on two of them and wound-gut A-D-G on the 1883 fiddle. I tune and play on all three each day. With careful, consistent tuning to A-440, I find that even the wound gut hold their pitch well -- once they're broken in. A compact floor fan on low speed, about 10 feet away, prevents moisture buildup on hands during summer heat. This helps pitch stability, too.

EDIT: Fine tuners on E strings only.

April 6, 2019 at 10:58 PM · With the onset of arthritis i got a tailpiece with built in fine tuners. It’s been a life saver and will help keep me playing for many more years.

Mendy

April 7, 2019 at 01:01 AM · I'd say it depends if I use a tuner or not. Why might you ask? My ears cannot detect a +- 1 cent off the A 440, but the tuner does. For whatever reason, whatever the selected A pitch, it seems that I always end up 1cent above or below the pitch, but hardly ever bang on the pitch, go figure!

April 7, 2019 at 02:36 AM · "Chances are, when you take your violin, viola or cello out of its case, the instrument will be out of tune."

Perhaps slightly, but my instruments are all very stable because I have gear pegs. They work wonderfully.

@Cotton, the "latency" you are experiencing is probably the binding of the string at the nut -- just static friction. I don't think the latency is inside the peg mechanism. This is actually a sign that your pegs are working as advertised because tightening the string inside the pegbox without movement across the nut would require very smooth and extremely gradual tightening. What I do on all my instruments with gear pegs (my violin, my daughter's violin, and my viola) is tune down slightly to release the string from the nut (once in a while you can hear the static friction "give") and then tune back up to the desired pitch.

April 7, 2019 at 02:40 AM · I voted for moderately difficult as although my violin holds its tune very well, and hardly needs adjusting, when it does , I find it almost impossible to make fine adjustments. My teacher has put fine tuners on all strings which is a godsend , and as a relative beginner, I can’t hear any difference in sound quality. If I was given permission to feel less of a failure for needing fine tuners that would be great. ( and why do they put them just on the e-string?)

April 7, 2019 at 07:21 AM · I voted for moderately difficult as the pegs in my violin right now doesn't work that smoothly and constantly slips if I don't apply chalk. however if I put the right amount of chalk and a little pencil graphite the pegs work as they should be.

April 7, 2019 at 07:43 AM · Easy to tune.

I took the fine tuner off the e string and, as I don’t use a SR the violin is very light.

A mixture of luck and personal preference there.

Only one problem remains: the quality of the performer!

Terry

April 7, 2019 at 08:02 AM · A light-weight integrated fine-tuning tailpiece does not inhibit the vibration or resonance of the strings, or degrade the violin's sound, at all. Big metal fine tuners, screwed onto the tailpiece, add measurable mass, and do indeed damp vibration and resonance. The absurd notion that the laborious grinding of ill-fitting pegs is a superior tuning technique has caused generations of students to suffer needlessly, and constantly, for no good reason whatever. It is high time to put this idiotic idea to rest. The removal of the fine tuners is considered a 'coming-of-age' ritual, akin to removing the training wheels from a bicycle. It is really more like removing the bicycle's gear-shifting mechanism. Even 'planetary' pegs have measurable latency. They are only used to create the appearance of 'no fine tuners' when they are, indeed, fine tuners, but inferior, mechanically, to the visible ones! If each and every student had access to the services of a truly expert luthier, the problem would be less, but this is not the case. And a simple, effective solution is ruled out, due to nothing more than an aesthetic conceit. Please, fellow violin teachers, apply Occam's razor to this constant, needless problem, and save your students, and yourselves, a lot of grief!

April 7, 2019 at 01:46 PM · Jim, generally I agree with you about the "coming of age" ritual and the needless suffering that students everywhere experience. But as a longtime user of gear pegs on three instruments (one set of each of the major brands), I disagree with you that they are inferior to tail-piece fine tuners. Tail-piece fine tuners do have the advantage that there is no "learning curve" -- they work exactly the way you think they do, whereas it takes a maybe 5-6 uses to acclimate to how gear pegs function -- mostly because one is used to pegs operating like nasty student-instrument friction pegs.

In case anyone is wondering, among the three majors brands, in my opinion Wittner Finetune pegs have the smoothest and most intuitive mechanism.

April 7, 2019 at 02:20 PM · "The absurd notion that the laborious grinding of ill-fitting pegs is a superior tuning technique has caused generations of students to suffer needlessly, and constantly, for no good reason whatever."

And concert-goers. Re-tuning is needed for temperature and humidity changes in any case, but is also needed more for traditional pegs which need to be kept loose so that they can be moved.

April 7, 2019 at 03:52 PM · Other problems with adding big metal fine tuners to the tailpiece, besides added mass in a bad place, are shortening of string length behind the bridge, and imbalance of tension when one or two strings have fine tuners and the rest do not. An integrated tailpiece solves these problems.

I like the Otto Infeld and Wittner integrated tailpieces, but the fancy wood tailpieces with dainty little mechanisms are minimally functional. Please don't let these be your metric in comparison.

Strings naturally go flat over time, and you will eventually run out of thread distance on the tuning screws. Every once in a while, hopefully not on the concert stage, it is good to back off all the fine tuning screws, tune up with the pegs, and begin again with the full range of thread distance.

I admit I have not tried the latest planetary tuners, but don't these have to be glued in?

April 7, 2019 at 05:07 PM · Fine tuners on the E & A only. In my genre, I notice that the longer a band takes to tune, the less likely it is to play in tune. At my best quality pro. ensemble we did Not have a formal tuning session. Everyone just knew how to play in tune. Possibly one of those apocryphal stories: I heard that at the Paris Conservatory one of the graduation "tests" for a violinist was that that judge would miss-tune the violin a little, then ask the student to play the next piece in tune.

April 7, 2019 at 07:22 PM · Got new instrument recently; a couple of the pegs still slip a bit, but nothing that's either a serious problem or something than can't be fixed at home with a bit o' rosin or chalk.

Instrument's fairly stable as to pitch and the pegs don't really cause instability in that way.

April 7, 2019 at 08:46 PM · I used to think peg tuning was laborious, but after acquiring my current viola, which has (mostly) well-fitted friction pegs, I'm of the opinion that they're the fastest tuning device in existence. I mostly use the fine tuners on my violin because the pegs tend to slip; I find it much more laborious than tuning my viola with the pegs.

April 8, 2019 at 12:29 AM · My violin keeps in tune pretty consistently and rarely needs tuning. It has 4 fine tuners and my arthritic fingers prefer them. It stays in tune more consistently than the one learning to play it!

April 8, 2019 at 01:50 AM · My violin and viola are both very easy to tune, but I use fine tuners most of the time because I like the convenience.

April 8, 2019 at 12:06 PM · My violin is lovely and easy to tune with just a fine tuner on the E.

However, my viola is another matter entirely, and is the reason I voted moderately difficult. I have fine tuners on the A and D, and have to battle with the C and G to get something close to in tune. When I get some $$$ again then I'll be looking at getting the instrument some professional TLC, including switching to either a tailpiece with 4 integrated fine tuners (e.g. Wittner) or to planetary pegs, probably the latter.

Neil

April 8, 2019 at 03:32 PM · I am a retired violist from the Radio Filharmonisch Orkest, Holland. I have no tuning issues with my pegs, but this is weird: In the orchestra we tuned, naturally? to the oboe (about 442). After retirement, I find, when I tune to another stringed instrument, usually a violin, it is hard to find the right pitch!!! I PLAY in tune (which also has to do with how notes resonate within a chord). But the sole A has me insecure!!!

April 8, 2019 at 07:38 PM · My violin tuning is quite easy. It was not always easy, however. The synthetic core strings are quite different than gut strings. Traditional pegs worked great on gut strings because there was a continual stretching that occurred with these strings. Once I started using synthetic core strings, however, the pegs on A,D, and G were not as easy to use. These strings once stabilized, which occurs within days of installation of new strings, respond significantly in pitch change to small minute changes in peg rotation. Although the A,D, and G strings could be tuned accurately with the pegs, it required some pretty delicate turning.

I decided to look into alternative approaches. At the time planetary pegs were just in the early introduction stage. My concern regarding the planetary pegs was the ability for them to hold their position throughout a playing session. The second concern was the requirement to ream the peg holes sufficiently in order to accommodate these new larger diameter pegs. This made the process kind of irreversible. Once installed I could not easily go back to my original pegs.

What I discovered in this process was the Wittner tail piece. The nice thing about this tailpiece is that it contained a fully integrated set of fine tuners for all strings. Unlike traditional fine tuners, this tail piece allowed all strings to be located the correct “55mm” from the bridge. For those who have experimented with the location of the tail piece from the bridge, you know this does make a difference in sound. To determine this optimum position, which lies pretty close to 55 mm from the bridge, you pluck the strings on the tail piece side of the bridge. The frequency should be 2 octaves and a fifth above the string being plucked. In simpler terms it means that plucking the G string on the tail piece side of the bridge should result in a sound which is a D 2 octaves above the D string. Plucking the D on the tail piece side of the bridge would result in the the sound of an A 2 octaves above the A string, plucking the A string would result in an E 2 octaves above the E string, and plucking the E string would result in a very high pitched B.

There is much more to the story but in the end, I purchased the Wittner tail piece. I installed it appropriately. It works great. My violin is easy to tune. I highly recommend those using synthetic core strings to seriously consider this option.

April 8, 2019 at 08:25 PM · I voted moderately difficult, but I always found the violin moderately difficult to tune - so I have had wittner fine tuners tailpieces on both.

I plan to upgrade to one of the fancy ones mentioned elsewhere on v.com eventually, although my second/current violin hardly warrants such extravagance. I really like the fine-tuner tailpiece. Makes my life so much easier.

April 9, 2019 at 03:04 AM · I finally decided to release myself from the bondage of crappy pegs on an old violin. I got mechanical pegs, you can't tell the difference, and my life is WAY easier. Tina Guo was spot on when she put mechanical pegs on her cello brand. I wish I could have done it in high school.

April 9, 2019 at 03:49 AM · I use a peg compound on the pegs, and run a pencil on the grooves of both fingerboard and the bridge every time I change my strings. Never have difficulty with tuning. This is a trick I learned from a violin shop several years ago.

April 9, 2019 at 03:50 AM · No problems here. I have been using an ebony Bois d'Harmonie tailpiece with integrated fine tuners (with synthetic strings) for a couple years. This good benchmade Strad copy previously had a composite Wittner tailpiece with integrated fine tuners and although it had a nice tone it always felt a bit unresponsive. When I switched to the new tailpiece with a Bd'H kevlar tailgut it brightened up somewhat and is much more responsive. YMMV; I think results are probably very dependent on the instrument.

April 9, 2019 at 08:32 PM · Dominat strings, planetary pegs and a great chromatic tuner - easy!

April 10, 2019 at 10:17 PM · As someone wrote above, If your pegs fit properly, and you use W.E. Hill & Sons peg compound with pencil graphite in the grooves of the nut and bridge, tuning should be easy.

April 13, 2019 at 02:12 PM · my violin is, tune one string and the pegs for the other 3 pop out, in the end I gave up and put on fine adjusters which I think look naff.

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