Does Cross Tuning (specifically AEAE) damage my instrument?

May 11, 2020, 10:06 AM · I am working on fiddle tunes, and a number of them benefit from cross tuning the instrument, yielding better resonance and/or the ability to play more drones. Specifically, cross tuning to AEAE is popular for fiddle tunes in the key of A. I am surprised at the amount of additional tension that I need to add to the G and D strings to bring them up a full tone. Therefore, I won’t crosstune my primary (wood) instrument. Instead, I use my Glasser carbon fiber violin for this purpose. Of course, the Glasser doesn’t have the tone of my primary instrument. Am I being overly cautious here?

A related issue - I am using EP greens on the Glasser, which by the way, really adds some life to the carbon fiber. The EPs are already high tension. I am wondering if I am shortening the life of the EP greens by leaving the instrument tuned to AEAE for an extended period of time. Thoughts?

Replies (11)

May 11, 2020, 10:18 AM · I guess you could switch to lower-tension or weich strings for the two up-tuned strings if you were concerned. I don't know how much a whole step increases downward pressure on your bridge but it might be significant.

I remember once I was in Denver and there was a busker playing, and I watched him and gave a tip and I told him that I play the violin too. So he offered to let me try his. It was tuned AEAE. I was totally screwed.

May 11, 2020, 11:01 AM · The instrument will be fine. The strings should be too, but given my experience with EP greens a couple years back, just breathing on them wrong can cause the windings to fail.
Edited: May 11, 2020, 2:02 PM · I occasionally play Cape Breton fiddle tunes with that tuning. I use a less valuable instrument for the purpose, an old German factory violin from about 1900 (which incidentally has no corner blocks) and some strings that are well used and past their prime for the up-tuned bass notes. Any decent synthetic strings will do -- at present I've got it set up with some old Tonicas, but I've also used Dominants. The violin does not seem to have suffered at all, and it's amazing how resonant and powerful it sounds for the purpose. You can find some excellent Baroque music in Scordatura tunings, BTW, the Biber Rosary Sonatas for e.g., and the violin sounds good for that too. Old time fiddlers often kept a separate fiddle set up for this purpose, since tuning up a full step on the G & D is rather destabilizing for the strings, and it takes a while to re-tune back to normal. Something you don't want to try at a performance.
Edited: May 11, 2020, 3:12 PM · A final thought -- I tune it down to normal between sessions, just to ease the tension on the violin. But tuning it up a full step and down again will certainly shorten the life expectancy of the strings. Which is why I use an old pair that are past their prime anyway, for the bass strings in AEAE tuning.
Edited: May 11, 2020, 7:32 PM · Cross-tuning to AEAE shouldn’t harm the instrument, provided it’s in good shape. If you’re retuning frequently, the strings may wear out faster. I would advise against Evahs for this purpose, though.

Many players keep a second instrument always tuned to AEAE in their cases.

One other thought: keep a close eye on the bridge in case it starts to warp. Higher string tension can cause deformation.

Edited: May 12, 2020, 7:50 AM · To add to what Parker says, Dominants are quite low tension, aren't they, so tuning a G up to A and a D up to E mightn't be bad. I have a spreadsheet with which I can calculate the actual increase in tension, but I haven't used it for a long time, so I don't know how long it would take me to get used to using it again. Paganini's tuning his whole violin up a semitone may have resulted in greater tension increase, but since he was using gut, that may be academic. AEAE may perhaps initially twist the bridge unless you realign it if necessary. And I'm not sure about the bass strings being the opposite side from the soundpost.
Edited: May 12, 2020, 10:30 AM · Some years ago we were performing a Mahler symphony, I forget which one - it was a long time ago - but in one of the movements it requires the CM to play a solo on a violin tuned up a half-tone (or full tone?), the purpose apparently being to imitate the screechings of a folk fiddle. There was no way our CM was going to subject his pre-1700 violin to that treatment, or to borrow a violin from someone else for that matter. So his wife, a school music teacher, acquired a wire-strung VSO from the school's music department. Strung up to the required pitch the VSO did a convincing imitation of a rustic fiddle, and didn't actually collapse doing it, but the CM said afterwards it was a near thing!

Moral: Never tune up a violin, or any other stringed instrument, in its entirety up a half-tone or more, the top two strings in particular, unless you've got an expert opinion that damage isn't likely.

It isn't just the strings that could snap, or the bridge that could bend or break; the top and bottom plates could be at risk, also the structural integrity of the neck. And don't forget the tailpiece attachment; if that goes south without warning that is invariably a show-stopper; I've seen it happen in a rehearsal, and there is an old Y-Tube video of it happening to a solo violist during a concert.

May 12, 2020, 10:48 AM · The violin isn't a ticking time bomb, you know. You could go a lot higher than a semitone without needing to worry about the top or neck or tailgut. Any plain steel string would probably break fairly quickly, though.
Edited: May 12, 2020, 12:02 PM · "Screechings of a folk fiddle"?? Hmm.
May 12, 2020, 2:27 PM · Coincidentally I've just read about Carnatic music in the Cambridge Companion to the Violin, and it is common to tune violas to DADA. However, the pitch is not absolute, and CGCG is also possible (to paraphrase), so, unless you have to tune your violin to AEAE, you could go for safety and tune it GDGD.
May 12, 2020, 8:58 PM · Thanks for all of the input. I will leave the Glasser carbon fiber violin tuned up to AEAE with the EP greens. When they go flat, I will switch to lower tension strings. I have no worries about the Glasser, as it it built like a tank. I do like having an instrument at the ready in AEAE as it works very well with fiddle tunes in the key of A. Many of these have most of the melody on the A and E strings anyway. This permits the use of a drone on the string above or below the string playing the melody. Also, you can often drop down a complete octave for variation. And the resonance within the instrument is a bonus. Now I need to find a double violin case to carry both the Glasser and my primary instrument!

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