Do you find tuning without fine tuners to be a chore?

Edited: August 26, 2020, 8:45 AM · Seems like tuning without fine tuners is a royal pita. Ye olden instruments didn't have them, I gather that better modern instruments only have one or two.

I've done it without using the fine tuners just to try it - mine has them on all four strings - but find it to be really tedious. I have the most success by de-tuning flat and bringing it up to pitch from below. I have extremely strong hands and digital strength and have peg compound on them but still find it to be a chore. Can't imagine what someone with much weaker hands must go through. Of course I'm doing it on a sub-$500 instrument, I've never even held a pro-grade instrument. Maybe it's less of a labor on better instruments?

Replies (37)

August 25, 2020, 11:06 PM · It's a breeze. But I have a decent instrument and gear pegs. On a cheap instrument I think I would at least have one of those tailpieces that has fine-tuners built-in for all four strings.

You say you have strong hands, maybe you are setting your pegs into the pegbox too tightly. You can actually damage them.

Edited: August 26, 2020, 8:11 AM · Scott, It's not you nor your instrument. It's the fit of your pegs. There is peg dope to make them turn more easily, but there is also a good change that the pegs are not perfectly round. Some climates are not conducive to consistent peg turning - especially with strong temperature and humidity changes.

I have seen professionals with their professional instruments have to struggle. And changes in temperature and especially humidity change the way your pegs fit and turn. The larger the peg shaft diameter, the harder they are to turn.

Like Paul, I have internally "geared" pegs on all my instruments - its almost as good as a complete cure for arthritis!

However, for 70 years, from age 4 to 74 I struggled with wooden pegs on my violin(s) and cellos and no fine tuners (except for the E-tuner on the violins. On the cellos, I started to use TP fine tuners after I had switched from gut strings to synthetic and finally to steel and realized that the pros were using TP tuners as well.

August 26, 2020, 12:51 AM · If you have well-fitted pegs, it's fast. Many cheap student instruments do not have well-fitted pegs.

I have difficulty tuning with the pegs on my violin, an German workshop instrument (probably worth $1000-1500 today) that probably needs a luthier's attention. At that level of instrument I think you should be able to expect well-fitted pegs, but the pegs do deform over time. My violin hasn't gone to a shop in 15 years because I play it so rarely, and the pegs probably haven't had any work done on them since my great-uncle bought it brand-new in the 1950s.

But on my viola, which is in the professional range and gets regular checkups, I only have a fine tuner on the A string, and tuning requires minimal effort. Only the D peg sticks slightly but I still wouldn't say I have to wrestle with it.

Edited: August 26, 2020, 12:05 PM · It's fine, I actually prefer pegs for D and G, A is ok. You only need a fine tuner for the E string. Buy a gold loop one, it's cheap and will give you the best sound from your violin.
When the pegs start to get slightly stuck, apply compound.
August 26, 2020, 11:56 PM · On low level student instruments, the tuning is really terrible. I'd start shopping craigslist and facebook marketplace. There's a big difference between a $200 violin and a nice Chinese violin someone bought for $!500 and is selling for $500. If the strings are good and you stick to fine tuners your current violin can probably take you another year or two. What is it you're playing on now?
August 27, 2020, 7:57 AM · I "hear" all this, but I recall 70 years ago when my father had as much trouble tuning the pegs on his S. Scarampella as I was having on my instruments in the damp summers of central Maryland.
Edited: August 27, 2020, 6:25 PM · I will say that the pegs on my "new" 1870'sh violin are far better than on my prior 2014 student workshop instrument- of course. I still have my original fine tuner tailpiece dur to my arthritis. The difference is significant and much appreciated. I will likely replace my tailpiece with a better one in the future that might be better suited to my violin but it works.
Edited: August 27, 2020, 9:44 AM · In 70 years of playing, never could endure fine tuners. Pegs are faster. I apply compound or soap when they get sticky. E-sring of course, always a fine tuner.
Edited: August 27, 2020, 9:48 AM · I just noticed from a picture taken when I was 9 that I had a tailpiece with fine tuners on all strings. Must have been using all steel strings back then.
August 27, 2020, 11:59 AM · Yeah, if you have steel-core strings (more common on student instruments) then tuning with wooden pegs is super-painful. Stretchy composite core or gut gives you a lot more travel per pitch change.
Edited: August 27, 2020, 4:49 PM · A possible cause for a "sticking" peg is that the string is not square in the notch at the end of the fingerboard, therefore causing friction between the two and mimicking a sticking peg. This could be because the course of the string through the pegbox from peg to notch is not in exact alignment with the course of the string from the notch to the bridge, so this needs to be checked out.

Going back along the "cause and effect" trail, if a peg is old and worn to the extent that its small end projects outside the pegbox then the position of the string hole in the peg is now likely to be in the wrong place and the pegbox section of the string will no longer be in correct alignment as it passes through the notch. Therefore unwanted friction between string and notch. Furthermore, if all the pegs are worn to the extent I have mentioned then one or more strings may well be found to be in contact with the windings on other pegs. Not a good thing. I had this problem with my violin (late 18th century, original ebony pegging), so I took it to my luthier. The repair was straightforward and inexpensive. The projecting end of each peg was sawn off and chamfered so that the peg was then flush with the outside of the pegbox. New string holes in the pegs were drilled in the correct places and the strings reinstalled. All was then well.

Another problem to be aware of when winding a string onto a peg is to avoid string contact with the inside of the pegbox - another source of friction and possible damage to the string. If the string holes are located in their correct positions and the number of string windings between the hole and where the string leaves the peg is no more than 3 or 4 then you should not have this problem. However, the G string is sometimes a special case, due to the way some pegboxes are designed, and no matter how you try, the G string windings rub against the inside face of the pegbox, making it just that more difficult to turn the peg accurately. My solution is to rub soft pencil lead (3B or softer is fine) over that area of the pegbox where the G string rubs.

Finally, when installing a string, lubricate the fingerboard and bridge notches with your old friend soft pencil lead. This will help reduce friction to a minimum.

August 27, 2020, 3:44 PM · Not at all. If you have well fitted pegs and maintain them with Hill peg compound regularly (especially in the summer months) they should work just fine.
August 27, 2020, 6:46 PM · Don and Parker make a good point. Sub-$500 instruments are almost always sold with steel strings, which don't stretch like synthetic or gut strings. With strel strings, fine tuners are a practical requirement.
August 28, 2020, 12:44 AM · Per J. Seitz:

What is it you're playing on now?

An inexpensive Cecilio - one of these.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pCso80lxErc

Edited: August 28, 2020, 8:40 AM · How about this one, emailed to me a few days ago?
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7sfBcWvVUbs.

Perhaps a little out of the ordinary but it is a bowed (with a baroque bow!) stringed instrument so presumably comes within the scope of this discussion. It has the advantage of being remarkably easy to play in tune, according to my email source.

Back-story: my source, the conductor of one my orchestras, evidently having too much time on his hands due to Covid, emailed the string sections with the link a few days ago. I'm not quite sure what he had in mind ;)

August 28, 2020, 8:50 PM · Trevor - thanks for the link. I'm fascinated by the Nyckelharpa and hadn't seen that particular video before. I wouldn't mind checking one out in person just to see what they are like/feel like but that's easier said than done in the US. Probably a good thing because then I would probably want one...and my violin takes enough time as it is!
August 28, 2020, 9:20 PM · I've heard from several people that Cecilio has a reputation for bad pegs, even compared to other student violins in the same price range.
August 29, 2020, 10:15 AM · Fine tuners on all 4 is a bad idea on a good instrument as it affects sound; probably not so much on a cheaper one. I have a good instrument with well fitted pegs, and even then, the right tuning always seems to be a very slight notch above or below, it's an acquired skill that's for sure.
August 31, 2020, 6:54 PM · Peg fit makes a big difference, and humidity and time of year has a big effect. So does the way you wind the string on the peg.

I constantly find tuning with the pegs to be frustrating. But that's because my arms are too short to grasp the peg the proper way, cupping the scroll to maintain some degree of pushing in the peg as it's turned. I can barely reach the pegs, making getting any leverage on them quite difficult. If this weren't a delicately-balanced antique, I'd have gone for geared pegs.

August 31, 2020, 8:35 PM · I find in a gigging situation, where the guitarist's nylon strings have suddenly changed tuning due to temperature and you have to tune on the fly, that fine tuners are faster to make small adjustments. The fine tuners built into tailpieces don't inhibit the tone so much. Also, having fine tuners does not make you less of an artist!
September 1, 2020, 12:15 AM · Scott, I had that same violin. It was a 1/4 a number of years back that I got off of Amazon warehouse for $50. It had decent strings and could sound okay but the pegs are just really hard to do. I don't think there's an easy way to improve them. It may also be worth shaving the bridge down some if the strings are too high.

To tune it, you want to wrestle the pegs into approximate position and then tune using the fine tuners. If it's brand new, I'd probably return it.

As a parent of kids doing violin on a budget my approach is to look for something that sells in the $500-1500 range and try to buy used for 1/3-1/2 price. I've done Knilling, Yamaha, Sheng Liu, and Samuel Shen and tuning was fine on all of them. When I'm done with them I sell them or donate them on. It's too bad fiddlerman makes those Cecilios look so good :)

Edited: September 1, 2020, 11:33 AM · Speaking of tuners, does anybody have a satisfactory method to lubricate Hill style fine tuners on violin E-strings? I've tried graphite from a soft pencil, I've tried lithium grease, a tiny drop of machine oil, and I've even experimented with candle wax. Eventually, they just seem to jam up and become very hard to turn. Graphite and wax seem to worsen the situation. I clean the screws with alcohol between different lubricants so there isn't a compound problem. The brass plated tuners seem less prone to jamming than the black coated ones.
September 1, 2020, 11:41 AM · Parker, I was about to ask the same thing. My e string tuner has been testing the limits of my grip strength for months now.
Edited: September 1, 2020, 9:22 PM · I go over every Hill tuner with a file to keep the hook smooth and to take the sharp corners off the bottom. I have a machinist’s wax lubricant for the screw. I haven’t had any issues with fine tuners seizing after this. I have found that the end of the screw can be a problem in some cheap tuners. Reshaping the point can help.
Edited: September 1, 2020, 2:56 PM · I have tailpieces with fine tuners built in on all my fiddles and *much* prefer them to pegs. I have decent fiddles worked on by good luthiers and still don't find pegs as accurate or as easy, even when working as intended.

I don't understand the prejudice against fine tuners by a lot of players. You will get the best tone from your instrument if it is tuned as accurately as possible.

To help with further with tuning, I always run a soft pencil in the grooves of the nut and the bridge notches whenever I change strings to keep the string from binding in either of those places.

Edited: September 2, 2020, 11:13 AM · Paul Carlson's suggestion to use soft (3B or softer) pencil on the grooves through which the strings run is an important one; you may sometimes discover that the peg itself is not at fault.

A string may be more likely to bind in a notch if the line of the string from the peg to the nut notch is not exactly in alignment with the line of the string from the nut notch to the bridge. This means you have to take care how the string is wound on the peg; aim for 3 windings between the string hole in the peg and where the string leaves the peg. With a badly worn peg that has the small end projecting significantly beyond the peg box the string hole will be in the wrong place and will make organizing the string windings difficult. If you have this problem then take the violin to a luthier who will cut off the projecting end of the peg and drill a new hole in the peg for the string in the correct position. That is an inexpensive solution that works, as I found out with my old violin a few weeks ago.

Edited: September 2, 2020, 9:26 AM · Lydia you might want to get the opinions of some luthiers who have fitted gear pegs in expensive antiques. David Kim has them in his violin, and there are a few Strads with gear pegs (Nathan Cole's "ex Jack Benny" and Elizabeth Pitcairn's "Red Mendelssohn", for example). If you go through the process of "delicately RE-balancing" your violin with gear pegs, its next owner will likely be very grateful. I know I would. I can also appreciate that this is not something one jumps into with an antique.

I find that the trick to penciling the nut grooves is to make sure your pencil is really sharp to get in there. I sharpen my pencil first to a fine point with an emery board. Mechanical pencils are crap for this task.

September 2, 2020, 9:36 AM · Anyone fitting geared pegs on a Stradivari is a criminal vandal, they should be locked up, seriously.
September 2, 2020, 9:54 AM · Putting anachronistic plastic geared pegs on a priceless antique instrument should not, in my opinion, be done. Properly fitted, well made and maintained pegs are a breeze to use. I never even considered putting plastic pegs on my Amati when the pegs needed changing,
However geared pegs do have a place for those with arthritis or other hand weaknesses who cannot manage traditional pegs.

Cheers Carlo

September 2, 2020, 10:59 AM · My 1877 cello fell victim to pegbox rebushing about 20 years ago when the original pegs were finally up to their "ears" at the pegbox surface and could no longer provide the friction necessary to maintain string tension. Ten years later I installed Pegheds (if I'd only known about them earlier!)

If one is concerned about installing (say) Pegheds with wooden heads (even the original heads) compared to the abominable scaring of rebushing I, (well, I guess) I just have to laugh at the reason. How, in principle, is installing geared pegs any different than forsaking gut strings, or short necks and fingerboards, or adding chinrests and (heaven forbid) shoulder rests?

Carlo, I'm glad to see you concede a place for those with arthritis (like me) and I hope you recognize how many of the modern changes (dare I say "improvements"?) have made violins and violas more accessible to millions more actual and potential chin-instrument players.

Edited: September 2, 2020, 5:50 PM · It is my experience that if you can tune a gut A easily from the peg then you should be able to tune a light gauge steel E equally easily from its peg, which is what I do. I have a low tension plain steel Goldbrokat E. The other strings are Chorda plain gut. The low tension E is a better match tone-wise with the gut strings imo than the medium and high tension Es (which admittedly may need a fine tuner).

Why do I use a steel E and not gut? For the pragmatic reason that all my playing nowadays is orchestral, and a gut E, for all its manifest virtues, is not my best overall choice for that environment.

September 2, 2020, 9:17 PM · There is a practical advantage of gear pegs for the antique violin -- they put less daily stress on the peg box. In terms of aesthetics, I have to agree that Wittner Finetune pegs are easy to spot from, say, 10 feet away, by their characteristically chubby heads. Pegheds are the most attractive -- especially since you can get any wooden heads you want. A mortise is cut into them to accept the rectangular steel shaft. If you want that service then you should get your violin to Columbia SC so that Chuck Herin's crew can do it for you because they already have the correct mortising jigs. But I believe the Wittner Finetune pegs are the most mechanically sound and the easiest to use, which is why you see those chosen for the high-end antiques.
September 3, 2020, 10:15 AM · "I don't understand the prejudice against fine tuners by a lot of players."

Simple, weight. I have a single fine tuner on the E string, and moving to a titanium one made a noticable difference in the sound.

September 3, 2020, 11:46 AM · Hi,regarding Hill-style,E-string fine tuners,I have found that
they tend to get hard to turn after a certain amount of tightening.
I just assumed it was because of the size (smaller length) of the
adjuster,there is not as much leverage as on a 'normal'
fine tuner.

Cheers :-)

September 3, 2020, 6:32 PM · Malcolm, if the Hill-style fine tuner you mentioned is the one illustrated here,
https://www.thestringzone.co.uk/wittner-hill-style-adjuster-for-ball-end-e-strings
then there seems to be a hidden little problem. I discovered when I was using it that got loose very quickly, and I had to re-tightening every week or so. The reason I believe lies in the design.

The main pillar is threaded on the inside for the tuning screw, and on the outside to accommodate a threaded securing collar. The system works because there are two opposed axial splits in the pillar running along its length. A tuning lever connected to the string holder (see the bottom left of the picture) passes through one of the splits in the pillar and is actuated by the tuning screw. Screwing the tuning screw down moves the tuning lever downwards thereby causing the string holder to move towards the pillar and increases the tension in the attached string. The more the tuning screw is screwed downwards it comes into the region defined by the securing collar and gets harder to turn.

Unfortunately, the action of tuning tends with time to cause movement in the two halves of the pillar defined by the opposed splits and loosens the securing collar. This defect of course is not a reason to stop using the tuner, a neat piece of engineering, provided you are prepared to check it regularly, just as you would the alignment of the bridge.

September 14, 2020, 5:02 AM · I had a Hill E string fine-tuner on my tailpiece for years. I switched it for a titanium one and noticed an improvement in tone. I then removed that, and again noticed a further improvement. Now I tune the E string with just the peg. Tricky? No, but I have a new set of rosewood Hansell pegs, with a narrow diameter, set into the bushed holes in the scroll. I tune flat and bring the E up to pitch, taking care not to go sharp, so as not to break the steel string. This is at least as quick as using the fine-tuners. As the Amati is smaller than a “normal” full-size instrument it has a 1/2 size tailpiece!

Cheers Carlo

Edited: September 16, 2020, 3:53 PM · I personally think that the only reason Stradivari didn’t use geared pegs was because he didn’t have them. They are a great innovation, and Stradivari was an innovator, I would love to have them on my violin but can’t afford them, I do find tuning a pain, slightest pressure one way equals sharp, slightest pressure other way equals flat, I worry I may snap the pegs, just the tiniest of touches. It may well be because of my inexperience and maybe I will get better with the pegs I dont know. I have thought perhaps I put too much pressure on them but who knows? My violin was 1250 quid, for me at that price it was a major investment, though to others it may seem cheap, it only has one fine tuner by the way, but turning the pegs is like trying to turn a paint covered screw in a door hinge.

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