Tips, Tricks, & Troubleshooting for String Instruments
With every instrument it is common for players to encounter problems and have questions. This section is designed to provide you with solutions.
- What to do about sticking or slipping pegs
- How do I know if the bridge is on straight?
- Is my bridge in the right place?
- How do I properly straighten my bridge?
- When should I change my strings?
- How do I change the strings on my instrument?
- Do I need to use string adjusters?
- What should I do if my string adjusters are stuck?
- When should I replace my fingerboard?
- Why is my instrument buzzing?
- What is a wolf tone?
- My instrument has a bad wolf tone. What should I do?
- Will using harmonics help tune my instrument?
- When should I re-hair my bow?
What to do about sticking or slipping pegs
It is normal for the peg and peg hole to wear with consistent usage. This can cause the pegs to begin slipping or sticking, which in turn can make tuning difficult. One short term solution to this problem is to apply chalk to the areas of contact between the peg and peg box. This can provide more grip. Similarly, pegs that stick may be more maneuverable after applying peg dope or lead from a soft graphite pencil to the contact areas. Over time, pegs may wear to the extent that they will need to be replaced. When you reach that point, consult a repair person.
How do I know if the bridge is on straight?
The fit of the bridge is of the utmost importance. The feet of the bridge serve as conduits for transmitting vibrations throughout the instrument. A properly cut bridge should have feet that follow the contour of the top without any gaps. If the feet of the bridge no longer appear to be flush with the top, it is what is referred to as “tipped.”
Make sure that the bridge is positioned so the back side is perpendicular to the top of the instrument. The beveled contour on the side of the bridge can give the illusion of it being tipped slightly backwards, however, the bridge has to be perfectly straight.
Is my bridge in the right place?
You can make sure your bridge is in the right place by aligning the feet between the inner notches of the f-holes. If the bridge on your instrument has been knocked off, check to make sure there is no damage and that the soundpost has not fallen before replacing it. If you are not sure if there is damage, it is always best to take it to a qualified repair person for a check-up.
How do I properly straighten my bridge?
If you are looking for a relatively safe way to straighten a bridge, take your thumb and forefinger and carefully pinch the string that is next to the bridge. Next, squeeze the fingers together and roll them against the bridge. This will cause lateral pressure to be applied against the top face of the bridge, which in turn will push it slightly (either backwards or forwards, depending on which side needs the pressure applied). Repeat this process with each string until the bridge is perpendicular. If there is significant warping on the bridge, have the instrument serviced immediately.
A great way to avoid significant warping is to check that the bridge is perpendicular after each tuning. It is much easier, as well as less stressful on the instrument, to correct a slight bridge lean, than it is to address a more severe tilt.
When should I change my strings?
Replace your strings at regular intervals. The exact amount of time between changing strings depends on use. Some players should change strings every few months, others every few years. As a general rule, you should probably change strings every six months.
How do I change the strings on my instrument?
To prevent the soundpost from falling, you have to replace your strings one at a time. Do not remove them all at once. Strings should rest roughly a third of the way into the grooves around the nut and bridge area of your instrument. If you discover that the strings are being pinched, or have cut deeply into the grooves, theinstrument should be taken to a qualified repair person immediately.
After the old string has been removed, you should inspect the grooves in the nut and bridge. If you encounter wear or sharp edges, a bit of soft pencil lead applied in the grooves can reduce any friction and help you slide the string into place smoothly.
If you are not using string adjusters, pass the replacement strings underneath the tailpiece holes and through the tailpiece. Then ensure that the string is extended straight from the tailpiece hole, over the saddle and to the bridge. It is important that you don’t thread the string back through the ball or loop at the end of the string. Make sure the string passes over the peg and not under it when you’re winding it, as well, keep an eye out so that the string doesn’t overlap or cross over itself or make contact with the wall of the peg box.
Gradually bring the string up to pitch, regardless of material, and avoid over-tuning. Finally, check to ensure that the top of the bridge isn’t being pulled forward as new strings are brought up to pitch.
Do I need to use string adjusters?
You only need string adjusters if you’re using strings with a steel core, though, for ease of tuning, some educators ask that fine tuners are used regardless.
What should I do if my string adjusters are stuck?
If a string adjuster screw is no longer turning, it may be because the arm of the adjuster is extended fully. In this situation you must take care to ensure that the arm of the adjuster below the tailpiece is not applying pressure to the top of your instrument. The solution to this problem is to turn the adjustment screw counter-clockwise, and then, with the peg,raise the string back to pitch. Protective sleeves on string adjusters will help prevent damage.
You should also check to see if the string adjuster needs to be lubricated. Additionally,the screw threads could be cross-threaded, or the screw shaft couldhave a bend in it. If this is the case, then the string adjuster should be replaced.
When should I replace my fingerboard?
Fingerboards can be replaned, scraped or replaced if they wear out. Keep an eye out for signs of wear such as pits from fingers, longitudinal grooves from string wear, or overall warpage. When these signs become apparent, take your instrument to a professional who can service it.
Why is my instrument buzzing?
Chances are that the buzzing is being caused by something being loose, be it sliding (Si-Hon-style), string adjusters, string winding, purfling or decorative fittings. Another problem may be a worn fingerboard or open seams/cracks.
If you suspect the culprit is an open seam, hold the instrument by the neck and gently rap the top and back. Often times this will reveal the open seam by emitting a slight rattle.
If you are playing a cello, too much of the endpin being retracted into the body can cause a buzz when the instrument is played.
If your violin is new or recently varnished, some varnish may have dried in the opening of the f-hole, also causing a buzz when played.
What is a wolf tone?
Wolf tones is a pulsation, throbbing, roughness, jump in frequency, or difficulty in drawing the tone from the instrument. It occurs when vibrations from the instrument interfere with string vibration.
Wolf tone is present on all instruments, regardless of quality. Players can compensate for wolf tone with proper vibrato. Additionally, when playing in areas of their instrument where wolf tone is common, cellists can squeeze the lower bout with a knee to minimize the disruption.
My instrument has a bad wolf tone. What should I do?
Try adjusting or refitting the soundpost or bridge, or installing a thicker soundpost. Fitting you instrument with an internal wolf resonator can also help. However, there are less drastic options you can look into as well. First, check to ensure that the instrument has no open seams or unglued areas. A loose soundpost,a loose bottom seam on the treble side, or too much humidity can cause the instrument to swell.
If your instrument is sound, try the following:
- Change the trouble strings to a thinner gauge.
- Use a Si-Hon style mute. This will dampen the area around the tailpiece.
- Fit your instrument with a wolf-tone eliminator on the string behind the bridge. Find the optimum spot to place your eliminator and when you’re happy with the sound of your instrument, lock it into place.
- Alter your string’s sympathetic vibration by fractionally lengthening the tailpiece loop.
- Use a heavier tailpiece.
Will using harmonics help tune my instrument?
If you lightly touch a string at ½ its length while bowing, your sound will be pitched an octave higher; at 1/3 its length it will be pitched an octave and a fifth higher; at 1/4 its length it will be pitched a double octave higher; at 1/5 its length it will be pitched two octaves and a third higher; at 1/6 its length, it will be pitched two octaves and a fifth higher. Familiarity with these harmonics and pitches can help facilitate tuning, especially for bass.
When should I re-hair my bow?
The bow should be re-haired when the ribbon of hair is so thin that it no longer functions properly or has become uneven. Continuing to play with a bow that needs to be re-haired can cause the stick to warp. It’s possible to clean caked or dirty hair should on a bow with mild liquid detergent, but you should takeimmense care not to get the bow wet.
In winter, a lack of humidity may cause bow hair to shrink due to lack of humidity, which prevents the bow from being properly loosened. On the other hand, summer humidity may cause the hair to stretch too much. In these situations you should take your bow to a qualified repair person to return it to playing condition.