By Christopher Jacoby
Instruments, like your vehicle or body, require upkeep. As the years go by, most players see their instruments develop common problems, and these problems often repeat themselves. As you wipe the rosin off your instrument, give it a quick checkup. Look for open seams between the ribs and plates, make sure the bridge and tailpiece are where they should be, and check that the end button fits snugly. Change your strings when they fray, and pay close attention to your instrument’s health if it faces drastic changes in humidity.
Many problems may require a luthier’s care, but many are preventable, and some you can handle at home. Here you’ll find five of the most common problems detailed, along with preventative measures and solutions to help your instrument sound its best.
Problem 1: Slipping or Stuck Pegs
Every string player has encountered a peg that refuses to tune up that last quarter-step to pitch, or won’t turn at all. Stuck or hard-to-turn pegs are infuriating, but a slipping peg is more likely to drive a player over the edge. I once saw a violinist crack his instrument’s scroll nearly in half when the A string un-tuned for the sixth or seventh time. He reached up, drove the peg in hard as he twisted, and the poor scroll burst apart.
Be gentle with your pegs. The scroll is as delicate as your instrument gets.
If a peg isn’t working well, take a close look at the peg holes. There should be no gaps, and no oval over-rounding where the shaft of the peg goes into the wall of the scroll. Pegs have to fit well to turn—and stop turning—well. If the wood wasn’t dry enough during the fitting process, the peg hole can change shape afterward, causing a slipping peg. Sometimes the fault lays in the inexperience of the luthier—there’s an art to fitting pegs properly. Fortunately, once your pegs do fit, a little peg compound is about all you’ll ever need.
You can get a little tube of peg compound, known colloquially as peg dope, which helps a stuck peg spin and a slipping peg hold. But only use peg dope, and be sparing with it. There’s only so much gunk that a peg shaft can handle before it loses control. If your peg troubles continue, bring your instrument to a luthier.
Problem 2: Dirty or Worn-Out Bow Hair
The bow is a simpler machine than your instrument, but it also needs a regular checkup. When you look down at your bow’s frog, evaluate whether you’ve lost a lot of hair out of the hank, or if bow hair has become black and gummy down by the frog.
Don’t try to clean or comb the hair—it doesn’t help. Your bow hair will stay cleaner for longer if you always wash your hands before you play. Wipe your strings and the top of your instrument down every few days with a dry, soft, clean cloth to remove excess rosin. And do not touch the horsehair with your hands: Your natural oils will ruin it.
If you’ve broken a lot of bow hair, the horsehair has gotten (inevitably) dirty, or your bow isn’t playing as it should, get it rehaired. If it’s been over a year, it’s also probably time.
Problem 3: A Leaning Bridge
As you tune your instrument, the pegs pull the strings toward the scroll. This pulling action rocks the bridge, which supports the strings. The bridge leans. A leaning bridge affects your sound. It will change your strings’ vibrating length (the distance from the front of the nut to the front of the bridge groove), and if the feet lose full contact with the top, you’ll lose volume.
If your bridge is left leaning for too long, it will start to bend and warp. Left unchecked, it will slowly buckle while driving itself into the soft top of your instrument. A warped bridge needs to be replaced—fitted specifically to your instrument by a trained professional. A slightly warped bridge can be steamed and clamped back flat, but it’s been compromised and will warp faster after every time you steam it.
If your bridge is leaning, but not warped, you can carefully try to fix it yourself. Slacken the strings down a third or perfect fourth. With your instrument flat and well-supported, place your palms on either side of the bridge. Place your fingers in front of the bridge, under the strings, and rock the blade, or top, of the bridge back up straight with your thumbs behind the bridge. Tune up, and then repeat if it’s come forward a tiny bit again. A properly adjusted bridge should sit with its back surface at a 90-degree angle to the plane of the top plate.
The key to this fix is to keep contact with your seated hands so that the bridge can’t pop over and collapse when you move it. That’s bad for varnish (and your self-confidence). If you’re unsure about the process, ask your luthier to walk you through it once.
Problem 4: Difficulty playing on one string; double-stops are difficult and may get worse as you travel up the neck
This is a playability problem. Playability is how easily an instrument performs under your hands. It can run through scales and pieces easily, or it can fight you every step of the way, refusing to cooperate. When it’s hard to keep from bowing the string next to the one you want, or it’s hard to play double-stops in tune, the nut—and the string spacing at the nut and bridge—can be to blame.
If one of the strings sits higher or lower in the nut or bridge grooves than it should, it makes the violin hard to play. Take a close look at your instrument’s nut, checking to see if any two of the strings are closer together than the others. This can cause you to bow two strings at once accidentally.
If the arcs of the bridge, the nut, and the fingerboard don’t all get along harmoniously, you can have slump spots—fourth position on the middle two strings seems to happen a lot—where the notes are just harder to play than anywhere else. A qualified luthier can fix this problem, and get your instrument into workable shape.
Problem 5: Strings are tough to push down to the fingerboard, and it gets worse as you travel up the neck
This is another playability problem. Unfortunately, the neck of your instrument has come down when this happens. The top, back, and ribs of your instrument are all quite thin, and built of wood, so they expand and contract with the weather. Over time, the constant string pressure changes the shape of the instrument, and when the top and back change shape, the neck comes down. Your fingerboard dips down toward the f-holes, which makes the strings feel like they are higher off of the fingerboard. Suddenly, it’s hard to play above third position, vibrato hurts your fingers, and your sound has lost its punch.
Protecting your instrument from dramatic changes in humidity is the best prevention. Keeping houseplants where you practice and store your case does a lot to help regulate the humidity of your instrument. A hygrometer and a humidification system can also make a difference, especially in the winter. Still, at some point, the neck of an instrument is going to come down. A luthier can get your instrument back to sounding and feeling like it should, with a few options for the procedure at different price ranges.
Your instrument is a living, breathing thing. Keep it humidified, visit a good luthier, and it will outlive you by hundreds of years.