By Erin Shrader
Here we take a minute to demystify fine tuners on stringed instruments. How many fine tuners should you use? And which type is best? Read on to find out more.
The members of the violin family are marvels: each is composed of an elegant box containing an infinite palette of sounds for the musician, technical and aesthetic challenges for the master maker, and acoustical puzzles complex enough to keep brilliant minds busy for a lifetime. But it’s not the poetic outline or graceful sweep of the f-holes that newcomers seem to notice first.
Alas, it’s the fine tuners—their presence and their absence—that generate so many questions. Why do some instruments have one fine tuner, or two, while others have tuners on all four strings? What’s the advantage or disadvantage of using four? Are built-in tuners better than the ones that stick out? Will they hurt my instrument? Why does it seem like good violins use only one? Aren’t fine tuners just “training wheels” for beginners who aren’t skillful enough to use pegs?
The use of fine tuners has more to do with the material that the strings are made of than the ability of the musician. These little devices were unnecessary until the advent of steel E strings, first introduced in 1919 by Thomastik Infeld. For the first few hundred years, all strings for the violin-family instruments were made of gut, first plain and then wrapped with metal. Think of the two materials: gut is quite stretchy while steel is not. You only have to stretch a steel string a very small distance to change the pitch, while a gut string must be turned much farther to change pitch the same amount. Pegs work fine for stretchy gut strings, but it’s almost impossible to move a steel E string a small enough distance using a peg.
As more steel strings came to market and were widely adopted more fine tuners appeared on tailpieces. Synthetic strings, which first appeared in the 1970s, are stretchier than steel and easily tuned with pegs (provided the pegs are working properly), so instruments with synthetic strings often sport just one fine tuner for the E string. Fine tuners work for small adjustments to synthetic and even gut strings, and many players, even professionals, find them convenient.
For years, steel violin strings were associated with shrill sound and cheap student instruments, which may be part of the source of the “real violinists don’t use fine tuners” mentality. Also, tuning with pegs is a skill that violinists are expected to master, and so it’s a sign that a young player has reached a certain level.
Pluses & Minuses
Fine tuners can be added to any tailpiece, but tailpieces with built-in tuners are increasingly popular. One disadvantage of added tuners is that they shorten the afterlength, the length of string between the bridge and tailpiece. When the string length and the afterlength are in the right proportion to each other, the instrument sounds better. Built-in tuners preserve this proportion. Additional fine tuners also add weight—as much as 100 grams to a cello tailpiece, says instrument dealer Laurinel Owen—which can dampen the sound. All-in-one tailpieces are much lighter than a tailpiece with four added tuners.
There is one advantage of individual tuners, as Richard Ward of Ifshin Violins in El Cerrito, California, points out. Teachers often prefer them because if one breaks, it’s easy and inexpensive to just replace the tuner, which is a real advantage with a full classroom or studio of young students.
The drawbacks are relatively minor. Whether built-in or added on, fine tuners are a frequent source of buzzes, says Boston violin maker Marilyn Wallin. She also cautions that the prongs that hold the string may be sharp and can break the loop of the string. The sharp edges of a new tuner can easily be smoothed with a small file or a bit of fine sandpaper.
While fine tuners are generally safe, anyone who’s seen a lot of instruments has probably noticed some with damage underneath the tailpiece. Most fine tuners have a lever that hangs underneath the tailpiece. The screw that you turn on top controls the lever, which moves the string. When the screw is all the way in, this lever can be close to the soft spruce top of your instrument, especially if the lever is long or your instrument has a high arch.
If the bridge falls, warns Wallin, this can even cause a soundpost crack, one of the most serious (and expensive) injuries to a stringed instrument. If you have this kind of tuner, try to make a habit of not turning the screw until it “bottoms out” and remember to look underneath the tailpiece occasionally.
Some fine tuners use a mechanism that slides the post, to which the string is attached, forward and back; so if you’re worried about hitting the top of the instrument, you may consider having this type of tuner installed.
When you ship or travel with your instrument, remember to put some padding under the tailpiece and tuners to protect the top in case the bridge falls.
This article was originally published in Strings‘ February 2009 issue. Products mentioned in this article may no longer be available and/or new products may have since come on to the market. Please help keep this article relevant by commenting below or by contacting us directly.