By Emily Wright
The basic order of operations for installing a string is simple enough. Secure one end through the tailpiece, thread the other end through the hole in the peg, hold taut, and wind the string until it’s close to pitch, making small adjustments until it’s in tune.
While the sketched outlines are accurate, each step can lead to the improvement or detriment of the playing experience depending on how it’s done. Here are some of the difference-making details, according to the luthiers who kindly permitted me to invade their workshops and quiz them.
Step 1: Thread The Strings
Start at either end, threading the ball/loop through tailpiece, or the string end through the peg, hold the entire length taut, pulling it across the fingerboard, taking up the slack in the fingers or pinning it in place with the hand that will not be doing the peg-turning. Some people find they prefer to work on a padded surface (Fig. 1), while others secure the instrument between their knees (Fig. 2).
Step 2: Turn The Pegs
Begin turning the peg, the second revolution should cross over the first in an “x” to secure the tail (Fig. 3). From there, how close you allow the string to get to the cheek of the pegbox depends on a few factors: violins and violas generally send the string very close to the edge to hold the string tight. Cellists tend to avoid this area, with some even winding strings in the opposite direction, depending on the way the pegbox is configured. Cellists, if your pegs slip and are sensitive to the weather, using the last turn of the string to hold things in place is one option (Fig 4). My personal experience is that this can be ingenious or expensive: strings can also break when they are pinched too tightly against the cheek of the pegbox.
Step 3: The Paper Test
Changing even one string can cause the bridge to rock on its feet or scoot to the side. So before all four strings are brought up to pitch, it’s worth checking things out. If you can slide a piece of paper under any of the bridge feet, it needs to be adjusted until all of the points of contact are flush with the face of the instrument again. Cellists in particular might want to rock the bridge towards the tailpiece ever so slightly, correcting for the strings’ tendency to stretch and pull it the opposite direction. Repeat the paper test when strings have been at pitch for a day or two, making adjustments if needed, and repeating the process every few weeks, especially after changes in the weather.
Tips From The Pros
- When doing a complete string change, don’t take all of the strings off at once: leave the outer two on, replace the middle two, then the highest and lowest. This keeps the bridge anchored and drastically reduces the chance of the soundpost falling.
- Have a look at the pegbox. If the strings cross each other or rub no matter how they’re wound, consider having a second hole drilled. This extends the life of the strings and helps them stay in tune (Fig. 5).
Thank you to Christopher Jacoby, Dalton Potter, and Louis Roberts for their help with this piece.
There’s a lot to learn about protecting and maintaining a stringed instrument. For a bevy of advice from the experts, check out the Strings Violin Owner’s Manual.