By Greg Cahill
Fine tuners are ubiquitous in the string world. Some players swear by them, others find that these little devices, known for convenience, are more trouble than they’re worth. Certainly, for novice string players, fine tuners—their presence and their absence—generate a lot of 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 violinists use only one? Aren’t fine tuners just “training wheels” for beginners who aren’t skillful enough to use pegs? To help clear up the confusion, here are five things you should know about fine tuners.
1. The use of fine tuners has more to do with the material of the strings 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 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 small distance to change the pitch, while a gut string must be turned much farther to change pitch to the same degree. 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, so fine tuners were a welcome solution, and for many they remain an essential aid on the E string.
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 tune easily with pegs (provided the pegs are working properly), so instruments with synthetic strings often sport just one fine tuner for the E string. On the other hand, 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 less experienced player has reached a certain level.
2. 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 “after-length,” the length of string between the bridge and tailpiece. When the string length and the after-length 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: 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.
3. Whether built-in or added on, fine tuners are a frequent source of buzzes. While fine tuners are generally safe, anyone who’s seen a lot of instruments has probably noticed some with damage underneath the tailpiece. To alleviate the problem, make sure no screws are loose. 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 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 to check for damage.
Other fine tuners use a mechanism that instead 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.
4. Taking your instrument on the road? When you ship or travel with your instrument, put some padding under the tailpiece and fine tuners to protect the top in case the bridge falls.
5. Whether or not you use fine tuners, do not forget to pay attention to the care of your violin’s pegs. Dalton Potter, founder of the Potter Violin Co., has the following advice: After carefully removing a string (remove only one string at a time, so as not to cause the bridge to fall), slide the peg out of the pegbox and hold it up to the light. As you rotate the peg you should be able to see two shiny bands that wrap all the way around the peg without interruption—this where the pegs rub against the pegbox. Continuous contact in this area is a must for the pegs to hold their tuning. These bands are where you apply peg compound. Now, push the peg back into the peghole firmly and turn it back and forth quickly, pull it out and hold it gently against your upper lip. It should feel warm on both of the shiny bands. This means it fits well and you can proceed to apply peg compound and reinstall the string. If any of these standards are not met, you should visit your local shop and have them adjust or replace your pegs using professional tools and standards.
Pro tip: Consider switching from friction pegs to geared pegs, like those manufactured by Planetary Perfection and Wittner. But these hi-tech pegs should only be installed by a trained luthier.
How to Tune a Violin
Here are a few tips from gettuned.com: When tuning a stringed instrument, always tune from below the note, up. This prevents string breakages and systematizes the process of tuning, so you eventually become familiar with the sound of a perfect, in-tune string. Use the fine tuners when possible. When a fine tuner has been wound right down to the end of the screw, loosen the fine tuner all the way to the end of the screw before carefully tightening the tuning peg. This way, you prevent the string from being over-tightened.
When tuning your violin, play the note continuously with your bow and listen carefully to the string as it tightens towards the desired pitch. Remember, you may need to stop to tune halfway through a practice, especially if you are using new strings, as they tend to stretch and may need tightening from the peg multiple times per practice session for the first few days.
Pro tip: Tune the A string first, followed by the D, G, and then the E string (you can use everything from a pitch pipe to a tuning fork to a smart phone app like Clear Tune). When you start to become more familiar with the sound of the notes of the different strings, try tuning the strings against each other—this is known as relative tuning.
Erin Shrader contributed to this article.
The complete edition of the Care & Repair of Violin or Viola series from Strings magazine gives you a library of video and written instruction that will provide you with extensive knowledge that will help you understand your instrument and, in turn, be a more informed owner and user of stringed instruments and bows.