Fiddle Tuning: Rough or Fine

Rough Tuning and Fine Tuning Your Fiddle

When you get a fiddle almost in tune, that was seriously out of tune, by moving the pegs, that’s rough tuning. To go from there to exactly in tune, that results from fine tuning. A fiddle might be acceptable to play when rough tuned, but for certainty and ease of playing, you need to fine tune the instrument.

Sometimes a fiddle that is normally in tune, or only needs fine tuning with the fine tuners on the tailpiece, will have a peg slip. Then, it is way out of tune. The rough tuning procedure is what I recommend to get the fiddle back in service.

An audible standard of pitch is helpful at this stage. Way back in the old days it was a pitch pipe that played the same pitch as the G, D, A, and E strings of the violin. You could blow the note of the string you were tuning while holding the pitch pipe in your mouth, it was small and light enough. Thus, your hands were free to  turn the peg while plucking the string in question.

Also, back in those ancient times, people would sit near a piano and play the note and match the pitch. I have, on occasion, used a violin that was in tune as the standard. First plucking the in tune violin, then plucking the out of tune violin while adjusting the peg. The similarity of sound helps to identify how the string is out of tune, sharp or flat.

Today we have digital tuning apps, not to mention clip on digital tuners.. Judging by a review I saw this morning, some people only use the readout function of the app. They don’t use the audible function, which most of them have. And that’s very handy for a seriously out-of-tune violin. The readable function is useless for such an extreme case.

I use to use an called String Tuner. When my iPad OS got updated, it no longer worked. I tried two new ones and kept Fine Violin Tuner by Ullrich Vormbrock. An important feature, for me, is that it can be calibrated to A-432 Hz.

Step by Step Rough Fiddle Tuning

When starting to work with a badly out-of-tune violin, be sitting next to your sound source, audible tuner for example, and have the violin upright on your knee, holding it with your hand about where the neck meets the body. You will pluck the string with that hand while turning a peg with the other. For G and D strings the right hand holds and plucks while the left hand adjusts the peg. For the A and E strings, change hands.

You notice I say “adjusts” and not “turns the peg.” There is more involved than just turning. If the peg is stuck you need to use some strength while pulling out slightly as you turn to loosen the string. If you easily turn the peg while plucking and get it near the target pitch, you most likely will have to push in a little bit to make it hold. This is 16th Century technology, so be patient and careful.

Another factor to be aware of is the bridge. Look to see if it is upright and perpendicular to the body of the violin. Bridges will get “leanitis,” where they lean towards the peg box. To get it back in place use great care and precision of movement. I make this adjustment with the fiddle flat on its back, neck pointed away, usually on my lap. I grip the top of the bridge with each thumb and forefinger at the edge and move it carefully using strength and precise movement.

Sometimes the peg does not fit well. It’s hard to turn, it doesn’t hold, you have to push it in hard to make it stay. It’s a struggle to get it closer to where it needs to be. Some pegs simply will not hold. For really lose pegs I have taken them out of the peg box and applied a little rosin. You remember that tune, “Rosin the Peg”? Me neither. But it sometimes works.

Five string fiddle with Wittner tailpiece, four string with Knilling Perfection pegs
Five string fiddle with Wittner tailpiece, four string with Knilling Perfection pegs

Fine Fiddle Tuning Today and Old School

When a violin is roughly in tune it’s playable, but you want it exactly in tune. That’s where fine tuning comes in. The read out of your digital tuning app will tell you when the pitch of the string, while you bow it, matches the predetermined pitch. And you achieve that pitch by turning the little fine tuners on your tail piece.

Two of my violins have Knilling Perfection Tuning Pegs. These have gears inside the peg shaft that make it work like a guitar tuner peg. I enjoy using them. These pegs have proven to be very handy for tuning on the fly in a performance situation with a band.

The last thing to say about tuning is that you do not need a digital tuner to get your fiddle in tune. You do need a standard for one string. That could be a tuning fork. I have one that is set to A-432 Hz. Most are 440, of course, since that is the currently accepted standard. And A-440 tuning forks are not hard to find. They’re under $10 on Amazon.

Amazon also has the A-432 Hz tuning fork, but you’ll have to fork over $22 for it. Class don’t come cheap.

When the A is in tune you have two ways to go, both of which work well to get the violin in tune perfectly. The traditional way is to set the open fifths into perfect intonation. That means when you play your A and E at the same time there are no difference waves. That “wah-wah-wah’ sound, or worse, “wu-wu-wu-wu-wu” very fast. A and D are tuned the same way, for perfect open fifth sound. And finally, the D and G are so tuned.

The other way is to use harmonics. Play the A octave harmonic, half way towards the bridge and compare it to a D harmonic one third the way towards the bridge. If the two strings are in tune respectively, then the harmonics will be the same pitch. If the D is a little high, you back off your fine tuner a tad. If low, then crank the fine tuner up a bit.

This last way is my usual procedure. But, then, I’m an old guy….old school.

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