Monday, April 18, 2011

Fine Tuners

 Written by Andy Fein, owner and luthier, Fein Violins:

An instrument in tune always sounds better than one out of tune.

Seems like a simple statement, but violin family instruments are constantly going out of tune and players are constantly re-tuning their instruments. Does it matter how you get there?

Most students start out on violins, violas or cellos with four fine tuners. They rarely touch their pegs except to change a string. With good reason - learning to tune with your pegs is very,very hard. The fine tuners have an easy to use screw mechanism that lets you tune quite easily. Almost no skill required.



Once a player moves off a student level instrument, they or their teacher often insist on an instrument with only one fine tuner. Violins and violas, that is. Cellists have led the way on the fine tuner issue. Almost all cellists use a tailpiece with four fine tuners.



Tail piece with one fine tuner



Violin pegs are notoriously finicky. They are made of wood- ebony, rosewood or boxwood - and taper fitted into the maple pegbox. They are sensitive to changes in temperature and humidity. They can stick in warm weather and slip in cold weather. Unfortunately, we luthiers have not come up with a reliable alternative to these fitted pegs in the last 300 years. There are mechanical pegs out on the market but I have not seen any that are reliable, safe for your instrument, and accurate enough.

For most players, having four fine tuners can be a life saver in tense playing situations. The tuners can also hasten the learning process - the less time spent tuning, the more time to play.

Yet many educators insist that their students learn to use the pegs to tune. That is fine and every player eventually needs to learn that. But the insistence that the instruments have only one fine tuner (for the E on violins, A string on violas) makes very little sense. The presence of the fine tuners does not preclude the player from using the pegs. In many situations, having the reassurance of a small adjustment with a fine tuner can mean the difference between a great audition and a blown audition. The same goes for recitals and concerts.

An analogous situation would be the evolution of writing. I'm sure when pen and paper came into being, there were some people that insisted everyone should still learn to write on a stone with a hammer and chisel. Know anyone still writing with a hammer and chisel?

There are differences in tone quality between a wood tailpiece with one fine tuner and a Wittner carbon composite Ultra tailpiece with four fine tuners. On most instruments, the Wittner Ultra tailpiece sounds better.



Wittner Ultra tail piece



An even better tailpiece choice (although quite expensive) is the Bois d'Harmonie tailpiece with four fine tuners. I highly recommend their Pernambuco tailpiece.


Bois d'Harmonie tail piece



Cellists have been brave enough to weather the criticism from their string colleagues and proudly use four fine tuners on their instruments. It's time violinists and violists considered that change as well.

An instrument in tune always sounds better than one out of tune. It doesn't matter how you get there.

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