Everyone has their own habits and routines when it comes to changing strings. Hazel Davis talks to the experts about how they think it should really be done
It is fair to say that the strings are the most important part of the set-up of a stringed instrument. Without them the instrument is nothing but an empty box, and altering them can make a whole world of sonic difference. These days strings are manufactured to very high standards, but buying the best strings in the business might not be enough to ensure you get the best out of your instrument. There is more to attaching strings than you might at first think.
Violinist and string maker Bohdan Warchal says that the most important thing to remember is to change the strings one by one. ‘When you remove the strings all at once, the soundpost is in danger of falling,’ he says. ‘But if you have to do this (when changing the tailpiece for example), hold the instrument on its right side until you put on the new strings. This will protect the soundpost from falling.’ Mimmo Peruffo from Aquila Strings agrees. ‘I would start with the thinnest string and proceed accordingly. This will cause minimal stress to the instrument.’
We’ve all encountered the slipping-peg syndrome but, says Warchal, ‘When the holes in the pegs get too big the strings’ grip on the pegs becomes poor.’ He uses additional metal winding for the ends of his strings to eliminate these problems. ‘When a string is slipping,’ he suggests, ‘make a turn from the edge of the pegbox, then wind the string up further to the edge of the pegbox. This will result in crossing the string, so it will be more secure.’
Annette Müller-Zierach from Pirastro Strings says, ‘Players tend to use strings for a very long time, even after the sound has started to deteriorate. It is important to replace them on time to have the best playing experience. Practically, the top tip must be to have the tuning pegs at a comfortable angle. Although it makes for a bit of trial and error when stringing the instrument, it will give you a lot of satisfaction over the whole period during which you use the strings. It cuts down considerably on tuning time and improves comfort during tuning.’
According to Warchal it’s not important how much of the end of the string should be showing when you put it through the hole in the peg. ‘Nevertheless,’ he says, ‘I always try to leave at least 1cm showing when dealing with synthetic and gut strings. This makes it easier to correct the vertical position of the peg to make it suitable for tuning after the strings have settled in.’ He adds, ‘If the peg is in a horizontal position that makes tuning difficult, loosen it, pull the string about 0.5cm from the hole, and wind again.’
Fan Tao of D’Addario Strings suggests, ‘Make sure the string is snug against the pegs right from the beginning. It may help to bend the string where it enters the peghole before putting it in – but that makes it harder to thread it through the peghole.’
Tao adds, ‘Having an extra amount showing through the peghole sometimes helps to keep the string from coming out. Some people will cross over the string to anchor it. That’s fine, but do not cross over the last winding, as that may crimp the string and cause it to break. (The string is at its full thickness during the last winding and is easier to break when crimped.) In really difficult cases, I use tweezers or pliers and grasp the end sticking out of the peghole to prevent it from slipping out while I turn the peg until it catches.’ Bass players often have to resort to extreme measures, as Tao explains: ‘Often they will push a long length through the peghole and tie it to the rest of the string to keep it in place.’
Wolfgang Weiss of Thomastik Infeld advises, ‘Sharp edges on the bridge, the nut or the tailpiece will damage the string, and can lead to breakage. The same can happen if the channels in the nut are too narrow, so these should be of sufficient width and coated with a little graphite from a soft pencil. Another mistake to avoid when re-stringing the instrument is improperly winding the string around the tuning peg. The correct number of windings is between four and five, without any bending of the string between nut and tuning peg and without jamming it against the pegbox.’
Müller-Zierach says, ‘You need to consider the stretching time of the particular strings used, first changing the ones that will take longest to stretch (on a violin this will be the A string first, then the D and then the G). It is up to the player to decide whether to change all the strings at once and have a short period of tuning chaos, or to change a string a day for relative calm.’
Then there’s the question of what to do with the bridge while you’re fitting the strings. By common consensus, the bridge should be placed at the connecting line of the two small dents located on the inner sides of the f-holes. A piece of paper placed along the bridge will help confirm the correct position.
As long as you change the strings one by one, says Warchal, there is no risk of the bridge falling. ‘As new strings are breaking in,’ he continues, ‘the bridge leans towards the fingerboard. So it is necessary to correct (pull back) the bridge regularly until the pitch of the strings stabilises. If this is neglected and the bridge remains in a tilted position for a long time, there is a risk of it becoming permanently warped.’
Tao says, ‘A properly fitted bridge, made out of high-quality material, will not warp quickly and should last a long time. Unfortunately, many bridges are poorly fitted and made from lower-quality wood, and can easily warp.’ Warchal adds, ‘Make sure that the bridge is not too far to the right or left. This is best checked by looking from the scroll down the fingerboard.’
Müller-Zierach advises that, ‘The bridge should stand like a stretched pyramid with its axis at a 90 degree angle to the line where the belly meets the side of the instrument, which is the nearest straight line of reference. Both front and back of the feet of the bridge should touch the belly, otherwise the string vibration cannot be properly transmitted to the body of the instrument, which can lead to a loss of sound quality.’
When the bridge is out of alignment, continues Müller-Zierach, ‘gently pull or push the top edge with thumb and index finger, while holding the base of the bridge with the fingers of the other hand, then check the position. If graphite has been used under the strings, this should be a smooth and easy procedure. Be careful when moving the bridge if there is build-up of rosin and dirt under and around the string, as this might cause the string to fray. It is not enough to check the position of the bridge only after installing new strings: it needs to be done regularly over the lifespan of the strings, basically every time you tune the instrument.’
There are tricks you can use to prolong the life of your strings. Peruffo says that olive or almond oil works just as well as graphite, and its recorded use dates back to the cellist Friedrich Dotzauer in the 1800s. For gut strings, he adds, ‘Thomas Mace in 1676 advised taking a knife and making a little impression upon the nut, deep enough for the string to lie in. He suggests polishing the notches by taking a piece of leather and a little scraped chalk wet with spittle and polished until smooth.’ Peruffo even suggests treating double bass gut strings with deer fat to extend their playing life. If whistling occurs, he suggests cleaning them with white spirit to get rid of residual oil.
Denmark-based handmade-string maker Jargar Strings offers some handy hints for buyers on its website, including: ‘The peg end of the string must be wound around the peg without any crossing… and the string must not be over tuned. If you do not follow these rules the string could break.’ And you thought a new set of strings and a steady hand was enough to see you through. Good luck.
This article was first published in The Strad's 2007 Accessories supplement.