How To Install Violin and Viola Strings
If you've never changed violin strings before, find a professional to walk you through the process. Ask your teacher, or the people at your local string shop. They can show you how it's done, and, at the same time, check your fiddle for any problems that could make installing new strings difficult. Later, when you try it on your own, these instructions can serve as a reminder, and will help you get the best out of your new strings while keeping your fiddle safe and happy.
Is Your Instrument In Good Shape?
If your fiddle is in good working order, changing the strings will be easy. However, warped pegs, warped peg boxes (from sitting in the attic), peg holes drilled too small, too big, or very, very frequently in the wrong places, etc. can cause real problems for professionals and amateurs alike. If you run into problems, get some help.
Pitfalls to Avoid!
1. Remove the Old String
Unwind the tuning peg and remove the string. Then, remove the string from the fine-tuner or tailpiece. Be careful not to scratch the varnish; string ends can be sharp.
2. Lubricate Tuning Peg
Remove the peg from the peg box. Lubricate the worn surface of the peg (the shiny ring where it touches the pegbox) with Hill Peg Compound. If you don't have this on hand, you can try the traditional method of applying a layer of standard blackboard chalk, followed by a layer of regular, unscented bar soap. Avoid the use of peg drops, except in the most severe circumstances. They work by causing the wood to swell; if you use too much, you'll have a tightly stuck peg. And, their effects are only temporary. The best solution for a peg that won't hold is to have a professional examine it and, if necessary, re-shape the peg and hole.
Replace the peg and turn it back and forth a bit, to work in the lubrication.
3. Lubricate Nut & Bridge
Use a sharp pencil to lubricate the bridge and nut where the string makes contact. The goal is to allow the string to pass easily over the nut and bridge as it is tuned up to pitch. If using an E string with a bridge protector (little piece of plastic that slides up and down the string) then don't lubricate the bridge under the E.
4. Thread String Into Peg
Thread the end of the string through the peg-hole so that a small amount (approximately 1 mm) sticks out the other side of the peg.
5. Wind the String
Start winding the string onto the peg. Wind the left pegs (G and D on violin, C and G on viola) counter-clockwise and the right pegs (A and E on violin, D and A on viola) clockwise. Wind the first loop of the string toward the pointy end of the peg and the next loop in the opposite direction, over top of the first loop. Winding over the first loop in this way will "tie" or "lock" the string onto the peg and help keep the string from slipping. Keep winding away from the pointy end of the peg, making a neat row of coils, until the string is the correct length. When finished, you want the string to come just to the edge of the pegbox. If the string is crushed up against the edge, unwind it and try again. (If the string rubs against the pegbox when the peg turns, the peg will be hard to tune, and the string may break.)
6. Attach to Tailpiece
Run the string between your thumb and index finger, removing any twist in the string, and attach the ball/loop end of the string to the tailpiece or fine-tuner.
7. Remove Slack
Place the string carefully in the appropriate slot of the nut and bridge. Check to see that the string is running directly from the peg to the nut to the bridge to the tailpiece, not twisted with another string or wrapped around anything it shouldn't be. Wind the peg to remove the slack, and place a small amount of tension on the string. If the string has a bridge protector (small piece of plastic that slides up and down the string), be sure to place it on the bridge. Most E strings have a bridge protector and if it is left off the bridge, it will buzz as the violin is played.
8. Check Bridge
Check that the bridge is straight. The back of the bridge (the side facing the tailpiece) should be exactly perpendicular to the surface of the violin, and the feet of the bridge should be flat on the surface of the instrument. If the feet are flat, but the bridge is not straight, you have a warped bridge and should have it replaced by a professional.
9. Bring Up To Pitch
Loosen all fine tuners (in the tailpiece) until they are almost as loose as they will go, but not completely loose. Use a piano, pitch pipe, tuning fork, or electronic tuner to check the desired pitch of the string. Tighten the string, using the tuning peg, gradually, until you reach the desired pitch. Periodically check that the bridge remains straight as you do this, and do not tighten the string beyond the desired pitch! For more on tuning your violin, see How To Tune A Violin.
Incidentally, this is also a good time to loosen those fine tuners. Whether you have just one on the E string, or one on each string, just loosen them up so that they have plenty of room for tightening, as the strings stretch. Note: If you loosen them too much, the screw will fall out. No worries - just put it back in again and tighten until it engages in the threaded hole. Also: be careful - some fine tuners will scratch the surface of the violin if turned too tight!
10. Adjust Peg Angles
Many players tune their violins left-handed, while bowing the strings. Those who rely primarily on the fine-tuners can safely skip this step. To allow the player's fingers to easily slip between and grip the pegs, the angle of each peg-head needs to be adjusted (see illustration). The angle can be altered by loosening and unwinding the peg, and allowing a bit more (a millimeter or so) or less of the string to protrude through the peg hole before winding.
New Strings Will Stretch
As the strings stretch over the next few days, you will need to continue tuning them up. Synthetic and gut strings can be difficult to keep in tune during this time. Also, the tone quality of brand new strings is often somewhat harsh until they settle in. The period between installation and the settling of the strings, called the break-in time, is longer for synthetic and gut strings than for steel. Note that the practice of pulling on the strings to speed this stretching process is not recommended and may damage the core.
A Few Notes About Gut Strings
In spite of the expense and difficulties of using gut strings, I recommend that everyone try a set at least once, to get a feel for the real thing. They have a sound and feel unlike anything synthetic - softer, richer, more textured, and with more surface sound from the fingers. Passione strings, from Pirastro, are an excellent set to try, since they are relatively stable and have the customary ball (or loop) ends. If you choose to put on a set of gut strings, here are a few things to keep in mind . . .
Switching from Steel to Synthetic Strings
Students and their parents are frequently amazed by the difference in playability and tonality of their instruments when I install synthetic strings for the first time. They often think (incorrectly) that this transformation of their instruments is due to my extraordinary skills as a craftsman. (I don't argue.) But, the plain fact is that the choice of strings makes a tremendous difference. Certainly, steel strings, particularly good quality steel strings like Prim are the best choice for certain instruments and certain styles of playing. But, if you do choose to switch from steel strings to synthetic, please note that advice, above, under A Few Notes About Gut Strings. Inexpensive student instruments are frequently setup specifically for steel strings, and must be adjusted before synthetic strings can be installed.