Most string players will be familiar with most of what is in this article, but people who are new to stringed instruments may find this useful. This article is for violinists, violists, cellists and viola da gamba players, but some of it also has some application to plucked stringed instruments too.
Always undo your bow when not using it. This will help to prevent the bow from warping.
You will need to rosin the bow, or else you’ll get no sound at all from the instrument. Try not to make a rut in the rosin; move the bow around as you do it. Don’t over-rosin the bow and remember to wipe excess rosin off the belly and strings of your instrument regularly, as well as off the bow stick. Don’t touch the rosined area of the bow hair with your fingers, as grease will get on the bow and inhibit the sound. Saraband Music sells several different brands and types of rosins, including some historical recipes as well as modern rosins.
If your rosin is ancient, consider replacing it.
If you aren’t using the instrument regularly, do check your bow every week. There is a nasty little dust mite which eats its way across the hairs and makes a hideous mess of the bow. If it is too bad, you will have to have the bow rehaired. If the damage is only a few hairs, then clip the broken hairs neatly off at each end. Do not pull them out of the bow, as this can loosen the blocks which hold the hair in place.
If you do find the dust mite has been at work, remove the bow and instrument from its case. Lightly spray the bow with a household flyspray and leave it to dry. Then remove the hairs as mentioned above. Spray the case well and leave it out in the sun to dry. Then vacuum the case. Spray or wash any cloths in the case. Once everything is beautifully dry and clean, repack the instrument and bow. If the instrument is more or less in storage, then a camphor ball may be useful inside the case to prevent any moth damage to the lining.
Always make sure that the bridge is fully upright. The bridge is not glued to the belly. It can move, and when you tune your instrument, the strings will gradually pull the bridge towards the pegbox. You should check the bridge position regularly and get an instrument maker or teacher to show you how to correct the lean. The idea is not to move the bridge position on the belly, but just to make sure it is vertical.
When a bridge leans over, firstly the feet are not fully on the belly, which means that you lose sound. The feet can dig into the belly on one side, causing damage. It also shortens the string length, which changes your intonation. Eventually the bridge warps and will need to be replaced, which can cost money and time. All bridges should be made of quarter-cut maple which is very strong. If you see the grain running across the bridge, it is too weak for the purpose and should be replaced. Quarter cut timber has the grain running through it, so you see little dots, not lines.
The soundpost stands just behind the bridge. It looks like a piece of dowel, but should be made of the same timber as the belly. Its correct positioning will have a strong influence on the sound you can make on the instrument. If it is too close to the bridge, the sound will probably be very harsh. Too far, and the sound will be poor.
Soundposts must be set vertical, and must be the right size. If it is too loose, it will fall over. This is catastrophic for violins etc. as the weight of the strings will force the bridge through the belly. On viols, the weight of the strings is much less, but the strings should be slackened anyway until the soundpost is restored.
If the soundpost is too tight, it will force a crack or a bump in the belly. You may need to change soundpost if you move to a different climate.
Strings must be correctly wound onto the pegs. If you wind the string only into the middle of the peg, it will slip constantly. If too much is wound at the side of the pegbox, the string will stick. If the string is very long, cut some off, but make sure you have a couple of inches of string left to wind around the peg.
If the pegs themselves are not perfectly round, then this can cause problems. There should be two shiny rings around the peg where it winds into the pegbox. If there is only one, then the peg is tapered incorrectly. If the ring does not go right round the peg, then it is not perfectly round. You may be able to fix both of these problems yourself, but it is probably better to go to a violin repairer.
You can use graphite (lead pencil) to fix a peg which is temporarily sticking. Loosen the string and put the lead on the shiny rings. You don’t have to take the string right off for this. Slip the peg back in, and turn it back and forwards a bit before tightening the string again. You can buy peg paste, but I’ve never found it to be terribly effective. Chalk and soap are other home remedies.
Make sure that your instrument has no sharp points where the strings come in contact – at the tailpiece, bridge and nut. These can saw through the strings. A little find sandpaper or a small file can remedy this.
For people who use gut strings:
1. Don’t kink the string as you put it on. This weakens the string.
2. If you have trouble with strings breaking a lot, a little almond oil rubbed along the string before putting it on can help lengthen their life. This is mainly useful in poor weather.
3. When the weather is VERY dry, overwound strings can dry out and rattle inside the metal winding. This produces an odd noise, and is irritating. It can be quickly solved by getting a few drops of water on your fingertips and running it down most of the string (I avoid the bit where the bow goes). The water will swell the gut again and get rid of the rattle for a while.
4. Never put gut strings on fine tuners. They eat them. If you are using a modern tailpiece to put gut strings on, you should try to get rid of any sharp ridges. If you are going to use gut strings regularly on that instrument, try getting a new tailpiece made. Tailpieces for baroque instruments are smooth.
5. When dealing with double length strings, first measure the length needed against the instrument. Once the string is cut, that’s it!
Second, cut the string, then put the extra length immediately back in the packet for next time. Gut strings are easy to lose and drop to the floor unnoticed!
6. If your string develops fine hairs, the tone will deteriorate. For an emergency measure, you can clip these hairs off close to the string, but beware of cutting the string!!! You should change the string fairly soon, or right now if you have a concert imminent. Always let strings settle for a day or so before a performance if possible. They take a little while to settle in and hold their tuning. Replacement of strings:
1. Obviously, when it breaks.
2. When the tone sounds poor.
3. When the string goes false (it gets sharper the higher you play and on violins/cellos, the fifths will be out of tune).
4. When it gets hairy.
5. On viols, your middle strings will hardly ever break, so you should change them annually or they will sound gritty and unpleasant.
On certain instruments a couple of notes may make an unpleasant gargling sound however you play them. This is a “wolf note” and often happens around f or f# in one or two octaves. This is a structural problem, and usually requires a trip to a violin repairer to find a solution. There are some devices which can be attached to the string to minimise the problem, or sometimes a cork is put between the belly and tailpiece to put pressure on the belly. If nothing at all works, then it is time for a repairer to take off the belly and do some serious work inside.
Occasionally joints can open up due to aging or weather. Cracks can appear through ill treatment or very severe dryness. Take it to your local repairer immediately for attention. If you continue to play with the instrument like that, the sound will deteriorate.
A handy checklist of things to keep in your instrument case:
2. Spare strings
3. Small pair of scissors, but beware of sharp, pointy ones if you fly, as airlines confiscate them
4. Soft pencil (for pegs or rehearsal) or chalk (for pegs)
5. Cloth for dusting rosin off instrument and strings or wiping sweaty hands before performance
6. Tuning fork or electronic tuner
7. Clothes peg (for keeping music down on windy days or under vicious ceiling fans in summer)
8. Fretgut (broken strings) for viol players or lutenists
9. Chinrest cloth or shoulder pad (for violinists)
(c) Patrice Connelly