Violins violas strings: how to change them

Everyone who’s ever played an orchestral string instrument (especially violin, viola, or cello) knows how often they need their strings changed. Strings break, get worn out, or get too covered with sticky rosin. However, many people have no idea how to replace them.

The first thing to do is to select the type of string needed. Is it a C, G, D, A, or E string? Next, do you want one that will have a really loud, bright sound? Or maybe one that is slightly muted? Select a brand that has a reputation for quality, because they will last longer than others. Also, make sure you get the strings for the right instrument. Even though violins and violas are close in size, they have different sets of strings made for them. Strings can be purchased at local music stores or through catalogs from music supply stores. Sometimes catalogs have an online store to order from as well. Strings range in price from around $5 (for a violin A) to around $12 (for a viola C). Cello strings will be slightly more expensive. One should never pay more than $18 for any viola string – many local music stores tend to overprice them on all instruments.

To remove the old string, pull the peg toward you, making sure it is the correct one. Turn it until the string is completely unwound (not just slack) and pull it through the hole. Notice the location of the hole; the new string will go through here. Pull the old string down and unhook it from the tailpiece. Notice whether or not there’s a fine tuner present.

To put the new string in, first, take a graphite pencil and stick the point through the hole. This will lubricate it and make it easier to put the string in. This is not absolutely necessary (many people don’t do it, because they want the string in fast), but it is recommended.

Take the end of the new string (the one with the gold hoop on the end, NOT the one with the colored wrap) and stick in down the hole on the tail piece. If the instrument has a fine tuner, there should be a small slot on the fine tuner to put it. If not, simply stick it down and in, and it will catch. This will most likely come undone while you’re trying to get the top of it in; just put it back and hold it once you’ve got the top partially wound.

Notice which pegs the string is going to be on. Make sure when you stick it into the hole on the peg, you don’t cross over any of the other strings. This may be difficult on the outer two strings, where there’s not as much room. It’s okay to loosen the string right next to it to make more room to get it in. Just loosen the string enough to push it aside, but not so much that it comes completely out. Stick the string in the hole and make sure it stays there (about an inch through the hole) while you begin to wrap it.

Don’t wrap it haphazardly; wrap it neatly from one side to the other. The string should never cross over itself in the wrapping. Once the string is wrapped enough that it won’t come undone when you let go, make sure the bottom is in place. Also, check the positioning of the string over the bridge – it should be over the groove in the bridge, not anywhere else. If the string has a black plastic ‘protector’ on it, this should be what’s in the groove. Most strings won’t have this, but it will be seen on some A and E strings.

Once the string is in place, continue to wrap the string by turning the peg AND pushing it in at the same time. If it’s not pushed in, it will simply slip loose again. Some pegs are more slippery than others and may come loose during normal tuning. Simply push it back in (as much as it will go) before attempting to tighten it properly. If this persists and the instrument will not stay tuned, take it to a repairman and see if he can make the pegs fit better.

Tighten any strings that were loosened in this procedure as well. To tune, there are a few different methods. A piano or an electronic tuner would be the best in this case. With a piano, simply hit the key a few times and pluck the string until it sounds very close to the piano. Then use the bow to tune it to the exact pitch. Either hit the piano key yourself and listen, then play with the bow, or have someone else constantly hitting the key. With an electronic tuner, use the bow right away. What an electronic tuner does is register the note and tell whether it’s sharp or flat. Wait until the correct note appears on the display, then adjust the pitch higher or lower depending on what the tuner says. If the instrument has fine tuners, use these once the pitch is nearly correct.

If there’s no access to either a piano or electronic tuner, tune by fifths. Listen to one of the strings that you know is in tune – but they may all be out. In some instruments, when one string is changed quite a bit with the pegs (even if the string isn’t actually replaced), the other pegs are loosened and therefore knocked out of tune as well. If another instrument is available, tune off of that one. If it isn’t, try your hardest to match one string to its correct pitch. Once one string is corrected, tune in fifths. This means playing two strings at once and listening for the correct interval between them. This type of tuning is difficult for less experienced musicians, however, so it would be best to ask someone who knows more about it to help or try to find someone with a piano to tune off of.

Strings are not hard to replace once one knows all the little details that need to be watched. The best way to learn to do it is to practice. If you watch what happens when you undo the string, putting it back in is certainly easier. If any real problems arise with stringing an instrument (or if an instrument is found with no strings at all), take it to a professional musician or music dealer (one who specializes in string instruments).

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