The fiddler who fiddles with this blog

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Selinsgrove, PA, United States
Beverley Conrad is a writer, musician, and artist who lives in central Pennsylvania. She's played the fiddle most of her life and has published books and once went on a book tour with her dog. She's currently working on a series of one hundred works of art of a dead fly to see where it goes, how it progresses.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

"But it was tuned when I got it!"

           It sometimes happens that you can meticulously tune your fiddle – even hook it up to one of those digital gadgets to make sure that A is at 440 and D, G, and E are exactly where they should be.  Then you go to play a tune and every time you hit an open string – bam! – it sounds off pitch.  So you tune it again.  Same thing.
Check the bridge.  Get a measuring tool and check the exact length of the string from where it touches the nut to where it crosses the bridge.  It should be exactly the same length on both the G and the E side.  If not, although all the fingered notes may sound good, the open strings will sound off pitch as you play a song.  It’s all relative.  In the course of tuning our fiddles the bridge sometimes has a tendency to lean toward the fingerboard after time, especially if you’ve recently added new strings.  So you straighten it up and over the course oft time it can move a bit.  This throws the angle off and that’s makes for “in tune” but off pitch open strings.

Bouncy Bow - What to Do!

     Ah! The old' Bouncy Bow! I hate when this happens! It's usually nervousness. Those little bitty trembles in the fingers when we're self-conscious or just plain nervous about playing fiddle in front of other people. Those can become greatly magnified by the time they've traveled the length of your bow stick. Ah! But there's hope and an exercise to help alleviate the problem as it occurs:

     Bow double strings with a full long bow about eight times apiece, up and down, as a warm-up exercise. Try that and see if it helps. Also, if your hands are feeling shaky - yes - that could also cause bouncy bow. The above-mentioned exercise is used to calm nerves, but shaky hands can come from a variety of reasons, not just nervousness. See that you are not tightly gripping your bow. Remember - leverage is everything. The weight of your fingers over the top of your bow and just enough thumb and forefinger grip so you can guide it are all the pressure you need exert. This will help make any shaking of your hands less evident.

How to Change All Your Violin Stings at the Same Time

     In order to keep your bridge in the same place and not risk dropping the sound post, it’s best to change the strings one at a time.
     Start with the G string. Take it off, pull the peg out, clean the peg with alcohol, then swipe it with #400 wet dry sandpaper (the gray stuff) and wipe it off. Put some peg dope or peg soap on the peg if it is spring ready to turn into summer or if your pegs fit really well and don’t slip. If it’s autumn ready to turn into winter or your pegs tend to slip dust them with Magic Powder*.      Run a sharpened pencil tip over the groove in the nut and on the bridge to lubricate them. Put the ball end through the fine tuner (or hole in the tailpiece - whichever you have on your fiddle) and put the other end through the hole so that it pokes through about ¼”. Start turning the peg so that all the winding goes toward the cheek of the peg box (see illustration) Neatness counts. Tighten it just enough to give it some tension.
     Now replace the D string the same way.
     Now loosen the A string so that it’s still on, but you can push it over the side.
     Now replace the E string the same way as you did the G and the D strings. Now replace the A string the same way as you did all the others.
     Turn all your fine tuners up to their highest point. You’ll need these after the strings become more stable which they won’t be for anywhere from a day to a week depending on what type of strings you have.
     Tune your fiddle using the pegs then put it away for a couple hours. Don’t worry about having it exactly in pitch just yet. Always turn the pegs away from you. Tune it again. Play it some. Put it away for a couple hours or overnight. Tune it again. Once the strings stay in pitch with the pegs you can go ahead a tweak it using the fine tuners.
     Check the bridge to see if it is still set right. It should be tilted just slightly toward the tailpiece.

*Magic Powder is a recipe an old timer gave me. Crush a full stick of blackboard chalk with about a cubic ¼” of rosin. Mix well. Store in an old film canister if you can find one. This is enough to last you the rest of your life.

Fiddle Strings I Have Tried

     Every now and then someone will ask me what kind of strings I use. Sometimes they ask me what I recommend.
     Over the course of my life with the violin I have tried a great many strings. When I was a kid back in the sixties I remember hiking downtown to the local music store to buy gut strings because that‘s what my music teacher said to get. Hard to believe, but that’s what we used back then.
     When I took up fiddling in earnest in the seventies, an old time fiddler said I should get steel core strings. So I did. I didn’t like the sound of them. They sounded brash and raucous to my ear. Most likely that was me and not the strings. I tried gut again but found they wouldn’t hold their tuning. Someone suggested a string with a synthetic core. I tried those. They took a long time to settle, but at least sounded mellower. It seemed that about the time they settled (would hold their tuning) they died. The years rolled on…
     I like to try different types of strings. I’m all for “New! Improved! Guaranteed to make you sound like a maestro!” Through the wonders of the internet I will experiment and pay pretty much anything for strings as long as they appear to be heavily discounted which usually they are.
     Here are some of the strings I’ve tried in the past twenty years and what I think of them.
     I sometimes use Super Sensitive Red. These are solid core steel strings. They hold their tuning well. It doesn’t take them long to break in. I have these on the fiddle that I use to play outside when I need to be loud and the weather might be not so nice. I also recommended these to a young student who could stand to be louder.
     About twenty years ago I used Dogal Blue Lable. Steel core, steel winding. What I liked about these was that the winding is very smooth which is good for sliding on strings. They were also stable and held their tuning indoors or out, good weather or bad.
     At a point I wanted my fiddle to sound more buttery, mellower, more old fashioned. I tried gut again but broke the E right away while trying to tune it and couldn’t keep them in tune. I hated them. I took them right off the fiddle and tried what is usually recommended for the “serious musician” and that was Dominant by Thomastik. They sound harsh when first put on. A lot of strings sound harsh when first put on. They usually settle and loose the metallic sound after a week or so of heavy playing. Although these eventually broke in with the changing conditions I play in, they didn’t work out. They were too touchy and about the time they held their tuning - they died. I don’t use these anymore but a lot of classical violin teachers recommend them to their students and they are available locally. They’re not good for sliding.
     I used Helicore by D’Addario for a while and they worked well. They hold their tuning, have a nice smooth winding but other strings came along so I tried some more.
     I read a good review on the net about Obligato by Pirastro. Someone said that they could make even a bad fiddle sound good not that I had a bad fiddle, but who wouldn’t want to sound great? These were great! The difference in tone over what I was using was remarkable. The drawback? I wore out three A strings for every set. For whatever reason they couldn’t handle the sliding and the winding wore out.
     I tried Zyex by D‘Addario. They settled in quickly, held their tuning in changing conditions, felt smooth to the touch. The trouble with these strings was that I had to send a set back once on account of it was made wrong. Defective. The winding on the A string was not even. It had bumps in it. I got a good replacement, but the next set had a defective string as well. So much for Zyex.     I’m currently using Vision (Orchestra) by Thomastik. Now hear this. When shopping for a set of strings you may be asked to chose which tension you prefer: low, medium or high. Tension makes a big difference in how playable the strings feel to you. I was satisfied with the “Orchestra” type. At the time I bought the first set “Solo” wasn’t available. These were medium tension. You will sacrifice volume when you go for strings that are easy to press down. The second time around I bought “Solo - for the demanding musician.” I hated them. I all but needed two hands to press the strings down and this does not work out for quick little notes (for me and the way I play.) This was the first time ever I called up the place where I ordered them from and asked if I could use their “Satisfaction Guaranteed” option. The lady said, “But not for strings… but we’ll make you a once in a lifetime exception because you‘re such a good customer.” They sent me the “Orchestra” set which sound good, have a smooth winding and are easy to press down. They also have decent volume though not quite as loud as the Solo type.
     I did wear out the A string within six months, though, so soon enough I will be out shopping and experimenting with other brands and types. To me the ideal string would be one that sounds as buttery as a gut string but has good volume, holds its pitch within 24 hours as well as during temperature and humidity changes, has a smooth winding for easy sliding and also less chance of wearing out the winding, and is easy to press down. I really don’t care what the inside is made of because they’re always coming up with something “New! Improved! Guaranteed to make you sound like a Maestro!” as long as they don’t give me trouble.