Bowed string instruments – violins, violas, cellos and string basses – are preserved by careful attention and professional service. Many common problems can be avoided by regular care and adjustment.
Instrument types and sizes
The violin family has four members: violin, viola, cello (short for “violincello”) and bass. Violin strings are tuned EADG (from the highest to the lowest). The viola skips the top E, has the same ADG as the violin, and then adds a C on the bottom. Even though the viola covers much of the same range as the violin, it has a very different tone quality: much darker and richer. The cello has the same strings as the viola (ADGC), but they are each an octave (eight tones) lower than on the viola. The bass is lower yet, and is tuned GDAE. Each of these four instruments comes in different sizes, with bows to match. A full-size violin has a body length (not including the “button,” or the end of the neck) of about 14inches, with a 3/4 size at 13+ inches, and so on down to 1/16size. There is, in reality, quite a bit of variation among violins labeled as being the same nominal size. Another variation you may occasionally find is a 7/8, slightly smaller than a full-size. This used to be called a “ladies” violin.
Viola sizes are much more variable, ranging from about 14”to about 17”. Generally, 14” is considered to be a 3/4 size. Often, a full-size violin is fitted with viola strings and used as a 3/4 viola. A real 14” viola will have deeper ribs than a violin. The increased interior volume will help to compensate for the overall small size, and should have a better c-string sound than a restrung violin. Such small violas used to be hard to come by, but this is no longer the case. For an older student, get the largest viola he or she can comfortably play. The viola is basically a difficult engineering matter, and it needs a large air volume to produce dark, chocolate tone. In this century, several interesting design modifications have been tried to make large violas easier to play. The Tertis model has normal upper bouts (shoulders) but wider lower bouts. The Erdeszmodel has a deep cutaway in the treble (a-side) upper bout. Other makers, such as Alan and Sarah Balmforth, have tried an asymmetrical approach, with the right half of the viola slightly smaller than the left. The Pellegrina model of David Rivinus is quite radically distorted and asymmetrical. Most of these variations, with the exception of the Tertis, are not available in student-level violas.
Cellos come in full-size, 3/4 and so on, down to 1/10. Even in student instruments, try to get a cello that is real maple and spruce, not plywood.
The “full-size” bass that most adults play is actually a 3/4size; a 7/8 size or actual full-size bass is appropriate only for very tall adults. 1/2 size and 1/4 size basses also exist. Again, a bass made of real, carved wood is preferable to one made of pressed plywood.
Although a good violin shop can guide you in choosing a size, your child’s teacher is the person best qualified to select the appropriate size of instrument.
Violin-family instruments must be cleaned regularly to remove finger grease, rosin and other dirt. Before puttingthe instrument away, use a soft cloth to clean rosin from the strings and the top of the body. Gently dust under the strings and fingerboard, and clean the bow stick with the cloth, being careful not to touch the hair. Violin cleaners and polishes are available from us, and they should be used regularly to remove oils. Put a small amount of cleaner on a soft cloth, and rub the violin. Do not use furniture polish or any solvent, such as alcohol, on the varnished parts of the violin. It is okay, however, to clean your strings periodically with a cloth dampened, not soaked, in alcohol. This will remove grease and caked rosin, and will make the strings last longer and sound better. When you do this, be verycareful not to get any alcohol on the varnish, as alcohol is an excellent varnish remover.
Heat and Humidity
Store violins and their cousins in cool places, away from direct sun, heaters, and heat ducts. If your house is very dry, or if you are taking your instrument in an airplane, to desert country, or other very dry places, use a humidifier (available from this or other violin shop), and make sure the humidifier actually has water in it. Don’t store the instrument in a damp location. Keep it out of the bathroom and away from wet spots and unheated rooms. The best place to store an instrument is a closet or cupboard in a heated room. Remember, if a particular environment is too cold, hot, damp, or dry for your own comfort, it’s not good for your instrument, either.
Loosen the Bow
Before storing the bow, loosen the hair by turning the screw. Hair that is always tight will damage the stick, and may stretch itself so that it cannot be tightened enough for playing.
Slipping or sticking pegs: Peg dope, available from the shop in two varieties – one for each of these problems – may be the simple solution. However, peg slipping or sticking may be caused by ill-fitting pegs, or peg-holes that are too big, too small, improperly aligned, or worn. If you must force the peg in hard to keep it from slipping, you are in danger of splitting the sides of the peg box. If peg dope doesn’t work, bring the instrument in for a professional look.
Strings too high or too low: This usually occurs because the bridge or nut is too high or too low, or because the string grooves in the nut are too deep. In some cases the bridge has been cut down because the instrument has a loose neck, which distorts how the strings lie. In some cases the instrument was originally built wrong. The most complete solution to this problem is to reset the neck and fit a new bridge. If the height (or “projection”) of the fingerboard is only slightly low, it can be raised by the insertion of a tapered shim of ebony or maple between the fingerboard and the neck. A bridge which is too high can always be cut down, but it must be replaced, obviously, if it is too low. Sometimes the strings feel too high because there is too much lengthwise concavity (“scoop”) in the fingerboard. In this case, we would plane and sand the fingerboard.
String height (“action”) and spacing can make an amazing difference in the “playability,” and even the tone, of an instrument, as well as in the accuracy of the player. It is not an exaggeration to say that more students have been discouraged by bad “action” than by any other characteristic of a poorly-adjusted instrument.
Loose joints and seams, cracks: Cracks can occur for a variety of reasons, and they often get bigger if they are neglected. In addition, cracks can affect an instrument’s value and sound. Loose seams and joints are often easier to repair than cracks, but still must be taken care of immediately. Do not attempt home repairs. Proper technique is important, and a hot hide glue is needed. This glue is not generally available, and experience in its use is required. Cracks in the sound post and bass bar areas are particularly dangerous.
Buzzes: These can be attributed to a number of causes. Fine tuners may be loose. The bridge or nut may be too low, causing the strings to touch the fingerboard. The fingerboard may be loose, or have grooves worn in it, or the chinrest may be touching the tailpiece. Occasionally, even loose ornaments on pegs have caused buzzes. If the source of the buzz isn’t readily apparent, bring the instrument in and we’ll investigate. Remember, though, that if you wear jewelry when you play, you may be the cause of the problem!
Damaged varnish: Varnish can vanish from a number of causes, including wear. Older instruments often have areas where, over the centuries, hands have worn away the varnish. Do not attempt to replace or fix damaged varnish!This is a job for a professional, as violin varnishes are multi-layered, built up with repeated applications of special concoctions. Varnish is an integral part of the instrument and its value, so it is never stripped and replaced. Retouching of varnish is an art in itself, and previous home “repairs” make this work more difficult. In many cases, but not all, we can make varnish damage vanish.
Tuners: Fine tuners may cause buzzes, or may damage varnish. Be sure they are not screwed down all the way, nicking the varnish under the tailpiece. Also, make sure they aren’t loose, causing buzzing noises. We often recommend Hill-type miniature tuners, which are much less likely to damage the top of a violin.
Tone quality: Many string players ask how to improve the tone of their instrument. Tone quality is an inherent property of the instrument, to a great extent, attributable to various factors including the quality of materials and the skill of the maker. A cheap fiddle will never sound like a real Stradivarius. However, it is possible to improve tonal quality within the range of the instrument. Better strings can help, as well as proper fitting and adjustment of the soundpost. Another important factor is the proper fitting and adjustment of a high-quality bridge. A cheap bridge with rotating feet, slapped onto the instrument by an untrained salesman, will hurt its tone, volume, and responsiveness. The neck angle, overstand (height of the fingerboard above the edge of the top) and height of the saddle all affect the tone and response of an instrument.