Every instrument deserves to be looked after. Of course the value of the instrument will influence how much can be invested in repairs. When purchasing an instrument it is worth remembering that poorly made instruments do not last well and do not give a satisfying experience. A well made instrument that is taken care of holds its value and can last hundreds of years!
It’s important to maintain your instrument to obtain the best sound when playing. With a minimum of knowledge, you can detect any damage early on and avoid any problems getting worse.
“Top to Bottom”
There is a simple order of checks to make, ideally once a week for an instrument that is played regularly. (For instruments that are not being played regularly, please see the section below.)
Ask your luthier for advice about strings that will suit you and your instrument, all 4 strings may not need to be from the same brand or set. Damaged strings should replaced.
- Wear – are any pegs visibly worn or warped (losing shape) or breaking?
- Stability – does your instrument stay in tune between practice sessions?
- Stuck or loose – your luthier can use soap and chalk to help a stuck peg move more easily or give more grip to a loose peg.
- Damage – strings may get a dent which affects the sound and feel.
- Wound broken – The wound wraps around the core of the string and can wear and break. If the damage is on the playing length of the string it must be replaced.
- Winding on peg – Correctly winding the string on your peg will help the tuning to hold. Make sure that the loose end of the string is wound toward the outside of the peg box and not to the centre.
- Matching – Do the strings give you an even quality of sound from top to bottom?
- Top nut
- Height – Does it make a buzzing sound when you play? Is it uncomfortable to play in half position? These are both
- Spacing – The strings should be evenly spaced and centred on the fingerboard.
- Evenness of curve – The string should not be at a sharp angle on the top nut and the notches not too deep or pinched. I is recommend lubricating the notch with pencil lead whenever you change strings, also on the bridge.
- Bumps or grooves – Does the fingerboard make a buzzing sound when you play? This is is more noticeable on bigger instruments and can only be fixed by your luthier.
- Evenness – is the sound even for the length of each string, this is most obvious when playing pizzicato.
- Cleaning – Dusting the instrument is very important to protect it and detect any damage to the body.
- Check cracks – If you see anything that looks like a crack, bring it to a violin maker to get checked as soon as possible, don’t wait for it to get worse. The sooner you get it fixed the quicker and least costly the repair will be.
- Fine tuner marks – To avoid any damage, aim to have your fine tuner loosened as far as possible, this is most important for the violin and viola. Tune your instruments with the pegs instead of the fine tuner as much as possible.
- Missing – Knocks and/or where the hands and chin rub can damage the varnish.
- Bare wood – If the varnish wears down to bare wood it needs to be touched up.
- Correct position – The bridge should be aligned with the fingerboard and the body (between the notches of the two ff holes as a rule of thumb).
- Straight – The tailpiece side of the bridge should be perpendicular to the rib line.
- String – Check that strings can move freely on, and rest in, a shallow groove. A string stuck in a groove will affect your tuning and sound.
- Warping/bending (because of tuner) – The bridge can warp in time if using a single fine tuner. It can also bend if it isn’t regularly checked and straightened (see 2. above). It is very important to avoid the cost of a bridge replacement.
- Sound Post
- Inside – Both ends should fit perfectly making complete contact with the front and back of the instrument. The sound post can be seen with a little mirror, like a dentist’s.
- Position- The sound post should be positioned inside, just behind the bridge, vertically.
- Tension – You can see it isn’t properly adjusted if you can feel the front bulging just behind the bridge, or if the top f wing is collapsing.
- Loose – The edges can come loose from the ribs. This happens most likely round the top and bottom end of the body, especially where the hand and chin are rubbing, and the corners. It is not as bad a it looks and sounds, but needs to be fixed as soon as possible.
- Torn – Splinters on cellos can cause further damage if a cello is put down on carpets or fabric that can catch in the instrument. If it’s missing, the rib may not have any more protection.
- Hair tension – The hair must be loosened when not in use.
- Hair – The hair should be of good quality, in the appropriate quantity, with good spreading and balance across the width. Buying a cheap bow is a bad investment. A proper violin bow is designed to have its hair replaced. A cheap bow cannot easily have have the hair changed and would require costly adjustment to solve this issue.
- Rosin – Ask your luthier or teacher about the types of rosin available and how they might affect your playing.
- Tip plate – The tip plate is fragile and protects the stick like a bumper on a car – when it breaks or comes loose your bow becomes vulnerable and needs attention.
- Frog – This needs to be tight against the stick to provide stability.
- State of nut and screw – If you find it impossible to tighten the hair on your bow, one of the possible reason is that the nut might be worn out. This is usually easily replaced by a bowmaker or some luthiers.
- Case – A case needs to be in good working order and provide protection for the instrument. It should not put pressure on any part of the instrument.
- Hygrometry –Your instrument should be kept in conditions that are as stable as possible, neither too damp nor too dry. Dry conditions can be especially damaging.
- Buzz – A buzzing sound is quite a common complaint. It can be caused by virtually anything, and is hard to detect because the source may be hardly visible.
Bertrand is available to give talks and demonstrations to schools and orchestras – visit the contact page to make an enquiry.
How to maintain an instrument that is not being played.
- Loosen the bow hair
- Loosen the strings (a good 5th down)
- Store in a decent case
- Avoid too dry or to damp a room, and potential large variation in humidity
- Avoid areas that might attract woodworms and other pests
… but better yet PLAY IT!