Fine Tuners: To Use or Not to Use?

The little screws on the tailpiece of your stringed instrument are a convenient invention. When you try to tune your strings perfectly, the fine tuners save the day. Turn them clockwise to ever so slightly raise the pitch or the opposite to lower it.

As a beginning string player, you’ve probably come to a certain conclusion about fine tuners. It seems fine tuners are for more inexperienced players, not ready for using the pegs to tune. It also may indicate a higher end instrument because you’ve seen professional players with only one fine tuner on the tailpiece for the E-string. However, one day you go to a concert, and you spot some amazing musicians sporting four fine tuners on their fiddles. The violins are gorgeous, and the players clearly aren’t students, so what gives? Why do some string instruments have one fine tuner, while others have four? Should you use fine tuners or not?

String Material

While it definitely makes sense that as you advance, you may not need to use fine tuners as often; that’s not all. They are a relatively new invention. Designed for a specific purpose -- to make it easier to tune steel strings.

Prior to the 1900s, strings were made out of “catgut.” No, not actual cat guts! Well, the reality isn’t much better. Back in the day, people made strings out of sheep and lamb guts, and sometimes, a mixture of other animal muscles and connective tissues. As you can imagine, gut strings were really flexible and stretchable. Therefore, pegs did the job of finding the accurate open string pitches just fine. But, when metal was introduced to the string industry -- steel, in particular -- in the late 1800s and early 1900s, a problem arose.

Steel is not as malleable as guts and connective tissue. One turn too much in the peg caused the string to snap. Despite this issue, metal and steel strings became all the rage in the string musician community which gave birth to a new invention -- the fine tuner. The fine tuner stretched the metal strings in small increments to avoid breakage. For steel strings, you only have to turn the pegs and fine tuners very little to change the pitch. This makes steel material more desirable due to the ease of tuning. It takes less time to get to the pitch you need. Fine tuners also pleased people who used synthetic and gut strings. They didn’t have to fool around with the pegs as much.

When steel strings first came out, they were usually a combination of gut and steel strings with the E-string being the metal one. Therefore, the fine tuner was often just needed on the E-string, hence, one fine tuner as opposed to all four. But as metal strings became more popular, people started to want all four metal strings and thus fine tuners on all strings.

One thing persisted, though. Higher end instruments, generally, came with gut or more expensive strings. Steel strings were cheap and used on student instruments. Therefore, steel strings and fine tuners became associated with the value of the instrument. And even when steel strings became more popular and well-made, the tradition of leaving only one fine tuner for the E-string on more expensive instruments stuck. Therefore, the amount of fine tuners you see on a violin is more a matter of tradition and preference than anything else.

Sound Quality

When using fine tuners, think about how it might affect your instrument’s tone. Ease of tuning and getting to the most accurate pitch are the major benefits of these little contraptions.

There is a caveat, though. Adding them to just any tailpiece could lessen your instrument’s tone quality, lowering the sound projection. It’s best to get tailpieces with built-in fine tuners. We have several options here at Fiddlershop. Browse our online store or give us a call for more information.

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