How to tune a fiddle

How to tune a fiddle

In the early stages of learning to play, there’s so much to take in that we often forget that it’s also important to learn how to tune a fiddle.

A fiddle, showing the bridge and strings
Photo ©Ros Gasson

The strings are tuned to the notes G,D, A and E. If you’re holding your fiddle ready to play, this is the view of the strings as the go over the fiddle’s bridge. The thickest string (the G) is on the left.

 

If you’re unsure of the names of different parts of the fiddle, you can refer to this page to see labelled pictures of fiddles.

Fine adjusters, used for tuning a fiddle
Photo ©Ros Gasson
    • If your fiddle has a fine adjusters on each of the strings, as in the photo above, you can use the pegs to make any major changes to tuning (if the string is more than a semitone out), and then use the fine adjusters to bring it to exactly the right pitch. Turning the fine adjuster clockwise tightens the string, and raises the pitch up, making the note sharper. Turning it anti-clockwise will lower the pitch, making the note flatter.
    • If your fiddle only has a fine adjuster on the E string (as in the photo below), you’ll need to use the pegs for tuning the other strings. The technique for doing this is to slacken the peg so the note is slightly flat, then tighten it in a single movement to put the string in tune. If it’s not in tune, flatten it again, and repeat. It will take a while to be able to tune a fiddle with this method. It’s much easier if the pegs fit snugly, and are relatively easy to turn.
A single adjuster on the e string of a fiddle
Photo ©Ros Gasson

Being able to tune a fiddle by ear relies on being able to hear what an ‘in tune’ note sounds like. So what should you do if you just can’t hear when a string is in tune?

There’s a number of things you can do to begin to gain confidence with tuning by ear. Learning how to tune a fiddle by ear will also help with learning to play more in tune.

  • Get into the habit of tuning  your fiddle by ear whenever possible. Check it with an electronic tuner afterwards, to see if you have it exactly in tune. Doing this regularly will help you to learn to hear what ‘in tune’ sounds like, for the open strings on the fiddle. There are many different types of electronic tuners available. The Dadario violin tuner is designed specifically for a fiddle/violin. It clips on to the body of the fiddle, and can be left permanently in place if you like. An alternative is one of the many free phone apps that are available. I’ve been using Da Tuner Lite.
  • If you’re in a very noisy environment, or if other people are also tuning their fiddle, you may find it difficult to hear clearly. If possible find a quiet space to tune up.
  • Follow the same process each time you tune your fiddle. Loosen each string in turn before tuning it, so you are always tuning from flat to in-tune. This will also help to reduce the risk of breaking a string.
  • Start off by tuning the A string, either to an electronic tuner, or to a fixed pitch instrument, pitch pipe  or tuning fork.
  • Holding the fiddle to tune it by ear
    Photo ©Ros Gasson

    It can be helpful to hear the string you are tuning along with another note that’s in tune. When you’re able to play chords on the fiddle, you can follow this process: tune A string, then while you are tuning the D string play a chord with the D and the adjacent open A string. Once the D is in tune, play a chord with the open D string while you are tuning the G. The A string can also be used for a chord while tuning the E string.

  • Once you think you have 2 adjacent strings in tune, try playing the start of a tune that you know really well, that begins with a fifth jump, and start on the 2 tuned open strings. Twinkle Twinkle Little Star works well! Listen to that opening interval, and see if you can hear if it’s in tune or not.

Some other hints about tuning:

  • If you move your fiddle between places that are at very different temperatures, or different humidity, it’s likely to go out of tune. Strings will tend to go flat if the fiddle is moved from a cold to a warm place, and sharp if it’s moved from warm to cold. If this happens, it’s helpful to take your fiddle out of its case as soon as you can, to let it readjust to the new temperature before you re-tune it.
  • When new strings are put on a fiddle, they tend to stretch over the first week or so. The string goes flat as it stretches, so you will need to tune the fiddle more regularly until the string stops stretching. If you are just using the fine adjusters to tune, it’s possible you will tighten them to the limit, and find they won’t go any further. If this happens, loosen the fine adjusters off completely (turn them anti-clockwise), then roughly tune the fiddle using the pegs, before using the fine adjusters to bring the strings completely into tune. If you’re changing a string on your fiddle, it’s worth loosening the fine adjuster off before putting the new string on, to avoid this happening.
  • If you need to use the pegs to bring the strings roughly into tune, take care not to over tighten them. Turning a peg just a small amount will tighten the string a lot. It’s quite possible to snap a string by turning the peg to far too fast, particularly if you are tuning the E string.