Lute tuning #2
I wrote an article on tuning in this series a while ago, but with the focus on tuning in Lute News 139, I have revisited the topic to discuss a few details which regularly generate queries. Many beginners are working with student lutes, amateur-made or vintage instruments, which may not be well set up for easy and effective tuning, but how does a beginner tell if the problem is their method or their instrument? Others have written in this issue on routines and techniques for tuning a lute, but these are doomed to failure if there is a serious issue with any of the elements in the chain - pegs, strings and frets. Here are a few things to check on your lute if you are uncertain about this. The DIY fixes are all addressed in the lute society booklet by David Van Edwards on caring for your lute. I suggest acquiring a copy of this (available via our catalogue) and keeping it in your lute case.
Are the frets loose? If your frets move really easily, they are too loose to play consistently in tune, which relies on firm fret positioning. Moving a fret for tuning purposes should be a very deliberate process; you should have to grip the edges of the fret very firmly and coax it to its new position, usually one side at a time. If you can simply push it around, it’s too loose. Refretting a lute is usually a DIY fix but that is another topic; you can find ‘how to’ instructions in the aforementioned booklet, on various makers’ websites and on youtube. For now, since you just want to learn to tune your lute, I suggest that you tighten a loose fret by slipping a wedge of folded paper or a sliver of wood under the edge of the fret, on the bass side of the back of the neck, where it won’t be in the way of your fretting hand.
Are your strings in good condition? If you’re just starting out on the instrument this can be hard to judge! Look for any obvious fraying, broken or rusted metal windings on bass strings, and double courses on the treble side of the lute which contain obviously mismatched strings. Bass courses are usually tuned in octaves, so each course will include two very different strings (often a metal-wound string paired with a monofilament string), but higher courses up to the 2nd should contain two matched strings. If there’s a visible difference in colour, texture or diameter, your best bet is to replace both strings. An older worn string paired with a fresh new one is also unlikely to fret in tune with its partner, so change both if in doubt. A false string will be impossible to tune. To check for this, hold the string’s neighbour aside, pluck the string firmly and watch the vibration arc made by the string; this is best done against the dark fingerboard in good daylight. Avoid artificial light because some lights can cause strange-looking vibrations with certain frequencies, and that’s a complication you don’t need at this point! You should see a smooth clean arc of vibration. If you see a mess of chaotic vibrations, the string is probably false. The only fix is replacement.
Is the nut in good condition? Each string should ride freely in one clean slot in the nut; it is a good idea to run a soft sharp pencil in the groove each time you change the string. The graphite lubricates the string groove. If the nut is a mess of bits of paper stuffed under strings, visible previous attempts to change the grooves, etc, you may need a new nut or some adjustments to the grooves. This is not a huge or expensive job, but requires a maker; refer to the lute society’s makers’ list to find one. If grooves are too small and are gripping the string, they can be enlarged without changing the nut - this is a quick and easy job for a maker, and can transform the tuning process. If a groove has a sharp edge, strings may break here, or you may see broken windings on bass strings at the nut, or little curly shavings peeling off nylon or gut strings at this point. Again, this has an easy fix, but a precision one, for a maker.
Pegs…. A well-fitted peg is a splendidly efficient tuning mechanism. A poorly fitted peg is a nightmare, but how do you tell if the problem is the peg? You need to have this information, so if there’s doubt, be brave and slack off a string sufficiently so that it stays on the peg, but doesn’t interfere with you moving the peg. Be sure to unwind any bunched string close to the pegbox wall, and take the opportunity to trim away any excess string ends tangled up in the pegbox. Now work the peg in its hole, rotating it in each direction and pushing it gently into the pegbox just enough for it to grip. Freed of the tension of the string (and various complications arising from that), your peg should move freely and smoothly, and grip the pegbox efficiently with hardly any push. If the peg sticks and/or squeaks, it needs lubrication. There are various options, depending on the wood of the peg; a tiny amount of peg paste is best, but powdered chalk or a tiny wipe of dry soap can also work. If a peg simply won’t grip, it may have too much lubrication; remove the string, withdraw the peg and wipe it firmly; try the naked peg in the hole and if necessary re-apply a tiny amount of lubrication. If it turns jerkily, it may be an old peg which has become oval; the solution is to get pegs refitted by a maker, or replaced if they’re particularly bad. If the head of the peg twists, but the shank doesn’t move, the wood has basically failed, and you need a new peg. If the peg turns smoothly and grips well, you’re good to go, so wind your string back to pitch, taking care to lead the string so it lines up tidily on the peg, without piling up against the pegbox wall. It should run perpendicular to the nut; if it leaves the nut at any angle visibly off from 90 degrees, you’re setting up a problem, so unwind it and rewind it until it runs straight. If you’re just getting to grips with your first lute, I recommend that you do this operation on each peg in turn. It’s annoying, because slacking off the strings will destabilise the very tuning that you are seeking to fix, but it will settle quickly. The process will often fix a bunch of problems with poorly-led strings and/or too much string wound on pegs, plus you’ll find out the true state of your pegs. You should only have to do this once! If you know that your pegs are basically working smoothly, you can skip this rather drastic step; just check them over for bunched strings, over-long string ends, etc., and do a general tidy-up of the pegbox.
If you have successfully completed these checks, you can refer to my colleagues’ splendid articles on their tuning methods (in Lute News 139), or my earlier article. If you have encountered a problem, please reach out to a maker or a player rather than just struggling on, or worse, giving up on your lute. The lute world is a friendly place, and help is readily available, including online resources and fora. Happy tuning!