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Replacing a string: how to do it yourself

12 Mar 2021
by Jeroen

For a professional string player it is something that can be done in a jiffy, but if you are still relatively new to the string world it sounds very frightening: replacing a string. The well-known doom images of scars on your face because of a suddenly broken string, cracked violins, or a whole series of defective strings next to a violinist in tears... The good news is that with the right instructions, changing a string is not difficult at all. Below we explain step by step how to do it.

The best way to learn is to copy from a professional. Ask your teacher, luthier, professional string player friend... to change the strings for you the first time and pay attention. It is also important when changing strings that all parts of your instrument work as they should. It is a good time to check them and give them a good maintenance job.

If you notice that your tuning pegs or fine tuners do not turn properly or are completely stuck, your bridge is crooked, other problems, ... Then ask for help. Not dealing with these problems can lead to much worse and also be costly.

If you don't know which strings to choose, take a look at our short string guide!

For the viol(in)ists one last tip for the step-by-step plan: check carefully whether the highest string - the mi (E) on violin, the la (A) on viola - has an end with a ball or loop. Usually the first is the case, but occasionally we come across a fine-tuner with a loop system. In this case you must be careful to make the right choice when buying the string.

Never loosen all four strings at the same time. If you remove the tension from the instrument, the bridge will come down and there is a chance that the soundpost (the little stick inside your instrument) will fall over. It is best to change the strings one by one. Although it doesn't really matter in which order you replace the strings if changing a whole set, we recommend you to do it in the following order: E, G, D, A for violin and A, C, G, D for viola and cello. This way the stability of the bridge well be preserved the most.

The step-by-step plan

    1. Remove the old string by unscrewing the tuning peg completely. Once completely loose, you can remove the other end of the string from the tailpiece or fine tuner.
    2. Lubricate the tuning peg with peg paste from Pirastro or Hill. This will ensure the optimal suppleness. There is nothing as annoying as a tuning peg that, after a while, starts cracking, is stuck or the opposite, coming loose because the friction disappears.
    3. Use a sharp pencil to lubricate the groove of the string on the bridge and nut. This way, the string glides smoothly over the nut and you eliminate the risk of a broken or a warped bridge.

    4. Insert the string in the hole in the right tuning key. Make sure that you insert the strings in the correct relative location to the other tuning pegs - the sol (G) string, for example, will be to the left of the re (D) string, etc. This is occasionally a work of patience. If you can't find the hole right away or if you can't reach it with the end of the string, move the tuning key a little outwards and inwards until you find the right spot. The strings should not cross or touch each other later. The end of the string may come out a tiny bit, a cm or less, otherwise the loose end may unexpectedly vibrate.

    5. Turn the peg (clockwise from the right, anticlockwise from the left), so the string is wound around the tuning key. Make sure that the windings are placed nicely next to each other, towards the inside of the scroll. You can use the fingers of your free hand to guide the string in the right direction. Important: during tuning, push the pegs inwards so that they lock themselves in place.
    6. When the string has been wound around the tuning key a few times, it is time to attach the other end to the fine tuner or the tailpiece. Simply insert the ball joint into the space provided and tighten the string a little more, it will automatically stick to the right place. Hold the string a bit tensed with your free hand so the windings on the tuning peg don't come loose.

    7. Make sure that the string now slides through the right grooves on the bridge and the nut; if necessary, put them in the right place. Most mi (E) strings have a small plastic piece that has to be slid on the bridge, this is to prevent the thin string from cutting a groove that is too deep after a while.

    8. Check if your bridge is straight. The side of the tailpiece should be at a 90° angle to the top of the instrument, the other side slopes upwards. You can move the bridge carefully with two hands, preferably when the strings are not yet in tune - and the tension is a little lower.
    9. Gradually bring the strings to the right pitch with the tuning pegs, making sure that the bridge is at any time still at the right angle. You can also unscrew the fine tuners completely, so that you can make full use of them in the future. Do not go beyond the normal pitch of the string! Otherwise you might get off to a bad start and end up with a broken string...

New strings need time to 'settle', to break in. It depends on the brand and string type how long it takes before they reach their ideal timbre and stable pitch and will sound a bit metallic for a while. Some strings will do this after just a few minutes, others will take several days. Most synthetic core strings do this relatively quickly, gut strings (wound) need more time. Steel strings are the champions and need very little break-in time. You can speed up this process a bit by 'stretching' the strings while they are already on the instrument. Like you would play a loud pizzicato, but without letting go of the string.

A few more tips

  • If the tuning key does not want to stay in place after tuning, make sure you have pressed it properly. Does the winding of the string press against the keyhole on the inside, preventing the key from locking itself? Then loosen the string and put it on again in a different way.
  • Help, my string has broken! New strings very rarely break without a reason. This usually happens when they are tuned too high. Occasionally it is caused by a sharp piece on the bridge, nut or key.
  • The string doesn't stay in the tailpiece? Then the ball of the string doesn't catch behind the part designed for it. In this case, you have to insert the string deeper into the tailpiece. If the groove is not wide enough (e.g. because your tailpiece is designed for thin metal strings and you are trying to mount synthetic strings), you can stretch it a bit or mount another, suitable tailpiece.
  • You can lubricate the fine tuners by unscrewing the screw completely and smearing it with an oil-based product. This can be vegetable oil, bicycle oil or vaseline, whatever you have at hand!
  • The life span of your strings can be extended by washing your hands well before playing, and after playing remove the resin and sweat residue with a dry cloth.
  • Don't throw away your old strings immediately - if they are still playable. It's always handy to have a set of old strings ready if a string suddenly breaks during a concert or rehearsal. That way you can continue playing immediately and the string doesn't have to be broken in!

By taking good care of your strings and replacing them when necessary, you ensure that you can always enjoy the ideal sound quality. Enjoy playing!