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 ARCHIVED TOPIC: Tuning: plucking vs bowing

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Tennessee Tom - Posted - 04/24/2010:  07:33:34

Is it better to tune a fiddle by plucking the string or bowing it?


Dick Hauser - Posted - 04/24/2010:  07:45:13

On the Shar Music website I watched an employee demonstrate using Intelli's new clip-on tuner. He recommended plucking the string.

I have seen an exceptionally good classical violinist tune up and he used a Sabine MT9000 and bowed the strings to check his tuning. It would be very hard for the average player to maintain the constant steady even tone that he produced.

My personal feelings are that plucking would probably work better for the average fiddler and even more so for novices.

Peterson postponed sending out their new clip-on strobe tuners until June. They were originally supposed to come out in March.

Here is a question for listmembers using tuners. I have 4 or 5 different tuners. The "G", "D", and "E" string can be tuned with no problem. But,. the tuners, especially the Intelli's, won't consistently pick up the signal from the "A" string.

Percy - Posted - 04/24/2010:  07:45:41

I would say "bowing" is the better option... You can get close "plucking" the string, but when you bow -- you put tension on the string which can change the pitch just a bit...

But having said that, I have this "violin tuner" that clips to the bridge and it seems to be able to "read" the string almost perfectly. When I tune "plucking" using that tuner, and then check when bowing, it's almost perfect!

Edited by - Percy on 04/24/2010 07:47:01

OTJunky - Posted - 04/24/2010:  07:50:52

I have to do both.

Pluck'em to get close, then bow two adjacent strings to get the 5ths right on.

If it's very quite, I can usually get the 5ths right by listening to the beats - but it's rarely quiet enough...


Percy - Posted - 04/24/2010:  08:24:39

I'm using the "Matrix SR-1000V" which is a violin tuner. There's a pick-up that clips on the bridge -- and you select the string you are tuning. That's it -- there are no other whistles and bells -- it doesn't intuitively know which string you are trying to tune -- so maybe that's why it is so accurate... it does a great job -- plucking or bowing, the outcome is almost exactly the same -- I think it's perfect within the range of normal human hearing!

woodwiz - Posted - 04/24/2010:  09:19:03

I just get a good A, and tune the D, G, and E to it by double stops. It's fastest, and IMHO, a fiddle sounds best when it's in tune with itself. Besides, most clip-on tuners I've seen are sloooow.

If I were playing by plucking, I'd tune by plucking. I usually bow, so I tune by bowing. When you pluck a string, it starts out sharp, and then goes flatter by several cents. Slow tuners won't catch this, so I guess it doesn't make much difference with them.

Here's a very fast, very accurate tuner that I use when putting on new strings, or when the strings are way out of tune. It's free, and has a sound analyzer and dB meter as well. My mic is always on, so it's a simple matter to hit the shortcut for this tuner, and it picks the sound up from anywhere. Really handy for me.

I'd ignore the just intonation option, You'd have to re-tune the fiddle for every key, and isn't very useful.

lrhamp - Posted - 04/24/2010:  10:01:41

Yeah----Bowing adjacent strings is the way to go. I like to go sharp on one string until I just hear it and then tune down using a fine tuner while lightly bowing. Nothing like playing a well tuned fiddle. Oh----one thing I have learned is not to start retuning at a jam. You'll be standing with different people who are slightly out of tune. Best to tune with a guitar chord from the jam leader at the start if possible and never, never start tuning with a banjo player.

Edited by - lrhamp on 04/24/2010 10:16:03

WoodshopFiddler - Posted - 04/24/2010:  10:12:43

I tune the A to my tuner and then tune the other strings by ear, listening for the beats.

FiddlerJones - Posted - 04/24/2010:  12:09:49

I've never been good at turning the peg for the A string while bowing--too awkward--so I pluck the A. When I think I have the A string in tune, I strike my tuning fork on my knee and hold it against the bridge. If the A string is perfectly in tune, it will vibrate strongly in sympathy with the tuning fork. Once I have the A string in tune, I bow the others. The only string I have a fine-tuner on is the E string. For me, plucking the string does not give a sufficiently sustained note to tell if I have a perfect fifth. Others' experiences may differ.

fiddlepogo - Posted - 04/24/2010:  15:50:08

Using a tuner, I pluck.
Part of the point of tuners in jams is to be able to tune in the background.
Plucking works for that, bowing doesn't.

I found that part of the problem with plucking is that (on a fiddle) it doesn't generate a tone strong enough to
give the sensor a sufficient shaking, especially if you have it clipped to the scroll.
I've discovered that I can get around that. by clipping the tuner onto the neck just below the nut (right about where your thumb and index finger touch the neck in first position),
and tuning the two strings on the same side the sensor is on.
Then I remount the tuner with the sensor (and tuner body) on the other side to
be closer to those two strings.

This might help you with your A string problem, Dick.

When I tune it this way, I only very rarely have to touch it up by playing the fifths.

Edited by - fiddlepogo on 04/24/2010 15:54:29

Mandogryl - Posted - 04/24/2010:  16:21:51

I have found that when plucking the string, it seems a few cents flat as opposed to bowing. (OR, maybe bowing seems sharp as opposed to plucking.)
My partner uses a tuning fork when she tunes and it is the most amazing thing. I might switch to that.

ChickenMan - Posted - 04/24/2010:  16:24:26

good topic, I've been wondering the same.
Like woodwiz said, I find plucking the string gives a different note than bowing.
I have a clip on tuner that is for bowed instruments (Center Pitch) and reads the bowed note.
I don't have to be totally perfect or steady, just in the sweet spot is good enough.
Tone isn't what you are looking at when tuning, pitch is what it's about, that's why you don't want
to bow too far from the bridge - it can alter the pitch of the string. I think the pluck is harder to hear correctly.
Beyond that, I just get the A in tune and use my ears for the rest bowing two strings at once.

rafa - Posted - 04/24/2010:  18:34:21

I agree with WW, I get a good A and then fine tune the rest with double stops or drones, seems to wprk pretty good.

Tennessee Tom - Posted - 04/25/2010:  07:51:48

Originally posted by FiddlerJones

I pluck the A. When I think I have the A string in tune, I strike my tuning fork on my knee and hold it against the bridge. If the A string is perfectly in tune, it will vibrate strongly in sympathy with the tuning fork.

That's an interesting method. I tried it, and it works well. It took me a while to get the hang of it, though. I found I had to lay the fiddle down and use a light touch of my finger on the A string. When it was vibrating the most, I could feel it, and I could also modulate the sound coming from the instrument.


EDIT: I find that it makes a difference in a fiddle with synthetic core strings. On the fiddle w steel core, I can't see it happen. On the fiddle with the synthetics, I can see it happen.

Edited by - Tennessee Tom on 04/25/2010 08:05:54

forestabri - Posted - 04/25/2010:  09:42:44

I use an Intellitouch and pluck. But then I check the string pairs with a bow and adjust. I found this very important with cross tuning. After all, we're playing for human ears, not tuners!

hanknc - Posted - 04/25/2010:  12:20:19

Originally posted by rafa

I agree with WW, I get a good A and then fine tune the rest with double stops or drones, seems to wprk pretty good.


It wprks pretty good for me, too.

Edited by - hanknc on 04/25/2010 12:21:33

tarheel - Posted - 04/29/2010:  17:49:58

I dont see where it matters, just match the octaves UNLESS youre playing with sombody. I pluck to standard, then tune to the rythm guitar, it seems plucking always puts me a little flatt compared to the band. It's a compromise at best, especially after a few songs and key changes with the capos doin their dirty work.

akology - Posted - 06/04/2010:  22:39:28

I noticed a long time ago that when I tune with a tuner i have the same problem. The bowed notes sound wrong. And If I tune by plucking, the notes are true. However if I'm not useing a tuner bowing the fifths is the best way to get there.
So pluck away if need be. But it's good to train your ears to adjust. As I have found my fellow old time players seem to thininane play in their own special pitch. A440? Bah!

groundhogpeggy - Posted - 06/05/2010:  05:28:08

I've never used a tuner (except I've got a fork laying around here somewhere that shakes out a 440 A for me, but rarely use that... I never have others to play with so I just guess most of the time)... I pluck to get it sweetened, and then bow for the final icing. Just plucking doesn't do it, because the strings resonate different while being bowed.

coelhoe - Posted - 06/05/2010:  07:12:27

With six of us doing final tweaks on electric guitars, bass, etc. before starting a set, I find that using a clip connector for my Korg OT-120 works very well, especially in a noisy venue, or in those last few minutes before starting when you have final sound check, instrument and mic balance, venue tonalities, and other last minute headaches. It has three attack settings, and huge variety of built-in tunings. It takes me just a minute to quickly pluck the strings and check the instrument with the clip on the bridge. I found years ago, in the days before electronic tuners, that in a multiple instrument setting I would tend to tune a tiny bit sharp, which gave my instrument a definite "presence" in the ensemble. Of course, over an evening's playing this would creep upward as we tended to tune to each other on stage.

I don't why, but I have found the Intellitouch tuners, and others of this type, to be very inconsistent.

bj - Posted - 06/05/2010:  13:34:29

I have a tuner with a clip on the bridge mike and can barely notice a difference between bowed and plucked, but the plucked does seem to be much more consistent, so that's what I use. I then check against the sound I hear from the group and finetune things (though it's seldom needed.)

Thought I should mention, the tuner I have had directions that suggested plucking to tune bowed instruments. Is that for all tuners, or just for this brand?

Edited by - bj on 06/05/2010 13:35:49

FiddleJammer - Posted - 06/05/2010:  14:46:33

I've had some of these discussions before. Interesting that many folks never think to check the directions from the manufacturer. If you lost the paper, they're probably online in some form.

alaskafiddler - Posted - 06/05/2010:  15:06:20

Technically a plucked note followed by ring is different than a constant bowed note. It has to do with a open string is full of overtones and inharmonic frequencies. It's not just one frequency but many. The attack phase is unstable, full of clashing overtones and inharmonic frequencies, before it settles in to a stable phase of harmonic frequencies, followed by a phase of decay (ring). String age will affect the difference between unstable, stable and decay, old strings are really off for plucked decay. Other factors contributing is conflicting noise, especially other strings on the instrument which will resonate.

Contributing to the unstable attack phase is how hard the attack is, you are stretching the string slightly on the attack, making it sharper, either plucked or bowed. The harder the attack the more stretch, the more sharp.

One can see this by either plucking or bowing, how the needle, especially LEDs waver sharp then flat, slightly out then suddenly in, or in tune then as the plucked string decays it reads out of tune. It's not exactly that the machine is slow in trying to figure it out, but rather it hears many frequencies. Using a pure simple electronic sine wave, it snaps in right away and does not waver at all. Using the octave harmonic wavers less, and would be more accurate.

Tuners are different, (I think I read some are more designed for plucked). Not in that they are different in 440 read. One way in how quickly they respond. But more of the difference is in how weighted they are. Many LEDs provide a window of what's in tune. I think to compensate for the wavering, it just averages perhaps. I know that with the unchanging pure sine wave, you can make it a little flat or sharp and it still registers green dot in tune, sometimes you can make it start as slightly flat read (slow flashing) then the tuner will read in tune.

So I would recommend bowing to fine tune, and bowing consistently how hard you will play.

bsed - Posted - 06/05/2010:  19:25:16

Originally posted by rafa

I agree with WW, I get a good A and then fine tune the rest with double stops or drones, seems to wprk pretty good.

That's pretty much what I do. I use a fork (doesn't need batteries), and I'll pluck strings to get them in theneighborhood, then I'll bow to fine tune.

hardykefes - Posted - 06/06/2010:  05:40:15

Originally posted by FiddlerJones

I pluck the A. When I think I have the A string in tune, I strike my tuning fork on my knee and hold it against the bridge. If the A string is perfectly in tune, it will vibrate strongly in sympathy with the tuning fork. This method is kind of hard to use for synthetic strings because you preferably use the pegs to tune instead of fine tuner.

This was the "old" method w used when there weren't any fancy tuners around and it works well.
Although as an answer pluck or bow I would say it depends on the type of strings.
While steel strings give pretty much the same tone , plucked or bowed, the synthetic strings differ in pitch. Reason for this is that they stretch a little while being bowed and therefor changing length. The amount of change varies from fiddler to fiddler. If you play with a "heavy arm" the difference is clearly audible. If you just use the weight of the bow with no added pressure there will be almost no difference at all.

I made it my habit always to bow for tuning.

Tennessee Tom - Posted - 06/06/2010:  06:11:13

Thanks for all the great comments. I've heard it said that some experts can tune a fiddle fairly close by listening only to the 1 string, with no other reference. As my ear training progresses, I can see how that would eventually be possible. For now, though, I like the method of plucking adjacent strings to get it close, then fine-tuning by bowing adjacent strings.

transplant - Posted - 06/06/2010:  06:38:14

A while ago somebody posted a handy trick for tuning to a piano: grab a D minor chord on the keys, adding a B natural in the bass, so:


with middle C between the B and D, so the A is the one that's closest to 440. If you can get every string of a GDAE-tuned fiddle to sound OK with that, it's good enough for playing with that piano.

Works for CGDA-tuned fiddles as well, in fact even better, since if you tune your fiddle to pure fifths from the A, the C will be noticeably flat compared to the tempered piano tuning.

Edited by - transplant on 06/06/2010 07:07:17

Sue B. - Posted - 06/06/2010:  07:04:03

I use a tuner to get an A, then tune the other strings to it. I like how woodwiz described his reasoning. If I'm playing with an accordion or piano player, I take my A from that. Lately I've also been checking my E with a tuner since I tend to "like" my E a little sharp. A cent or two pu sounds sweeter to my ear, but more than about a half-cent doesn't work with other instruments. I think novices or anyone whose pegs may not be easy to use does well to have 3 or 4 fine tuners or a tailpiece with built-ins. They can go ahead and use a tuner for all 4 strings, and if very clean bowing is still difficult, just pluck gently to tune. Spending minutes (or longer) trying to deal with pegs is a frustrating waste of time & emotional energy IMO :) Sue

transplant - Posted - 06/06/2010:  07:25:45

Sue, I don't mean to aim this at you personally, but listen up, people: Well-kept pegs feel like they are bedded in dark chocolate-- they turn smoothly, and hold solidly. Trying to tune with dry worn-out pegs is like going around with worn-out brake pads, only not so hazardous. My mechanic won't give me this year's state sticker unless I've got working brakes. Pete's sake, if my bicycle takes its own sweet time stopping, that's the first place I look.

It's too bad that some folks seem to think that visiting the luthier is worse than going to the dentist. The good ones, I think the majority, are practical, kind-hearted people who are not all that interested in selling you a bunch of snake oil. OK, sorry, I'll stop now. At least I wasn't ranting about fiddle tops covered with rosin dust, which doesn't bother me at all.

And I do like fine tuners for quick touchups on the fly.

bj - Posted - 06/06/2010:  12:33:03

Um, Bill? Some of us have a bit of a drive to get to our favorite luthier. Like . . . oh, um . . . five or more hours.

transplant - Posted - 06/06/2010:  16:05:37

Aww. Always happy to see you and your fiddle(s), and I bet you could find a good worker with a well-lit workshop closer to home, if you needed to, and asked around some.

alaskafiddler - Posted - 06/06/2010:  16:31:30

Originally posted by bj

Um, Bill? Some of us have a bit of a drive to get to our favorite luthier. Like . . . oh, um . . . five or more hours.

Yeah, it should be mandated every community that's big enough for a doctor or dentist should have a luthier, at least decent set-up and repair person.

I wonder if it would work that some of you folks who live in smaller communities can get together and have someone come out once every few months?

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