Getting/staying tuned at a jam?

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    • #28070

      So I went to a jam, and it was great fun. It’s a big easygoing circle, mix of Oldtime/bluegrass/country, mostly singing. But I had trouble tuning!

      My usual iphone app didn’t work (too much other noise ) so then the guitar guy next to me, handed me his vibration clip-on tuner. I couldn’t find a place to clip it on, I was afraid it would fall off and break! So then I asked the guitar guy to just give me an A and I tuned to that. But I felt like I couldn’t keep bugging him through the whole jam, and I could hear myself going flat…(warm day) so I was attempting to roughly tune up between songs.

      As a classical player, I’m used to everybody tuning to A at the beginning, and often pausing to retune together. So I am puzzled thinking about how to stay in tune! How do fiddlers manage this?

    • #28072

      First, are you sure you were the one going out of tune?

      On a warm day, especially if people had just brought stringed instruments from air-conditioned cars or houses, they might have been going sharp.

      Electronic tuners have lot of advantages–especially in string-only sessions like you describe, where at least in theory everyone can independently tune to A440– but all too many players meticulously use electronic tuners for each individual string at the beginning of a session and then assume they are in tune all night.

      In the hurly-burly and who-shot-John of a real session, a phone app will not be very usable. Clip-on tuners are made for guitars because “everyone” plays guitar. Hopefully you have a bricks-and-mortar music store nearby. If you check out a few tuners in person and try to clip them to your instrument, you will find some hold on to a fiddle better than others.

      I find the best place to clip one is on the scroll, wherever is the flattest part (about nine or ten o’clock). You might not be able to just leave it there like a guitar player can, but you can put it on for a quick check. Also, it may not be possible to see the display while holding the fiddle in playing position, so if you are used to tuning at the pegs with the left hand while bowing with the right, that may be more difficult.

      If you cannot get a clip-on vibration tuner that works well, just laying such a tuner on the belly of the instrument near the upper left bout works well enough to get a quick reference A. But I never played classical and I use a full set of fine tuners so I don’t have to hold the instrument in playing position to tune. I find that just plucking a note while holding the instrument in my lap is usually enough to quickly check if I am really out of tune (usually I find it’s not my problem anyway, or at least not my fault).

      Keep in mind all this is about just getting a reference A–it sounds like you know how to tune from there.

      I learned my session playing some years before these electronic tuner things came along, and in those days most serious players just carried a A440 tuning fork. You can still get those, and they are cheap and need no batteries and no shade in which to read some dim display. Whack it on something like a knee, touch it to your bridge, and you can get a true A that largely matches the timbre of your instrument. If need be, press your ear to an upper bout of the fiddle to hear above the din. That should work a lot better than begging guitar players for notes.

      Again, all this is assuming that the other players are actually on A440 (in other types of sessions, such as with free reeds instruments, this may be an even more dangerous assumption). If they are not, the best thing is to try to get in tune with the leaders of the session or with the average of the selection of A440s on offer. Often the best way to get that elusive average note is to walk quite some distance away, or to a nearby room, and try to tune to what you hear while the session is up and chugging along at a tune everyone seems to know.

    • #28074
      Diane Lovejoy

      Hi, classical violinist here, (good response above btw, ) but I do feel your pain! 🙂 My usual (Irish) session from a couple of years ago didn’t go at the speed of light with set after set like many of them do, so we took time to tune a lot, but most trad sessions … you are on your own! The flute player and the poor banjo guy (of course) lol deferred to me often for an A when they were out because I was using a D’Addario Micro Headstock Tuner, which is a small, black easy-to-read thing you can semi lock on the left shoulder of your fiddle and leave there. Don’t worry that the advertising may just say headstock. See if this works;

      Unlike a snark, which can be a royal PIA taking on and off anywhere on the instrument – and often loses it’s rubber feet, it’s smaller and sorta locks onto an easy to see location, depending upon the thickness of your instrument. But it doesn’t need to mark my instrument either, so I like it. Noise notwithstanding I get decent readings.

      Also, I strongly recommend you get fine tuners – at least add on the A for adjustments. You don’t need to be messing with pegs all the time for slight adjustments. If you don’t have any others installed (and 99.999% of classically trained violinists NEVER have tuners beyond the E) 😉 I would actually order a Wittner and replace your tailpiece. Seriously, it won’t hurt or dampen the sound. Unless you have those blessed Planetary ones installed and can remember to use them like fine tuners – fine tuners are a life saver. On one of my fiddles I do have the PP’s and still keep pushing them in; force of habit! Anyway, having that Micro tuner – and having Wittners put on violins has been great for my tuning sanity. Hope this helps. 🙂 Cheers,

    • #28075
      Diane Lovejoy

      Sorry, didn’t realize the link would show up as a huge advertisement!

    • #28242

      Thank you for the wisdom and tips!

      I do always have a tuning fork in my case, but assumed I couldn’t hear it well at a jam. I’ll try using it!
      I’ll check out that D’Addario tuner too, that looks quite nifty.
      Walking away to listen / tune from a distance, is a good thought too. I actually feel pretty sure I could get it that way (especially if they happen to be playing in the key of D, ha ha)

      I do have fine tuners on all four strings, so that helps.
      Hopefully I can manage to stay more in tune at the next jam!

      Interesting to think that the guitars/banjos could be going sharp…
      that’s OK to me – as long as we can all stay kind of in tune with each other!

    • #28406

      Update: All the tips helped! What works for me now:

      I bring my tuning fork to my chair with me. During some of the pauses between songs, I’ll tap it on my knee and vibrate it on my violin. Its high soft A is actually easy to hear above the chitchat, plucking, etc.

      Once I get the A in my head, I can do a quick tune.
      Works great, and is a relief to not be playing out of tune! (I’m sure it’s relief to the people around me, too 🙂

    • #28407
      Diane Lovejoy

      Great! It’s no fun playing on an out of tune fiddle. 😀

    • #28416

      No, playing out of tune or even doubting one’s tuning in a session really is no fun.

      It’s a matter I wish more people took seriously. And I’ve noticed that, rightly or wrongly, many people assume that fiddle players should be deferred to in matters of tuning, especially if they seem like violinists fiddlers.

      Thistle, I am glad the tuning fork trick helped. It’s certainly a very simple reliable technology. The trick of touching the fork to the bridge (or belly) and then pressing one’s ear to some part of the soundbox was once commonplace, and back in the day some mandolin players even seemed to seriously think that the purely decorative body scroll on an F-style mandolin was designed for that purpose.

      Thanks for the tip on that tuner, Diane. One thing I would add for anyone else reading this is that the ‘D’Addario Micro Headstock Tuner’ does not seem to be the same item as you are talking about, which the D’Addario website calls a ‘Micro Violin Tuner (PW-CT-14)’. It’s very possible that some of the advertising might call it by the wrong name, so anyone who wants to buy one should look at the pictures and product description carefully.

      By the way, I notice that two very reputable US dealers I have done a lot of business with over the years (International Violin in Maryland and Elderly Instruments in Michigan) both carry this item, and I am sure the staff at either one understand what they are selling and can answer questions.

      I’ve just ordered one from a shop in Japan (nearer to my home in Taiwan), but I do have a question maybe Diane or someone else out there can answer regarding temperament: does this tuner dictate equal tempered fifths, or is it possible to set it for pure perfect fifths or some sort of meantone temperament? A few electronic tuners do (or once did) have this feature. I rather suspect the answer is no, since it looks like just a regular guitar tuner with a different clamping mechanism, but any tips from anyone out there would be appreciated. (By the way, the website info does show that the A is adjustable, not just 440hz, which may be useful in Irish sessions since not all free-reed instruments are tuned A440).

      I also greatly agree that a Wittner or similar tailpiece is a good idea. I made my living in the fiddle business (sorry, “violin profession”) for many years in a previous life (repair, restoration and a little building) and installed many such tuners and, like Diane, I myself could never hear any difference, although I could sometimes hear a difference after adding a full set of fine tuners to a wooden tailpiece.

      Which brings me to a last question. You see, I never had any classical training and don’t use a shoulder rest or a “proper” left hand position, so I cannot just hold the fiddle up with my chin while bowing and adjusting the fine tuners on the tailpiece, which really would be helpful in getting the exact right fifths I prefer (not exactly equal tempered). So I have been thinking about installing a set of the modern geared pegs in place of the standard wooden pegs so I could get rid of the normal fine tuners and do all my fine tuning at the pegbox end. I know there are several types of these geared tuners on the market. Anyone out there have any experience, thoughts, or suggestions?

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