Why Have an Instrument Set Up

When you first buy an instrument or when you have been playing that instrument regularly and / or for some time there are many parts of it that are likely to need adjusting in order to improve the playability, and enable you to get the kinds of sounds and tone out of it that you need. A set up can also prevent the instrument from having potentially serious problems further down the line. Adjusting a violin, viola, cello or double bass in a way known as a “set up” can also help the tuning, remove some of the common hindrances to playing and learning, and maximise the potential of the instrument.  A good set up by a trained specialist or Luthier can eliminate some of the common problems associated with the bridge, soundpost, pegs, fingerboard and nut for example which may have been caused by a poor set up in the first place. A set up can make a surprisingly big improvement in the experience of playing and the sound of the instrument. Here is a summary of some ways in which a good set up can alter key parts of your instrument to produce better results for you.

Adjusting / Replacing the Bridge

The job of the bridge is to make sure that the strings are raised up above the fingerboard so that they can vibrate freely, and to transmit the sound of the strings into the front of the instrument. The curvature of the bridge allows easy string crossing and clearance especially in higher positons. Common problems with the bridge and ways in which a set up can rectify them include:

  • Bridge at the wrong height e.g. too low causes a buzz and too high makes the strings difficult to press down. A good professional set up will mean that the bridge is fitted in a way that avoids both of these problems.
  • Bridge feet wrong / gap under the bridge feet. A professional set up will ensure that the bridge feet are making contact with the instrument correctly and therefore transmitting the sound to the front of the instrument and minimising loss of vibrational energy.Why Have an Instrument Set Up
  • Bridge thickness wrong.  A high quality set up by a trained Luthier will ensure that the bridge is not so thick as to deaden the sound, but not so thin as to make it warp under the string tension and create bright or brittle tone.
  • Curve of the bridge wrong.  A set up will make sure the bridge is not so flat as to cause you to accidentally catch 2 strings at the same time, but not so curved as to make it difficult for you to reach the strings.



Adjusting / Replacing the Soundpost

This small piece of free-standing but wedge-fitted pine dowel plays an absolutely crucial role in supporting the instrument under the tension of the strings and transmitting the sound from the top to the bottom plate.  Common problems with the soundpost and ways in which a set up can rectify them include:

  • Fitted too tight. This could of course mean that too much tension and pressure is being put of the front of the instrument which could lead to cracking. A good set up will ensure that the soundpost is sized and positioned in such a way as to function well and produce just the right amount of tension
  • Fitted too loose.  This could mean that the sound from the instrument will lack power and brightness, the arch of the instrument could be affected, and the instrument could be more prone to breaking under the tension of the strings.  A proper set up should mean that these problems and risks can be avoided.

Adjusting the Pegs

If your tuning pegs are fitted and adjusted correctly they can make the job of tuning much easier, and ensure that the instrument stays in tune for longer. Common problems with the pegs and ways in which a set up can rectify them include:

  • Pegs too tight.  This can put too much strain on the pegbox and can therefore cause it to crack.  A good set up can make sure that each peg functions well and keeps everything at the right tension.
  • Pegs too loose. This can mean that the pegs slip and you have tuning problems. During a set up the pegs can be adjusted to eliminate slipping.

Making Adjustments to the Fingerboard

The fingerboard is one of the ‘wear and tear areas’ of a violin, viola or cello and it is important to make sure that it is smooth and has the right shape and contour.  Common problems with the fingerboard and ways in which a set up can rectify them include:

  • Bumps and uneven patches. These can cause buzzing.  A good set up can make sure that the fingerboard surface is smooth and even.
  • The wrong contour. This can make the strings difficult to press down as it feels as though the gap between them and the fingerboard is too wide. Once again a professional set up can make sure that the fingerboard has the correct, even contour. This can make playing feel easier and can help with accuracy of the tuning.

Adjusting / Replacing the Nut

The height, angle, condition, and slots of the nut can all affect the sound and playability. Common problems with the top nut and ways in which a set up can rectify them include:

  • Nut too high or too low. If it’s too low the strings can buzz, and if it’s too high it can make it more difficult to press the strings down.  A professional set up means that the nut can be adjusted or replaced so that these problems don’t occur.
  • Nut the wrong shape. This could mean that the nut can get in the way of your playing by pressing into your hand. A good set up can ensure that the nut is the right shape so that it adds to the playability rather than interfering with your playing.

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