So, you got a new instrument... - Jan/Feb 2004


We hope that you are having a great time with any new instrument that you got this holiday season. We’d also like to remind you to mark your calendar to get your instrument a ‘check-up’ when it’s about 6 months old. 


Stringed instruments make sound by vibrating. In fact, what we perceive as sound is vibration – anywhere from 20 to 20,000 vibrations per second. Lower pitches are slower vibrations; higher pitches are faster vibrations. So any instrument, a bass, cello, guitar, viola, banjo, mandolin, fiddle or violin or dulcimer, has to vibrate REALLY quickly to produce sound that we hear. As a result, all of the joints, seams and structural supports in those instruments vibrate also. In a new musical instrument that has never undergone this kind of stress, some shifting and settling is inevitable. In a few months, some adjustment will be needed to counter that shifting and settling. 


The settling that occurs is gradual and subtle enough that you may not consciously notice it. However, you might subconsciously perceive the changes caused by settling, and feel less satisfaction when you play. The best way to make sure that your instrument’s set-up is optimal is to take careful measurements of specific angles and distances between the strings and the parts of the instrument. 


To ensure that music students have appropriately set-up instruments, the Music Educators National Conference (MENC) has established a standard for the adjustment of violins, violas, celli and basses. For example, the height measured between the strings and fingerboard extension of a full-size violin fitted with steel strings should be 2.5 mm on the E string and 4.0 mm on the G string. As a new instrument begins its life as a vibrating entity, the angle between the neck and body can shift slightly, causing the string height to increase. A very small change in neck angle can make the height of the bridge relative to the fingerboard exceed the MENC standard. Meeting an arbitrary standard is not important, but the standard is not arbitrary. The height of the strings from the fingerboard affects how easily the instrument plays and the accuracy of its intonation. The small shift needed to affect playability and intonation is possible – even likely – in the first several months of an instrument’s life; adjustment after about 6 months returns the instrument to it’s optimal set-up. 


Other stringed instruments each have a reference standard for string height from the fingerboard. For acoustic guitars, the string height is measured at the 12th fret. A change of just 0.0156" can make a big difference in the guitar’s playability. Instruments with relatively high string tension (guitars, mandolins, cellos and basses) are even more likely to have some settling and shifting occur as they’re “played in” than instruments with lower string tension (violins, banjos). But all stringed instruments are susceptible. 


Adjustments necessary to compensate for the 6-month play-in settling are usually minor. Most of these adjustments, while significant to playability and intonation, require hardly any time in the shop. Because the inconvenience and cost are generally nominal and the benefits are significant, we strongly recommend that anyone who purchases a new stringed instrument have a check-up at about 6 months of play. 


What can I do?

If you got an instrument from Meadowood & would like a check-up, please call to give us a heads-up before bringing your instrument to the shop. we will definitely fit you into our schedule , but cannot guarantee that we can take you the day you call. Our repair log is extensive, but the nature of the 6-month check-up & adjustment is such that we won’t tax your patience too heavily.