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Tuning the bass

Avoiding broken bass strings

Replacing a broken bass string is a real pain in the neck, both physically and logistically speaking. For starters, the core wire is much stiffer and therefore harder to make a tuning pin coil with.

Bass strings are also much more expensive than treble wire. Unless you favor using generic “universal” bass strings, you’ll need to mail them off to be duplicated. Add to that several return trips to tune the new string as it stretches out, and how much can you charge to replace one string? A lot of customers will think it’s your fault the sting broke, since you broke it, and they wont be too happy about getting charged a lot to fix something that wasn’t broken when you got there. I have mixed luck convincing people that it would have happened to any tuner; people are very suspicious of getting ripped off by service people.

So what can you do while tuning to avoid broken bass strings? While I can’t offer any foolproof techniques, I can suggest some techniques that help my chances of getting through without any breaking. Lowering the pitch first before raising it up can loosen a rusty tuning pin coil, and give the tension a little rest before getting cranked up. This can also avoid the possibility of turning the wrong tuning pin by accident; if the string is old and rusty, it won’t take much overstretching to break the string! I still break a bass string every now and then, but much fewer since I started always tuning down first.

I’ve found that often times, bass strings break more easily than the treble strings, so I am slower and more careful when tuning the bass of an older piano. If I am raising the pitch on an older piano and I am concerned about the bass strings, I will tune the bass several times, raising the pitch incrementally with each pass.

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Close to the edge

Bass bridges are by design, closer to the edge of the soundboard. Because it is on a less flexible area of the soundboard than the treble bridge, the bass section often reacts differently to changes in humidity than the rest of the piano. I often find that the bass section is less prone to the seasonal shifts of pitch than the treble.

Tubby spinets

Small pianos, especially spinets, have very short bass strings. These pianos trade length for thickness in order to have strings that can produce such low notes. Although a string might produce the same pitch as on a larger piano, it is harder for the thicker strings to vibrate. The result is a “tubby”, unfocused tone.

The tone in the bass increases exponentially with bigger pianos that have longer strings and more soundboard area. If possible, compare the bass section of a spinet to a seven or nine-foot concert grand, and the difference will be incredible.

Another casualty of short bass stings is tuning accuracy. On the worst of the low-quality spinets especially, the tone can be so poor and muddled that it can be hard to tell what to tune. In these cases, don’t go too crazy trying to tune a piano with such limitations.

Bass tuning audio files

Audio of tuning from temperament to mid-bass section

Audio of tuning from middle to end of bass section


There are a few things I should point out that you will hear in the audio files here. First, for bichord (two strings) tuning, I use a rubber mute between two notes. After I tune both notes, I then remove the mute and tune the unisons for those two notes. The blocking sounds and harmonics are from me touching the strings with the mute to quickly find the space between notes to insert the mute.

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