Tuning your cello takes time and knowledge, and this is why we have condensed all the information in an easy-to-read format, together with a step-by-step guide that will show you all the basics, tools, and maintenance needed to keep your instrument in tune. You can also take a look at some of our other articles if you want to get the right tools for the job or the best electric cello.
Learning how to tune the cello properly without assistance from your instructor is a critical step in your journey to mastering the instrument. The process may seem tricky at first, especially for beginner musicians, but there are plenty of tuning tools currently available that can make learning this skill a lot easier.
Still, tuning your cello does require a lot of finesse, and it is important to be aware of all the pieces that are involved and how the instrument functions as a unit. A cello is a wood-crafted instrument, and as such, it is susceptible to changes in temperature, humidity, and atmospheric pressure.
Even small changes can affect how frequently the strings will need to be tuned since the wood can expand and contract, and this affects the tension in the strings. At low temperatures, the strings go sharp while at higher temperatures, the sound is flatter, and you’ll need to keep this in mind when tuning.
These changes won’t just affect the quality of the sound because they can also damage your instrument, so it is important to maintain the cello and store it in proper conditions.
Similarly to the violin, the cello has four strings that are tuned in perfect fifths, and the notes are C, G, D, and A. The four fine tuners found on the tailpiece of the instrument and the four tuning pegs located on the scroll allow the user to tighten and loosen the strings that correspond to each note.
However, you need to be extra careful when you are releasing the pressure of each string since, as is the case with many stringed instruments, the tension of the strings is what secures the soundpost and the bridge.
As such, when tuning your instrument, you should never remove or slacken all the strings at the same time. If the bridge and soundpost fail, then you will need to have it corrected by a professional, and this is rather costly, so you’d do well to try to avoid it.
Conversely, you should never tighten the fine tuners all the way down since, for some cellos, if you tighten the fine tuners too much, you can scratch or dent the belly of your precious instrument.
As far as the actual tuning process is concerned, at first, it is best to rely solely on a digital tuner since these are very easy to use and most are inexpensive. Once you’ve mastered the skill of tuning your cello with a digital tuner and you’ve developed good intonation, you can move on to using fork and harmonics to keep the instrument in tune.
Setting up the digital tuner
For new cello players, digital tuners are the best option, and you can get them from your favorite online shop or the local music store. Some newer models will clip directly onto the cello, while others require a music stand so that you can take a better look at the screen.
A digital tuner is very easy to use since it will tell you exactly how each string should sound, and this makes it an educational tool as well since it enables you to develop good intonation. To tune the cello using the digital tuner, you should first play the strings and hear how they sound.
Then you can go one string at a time starting from the left side. It is best to use your bow since while you can pluck the string, a bow results in more precise tuning. Once you play a note, the tuner’s meter on the display will move and show the note’s pitch. The line of the meter should stop in the center and display the right note for each string that you play.
While the standard tuning for cellos is C-G-D-A, some pieces of music might require a different tuning scheme, so feel free to experiment. To get to a different tuning scheme, you can use the tuner the same way, but instead of the classic layout, you should tune each string to the note that the tuning scheme requires.
Adjusting the strings
When tuning your cello, you must always play the open string, which means that you should never hold the string against the fingerboard. Once you’ve played each string and you’ve got a good idea of how each one sounds, you can start the process. You should start with the C string, which is the thickest one, and then move on from left to right to the G, D, and A strings.
If you need to raise the pitch of the string, you should turn the tuning peg located at the top end of the cello clockwise. Make sure to turn the peg very slowly so that you don’t risk breaking the string or damaging the instrument. As you turn the peg, you should also apply inward pressure since otherwise, you’ll struggle to move it.
To get the string in tune, you will sometimes also need to loosen it, and this is done by twisting the tuning peg counterclockwise. As mentioned earlier, you need to be careful when loosening the strings since if they get too loose, the bridge can fall out of place.
If you don’t know what peg to use to tighten or loosen a string, you can simply follow the strings since each one wraps around one peg. You should repeat the process for each string since as you begin to tune the higher strings, the lower ones can go out of tune again.
Thus, you should repeat the process twice, but the adjustment you will need to make the second time will be less time-consuming. Some instruments also come with fine tuners that are located at the bottom of your cello, and you can use them to make smaller adjustments to the tune of each string. Turning them to the right tightens the string while turning to the left loosens it.
Other tools you can use
Since the low C on the cello corresponds to the two octaves below the middle C on the piano, you can use this to tune a cello to a piano’s sound if you don’t have a digital tuner. You don’t need to know how to play the piano, only where the middle C is located.
Tuning the cello using a piano is fairly simple since all you need to do is use the cello’s pegs and fine tuners to match the sound created by the piano’s key.
There are also many apps available that you can use directly on your phone, and they work just as well as a digital tuner. You simply need to play the open string, watch the app, and make the necessary adjustments as you would do with a digital tuner.
Lastly, you can also use a tuning fork or a pitch pipe for handheld sound tuning. These tools cater more to the experienced musicians since you need a lot of music knowledge to use them properly, so it is best to wait until you feel more comfortable with the instrument.
For your strings to stay in tune for longer and to make the experience of tuning your instrument more manageable, you mustn’t forget to maintain the tuning pegs in tip-top condition.
Student instruments, in particular, can be a bit frustrating to use if they are too tight or if the pegs are made of cheap materials that slip right off your hand. Thus, you should try to get an instrument that features tuning pegs that have been fitted properly by the supplier. Most brands will offer a free service after a year to check the state of the tuning pegs.
It is also important to keep your strings in good condition since impacted rosin can over time lead to a loss of tone. The good thing is that you can expand the life of the strings by making sure that you keep them properly maintained. It is a good idea to invest in a quality string cleaner that will keep the strings shiny, clean, and ready to handle hours upon hours of practice.