If you've ever checked pricing on
getting your piano tuned professionally, you know it can cost quite a bit. No, it's not because the
professionals gouge. It simply is an exacting time-consuming process, one in which you will find some
professionals are better than others at, and you pay for their expertise.
However, by working carefully and
taking time, this is a procedure that many people can do themselves. Before going any further, realize that it is
possible to damage your piano, and repairing the damage will cost more than having the piano tuned by a professional
the first time. Here are a few assumptions I will make, that should apply to you before continuing:
- your piano is out of tune
- your piano is not used professionally, or for performances
- you're looking to save some money
- the possibility of causing accidental damage to your piano does not concern
- you have the patience and ability to make careful tedious adjustments over the course
of up to a few hours
This guide is really suited more towards those who have cheaper pianos, possibly the
kind that are infrequently used (aside from possibly your kids banging on them). This is the category I was
under. I know if I were to damage something or make a mistake, it wouldn't be the end of the world. The
piano itself was purchased from a garage sale, cost only a couple hundred dollars, and wasn't worth the cost in
having professionally tuned. That being said, it was badly out of tune, and I thought it would be worth it to
give it a go.
Time for the standard "disclaimer". I am not going to be held
responsible if your piano ends up damaged, in worse shape, or rendered unusable as a result of anything written
here. Everything you do is entirely at your own risk and your own expense.
- piano (obviously)
- device to adjust the pegs (tune the piano) with
- method to provide notes, or an electronic tuner
- -tool to 'pick' the strings, for example a guitar pick
- -tuning wedges (aka 'mutes')
A little more about the tools... You can buy the professional tools, or
'make' your own. Below is a little more detail about each tool, and the professional and home-made
options. The "best" option (in my opinion) is in green.
Device to adjust the pegs (tune the piano) with - If you've ever
seen a guitar, you've probably noticed the 6 little tuning knobs at the end of the guitar. Turning these
knobs one way tightens the string giving a higher pitch, and turning the other way loosens the string, giving a lower
pitch. A piano has similar pegs (which you must find), connected to the piano's strings. These are the
pegs you will be adjusting. They are almost always square.
- The professional tool you can buy (which should hopefully fit
perfectly) is called a "tuning hammer" or a "tuning lever". It's shaped similar to a
ratchet with a socket built onto the end. This is the best tool to use, and it available at some piano supply
stores. The local one here sells cheap ones for about $40CDN. You're best to phone around to see who
- The home-made option I used instead (since the local supply store was out)
was a vice-grips and the square end of a 1/4" socket. The standard socket is usually 3/8" which is too
large. A 1/4" socket (in my case anyway) fit almost snug. Check to make sure you get a snug fit.
If it's not snug, the socket might strip, or worse, the peg might strip. Make sure you use the square end of
the socket. The actual socket-end is 6-sided and has a higher chance of stripping something. Two final
things: if the socket seems loose, just buy the professional tuning hammer (you might even be able to find one used).
The other thing is keep in mind that the vice-grips option is a heavier option, and dropping them while working in the
piano could cause some damage.
- If you have another device that is square and seems to fit right, it might be
worth a try.
Method to provide notes, or an electronic tuner:
- If you have a magnificent ear, you can buy a tuning fork which will tune to a
particular key (either A or C usually), and then tune the one string and go from there.
- The next thing you can try is using another instrument that is in tune (for
example, a guitar) to provide reference notes. Again, you need a pretty good ear, although not nearly as great as
for the first option.
- Certain computer programs can provide reference notes, or notes at certain
frequencies. Guitar Pro is an example, although there are others.
- Buy a chromatic tuner. This is what I chose. They
are similar to guitar tuners, but they have all 12 notes (7 whole notes plus the 5 half notes). Mine cost all of
$23 CDN. They're pretty easy to use - you just play a key, and the tuner tells you what note is playing and
has a little digital arm that shows how close to being tuned it is. If the arm is in the center, you're right
on. If the arm is to the left, the note is too flat, and if it's to the right, the note is too
Tool to pick the strings, or tuning wedges - On almost every piano, each
key connects to a hammer that hits between 1-3 strings. In the cases of 2 or 3 strings, each string has to be
tuned. Unfortunately, when tuning, you can't simply use the piano keys, because you have to tune each string one at
a time. You therefore have 2 options:
- Use a guitar pick (or similar device) to pick (or strum) the string you're adjusting. This
is the method I chose.
- Buy tuning wedges ('mutes'). These are usually made of rubber, and are what the
professionals commonly use. The idea is that when they're tuning a string, they place these mutes between the
adjacent strings, and the ones beside those, so that they can press the piano key, and only the 1 string they're
working on will make sound. For example, if there are strings B1-B2-B3-C1-C2-C3-C#1-C#2-C#3 and they are tuning
C2, they will put a mute between B3 and C1, and another mute between C3 and C#1. That way when C is pressed on
the piano, only C2 will make sound, as C1 and C3 have both been muted.
Click on any of the above pictures to open a full-sized picture in a new window. These are the
tools I used - A vice-grips with a socket for adjusting the pegs, an electronic chromatic tuner, and a guitar pick to
pluck the strings as I went through.
Tuning the piano
Now that you have your tools ready, it's time to start tuning! It's
usually recommended that you start in the middle of the piano (middle-C for example), but I suggest starting at the low
end, because if you manage to break something, it's not the end of the world. After you've done a few
keys and are comfortable, feel free to jump to the middle and work your way to the ends from there. Note that
electronic tuners often have trouble reading notes at the high and low ends, so if you bought an electronic tuner, you
may have to tune by ear for those notes.
To tune, you simply hit a key/string on the piano. Using your electronic tuner
or source of the "desired" note, you determine whether you have to make the string higher or lower in
pitch. Using your tool of choice, you then either tighten or loosen the peg very slightly and check again
until you have the desired note. Ensure you make small adjustments. If you're turning the peg
and the note's not changing, you're on the wrong string. Once you have the first string adjusted, move on
to the next.
Note that this process can easily take a couple hours or more. If your piano
needed a lot of adjustment, it may go slightly out of tune again quite quickly and might need another tune-up again
within a couple of weeks. However, the 2nd tune-up will usually be sufficient, and from then on you will probably
only need to tune 1-2 times a year.
Click either of the above pics for a full-sized pic. These are pictures of the tuning pegs themselves.
You can also see where the strings come down. Remember, some piano keys use 2 or 3 strings. Not only do you want them
all tuned, but you want them all the same, or it will sound like 2 separate notes being hit when you strike a
Piano tuning can be done cheaply, but it requires patience, and care to make sure
accurate adjustments are made. As with doing anything yourself, there is always risk, but the reward is extra
money saved, and if you end up becoming really good, the best sounding piano you could possibly have.