Strad readers submit their problems and queries about string playing, teaching or making to a panel of experts
In the next of the series, a violinist asks what he should consider when choosing a new tailpiece - from the material used to the weight and shape.
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The dilemma After a decade of not playing my violin, I decided to get it out of the attic and see if it was still in good working order. I can see that the strings need replacing, but there’s also a large, ugly-looking crack in the tailpiece. Not knowing much about violins or the purpose of the tailpiece, I’m wondering how I should go about selecting a replacement. Does the kind of wood make a difference? What about the weight of the tailpiece, and does it matter if it comes with fine tuners? Do you have any advice when it comes to fitting the tailpiece for the first time?
JACK PRITCHARD, NEWPORT, WALES
TED WHITE If your tailpiece is cracked, my advice is to replace it immediately. It may fail unexpectedly and will probably cause buzzing or other unwanted sounds. As to the function of the tailpiece, it seems to have evolved by trial and error into a kind of filter helping to even out the sound of the instrument. The tailpiece, afterlengths and tail-gut act like a mass suspended on springs and they resonate in a variety of ways. This behaviour interacts with the resonances of the instrument, through coupling. A good example of a strong instrument resonance is the wolf note, typically around C–C sharp on the violin. Many high-quality tailpieces show a resonance of similar pitch. Given that the tailpiece cannot produce sound, this matching of pitches helps tame the wolf by absorbing some of the instrument body’s resonance into the vibration of the tailpiece.
A second effect of the tailpiece relates to the choice of wood. Different woods display different material properties. One of these – elasticity (or stiffness) – governs how the tailpiece will vibrate at higher frequencies. While these effects are far less clear than the mass effect above, different woods will affect the instrument’s sound. Unfortunately, as every instrument is unique it becomes a trial-and-error ritual of changing tailpieces until you find the best fit. Unless you are looking to get the very best out of an instrument, this is probably not worth it.
So selecting a tailpiece presents some interesting options. Weight is certainly the largest consideration. I would not recommend anything over twelve grams for a violin and to have only a single light fine tuner on the E string. Pernambuco is the stiffest wood, followed by ebony, rosewood and boxwood. Finally, consult a good violin maker or shop for the best advice on an individual instrument.
DAVID FOLLAND Violin tailpieces are available in a seemingly overwhelming variety of woods, metals and composites, and each of these materials can have a significant effect on the sound of your violin. While the optimal tailpiece material may vary depending on the violin, a good-quality wooden tailpiece made from ebony, pernambuco or occasionally boxwood is what the majority of players, in most cases, will prefer. The ideal weight for a tailpiece will also vary depending on the instrument, but more often than not a heavier tailpiece made from denser wood will be preferred.
The effect of built-in tuners on sound is minimal, but putting four metal-post tuners on a tailpiece will result in a significant amount of weight closer to the bridge end. This may or may not be desirable, as changing the tailpiece weight and also the distribution of weight along the length of the tailpiece can change an instrument’s ‘B1+ mode’ (which is a strong body frequency). This change could reduce or eliminate a wolf note, or it could cause a wolf note to appear. Changing the length of the tailpiece, or the distance from the end of the tailpiece to the bridge, will also change the B1+ mode with possibly the same results.
For a first-time fitting I would suggest an ebony tailpiece with a length of 108–110mm. The distance between the string slots shouldn’t be too narrow: 30–32mm between the outer slots is good. Make adjustments so that the D string’s afterlength (the length of the string behind the bridge) is tuned to an A when plucked. This will be about 52mm. This tailpiece and set-up should get you a considerable way; the rest will come with experimenting and adjustment.
THOMAS DUNN When it comes to selecting a tailpiece there are four variables to consider: sound production, aesthetics, usability and cost. There are no hard and fast rules here – you should find what is best for your instrument. Installation of a tailpiece is simple: the strings loop on one side and the tail-gut ties to the other. I personally favour a nylon tail-gut as opposed to natural gut or Kevlar, because it is easy to adjust. The length of the tail-gut can be an important factor in sound production. The typical ‘correct’ length of tail-gut puts the tailpiece at a distance of 5–7mm from the saddle, but each instrument is unique, so it’s necessary to experiment to find the ‘sweet spot’.
An instrument fitted with almost any tailpiece currently available will produce sound at a level sufficient for the casual user. Typically, a lightweight tailpiece produces better sound than a heavy one, but geometry is also important. For a concert violinist who is looking for a way to improve the tone of their instrument, I would recommend a tailpiece with low weight and an angled profile that increases the afterlength of the strings, which changes the balance of the harmonic overtones. This causes an increase in the fullness of the lower strings and an increase in projection across all the strings.
Fine tuners can be a good aid, but they add mass to the tailpiece and often change the string’s afterlength, causing a reduction in sound. Some tailpiece models have built-in tuners. Last but not least, you should select a tailpiece that fits your goals for your violin and for yourself as a player, and which is within your price range.
Ted White is a Canadian violin maker whose tailpieces are available at www.arbutusacoustics.com
David Folland is a luthier based in Northfield, MN, US: www.follandviolins.com
Thomas Dunn is a physicist and violin maker based in Fort Plain, NY, US: www.frirszmusic.com