Violin Bridges – 6 things to look for

Violin Bridge Blank vs Fitted Bridge

Violin bridge blank & fitted bridge

Violin bridges should be individually tailored. Bridges come from the supplier partially finished and it is a common misconception that a bridge “blank” can be installed directly on an instrument without modification. This could not be farther from the truth! Bridges serve the vital function of transmitting the strings’ vibrations to the body of the instrument and therefore must be fitted to each individual instrument. Otherwise, the sound and play-ability will be compromised. Here’s how to tell if a bridge has been fit correctly:

 

 

The notch on the f-hole should point to the center of the bridge's foot.

The notch on the f-hole should point to the center of the bridge’s foot.

It’s in the right spot. You know how the f-holes have those graceful little notches on each side? Well, there is an actual purpose to those beside just looking attractive. They are handy indicators of where the bridge should go. If you extended a line across the middle of the instrument from one notch to the other, that line would go straight through the middle of the bridge.

The bridge should also straddle the center line that runs lengthwise along the instrument’s top. To ascertain if this is true, you can sight down the fingerboard towards the bridge. A bridge that is centered on the fingerboard is likely centered on the instrument. Of course, this assumes that the neck of the instrument (to which the fingerboard attaches) has been properly set– just one more reason the Beau Vinci approach, starting with rigorous examination, is so important.

 

Centered violin bridge vs off-center bridge

Centered violin bridge vs off-center bridge

The feet fit perfectly. Examine closely the part of the bridge that contacts the top of the instrument (we call these the “feet”). There should be no gaps. A skilled luthier will use a very sharp tool to remove wood from the bridge feet until they conform exactly to the arching on the top of the instrument. Not only will ill-fitting feet be poor conveyors of the energy generated by the bow stroking the strings, they can also damage the wood of the instrument’s top.

You can imagine how much sound will be lost by the bridges on the left.

You can imagine how much sound will be lost by the bridges on the left.

 

The base of the bridge is 90° to the top of the violin. It takes away slightly at the top.

The base of the bridge is 90° to the top of the violin. It takes away slightly at the top.

The back of the bridge is at a 90 degree angle to the top of the instrument. The unstamped side of the bridge which faces the player, should be at roughly 90 degrees to the top of the instrument when viewed from the side. If it’s tilted too far in either direction, this increases the risk of the bridge falling down and damaging the top of the instrument. The back of the bridge should also appear flat, rather than cupped, which indicates that it has started to warp. Note that we actually remove a small amount of wood from the upper part of the back of the bridge to strengthen the bridge and counteract its tendency for warping.

The bridge is not flat. Picture a cathedral and think about the shape of the buttresses that have to support tons of heavy stone. Are they straight or curved? Architects have known for a long time that an arched shape is far stronger than a perfectly flat one. So why would you want the piece of your musical equipment that has to withstand all that downward pressure from the strings to be flat and risk having a warped bridge? At Beau Vinci we strengthen each bridge with gentle arching on the front, as well as a slightly relieved back. At the same time, we reduce our bridges to an appropriate thickness, instead of leaving them overly thick.

 

 

The tapered structure creates increased support.

The tapered structure creates increased support.

The strings are in their happy places. Does your bow inadvertently hit the other strings when you want to play only on one string? This can be a sign that the curve of the top of the bridge may be too flat. Conversely, if this shape is too round, playing double stops will be much harder than it needs to be. Also, if the strings are either too high or too low in respect to the playing surface of the fingerboard, this could indicate that the bridge may need adjustment. (it may also mean that your neck angle is incorrect.)

It’s pretty. A bridge is a luthier’s signature and chance to showcase their fancy knife skills. When we carve out the internal shapes on each bridge we’re not only removing the unnecessary material that would otherwise dampen the vibrations of the bridge, we are also creating tiny works of art, akin to the manner in which a high-end chef takes great care in the presentation of food on a plate. The shapes should be crisply cut to appear fluid and beautiful. When you see this level of work, you know that other less visible steps have been executed with the same level of fastidiousness.

BridgeArt

If your bridge does not measure up with regards to the above criteria, or if you have any concerns whatsoever about this crucial part of your instrument, it may be time to bring it in for examination and possible replacement.

Back To School Checklist – Are You Ready For Class?

With the rise of the new school year, children are excited to get new pencils and notebooks while parents are scrambling to be sure they have everything on their back-to-school shopping list.  From paper and folders to hole punch reinforcements and correction fluid, parents and students alike don’t want to forget anything, but are you ready for orchestra class?

Here’s a checklist of things to focus on when getting back into the rhythm of your school year schedule.

  1. Check your instrument: This might seem obvious, but give your instrument a thorough examination.  Check the bridge and the strings for warping or unravelling and look for any cracks or unglued seems.  Younger players may need to step-up in size.  Instruments should be examined by a luthier every six months to look for unseen damage and complete routine maintenance.  Small issues can become costly if unattended.
  2. Check your accessories: Look over your case for any damage and see that your rosin is not dry and cracking. It’s also good to have an extra set of strings for those unforeseen accidents.  Lastly, check that your bow doesn’t need rehairing.
  3. Check with your teacher: Your teacher might have a required method book that you need before class starts or items like a mute for fun pieces they have in mind.  Ask!

So while you’re running around looking for the latest “cool” lunchbox or the best pens, don’t forget about your favorite elective class or your beloved instrument’s needs.

How It’s Made: Violins

How do luthiers go about making violins and other string instruments? While the process is much more complex than a five minute video, check out a brief overview of what goes into making this intricate instrument.

What you need to know about your violin tailpiece, tail-gut and fine tuners.

Violin tailpiece, tail-gut and fine tuners.

The tailpiece serves as an anchor for the strings as well as a spacer for each one. The main factors to consider in tailpiece selection are; material, size & shape, weight and proper placement. Common materials used are ebony, boxwood, rosewood, pernambuco, aluminum and  plastic synthetics.  Denser woods like ebony tend to brighten and focus an instruments tone, where softer woods can deepen and warm up the sound.  Sometimes, the wrong tailpiece can magnify wolf tones.  A good luthier will try multiple tailpieces to find one whose characteristics compliment that of the instrument.

The tail-gut secures the tailpiece a specific length from the bridge.  They are typically made from braided steel, nylon or kevlar.  Actual gut is rare and not used commonly by most modern luthiers.  Set-up is particularly important when it comes to a violin’s tailgut.  The after-length has a very specific ideal length from the back of the bridge.  The excess gut should also be trimmed to prevent buzzing.  Make sure your luthier takes the time to complete these important and often overlooked adjustments.

Fine-tuners can actually damage the strings and instrument.  Many classroom teachers prefer fine-tuners on all four strings, which is understandable.  Keep in mind that unless you’re using a light-weight tailpiece with intergrated tuners, (ei. Wittner Ultra or similar) four adjusters will add a considerable amount of weight to a violin or viola.  As soon as the player can tune his or her own instrument, we suggest moving to a single fine-tuner on the high string for violins and violas.  Cellos typically maintain four adjusters.  Hinge tuners, seen on the right, can actually gouge the top of your violin, especially if the bridge should fall.  They also alter the after-length, which can alter the instrument’s tone and even cause wolf tones to appear.  The Suzuki tuners, on bottom left, can easily damage the string as they adjust the string by bending it, much like an arrow bends the string on a bow.  We advocate the english style adjuster, seen in the top left.  At Beau Vinci, we even take the time to file off the sharp corners of the adjusters, in the event the bridge falls.

Make sure you have a luthier that takes the time to find a tailpiece that compliments the instrument, measures and trims the tailgut properly and uses fine-tuners that won’t damage the wood or strings.  These may seem like minor details, but a stringed instrument is the sum of it’s details.

Winter Violin Damage – 3 ways to avoid it

Dry Wood

Fall and winter are a tough time for the string family.  Sudden changes in temperature and generally lower humidity can cause problems and costly damage to your instrument.  Common issues that occur are: moving necks, unglued seams, rattles, buzzes and even cracks.  Here are a few steps you can take that will lessen the chance of paying an emergency visit to your local luthier.

Give it time.  Wood expands and contracts more than you may expect.  Damage occurs when temperature and humidity change quickly.  Get to your destination early and allow your instrument to adjust while staying in its case.

Control Humidity.  This means having a reliable hygrometer.  Try to keep it between 40% – 60%.  Be careful not to get your instrument wet!  Many people over-saturate their humidifiers.  This can cause major damage.  Also, be sure not to allow the humidity to change too quickly.  If it’s very low, bring it up 5% – 10% per day until it reaches the desired humidity.

Indoors, in the case.  If possible, do not travel with your instrument in the trunk of your vehicle.  If traveling by airplane, carry it on.  When at home, keep it indoors.  When it’s not being used, it should remain in the case.  Most furnaces and air conditioners pull moisture out of the air.  All it takes is a few hours of warm dry air blowing directly on your violin for a purfling to pick up a nasty buzz or a seam to pop open.

Just remember; take it slow, shoot for 50% humidity, and keep it indoors and in the case.  Taking these three steps can greatly reduce winter violin damage.  Go ahead and schedule an appointment with your trusted luthier.  Most will examine your instrument for free.  Catching small problems before they become big ones saves time and money down the road.

Five things that determine violin string height, making your instrument easier (or harder) to play

Five things that effect violin string height making your violin easier or more difficult to play…

 

There are many factors that determine how beautiful a stringed instrument will sound when it is played, but there are also several factors that determine how easy or difficult it will be to play at all. One of the most crucial elements is how far the strings are from the fingerboard.  Here are five things to look for that effect violin string height.

1. Bridge Height

The bridge plays an important roll in the playability of a violin. Here are a few things to note when examining the bridge. Is it warped? When looking at a bridge from the side, it should be straight. If it’s warped at all, that will not only affect the string height, but also the sound of the instrument. The wood should be hard. If you can dent it with your fingernail, you’re probably in for a replacement in the near future. The strings should be evenly spaced in a uniformed fashion. Make sure that your bridge is initially set by a professional luthier to ensure it is adjusted to fit that individual instrument.

2. Nut Height

The height of the nut should be ½ the thickness of the string. Example: if the string is 2mm thick, the point where the string makes contact with the nut should be 1mm from the fingerboard. Some players and luthiers differ on this philosophy, but this is a good rule of thumb. Keep in mind, it is common for the strings to cut into the nut over time. If your strings are too close to begin with, you’ll be in the shop within a few months needing costly adjustments.

3. Fingerboard Scoop

Every fingerboard has a “scoop” much like a skateboard ramp. One way to check this scoop is to put the edge of a ruler against the fingerboard or hold down the string at the nut and end of the board. Look to see that the curve is smooth and even throughout the whole fingerboard. Also check that there is the same amount of scoop for the bass and treble strings. It should be around .5mm at the center of the board.

4. Fingerboard Smoothness

Smoothing a fingerboard is a tedious process, challenging for even an experienced luthier. When you put your eye over the scroll of the instrument and peer down the board, it should be shiny like a black mirror and free of bumps and divots.

5. The Height of the Strings

Finally, you can simply measure the strings. On a violin the treble side should be around 3.5mm and the bass side should be around 5.5. A viola should be approx. 4mm treble and 6mm bass side. Cellos around 5.5 mm treble side and 8.5-9 mm bass side.

All five of these factors combine to determine how far the string is from the fingerboard for any given note. Too close, and the string will buzz when played; too far, and the strings will be difficult to push down. The ultimate test of any instrument is to play it. Try playing any and all levels of instruments and you’ll quickly start to see, feel and hear the difference. There is a reason some instruments sell for $95 and some sell for $95,000. Regardless of the cost or sound of your fiddle, take it to a skilled luthier for examination. Many times a few minor adjustments can make it feel like a new instrument.