#03 Tailpiece seems to be "transparent", invisible as long as it works...

The bridge, positioned right in the middle of the instrument, is the center of acoustical gravity. It produces the sound, so it is normal that violin makers pay a lot of attention both to the conception and practical realization of the bridge. The cutting of the bridge, repeated over and over again, opens the way to a process of experimentation and, over the years, violin makers have developed some personal recipes. A bridge carries the maker's individual touch, and the sense of his or her craft, in an attempt to bring the instrument to the best of its possibilities.

But such attention to the bridge can lead to neglect of some other important parts, such as the fittings.
We are far away from the times of Stradivari, when the master designed everything including beautiful iron hinges for his violin cases. Our present-day industrialization has divided the tasks, and the violin- maker has stopped making tailpieces, pegs, or chin rests, and so can no longer influence their evolution. 

Who would imagine that the violin fittings, including the fingerboard, represent a quarter of its weight? I myself wonder why those accessories, honest components of a beautiful object Ä this fine tool called ``a violin'' Ä have evolved so much. The chin rest is five times larger than a hundred years ago, the cello end pin has increased three times in length over the same period, but the instruments themselves have evolved little. Why? The fittings, which act as an interface or connection point with the musician, were the first to answer the technical modifications required by musical and cultural changes.


Industrial evolution: a saving of wood

Have these modifications of the accessories respected the instrument? Do they enhance all of the its capacities as an acoustical tool?
Acoustically and mechanically speaking, it is obvious that a good tailpiece will not perform miracles on a Strad or a cheap fiddle but in some cases it can help.
This subject has interested few violin makers, maybe because the tailpiece, being machine made, is a contribution which is external to the workshop. It is often put on ``as is'' and the violin maker has to ``make up for it'' by working on other parameters to influence the sound. In the last hundred years, the evolution of the tailpiece does not seem linked to the acoustical, mechanical, or aesthetic needs of the instrument. Here are some examples:
There was a notable reduction in the width of the string end of the ebony tailpieces made in Mirecourt at the beginning of the Century, maybe to save wood.
The ebony blank of the post-baroque tailpiece became thicker, thus becoming heavier. The ebony selected for industrial fabrication was more or less porous and it was necessary to increase the size to avoid the risk of breaking
The German ``tulip'' shape was introduced. The two corners were rounded off, making the tailpiece easier to machine produce, and preventing tangling with clothes or hair. All this resulted in an unfortunate aesthetic modification 

Industrial evolution: machine-work optimising

When ``fine tuners'' were requested by musicians, the industry quickly and solidly integrated them into the tailpieces and when I say solid I mean solid! Two of these fine tuners weigh as much as a Mirecourt ebony tailpiece. ..

The adjustable nylon screw loop was substituted for the catgut string that seemed more interesting acoustically.

For a Century, the German industry of instrument accessories has furnished and is still furnishing the whole world, due to the fact that the manufacturers standardized the fittings: strong and not expensive.

The French and English makers, known since the 19th Century, disappeared in the '50s. I am thinking about Mr. Ruer in Mirecourt, or the Hills in London.

Let's take a look at the tail-piece models available on the market today:
Pusch: With its numerous metallic parts, it is not so efficient in the sound setup. The only advantage is that it is made of wood.

Akusticus: Made of plastic, it works well and is not expensive. I am not fond of its aesthetics, and surprisingly, it weighs the same as a traditional ebony tail-piece. Finally,
Wittner,This model is commonly used, as it is more aesthetically pleasing and works well. The aluminum alloy used for its fabrication makes it 50% heavier than ebony.

The question of weight has been at the center of my studies.

Weight does not seem to be a single criterion; the material used is also important. Both Akusticus and Wittner are successful, though one is very light and soft and the other heavy and sturdy.

The distribution of weight along the tailpiece seems important. Tailpieces fitted withintegrated metallic fine tuners carry most of their weight at the tip, a few centimeters away from the bridge. Could this create a muting effect?

The importance of the bridge's oscillation from one foot to the other seems basic to me,
so I tried an experiment.
While a friend was playing his cello, I fixed a 40 grams clamp on various points of the tailpiece. The balance of the four strings was immediately modified. The most critical point was at the string end. With extra weight there, the sound was irregular and weak, and the response was slow. The excessive weight of the fine tuners acts as a mute.

This brought me to the design of a new tail piece, the ``Harmonie'' series, :featuring light composite fine tuners incorporated into an equally light wooden tailpiece of ebony or boxwood.

The rigidity, or acoustic conduction, of the tailpiece material seems less important. However, tests comparing a tailpiece made out of African blackwood and a light tailpiece in Pernambucco seem significant.

To evaluate the acoustical contribution of a tailpiece is difficult, especially when the instrument has new fittings or has only recently been set up. ..

Nevertheless :
the African blackwood tailpieces seemed to give a large, acute, and well- detached sound, where the
pernambucco gave a brilliant, compact and fast sound.

If we compare these sounds to the guitar, ebony is like the classical guitar and pernambucco the flamenco guitar.
Pernambucco was used to make tailpieces in Mirecourt during the Second World War, when ebony was rare. At the time, nobody noticed anything particular regarding the sound.

The tail gut

The use of a steel adjuster seems to please violin makers acoustically, if not aesthetically. I don't know the reason, but steel is more rigid than nylon, and two strands of the adjuster in this kind of attachment are often closer together.
So trying to make the tailpiece vibrate more easily at the tail gut seems interesting. Some experiments could be done:

Lengthening the tail gut by using a shorter tailpiece.
Trying other materials that have an elasticity coefficient closer to that of the gut.
Making the attachment ``a la baroque,'' or ``cavalier.'' This will let the tailpiece be less fixed than the modern system where the adjuster exits in the middle of the tailpiece's thickness
Using a single strand attachment, like violin maker Roger Lanne in Paris is doing at present.
Many other experiments need to be done regarding tail pieces.
The gap between the strands of tail gut as they come out of the tailpiece could be modified. This could influence the bridge's freedom of movement.
Various weights and various woods could be tried. Each tailpiece has a particular resonant frequency, and its material has an acoustical transmission speed (I am referring to Lucchi's tester used by many bow makers).
Is the sound frequency of the part itself important? Does a tailpiece need to be tuned? Could it be tuned like a xylophone key, to get a particular note, often from from G to E. Could the tuning of a tailpiece have some good effect for an instrument with a ``wolf,'' or a hole on a note?
The breakover angle of the string at the bridge is also interesting. The French tailpieces are rounded to match the shape of the bridge. The Hill tailpieces are flatter, somewhat like the baroque tailpieces, and the breakover angle of A and C is weaker than D and G.
How can we validate the « progress » or the « results » of our experiments? It is a problem for me.
Now I would like to tell you about the pernambucco story.
Some years ago, an experiment on fittings was started by a French luthier in Tokyo; specifically, on tailpieces, made in pernambuco. I was the maker of those tailpieces. In the beginning, I was doubtful about the qualities of this wood, and I thought that the commercial and/or charismatic capacities of this luthier were conditioning the trend.
According to the musicians, the results were miraculous. . But where did these results come from? From their imagination, or actually from the pernambucco?
I tried an experiment with two groups of violin makers: I asked the ones in the first group (people open to new experiments) to try this new extraordinary tailpiece. A second group, selected from violin makers who were more doubtful, was also asked to try this tailpiece.
The results from both groups were perfectly identical: six out of ten found some improvement: fast and better sound emission, opening up of the instrument and, sometimes, reduction of certain unwanted noises. The conclusion is that in this situation, the product spoke for itself without too much Ä or in spite of Ä human interferences; the experiment can be considered valid. I have doubts about the validity of experimental methods, as I know that an instrument will never be set- up or played twice in the same way. The results, even if they are real, will not be applicable to your neighbor's instrument. ..
As I indicated, the evolution of the tail piece in the last century caused it to become a ``foreign'' part of the instrument.
Its modifictions were due :
*to the violin-making industry, which neglected to take into account the role of acoustical transmission played by the tailpiece (as well as the importance of using good wood),
*and also by the musicians, who required fine tuners for a comfort rather normal nowadays. The results were an addition of weight detrimental to the sound quality.
Both the violin maker and the musician often neglect the fittings and consider them only for their mechanical function they seem almost invisible as long as they function.
You are more likely to notice your car or your telephone when they are out of order!
So, perhaps it is natural to see a shiny plastic tailpiece on a Strad at Sotheby's. The tailpiece is ... « transparent » !