Part science, part art, changing a bassbar may help, but then again, it might not
A: James N. McKean responds:
One of the wonderful things about making violins is that it’s a matter of balance. Even the smallest detail, like the size and material of the blocks, will affect the way it sounds and responds, and you can’t change one thing without changing everything. That said, one of the biggest single determinants of the sound is the bassbar. Many musicians aren’t aware that it’s even there—I wasn’t, until I went to violin-making school. That’s because it’s almost invisible—you can just see a tiny bit of it inside the upper eye of the bass f-hole. It actually runs almost the full length of the inside of the top, serving the dual purpose of supporting the top and distributing the vibrations from the bridge.
When you draw the bow, it sets the bridge to rocking back and forth. The arch naturally has springiness to it, but a maker or restorer can fine-tune the response and richness of the sound with the placement and shape of the bassbar. Sitting just inside the bridge foot, it regulates how much the bridge can rock, both by its exact placement and the way it’s shaped.
And I do mean exact.
I just spent a full half-hour microscopically moving the bar on my latest violin a quarter of a millimeter in and out until it was precisely where I wanted it to be, relative to the arch and the bridge foot, before doing the final fitting and gluing it into place. It has to fit absolutely perfectly—if not, it can deform or even crack the top.
While placing and fitting the bassbar is a science, shaping it is an art. There aren’t even any numbers to go by. It all depends on such diverse factors as the character of the wood, the shape of the arch, and the placement and shape of the f-holes.
Aside from the height in the middle, the fullness of the bar out to the ends can’t be quantified. Watching Vahakn Nigogosian, the master I worked under, shape a bar once, I asked how he knew it was done. He just rubbed his fingertips together and shrugged, “Should be known.”
So, does a bassbar increase your violin’s carrying power? It might. Whether it would or not on your violin would take an hour of careful measurement and examination to determine. But there’s no question that if done improperly, changing the bassbar can not only have the opposite effect, it can destroy the top if the person fitting it doesn’t know what they’re doing.
And that’s just the bassbar itself.
To do the job, you have to take off the top. Removing a top can, and most likely will, result in ancillary damage to your instrument. It should only ever be a last resort, and even then you shouldn’t let anyone do it that appears at all eager. Changing a bassbar is like an organ transplant: any responsible doctor will exhaust every other option before turning to that.
Likewise, I would be wary of anyone who suggests replacing the bassbar without exploring all the other factors that might improve the carrying power of your violin. For instance, try different strings, tailpieces, or a new bridge or soundpost. I would even consider having someone reset the neck before ripping the lid and putting in a new bar. And, most of all, keep in mind that science and art can only take you just so far: every violin has a character and a voice, and while you can do things to fine-tune it, you can’t change its fundamental nature.
Luthier James McKean makes instruments from his shop in Westchester County, New York, and is a corresponding editor for Strings.
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