A bridge with adjustable feet may help in a pinch, but a tailor-made bridge is unbeatable
Q: After experimenting with a flattened bridge for fiddling, I’m returning to orchestral playing, and I need a new bridge for my violin. When should I opt for a self-adjusting bridge for my violin? Some of my local luthiers offer this more economical “student” option as an alternative to the three-figure cost of a professional-level bridge with fixed feet.
Violin maker Christopher Jacoby responds:
A: A self-adjusting bridge has a pair of pivoting joints in the body of the bridge that allow the bridge feet to move to fit the arch of the instrument’s top.
The luthier doesn’t have to sit and carve the feet to match that arch, and passes the savings on to you. The problem with that type of bridge is that its feet don’t really fit your fiddle, they’re just designed to provide better stability on the top’s curved surface than a standard bridge when there’s no one around who knows how to do any fitting.
It’s a funny scaling system. If no carving is done on the feet, is the rest of the bridge carved out by the luthier? Take a look at your bridge. Above the feet are the ankles, which curve up into the connecting bar. Above that are the two kidneys, and above that is the heart. Really, the bridge is rather anthropomorphic—a tiny Atlas holding up a world of music on its head. Each of these parts needs to be carved to maximize your violin’s potential for great sound. A self-adjusting bridge is cheaper because the luthier can put it on the instrument without having to fit the feet, so do they also skip the rest of the carving? In my experience, these bridges are cut to height, thinned out a bit, and then sent out the door. Tonally, its stock shape and size is doing your fiddle no favors.
The bottom line is that getting work done on your instrument is expensive. Bridges are expensive because they are custom fitted to each violin, viola, cello, or bass, and it’s time consuming to do it right. The fit of the feet affects how you sound when you play.
That being said, I have a couple of these bridges in my case with my grandfather’s Heberlein violin. Working with instruments every day, I have seen bridges warped and broken in amazing ways, and many of us have winced at that gunshot sound of a bridge under pressure snapping into a soft top. If I’m playing with friends or out at a gig and that happens, with some quick cutting to height, a self-adjuster can stand in.
So a self-adjusting bridge may be thought of as a spare tire—you stick it on when you have to play and something’s gone wrong with your bridge, but you know it’s not supposed to stay on there. If you need to save a little money this month, the “student” bridge will get you through. But do yourself—and your fiddle—a favor, and spring for a real bridge when you can. In most things, as in lutherie, cheap is no substitute for quality.
Christopher Jacoby lives and builds violins south of Omaha, Nebraska—in river country, surrounded by non-adjustable bridges.