New products aim to eliminate that telltale howl caused by annoying wolf tones

By 1974, when the grey wolf became one of the first animals to be protected under the then year-old Federal Endangered Species Act, the predator had been hunted almost to extinction. But it became apparent that the wolf must be saved—not in spite of being a predator, but for that very reason. As feared and reviled as it might be, the wolf serves an indispensable role in preserving the balance of the overall ecosystem; to preserve the balance, mankind must learn to accommodate the wolf, rather than the other way around.

It’s the same with the wolf on your instrument—the predator that eats notes and howls at its own pleasure, regardless of how it might interfere with your music making. But its presence is as much a bellwether of the health of your instrument as its four-footed brother is of the larger world we live in. You, too, must learn to accommodate it, and luckily for you, there are some handy little gadgets that have been invented in recent years to make the task possible.

I know it sounds like the weak evasion of a violin maker to say that every instrument has one, but it’s true. It’s a fundamental aspect of the way the box resonates when you bow the string. At a certain point the resonation changes—and that point is the wolf tone. Fine, you say; but I never had that problem with my cheap student instrument, and now I’ve spent all this money—for what? For a horrible note that breaks and howls when I try to play it?

Try These Tools

The fact is that your old instrument had one, but it was latent—the wolf was there, but sound asleep in its lair. The reason your new instrument is so much better than that old battle-axe is that it resonates more—not just in volume, but in all the overtones that make up that rich tone. You hear everything now, but along with all that wonderful sound comes the wolf. Or pack of wolves, actually, because it’s there on the same note in every octave, even though you might notice it only on one certain note. It’s much more apparent in the lower registers—again, because of the way the box resonates.

Violinists are lucky—the wolf tone only ever troubles them high up on the G string, so unless you’re playing Paganini, you’ll probably never come across it. And I’ve never encountered it as a problem on violas, perhaps because it’s an in-between note that you never play. But then there’s the cello. Unluckily for cellists, the wolf tone is loudest in the third position on the G string—most usually an F or F sharp. It used to be that there was not much you could do but squeeze your knees together and plow through. But in recent years acousticians have come up with new devices that temper the wolf enough to make it much less of an intrusion on your life. These work differently from one another, but the basic idea is the same—to absorb the extra energy that causes the uncontrolled wolf tone while damping the rest of the spectrum as little as possible.

One is a nifty little resonator. You’ll have to go to your violin maker to get one because they require professional installation—they’re glued to the inside of the top. Your violin maker will select the one that corresponds with the pitch of your wolf (they come in three different ranges) and then, using beeswax to stick it to the top by the lower end of the bass sound hole, he or she will move it slightly while you saw away on the wolf until the spot is found that most mitigates it. Sometimes it goes away completely. Then a special tool is used to glue it to the exact same place on the inside of the top.

David Bice, at New Harmony Music, has come up with a much more effective version of the old familiar brass tube that you used to see screwed onto the G string between the bridge and tailpiece. His is a simple brass slug with a curved slot that allows you to clip it on the string. He makes them in a variety of weights, from 3 to 13 grams; you want to use the lightest one that works.

Try it on the C string first, and then the G—by moving it ever so slightly, eventually you’ll find a weight and place that works best. Unlike the resonator, which dampens the wolf, these slugs seem to work by moving the wolf to a note you don’t play. But the result is often the same, in taking care of the troublesome wolf, so I would try it first—once the resonator is glued in, it’s the devil to get it out.

A recent innovation called the Rezx is a weight that’s held onto the top by a magnet on the inside. Like the resonator, you move it around until you find the most effective spot for damping the wolf. Made of bright stainless steel, it adds a raffish, downtown touch to your instrument’s look—a nose ring for your cello. But be very careful installing it—if you slip with the magnet, it will clip onto the endpin, if it’s steel.

Try Lowering String Tension

And there’s one more thing you can do: try low-tension strings. That sometimes helps. As for the devices I’ve mentioned, the cure won’t kill your sound but it may come with a cost: some musicians notice a slight damping of the sound overall. If so, it’s a tradeoff, and only you can decide if it’s worth it. Last week, 35 years after the grey wolf was listed as an endangered species, Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar announced that the reintroduction of the wolf had been a resounding success, and was being removed from the list.

These recent innovations in the violin world should go a long way in allowing you, too, to live in peaceful harmony with your personal wolf.