By Erin Shrader
“It’s amazing how they are overlooked in terms of aesthetics and function,” marvels Eric Meyer, when asked about tailpieces. “Especially since they sit right in the middle of the top of the instrument.”
Meyer is passionate about fittings, which he makes by hand in his Portland, Oregon, workshop for fine instruments and violin makers around the world.
Asked whether the tailpiece affects the sound, he replies, “It does. But you’ll get 50 different opinions why.” The acoustical effects of changes in length, weight, and materials on tailpieces are becoming more recognized and appreciated, but the topic remains understudied.
Most tailpieces are too long, according to Meyer. The ratio of string length before the bridge to string length behind it is important for optimal sound, though again, you’ll get 50 different opinions about the correct ratio. Meyer suggests 6:1 as a rule of thumb. A tailpiece that is too long can’t be adjusted at the tailgut to preserve the desired ratio, but one that is too short can be.
Fine tuners that extend beyond the edge of the tailpiece shorten the string length behind the bridge. These little devices became increasingly popular as more and more players switched to steel E strings—the latest thing in 1905. As full sets of steel strings became common, more tuners were added to plain tailpieces, ruining both tone and aesthetics. Makers of fittings responded to evolving string technology, introducing the first built-in tuners after World War II. Interestingly, these tailpieces were readily adopted by cellists but resisted by violinists who dismissed fine tuners as a sign of a childish inability to tune properly.
Weight, Don’t Tell Me
Weight also influences sound. Eric Fouilhe of Bois d’Harmonie, maker of high-quality fittings in Allex, France, once compared two well-known commercially made tailpieces: one made of heavy, sturdy metal, the other of light, soft plastic. Surprisingly, both worked equally well. Fouilhe further experimented with weight distribution. Finding that more weight at the string end muted the tone, he designed a wooden tailpiece with ultralight carbon adjusters to counter that effect.
Materials count, too. Ebony and boxwood are most common, with many other woods, new and historic, now available. Today makers are experimenting with pernambuco, the bright, resilient wood used for bows. Meyer finds the resulting sound louder, brighter, and more responsive, with other makers and delighted musicians reporting similar results.
On the other hand, a pernambuco tailpiece on an already bright, open instrument could be too much of a good thing. Stringed instruments are individualistic, their sound a result of the complex interplay of variables. The best tailpiece for your instrument will likely have little to do with what works for your neighbor’s.