By Karen Peterson | From the March-April 2022 issue of Strings magazine
It doesn’t get much press. The tailpiece performs its essential service on violin—creating sound by anchoring the strings across the body of the instrument, pegs to end button—without fanfare. Rarely does the tailpiece elicit complaints about its performance from players, except when a note howls. The only thing that truly darkens the tailpiece’s reputation is the chance that it, not the strings or chinrest, is the source of the dreaded “wolf tone.”
The tailpiece has remained basically the same, with as-needed adjustments, since the earliest days of the violin. Tailpiece innovations and investigations have been rare, with more attention paid to the strings it holds up. As Jason Leung noted in his 2015 thesis, “Resonant Effects of the Violin Tailpiece,” while the tailpiece “inevitably” has an influence on the sound of the instrument, “the effects are poorly understood.”
“Even though the majority of scientific investigations of the violin have taken place over the last 50 years,” he continued, “most of those efforts have been directed toward investigating the more prominent components of the instrument: the body, the strings, and the bridge.”
By comparison, “the tailpiece has received almost no attention,” Leung wrote.
That anonymity appears to be changing. Scholars, luthiers, makers, and, notably, players are listening more intently to the effect tailpieces have on the overall sound of an instrument. It’s a holistic approach to syncing vibrations.
“Usually, luthiers and makers make decisions about tailpiece selection, but today many musicians educate themselves and have strong opinions about this as well,” says former symphony violinist and owner of the Fiddlershop, “Fiddlerman” Pierre Holstein. One area of debate is weight, with the lighter approach gaining ground. “In recent years we have been installing more titanium tailpieces as well as titanium tailguts,” says Holstein. “It’s apparent that more players are looking at lighter-weight solutions for the added power and projection.”
One camp of experts believes that using a lighter tailpiece can create superior sound, says Holstein, though the opposite is also true—too light a tailpiece can negatively affect an instrument’s overall sound as well.
Return of the Harp
Already a precision-engineered component of the equally precision-made violin (or any stringed instrument), the tailpiece requires careful assessments before changes can take hold. Any missteps—with weight or placement on the instrument, for example—can result in poor performance at the least, but more likely repeat performances of the aforementioned wolf tones.
The continued interest in the essential function of the tailpiece—and its weaknesses—is giving rise to the revival of an old standard, the harp tailpiece. It’s been around for years alongside the (more traditionally popular) tailpiece triad of the peaked “Hill” or “English” tailpiece, the rounded “French,” and the curvier “tulip.” Today, the the harp tailpiece’s newfound popularity is related to its curved shape that benefits the lower strings: It gives strings on the G-side of the fingerboard more room to grow in the after-length.
“Some say that a harp tailpiece can reduce wolf tones and give more balance and clarity to all the strings,” says Holstein. “The idea is that the lower strings need greater length in order to resonate properly and to their fullest extent.”
“If string length and after-length are in proportion, the sound is better,” says Kevin Marvin, a Vermont-based double bassist who has designed a tailpiece of his own.
Rethinking the Tailpiece
Marvin is a stringed instrument innovator as the maker of a somewhat radical—and definitely nontraditional—tailpiece, the Marvin Cable Tailpiece. Marvin assures players his tailpiece can eliminate all wolf tones that originate from the tailpiece itself. “The whole idea behind my idea was to eliminate the tailpiece from impacting the instrument and the sound,” says Marvin.
For now, the Marvin tailpiece is only available for cello, double bass, and (soon), the viola. The violin is more difficult to accommodate, he says, beginning with the fine tuners—his tailpiece construction doesn’t support them, and violinists tend to prefer them, beginners especially. Cello and bass players tend to rely on Perfection pegs.
Besides, says Marvin, fine tuners add weight “and that has a significant impact on smaller instruments.”
Also hampering his design’s adoption by violinists: the violin community itself. It’s a tough sell, says Marvin, as violinists tend to have more traditional views on instrument legacies than his colleagues in the double-bass or cello communities, “It’s hard for anyone in the violin world to try anything unusual,” says Marvin.
What’s unusual about Marvin’s tailpiece is that it’s basically, or at least visually, gone. The solid tailpiece body players have grown accustomed to has been replaced with a lightweight, stainless-steel cable that loops around the endpin. The thin, brown cable, commonly used by the fishing industry, consists of 49 strands of stainless steel that separate to serve each string. The strings are attached to the tailpiece via a small hole in a brass ring.
For those who can’t quite deal with an exposed lower body, however brilliant the wood and grain, the Marvin DIY kit includes a two-piece black Velcro cover for the cables—a “buffer,” he calls it. They come in a selection of geometric designs, including spirals and replicas of the harp tailpiece.
Question of Relevance
Given the propensity for bursts of wolf tones, one could rightly ask why tailpieces, as they’ve been known for centuries, still exist. Marvin suggests that is exactly the right question when discussing the future of the tailpiece and the violin.
Originally, strings were made of gut, and the inconsistency of gut turned the tailpiece into a sound adjustment tool for luthiers, says Marvin. When steel strings debuted at the turn of the twentieth century—and again when petroleum-based nylon strings emerged—the role of the tailpiece in adjustments changed: modern strings are thinner and more consistent in material and manufacturing—the working attributes that can make a violin sing without the need for the “old-style” tailpiece.
While cellists and double bassists are more willing to experiment, Marvin is empathetic to the reluctance of violin players still on the fence about changes to their instrument. It’s like being a new player, says Marvin, recalling his early years learning bass. “I was afraid to touch the bass, it was so foreign. I didn’t want to break anything,” he says. “I had to get up the courage to try things.”