By Richard Ward
Some musicians can take any violin, use whatever chin rest is on it, and be perfectly happy. Most violinists and violists, though, need to find the right fit based on their personal anatomy and playing style. Head, neck, and shoulder anatomies vary widely, so when it comes to chin rests, one size does not fit all.
When you bought your violin or viola, it probably came with some variant of the popular and fairly universal Guarneri-style chin rest, but that doesn’t mean that this type is right for you. That’s why there are about 40 or so different styles of chin rests and that helps to explain why some musicians spend a great deal of time looking for the right one.
Chin rests have been around since the 1820s when they were introduced by German composer and violinist Louis Spohr. One of the earliest designs was an odd-looking, wooden ridge shaped like a tiny banana and clamped to the edge of the violin. Before that, musicians held their instruments under their chins, with the skin contacting the surface next to the tailpiece. Many very old instruments still show wear and damage from the pressure and body chemistry from centuries ago, so one function of the chin rest is simply to protect the violin. The chin rest evolved later in the 19th century and helped to accommodate the needs of increasingly challenging repertoire.
Over the years, the chin rest has evolved from small, flat devices, which today seem like a torture apparatus, to dozens of widely varying styles and sizes. Each style has a name (Guarneri, Kaufman, Ohrenform, Stuber, and so on) and they can be categorized according to size, shape, and mounting position. Keep in mind that these styles have evolved over the years, so a 40-year-old Teka, for example, might be different than a Teka made recently. To add to the confusion, the same model from different manufacturers can be somewhat different.
How do you find the right one for you?
Well, that depends on such factors as playing position, your body, and your preference for where you mount the chin rest. To serve your musical needs and personal comfort, all of these factors need to combine and this guide hope to help you figure out what’s right for you.
Breaking Down the Mounting Positions & Various Shapes
1. Low, side-mounted. Mounted next to the tailpiece, these chin rests are good for those with a short or normal neck or who use a tall shoulder rest. Examples include: Kaufman (flat with a large cup and low—some are so low that it’s almost like playing without one); Dresden (low, with a slight ridge); Brandt (low, with a higher ridge); and Mulko (like the Dresden, always of plastic with an engraved cross-hatch pattern).
2. Medium-Height, Side-Mounted, with a Higher Ridge. These side-mounted rests are for those who need a higher ridge for a more secure hold. The softer edge is good for those who suffer from jaw irritation with a sharper edge rest. Examples include: Hamburg (high ridge, slightly over tailpiece); Stuber (low at outer edge, with a steep ridge extending over the tailpiece); Teka (deep cup, with a high ridge over the tailpiece); Donaldson; Morawetz; and Strobel.
3. Tall-Height, Side-Mounted. Higher and normally flat for those with longer necks or who don’t use a shoulder rest. Keep in mind there is a limit as to the height these chin rests can be made before they become unstable—if too high, the violin or viola won’t fit in many cases. Examples include: Vermeer (high and flat, extending over the tailpiece) and Hollywood (more rounded than the Vermeer).
4. Over-the-Tailpiece with the Cup to the Side. Examples include: Guarneri (large flat cup, one of the most common rests); “Low, Flat” Strad (similar to the Guarneri, but lower with more dip at the outer edge); “High” Strad (much higher ridge, deeper cup), and Wendling (a smaller, plastic version of the High Strad).
5. Center-Mounted. Center-mounted chin rests have brackets that clamp over the tailpiece, end-button, and the center block inside. Many feel that this provides a tonal advantage over the other designs because the back and top plates are less dampened by the clamps than with a side-mounted rest. They also are high out of necessity to clear the tailpiece. For those who position their chin nearer to the tailpiece: Flesch (centered directly over the tailpiece, with a high ridge over the tailpiece); “Flat” Flesch (like the Flesch, but flat with no ridge); Zitsman (high and flat with a large cup that allows your chin to go over the tailpiece or off to the side); Ohrenform or Berber (like the Zitsman but with a deeper cup and higher ridge at the edge); and Schultz (a smaller version of the Zitsman with a deeper cup).
Taking It on the Chin—for Comfort
Choosing the right chin rest depends on a number of factors, including your playing position and your anatomy. For long-term comfort and the most pain-free playing, your playing position should be as natural and stress free as possible.
To help you reach that ergonomic goal when playing, your shoulders and neck should be natural and straight. If you have a tendency to raise your shoulder or tilt your neck in order to hold the instrument securely, it would be better to choose a higher chin rest (and shoulder rest) to avoid muscle problems from strain.
If you play with your chin centered over the tailpiece and the instrument higher up on your shoulder, you should choose something like the Flesch or Zitsman. However, most hold their violin with their chin off to the side and one of the other styles might work best. In other words, remember to keep your playing position natural and stress free.
Thin players frequently complain that the edge of the chin rest pushes against their jawbone, especially if they have protruding bones. Usually this happens with chin rests that have a sharply defined straightedge, like the Guarneri, flat Flesch, or Zitsman models. The best solution is a model with a more rounded edge and takes a dip towards the outer edge, like a Low Flat Strad, Stuber, or Hamburg.
Some violinists (especially beginners or intermediate players) have a hard time keeping their instrument from slipping from under the chin. In some cases, a chin rest with a deeper cup might help, but often the teacher or fellow player might be the best resource for advice.
Construction & Allergy Considerations
Chin rests are usually made of ebony, rosewood, or boxwood, with more recent additions including pernambuco and some other exotic hardwoods like snakewood and datewood. Usually, the choice is aesthetic—does the chin rest match the tailpiece and pegs and does it compliment the color of the varnish? Occasionally, someone may have an allergy to one of these woods, but that’s something I’ve only seen a few times in my career.
If there is an allergy causing irritation on your neck or chin, it’s most likely due to the mounting hardware, rather than the wood. Chin rest brackets are normally nickel-plated and some people are allergic to this, especially as the plating starts to corrode and wear off. If you have this problem, hypoallergenic titanium hardware is available (at a fairly high cost) and Wittner makes chin rests of a hypoallergenic plastic material with the mounting brackets made of the same material. There are also a couple of leather coverings available, too, like those from Willy Wolf and Stradpet.
Getting the Right Fit
Once you know the sort of chin rest you need, take your violin to a well-stocked violin shop that has a selection of chin rests, and discuss your needs and any problems you are experiencing. Let the store staff make suggestions and let them show you how to change the rests. Then, simply try the out the different models to see what feels right. Ask yourself, “Which one feels the most comfortable and allows me to play with the most ease?” You may want to take a violinist friend along to “spot” you. How do you look and what your position is with each one? Spend some time and actually play using the ones that feel the best. Give it some thought and compare it to what you’re using now. Ask yourself, does the rest rub against my jawbone or my throat? Can I support the violin securely without stress? Do I have to raise my shoulder or tilt my neck? The right chin rest should feel natural and comfortable and allow you to play for extended periods without strain.
Of course, not everyone lives within driving distance of a violin shop. You can order chin rests via the Internet, but you need to be sure about what you’re ordering. Try the chin rests installed on fellow musician’s violins or ask your teacher to sample his or her collection of chin rests.
Even if you find what you think is the perfect chin rest, things change. Your anatomy or playing style might change and you may need to accept the fact that over many years of playing, you may gather a chin rest collection. If you do change chin rests, don’t throw the old one out. You may use it again and if you aren’t a teacher now, you may become one, and at least you will have samples for your students to try.