Monday, October 29, 2018

All About Tailpieces- Long, Short, and Fine Tuned

By Andy Fein, Luthier at Fein Violins
and Ivana Truong
with comparison videos by Diane Houser and Megan Scott
A Schmidt Harp Style tailpiece made from Pernambuco

Tailpieces do far more than hold your strings on to your instrument. And then there's the BIG question of how many fine tuners to use, if any. One? Two? Four? None?

What sounds best? Or- does it affect your tone and playability at all?

Pernambuco tailpiece with four fine tuners made by Bois d'Harmonie

The right tailpiece can certainly make a huge in difference in the responsiveness and resonance of a violin, viola, or cello. What the right tailpiece is? - that's a more difficult subject.

Most modern violinists and violists are using a straight steel or wound steel E ( or viola A) string. Even with Wittner FineTune Pegs (which I love!), most players need a fine tuner for the E (or viola A) string.

The first question is whether or not to attach fine tuners to a tailpiece. Usually beginners are advised to have 4 fine tuners attached to their tailpiece, helping them easily tune their instrument while they learn how to use pegs.  However, for violinists and violists, professionals and more advanced players are often expected to use only 1 fine tuner, placed on the e-string, because... that's what sounds best, right?

Though most professionals use 1 fine tuner, Anne Sophie Mutter uses 2 on her Stradivarius
This expectation is based on 2 factors, the "after length" and weight of a tailpiece. Four metal fine tuners adds a lot of weight to one end of the tailpiece, muting or dampening the sound by effectively adding a large weight to the bridge area. A single metal violin/viola fine tuner weighs about 5.5g, making 4 fine tuners an additional 22g! A composite violin tailpiece with 4 integrated fine tuners is only about 20g. On cellos, the difference is even larger. A single metal cello fine tuner weighs about 25g, making 4 fine tuners an additional 100g! Whereas a composite cello tailpiece with integrated fine tuners is only 78g.

This set up of four metal fine tuners on a wood tailpiece should be promoted as "When you want your instrument to sound the worst!"

Fine tuners also shorten the "after-length", the space between the bridge and tailpiece. For the best sound, this length is approximately 1/6 of the playing length. Different factors, like the type of bow or string can alter the ideal ratio, but it's a good rule of thumb.

Another method of determining after-length is tuning. Some luthiers will tune the after-length to be 2 octaves and a fifth up from the string frequency. That means a D string would have an after-length tuned to an A that is 2 octaves higher. This is said to maximize resonance and minimize wolf tones. Do I believe it? No! Sooo many other factors go into helping or hurting the tone of an instrument that the voodoo of tuning the after-length of one string is inconsequential. But, if you think it helps and you're willing to pay your luthier serious money to "tink" the note of the strings behind the bridge, go for it.

Regardless, fine tuners alter the after-length by protruding from the top of the tailpiece. This lengthens the tailpiece and shortens the after-length, harming the sound of the violin.

Violin fine tuners shorten the after-length by about 10mm
However, loose metal fine tuners are not the only option. Tail pieces with integrated fine tuners, like the Wittner carbon tailpieces, work and sound far better. The tailpiece is light, and since the tuners don't protrude from the top, the correct after-length ratio is preserved. Using integrated tuners can also prevent buzzing issues, which loose fine tuners are often the cause of.

Most cellists, beginner through professional, use metal strings ( Larsen, Jargar, Spirocore, etc.) and you definitely need four fine tuners to tune well. The various Carbon composite tailpieces (Wittner and Glasser are our two favorites) sound good. For a more enhanced tone, one of the Schmidt Harp style tailpieces or the Bois d'Harmonie tailpieces sound much better, especially the ones made from Pernambuco.

File:Fine tuner.jpg
The fine tuner on this tail piece sticks out, affecting the after-length, but E string tuners don't seem to affect the tonal qualities much at all.

© Lemonedo / Wikimedia Commons / CC-BY-SA-3.0 / GFDL

Wittner cello tailpiece with integrated fine tuners on the left, violin tailpiece on the right
While a carbon tailpiece with 4 integrated fine tuners works fine for most instruments, it doesn't enhance an instrument's sound in the same way a wood tailpiece can. Wood tailpieces are usually made of boxwood, rosewood, ebony, or pernambuco. More recently, we've been using tailpieces that are made from Chatke Viga (Mexican Pernambuco), Tetul (or Tamarind), and Snakewood. Each wood has its own properties, which if used correctly, can improve sound and even suppress wolf tones.

A comparison of Tetul, Rosewood, Carbon composite, Mexican Pernambuco, and Pernambuco tailpieces

Sometimes, lighter tailpieces sound better, so less dense woods like boxwood and rosewood are often used. Ebony tailpieces are heavier, but can make an instrument sound warmer and deeper. While Pernambuco, which is the same wood that bows are made of, can make an instrument sound more bright and focused. Different instruments match well with different woods and different after-lengths.

A Bois d'Harmonie Pernambuco tailpiece with 4 fine tuners

Ebony tailpieces

 Tulip tailpiece with Parisian eye, French tailpiece, Hill tailpiece with fleur-de-lis inlay (top to bottom)

Rosewood tailpieces

Tulip tailpiece with Parisian eye, Vuillaume style carved tailpiece, French tailpiece (top to bottom)

A comparison of Bois d'Harmonie Pernambuco tailpiece and a  Frirsz Matte Black Alloy tailpiece by Megan Scott

A Pernambuco Schmidt Harp tailpiece on the same cello setup

A comparison of the Bois d'Harmonie tailpiece and carbon composite tailpiece on a different cello

 Of course, how a tailpiece looks is important too. There are generally a few styles: "Hill"/"English", which is peaked, "French", which is rounded, and "Tulip", which is wine glass shaped. Generally, we feel that French, rounded tailpieces better suit the curved lines of a violin, but whether a tailpiece is Hill, French, or Tulip doesn't have an affect on an instrument's sound. However, more recently, "Harp" tailpieces have become more popular, and they can affect sound. Harp Style tailpieces made by Dov Schmidt, also referred to as compensated tailpieces, are curved so that they are shorter but higher on G/D or C/G side of the instrument. This lengthens the after-length on that side of the instrument, "balancing" the projection and harmonics of the low string with the high strings.

From left to right, the harp tailpieces are made of Tetul, Mexican Pernambuco, and Pernambuco
Tetul cello harp tailpiece

Pernambuco tailpiece set up on a cello

Snakewood cello harp tailpiece

Ornamentation can also vary greatly. Generally, they don't affect sound. But if poorly done, glued decorations can come loose or buzz. Inlays and carvings are usually fine, and can be beautiful. Jean Baptiste Vuillaume in particular made several very nice carved tailpieces. His tailpieces and pegs are on both the Lady Blunt Stradivarius and the Messiah Stradivarius.

The ‘Messiah’ Violin by Antonio Stradivari (detail)
The carved tailpiece of the Messiah

image from the Ashmolean Museum

Lady Blunt tailpiece
There is an incredible variety of tailpieces, in terms of material, shape, and even ornamentation. And having the ideal tailpiece, or conversely, the worst tailpiece, can certainly impact the sound of your instrument.

Does the length of the tailpiece, or the length of the after-length, affect the string tension? Surprisingly, NO! Intuitively, many people think that if the tailpiece is further from the bridge it will increase the string tension. But since you tune the vibrating length of the string (from the bridge to the nut) and that doesn't change no matter what size tailpiece you use, the tension doesn't change. Are you ready for more detail about that than you ever wanted to know.  Read this correspondence from Fan Tao, Research and Development Director at D'Addario Strings (maker of such great strings as Helicore as Kaplan) -

"Hi Andy,

The mathematical equation for a vibrating string is:

Freq = {1/(2*Length) * squareroot(Tension/MassPerLength)}

(See about half way down the page the above equation appears using slightly different variable names).

So you can see there are only four things in that equation: the frequency, the vibrating length, the tension, and the mass per unit length. Nothing else matters. But that’s just the equation and it doesn’t provide any insight into the physics unless you understand what the equation is really describing.

Think of the vibrating string as consisting of a wave travelling down the length of the string back and forth between the bridge and the nut (or fingertip). The travelling wave is reflected back from the bridge and the nut when it hits those two terminations. The frequency of vibration is determined by the time it takes the travelling wave to make one complete round trip from the bridge to the nut and back to the bridge.

The amount of time it takes the travelling wave to make one complete trip from the bridge to the nut and back to the bridge depends on 1) the speed of the travelling wave and 2) how far it has to travel, i.e., the length of the string. 

The speed of the travelling wave depends on the string mass and the tension:
1.    The lighter the string, the faster the wave speed: think of a car versus a heavy truck
2.    The higher the string tension, the faster the wave speed because it is the string tension that supplies the restoring force that pulls the deflected string back to its neutral position and pushes the travelling wave forward: the stronger the force (i.e. higher tension), the faster it will push the travelling wave forward.

Therefore, the frequency of a string is determined only by the vibrating length, the string tension and the string mass. Conversely, the string tension is determined only by the frequency of the string, the vibrating length, and the string mass. Anything beyond the bridge and nut has no effect on the way the string vibrates, and therefore no effect on the string tension.

However, the stuff beyond the nut and bridge does affect the way the instrument sounds, because they determine how the string vibrations are transmitted to the instrument body which radiates the sound. In addition, if the vibrations beyond the nut and bridge are large enough, they can affect the way the string vibrates, and the most extreme example of that is the wolf note. But they don’t affect the string tension.

The tailpiece assembly (tailpiece with afterlength and tailgut) has a lot of vibrational modes and can affect the sound and response of the instrument so its behavior is important. We know from practice that changing the afterlength can affect the instrument but why is it that I claim that the afterlength is of minor importance? The reason is that when you change the afterlength, you almost always change the tailpiece or the gut length, and those are the changes that are causing the changes. A one millimeter change in afterlength is not a very large percentage change for the afterlength but it is a large percentage change in the tailgut length! And a different tailpiece, whether in length or weight (or mass distribution) will affect the tailpiece assembly behavior."

Still awake? Keep reading! There's more tailpiece fun ahead!!

              Listen to David Finckel's opinion on tailpieces and afterlength. 

I think he's right! The further back you can get your tailpiece from the bridge (a long afterlength), within reason, will help your instrument sound more open and responsive. So, a shorter tailpiece generally sounds more open and enhances the sound more than a long tailpiece.

So what sounds best? Andy often says, "An instrument in tune ALWAYS sounds better than one out of tune, and it doesn't matter how you get there." So, if you need four fine tuners, use them. But use one of the tailpieces with the tuners integrated into the tailpiece such as Wittner, Glasser, Schmidt, or Bois d'Harmonie. If you don't need four fine tuners, one tuner for the E string (or A string for violas) will suffice. Any of the wood tailpieces will sound nice, and a wood tailpiece with an integrated tuner will sound nicer than one with a metal tuner attached. The Pernambuco tailpieces will sound much, much nicer. We highly recommend the Pernambuco tailpieces!

What to avoid?- Attaching four metal fine tuners to a wood tailpiece. Just. Don't.

On our instruments at Fein Violins, we give you all of the above options. Carbon composite tailpieces with four fine tuners or an ebony tailpiece with one fine tuner are our standard (and free) options. A tailpiece made from one of the other woods in the Harp style cost a bit more. Pernambuco is a rare wood. Pernambuco tailpieces add several hundred dollars to the price of the instrument, but give you an enormous sound improvement. A good compromise on sound and value are the tailpieces made from Tetul or Mexican Pernambuco.

A word of caution- replacing the tailpiece is not something you should do at home. Bring your instrument to our shop- Fein Violins in St. Paul, MN or another violin specialty shop. To change the tailpiece you have to take all the strings off and that might let your soundpost fall. You won't be happy if that happens on your kitchen table and you have an audition in two hours.


  1. Thank you! This is the answer ive been searching for!!!

    shorter tailpiece generally sounds more open and enhances the sound more than a long tailpiece.

  2. Thank you so much for this wonderful and detailed information!