Friday, July 26, 2019

All About Fingerboards!

By Andy Fein, Luthier at
and Ivana Truong
A cello fingerboard with a precisely machined metal straightedge on top. Fingerboards need a "hollow or "scoop".

The fingerboard isn't a very prominent part of the violin, but it's incredibly important and surprisingly complex. Fingerboards are constructed in a very specific way to best accommodate the modern violin and have changed a surprising amount since baroque times. Without a well-constructed, well-maintained fingerboard, your instrument can run into a lot of issues.

A violin (and viola and cello) fingerboard is almost always made of ebony. This is because ebony is strong enough to withstand most playing, has the right amount of stiffness and flexibility, and has excellent acoustic properties. (Yes! Your fingerboard affects the way your instrument sounds!) Ebony is fairly easily shaped, reshaped, and formed into the right shape and curves. And... it's wood! And wood can usually be glued to other woods, like the Maple of the neck of your instrument.

Strings and fingers are always pressing into the fingerboard, wearing away the wood. Even sweat, which can be acidic, will slowly damage the fingerboard. This means with time, the fingerboard becomes grooved or pitted. Usually, the grooves can be smoothed out fairly easily, but if the grooves are too deep or if there are other imperfections, the fingerboard has to be re-planed. This means shaving the top to form a new, smoothed curve. Playing with a fingerboard that is grooved or pitted causes buzzing.

This fingerboard has very deep grooves made by the A and D string
One of the most prominent characteristics of a violin, viola, or cello fingerboard compared to other stringed instruments is the curved shape and lack of frets. On violins and violas, fingerboards are curved so that each string can be easily played individually with a bow. On cellos, most fingerboards will have a "Romberg", a flat section under the C-string. This was mostly so old catgut strings, which were much wider than today's synthetic strings, wouldn't roll and could have more space to vibrate.

Modern violins, violas, and cellos also don't have frets. In an instrument like a guitar, metal frets determine the pitch of the vibrating string. Pushing the string against the metal fret allows for the vibrating length of the string to be "shortened" more precisely than a finger. This allows for the note to be sustained for longer after it is plucked. Since the violin uses a bow to continuously vibrate the string, a fret isn't necessary to sustain a note longer. Not having frets actually gives violins, violas, and cellos much more musicality. Vibrato, slides, and shifts are much easier without frets. Not to mention, being fretless is a lot easier on the fingers! 

 Viola da Gambas actually did have frets made from catgut, the same material as gut strings
© BenP / Wikimedia Commons / CC-BY-SA-3.0 / GFDL

A violin bow in slow-motion, tuned down to exaggerate the motion.
 You can see the string is continuously vibrated by the bow, unlike an 
an instrument which is plucked

A large problem with frets is that no fretting system is perfect. There are variables in the thickness of the string, the thickness of the frets, and the frequency of the strings. With a fixed fret, there's no way to fix the intonation problem of a specific note on the instrument. If you encounter an intonation problem on an instrument without frets you can simply move your finger until the problem is corrected. Easier said than done, I know.

Fingerboards are typically 270mm long, 5mm tall, 24mm wide at the top and 41.5 mm wide at the bottom. They are angled back so that if the violin string is pressed down, it has room to vibrate. If the fingerboard was flat, the string would press against the entire fingerboard. Since the fingerboard is at an angle, the strings have to be held at the correct height by a precisely measured and cut bridge.

In this photo, you can see the angle of the fingerboard and hight of the bridge.

A closer look at how the bridge holds the strings at an angle that matches the fingerboard
Up until now, we've been writing about modern fingerboards. But fingerboards have taken a long journey to get to where they are today. In the Baroque era, fingerboards were usually far shorter, sometimes under 200mm! Also, they were made of softer woods like maple, spruce or poplar. This might have been covered with a veneer, a thin layer, of ebony. This meant they could be more easily damaged because of the material and that many notes in modern pieces would be inaccessible because of the shorter length. This is why many instruments made before or during the Baroque era, including Stradivaris, rarely have their original fingerboards.

File:Baroque violin and Violoncello da spalla.jpg
A Baroque violin and cello
©Frinck51 / Wikimedia Commons / CC-BY-SA-3.0 / GFDL

A modern violin with a standard fingerboard
All that's great, but ebony is getting close to being endangered. It's a tropical hardwood and it only grows in a few places in the world. So what do we do? People are experimenting with different types of wood, but nothing has all the great characteristics that ebony does. Other companies are developing synthetic ebony substitutes. One of the more promising synthetic fingerboards is made from a trademarked material called "Corene".

Like many components of the violin, the fingerboard has evolved through time to have the best form for its function. Everything in the violin works as a system, so make sure your fingerboard is in great shape and your violin will thank you!


No comments:

Post a Comment