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Opinion on "Harp" Style Violin Tailpieces?


Thomas M
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I recently watched a video review of the so-called "harp" style tailpieces for violins, violas and cellos. I never came across those before, but in the video I watched they definitely made a difference on the instrument they were tested with.

They're not available in my country, but I'm interested enough to  give them a try. Have you tried these before on your instruments, and if so, with which result?

Thanks in advance.

Edited by Thomas M
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I've never tried the Harp tailpiece and I'm not against them, but the fact that there is a difference in weight between the standard and the harp is in itself a factor that could change the sound of the violin, and should be taken into account. At least it would be fairer to compare the two different tailpieces but of equal weight between standard and Harp to be able to draw conclusions. It would be interesting at the same time to do a test with the same standard tailpiece by disassembling and reassembling it to hear if there are differences (I bet yes) if you don't wait enough time to let the tensions settle. Making these comparative tests in an objective and scientifically reliable way is quite hard.

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I discussed this matter with a local professional musician, and he said that cellists in particular had been trying these tailpieces for years, but that they could never establish themselves as credible alternatives to standard tailpieces. It kind of figures, considering they're not officially available from any seller in my country. I'm just curious because I enjoy trying "new" things that might make a difference.  

Edited by Thomas M
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The angled tailpiece has been around for a long time.  Attached is a photo of a 1742 Welsh crwth made by Richard Evans which is in the National Museum in Wales.  The crwth history goes back about a thousand years and it was eclipsed by the medieval fiddle and the later violin.

The bridge was flat so the strings were played as chords.  Later instruments had curved bridges so that individual strings could be played.  The later instruments also had narrow c bouts to give more bow clearance.

2089702653_ScreenShot2021-05-10at9_04_10PM.png

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Facts:  some differences in afterlengths, tailpiece mass/distrubution will make some difference in sound and playing character.

Opinion:  not a huge difference, and "good" or "bad" depends on both the instrument and the player.  Normal tailpieces are fine for me, but might not look as cool.

And... I avoid lightweight tailpieces, as the reduced mass raises the low-frequency tailpiece modes higher into the playing range, where they can cause more weirdness.  Similar to chinrests... lighter is not necessarily better.

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The afterlength of each string will be different. So is the afterlength important or not? I've read here many times that it is (though I've never detected a consistent difference of sound on my own violins when I change it).

Presumably if the afterlength is significant, one of either a standard or harp tailpiece would give a clearly better sound, and common use would have settled on that type (as it seems to have with standard tailpieces).

Surely nobody would be so devious as to try to get people to buy their product without any factual evidence of it being better than the competition? That would be shocking.

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  • 10 months later...

A violin came into my shop the other day and it was fitted with a ‘harp’ style tailpiece. I’ve always set up violins using the 1/6 afterlength principle. So my question is: 1/6 from the bridge to the tailpiece but WHICH STRING? Is there any kind of norm or standard that can be applied to one of these beautiful but puzzling contraptions?

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On my own instruments,with a normal tailpiece, I usually go by the D for violin. Guitar and cello, I haven't messed with for a while, so, anyone else?

3 hours ago, Barry J. Griffiths said:

A violin came into my shop the other day and it was fitted with a ‘harp’ style tailpiece. I’ve always set up violins using the 1/6 afterlength principle. So my question is: 1/6 from the bridge to the tailpiece but WHICH STRING? Is there any kind of norm or standard that can be applied to one of these beautiful but puzzling contraptions?

 

Edited by Rothwein
which string on a Harp tailpiece! Duh... sorry.
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3 hours ago, Barry J. Griffiths said:

A violin came into my shop the other day and it was fitted with a ‘harp’ style tailpiece. I’ve always set up violins using the 1/6 afterlength principle. So my question is: 1/6 from the bridge to the tailpiece but WHICH STRING? Is there any kind of norm or standard that can be applied to one of these beautiful but puzzling contraptions?

For me, 1/6th the string length (or tuning one of the afterlengths to two-octaves-plus-a-fifth) on a conventional tailpiece is only a rough starting point, refined with feedback from playing. I will presume that feedback via playing would be needed to optimally adjust a "harp" tailpiece too.

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On 5/11/2021 at 4:38 AM, Don Noon said:

Facts:  some differences in afterlengths, tailpiece mass/distrubution will make some difference in sound and playing character.

[.....]

And... I avoid lightweight tailpieces, as the reduced mass raises the low-frequency tailpiece modes higher into the playing range, where they can cause more weirdness.  Similar to chinrests... lighter is not necessarily better.

Hi Don,

Thanks for your comments - very much appreciated! Like you said, lighter is not necessarily better, especially on violins.

One tangentially related comment (individual results may vary!): I suspect that blu-tak or similar tunable weights only give a rough idea how extra mass actually affects the sound. Of course, at a certain point one reaches diminishing returns (sound or response is increasingly damped, or the instrument starts to sound nasal). All things being equal, wouldn't it be better to have extra mass incorporated as part of a monolithic, resonant structure? ie., if a boxwood tailpiece sounds more pleasant or has better response with a few extra grams of mass, it is a good indication that it might sound better with an ebony tailpiece, etc. Does this match your experience?

I totally agree with your (carefully phrased?:)) comment on the "Facts" side of things. Notably, you don't make hard and fast claims about whether the changes to the sound are improvements or not (which depends on the instrument of course?) Everything changes the sound in some way, subtle or not.

However, your comment on playing character was intriguing. Are there any tendencies you have noticed (ignoring outliers, etc) with shorter/longer afterlengths, mass distribution? The instruments I have experimented with seem to like the extra mass (if any) on the wide end nearest the bridge. Any tips for optimizing this?

All the above probably only affects .005-.5 % of the total sound, but hey, maybe that is just what is needed in some cases?

Thanks,

S

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2 hours ago, Scoiattola said:

Hi Don,

All things being equal, wouldn't it be better to have extra mass incorporated as part of a monolithic, resonant structure? ie., if a boxwood tailpiece sounds more pleasant or has better response with a few extra grams of mass, it is a good indication that it might sound better with an ebony tailpiece, etc. Does this match your experience?

Unfortunately, my "experience" consists of what I personally can hear or feel when playing, or what I can measure.  I certainly don't claim to be any hyper-sensitive professional soloist that might detect finer details.  I'm a fiddle player.

The two things I HAVE noticed are 1) the effect of a long-ish tailgut, allowing a strong resonance at the end of the tailpiece (bad), and 2) a super-lightweight boxwood tailpiece that raises a mode closer to the open G string, killing off a bit more of the fundamental.

The measurable effects of string afterlengths (narrow dropouts in response) happen fairly high in the playing range of the E string, which undoubtedly matter to someone who plays up there.  I don't, so it doesn't bother me where they are.  One of my favorite tailpieces has been the old metal Thomastik fine tuning ones, which are extremely short.  That would drop the frequency of the afterlengths farther down on the E string, but still above where I play.  I don't know how long the G afterlength is on a harp tailpiece, but that frequency would certainly be worth paying attention to.  

I have given no attention to vibration modes of the tailpiece itself (other than the rigid-body modes), but I suspect those frequencies would be extremely high, and possibly affect perceived harshness in some way... but I haven't noticed it myself.

 

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I know a good player who uses a tailpiece with four built in fine tuners.  When tuning a string he alternates the peg turning and the fine tuner's to get  exactly the desired note pitch on the string's after length.  He claims the 1/6 after length rule isn't accurate enough.

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12 hours ago, Don Noon said:

Accurate enough for what?  I would be curious exactly what he is sensing to make these fine adjustments.

He claimed the silk winding at the string's end makes the 1/6 length ratio not quite right for a 1/6 pitch ratio.

The exact string after length pitch must be important to him.  I didn't tell him I thought he was nuts.

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22 minutes ago, Don Noon said:

Perhaps in the same way that the lucky feather was important to Dumbo.

The player is no Dumbo.  He has a masters degree from Juliard and I suspect that he is one of those rare people at the tail end (intended pun for this discussion) of the distribution curve that have perfect pitch hearing. 

I'm also a rare by having totally imperfect pitch and can't tell one note from another without looking at my electronic tuner.

So the after length pitch is very important to him but not to me.

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On 3/27/2022 at 10:50 AM, Barry J. Griffiths said:

A violin came into my shop the other day and it was fitted with a ‘harp’ style tailpiece. I’ve always set up violins using the 1/6 afterlength principle. So my question is: 1/6 from the bridge to the tailpiece but WHICH STRING? Is there any kind of norm or standard that can be applied to one of these beautiful but puzzling contraptions?

I just spent a day  at a convention trading observations and critiques with session and studio musicians about what affects violins/ fiddles for recording. These guys have some great ears, because they are often recorded on isolated tracks, close miced, Almost all of them preferred setups with heavier tailpieces and longer afterlength, shortest practicable tailgut, making 1:6 setup impossible. I did some experiments a couple of years ago with the 1/6 ratio and an adjustable tailpiece, and while it sounds plausible, I found that, in general, with most of the violins I tried, afterlengths longer than 1/6 gave a fuller rounder sound, and 1:6 was never proven by our experiment or a/b observation to be preferred by anyone who tried it. Of course, other people's preference may vary but one thing is clear to me is that 1/6 is NOT optimal, nor sustainable, because everything moves enough day to day, to make whatever resonances you get from a 1:6 have any constant effect. Just my observations from my own experience. This doesn't apply much to harp tailpieces; for all I know they may be the best thing ever! Try 'em! But IMHO don't worry much about 1:6 until you've verified its benefits.

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17 hours ago, Marty Kasprzyk said:

I know a good player who uses a tailpiece with four built in fine tuners.  When tuning a string he alternates the peg turning and the fine tuner's to get  exactly the desired note pitch on the string's after length.  He claims the 1/6 after length rule isn't accurate enough.

 

17 hours ago, Don Noon said:

Accurate enough for what?  I would be curious exactly what he is sensing to make these fine adjustments.

There are a bunch of different afterlengths which can work well, and which one is best will highly depend on the specific violin and the mass of the tailpiece.

Don, if you invest the time into finding the afterlength where a given violin hits its best "sweet spot", I think you'll find that a deviation of even 1/4 mm throws things off.

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Having tried the metal ( aluminum ) harp tailpiece more than a decade ago, it did sound different. It might have had made the instrument sound fuller to the player, but on that particular older instrument, the "fullness" was not necessarily ib the richness of the tone of the lower strings. And it sounded perhaps that the tailpiece muted the e-string clarity. When I come across another harp- style tailpiece of quality, it would be worth purchasing and trying but oddly it's been awhile since seeing a good one ( in a shop ) for sale. I do worry a bit about superficial rattling on the less expensive models encountered.

I agree with Maestro Burgess that when "tuning" afterlengths, there can be substantial optimizing according to each individual string for a given player. I have to remind myself that ultimately it is a system. I spent several hours with a maker on tweaking the afterlengths. He heard the difference. The process takes awhile as the player needs to locate where it appears to make a difference and the maker wants to hear that difference. When quick A-B tests are unavailable we have to either record or measure to confirm what we heard or felt. 

Given a simple generic adjustment, one might optimize a particular string to see if there is a difference overall, before investing a lot of time for any particular set up/ player. If as a player one hears or feels a difference for the better, than it might be worth a slight investment. For me, the benefits are mostly in the lower positions as I sometimes feel that it saps the tiniest amount of power in the highest octaves... It all depends on how those frequencies are important to the player. 

For most of my "beginning" students, i believe it helps when they hear the ringing of the sympathetic open strings when practicing. It is essential in any of the lower positions then eventually in the higher positions when they improve and can hear/ feel when they are in a common key. Tuning the afterlength can enhance the experience of hearing or feeling these more resonant pitches. But the simple "tuning" process can have an assortment of problems on many instruments as they are all different. On many instruments, if one tunes the afterlength for a higher string, the lower ones might be out.

Some younger, say ten or less, students are noticing when afterlengths are working. They complain that the instrument does not feel like "normal." I have shown a few how to readjust their bridges but remind them that instruments may feel different from day to day... without consistent practice.

Maestro Richwine's comments make absolute sense as to sensitive players who are close- miked and for those with pick ups? An instrument is harder to integrate into a mix if there are ( overly ) resonant parts of a scale or an audio spectrum. Sometimes it can be EQ'd out where a particular fraction of an octave might be supressed or enhanced. In the control room, a sonically supressed room where the engineer- producer- sit, they will hear blooms of sound, desired or not. Everything is clearly heard before the recording is dropped into the overall mix. Some sonic artifacts like breathing and high frequency "stick" noise can be distracting as well as a too resonant instrument. A great experienced engineer can solve most problems with miking, or in the "mix," as these issues have existed for as long as modern microphones were available. One might argue, that as a player gets better, the instrument may not have be more resonant.

But for stage or live performances, every little bit helps. However the player ( might ) feel, that extra support is important. I would use one if it helped. Are there fractional harp- style tailpieces?

When students are starting, that player perception and awareness becomes very important. How important depends on that player, but working with players ( or your kids ) or a luthier, sometimes takes time. A player or parent needs to understand that they might have to pay for that time and just buying the tailpiece does not entitle one to expect a huge upgrade in playability and sound. Adjustments or tailpieces do not immediately fix pitch or tone productions, but it can. I know at least a dozen great professional players with the harp- style tailpiece, many on cello, that love them and understand how it enhances their instruments. I do own several ( really about a dozen of the family ) Thomastik tailpieces, many in boxes as new, but in the most difficult set ups, they come out to set one extreme of a set up and it can be helpful.   

 

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I ran into an excellent, very hip player recently who uses a harp- style tailpiece on some of his instruments.

On his living maker Italian instrument, he showed me how he made a figure- 8 out of his "kevlar" tailgut. He uses a traditional Italian branded tailpiece with an integrated e- tuner and plays with a Stark ( heavy/ thick ) g- string while the others are medium. We were outdoors in a parking lot so could not carefully listen to how the instrument sounded, but he is known for his full rich and dynamic sound. His was a DG-esque copy while mine was an adapted Strad design from a young Italian maker and his instrument overshadowed mine ( which sounds pretty good but not outdoors in a parking lot maybe ) like it was a 3/4 size instrument compared to his adult violin. His sounded more open, mine tight. And it sounded better with my bow.  * so sad *

Not saying the figure- 8 twist was what made the instrument sound great. Here's a guy who is always trying new things and a combination of things is working for him. Can not do this with a nylon tailgut. I had seen something like this decades ago when a cellist had her wire twisted below her tailpiece. She had an experimental titanium end pin. I laughed because it was heavy, making her a little angry. Thinking back, maybe it was ti- coated or something.     

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Don't you think this is an example (one among many) of a "solution" discovered/invented before anyone realised there was a problem? I'm sure it's true that some people can detect a difference, many people may express a preference (even if the difference is largely in their imagination), but for most people including the audience it just isn't important.

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38 minutes ago, matesic said:

Don't you think this is an example (one among many) of a "solution" discovered/invented before anyone realised there was a problem? I'm sure it's true that some people can detect a difference, many people may express a preference (even if the difference is largely in their imagination), but for most people including the audience it just isn't important.

Yes, absolutely. Especially having heard my jerk friend.

But there are players out there who might sense a need for slightly more sound on a particular string or better playability, ease of activation of string and sometimes a new setup, strings or a new tailpiece. Just a bit more sound, for a bit more than a night out of fried seafood seams reasonable to some players. Sometimes it can be a simple correction in playing, not squeezing as much, breathing during that stressful passage that can make a greater difference. But that nagging itch under the collar where a bit more ring would be nice... maybe a new tail gut or that $400 shoulder rest* might make shifts into the higher position easier or and more in tune. 

Thankfully, kind audience members do not care so much about the minor differences in sound or small mistakes here and there. There are a groups of us that are held accountable and consequently become more agitated when there are marked improvements in someone else's playing, sound. I also get paid to be critical and that has its downsides built in. I sat ( won ) last chair ( position ) in quite a few ensembles and there is a constant fog of dread that seeps from the f- holes and the occasional whistling e-string. 

* Sometimes lifting that heavy vail of insecurity, in and during the preparation for a difficult concert helps. It is effective for many students, offering reassurances, individually, in where they are doing well and where they need work. Some difficulties and improvements are largely imagined. Consistency is what should be developed, but many kids with constant doubt coupled with emotions over their high school years do not continue playing. Giving them targeted gift of a new shoulder rest or rosin does help in most instances. The key is to offer what they need and listening remotely helps. It is to sweeten what the parents hear. 

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