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Switching from ebony to boxwood fittings


Michael Appleman
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I'm sure this topic has been beaten to death over the years, but searching through the forum I mostly found "friendly advice" threads and after all, both sound and appearance are matters of very personal taste, so I thought I'd just share a personal anecdote.

I have a violin that's mostly just been sitting around the last ten years or so. It's a middle of the 20th century italian with a good, loud, brilliant sound, but something about it's playability just made it less enjoyable to play on than other violins I have. It was basically a great fiddle to play loudly, but trying to do delicate piano passages felt like trying to dance with heavy boots on. Since I haven't used it much these last years, I thought I'd leave it on consignment at a friend's shop just before the summer. The reaction to the violin was pretty good, but a comment came back that in addition to feeling a bit "lethargic" in its response, it felt heavy.

I took the violin home since my friend was closing up for the summer, and I checked the weight which was 515 grams with chin rest. On the heavier side, for sure, but not exactly a boat anchor. The violin was fitted out full ebony with what were probably the original fittings that came from the maker. The chinrest that was on the fiddle when I got it was even heavier than the ebony "Guarneri model" I had put on it. I decided to refit the violin with boxwood pegs, tailpiece, endpin and chinrest. The total weight savings is only 30 grams, but there is a noticeable difference when picking up the violin, as the single biggest difference is between the chinrests (still a "Guarneri model"), so the "lever effect" when picking up the violin by the neck amplifies that difference as well as the lighter taipiece and button. 

What has surprised me, however, is the difference in playability. I don't believe the basic sound of the violin has changed, much, but it's response is much quicker and it has become much easier and more enjoyable to play at lower and medium volume levels, making the violin feel overal more flexible and versatile. I really wasn't expecting such a dramatic difference, but at this point I feel like I'll be holding on to it and playing on it more often. 

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2 hours ago, Michael Appleman said:

The total weight savings is only 30 grams...

"Only"?  30 g is a huge difference.

Still, that means the total weight is now around 485 g, and without chinrest probably 445 g... which to me is a very heavy violin.  I don't have any experience putting light fittings on a heavy violin, as my heaviest has been 408  g, and heavy ebony fittings seem to work best.

The chinrest moves significantly in the lowest frequency modes, but I wouldn't expect much participation in the higher frequencies.  I would speculate that the balance between the low and high frequencies has changed to a more desirable point.

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Just now, Rue said:

Heavy tailpiece dampens sound/responsiveness?

That I can understand.

Not sure how changing the pegs would help.

I've seen a lot of difference in how an instrument sounds to me when I change chin rests but I'm not sure if it is just from the player's point of view or not.  I would think that the pegs would have the least effect, that said I'm a boxwood junky.  It's probably because that's how my teachers instruments were set up, and how the instruments in the Hill books that I spent hours looking at as a kid were set up.

DLB

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7 minutes ago, Dwight Brown said:

I've seen a lot of difference in how an instrument sounds to me when I change chin rests but I'm not sure if it is just from the player's point of view or not.  I would think that the pegs would have the least effect, that said I'm a boxwood junky.  It's probably because that's how my teachers instruments were set up, and how the instruments in the Hill books that I spent hours looking at as a kid were set up.

DLB

Just imagine, after a concert, someone from the audience would come up to you and say “my goodness Dwight, your pegs sounded beautiful this evening”:)

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In my testing and playing, the chinrest mass and location (side vs center) has the most obvious effect.  The tailpiece may have some effects below the level of my playing and measurements, except if there is something grossly wrong with the setup (or the tailpiece is excessively light) so that undesirable resonances occur.

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3 hours ago, jacobsaunders said:

Just imagine, after a concert, someone from the audience would come up to you and say “my goodness Dwight, your pegs sounded beautiful this evening”:)

If anyone said anything nice about my playing I’d be pretty happy !

DLB

1 hour ago, Don Noon said:

In my testing and playing, the chinrest mass and location (side vs center) has the most obvious effect.  The tailpiece may have some effects below the level of my playing and measurements, except if there is something grossly wrong with the setup (or the tailpiece is excessively light) so that undesirable resonances occur.

I have heard that a side mount chinrest has sound advantages compared to one that clamps on the bottom block. I use a center chin rest so not a lot of choice.

this is about my favorite. I have no idea how the dog made it but he’s a very nice dog so I left him-:)

DLB

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That's an interesting set-up, Dwight! Who did that? Looks like the chinrest is attached to posts that go directly into the end-block, and the tail-piece and button are a unit of some sort. 

Like you, I've always been a sucker for boxwood fittings, and I usually set-up my violins that way, usually with Hill-style fittings, since I've always preferred that look. The violin I posted about was fitted full ebony, because that seems to be how the maker did it and I thought I'd leave it that way until I got that "heavy" feedback last month.

The strings are the same ones that were on it before the switch, and I've tried to keep everything else as it was, but one can't rule out a tiny movement of the post while tensioning down and manipulating the fiddle during the peg fitment.

Of course, the pegs probably haven't had much impact on the sound, and I initially tried the violin with just a tail-piece and chinrest swap, which gave the dramatic change in response. I did the pegs and end-pin because I found the violin didn't look right with mismatched fittings. Once fitted, the set of boxwood pegs are 4 grams lighter, though.

When it comes to switching around tail-pieces and chinrests, I've found that there are some violins that seem to be hardly affected at all and others that change noticeably. Over the years, I've kind of come to the conclusion that a violin that's functioning well will do so no matter what you stick on it, and a "problem" fiddle will still have problems, just maybe slightly modified problems. I frankly wasn't expecting this violin to get that much easier to play, I was thinking in terms of making it seem less heavy to future potential buyers. 

Btw Dwight, is that Dave Holland in your profile picture with you?

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1 hour ago, Michael Appleman said:

 ( ... )

Of course, the pegs probably haven't had much impact on the sound, and I initially tried the violin with just a tail-piece and chinrest swap, which gave the dramatic change in response. I did the pegs and end-pin because I found the violin didn't look right with mismatched fittings. Once fitted, the set of boxwood pegs are 4 grams lighter, though.

 ( ... )

Most players might not recognize the work, but when there is fine tuning involved, the types of pegs matter. In a drunken stupor I might even suggest the orientation mattes, but peg materials and fit matter for high end set ups.

Is it noticeable? For those who are fussy about that stuff. Yes. And a better shop might "call" the player on it, but there are those who notice and some who hear.

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That looks like a gorgeous instrument & I enjoyed watching the Curtin video -- thanks for posting.

Re chinrests: I've evolved into a less-is-better philosophy. I did this for physical reasons: I'm kind of Neanderthal looking but short of stature, with broad shoulders and a short neck.  Given this (ok, ugly) physique, I've set up my violins with Dresden chinrests, cut down as much as possible so as to still keep the holes intact. On my 16.5 inch viola, I dispensed with the chin-rest altogether.

So the question is: do I sound better when I setup the chinrests this way because I've mated the instrument better to suit my particular body? Or do I sound better because I've reduced the weight of the chinrest, and thus its impact on the sound?

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13 hours ago, Dwight Brown said:

Michael, the viola and it’s fittings were made by Joseph Curtin. It is one of his Ultralight designs.

you are absolutely correct about the way the chin rest goes on. He made the chinrest after one that I had that I sent him

DLB

 

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Thanks for posting Dwight. The “dancing master” violin head is quite interesting!

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