Unconventional tailpieces and how they affect sound

I recently went to see a luthier friend of mine who was at the time trying out a set of “unconventional” violin tailpieces. To my question “And how are they doing?” he replied: “Something changes…!” I replied: “I believe it! But does it change for the better or for the worse?” This episode led me to collect my reflections on the subject of “strange tailpieces” in this post.

Tailpiece made for a 5 string electric violin
Tailpiece made for a 5 string electric violin

There are a great variety of tailpieces on the market which differ from the conventional ones basically in two aspects:

  • weight
  • in variable afterlength (portion of the string between the bridge and the tailpiece)

I would add a third aspect which is often overlooked but which interests me, personally, the most:

  • its resonance frequency!

The weight

As far as the weight aspect is concerned, the most widespread opinion seems to be that of “lighter = better”. We will see the validity of this statement below. All those tailpieces made of composite materials such as carbon fiber can be placed in the category of light tailpieces. It is evident that a tailpiece that is too heavy removes a lot of sound from the instrument. We can experience this by putting 4 classical fine tuners on a classical tailpiece. But to the question of ‘how light’ an optimal tailpiece should be, no tailpiece manufacturer seems to give a clear answer. All refer to the “try and experiment”. The tailpiece with its mass induces a damping factor and the “violin” vibrating system needs damping! An example of a sound with insufficient damping is that of the instrument in white. By softening the resonance peaks the damping brings balance and equilibrium to the sound. The right size counts!


As far as the second aspect (afterlength) is concerned, the question certainly becomes more complex. Many do not care at all about the length of the “dead” piece of string that goes from the bridge to the saddle of the tailpiece, but if one wants to pay attention to it, the recommendation given in general is to place it at 1/6 of the length of the vibrating string (which goes from the upper nut to the bridge). I have not yet found any explanation for this measure which, however, seems to be consolidated in an empirical way: because it “sounds better”! I also normally put the tailpiece in this position.
Unconventional tailpieces are often “harp” styled with increasing afterlength for the bass strings. At this point, it seems right to me to immediately clear the field of one of the theories surrounding this type of tailpiece, namely that of the tension of the “dead” portion (that of the afterlength, i.e. the part of the string that goes from the bridge to the tailpiece). There are many who argue that increasing the length of the afterlength increases the tension of the string. I refer to a thread on the subject on claudiorampini.com and I thank the user “piase” for the work done! In short: if it is true that the bridge behaves like a pulley, i.e. that the tension of the string is the same on both sides, how come it can increase only in the “dead” portion if the vibrating string is always tuned to the same note?

I have no experience with this type of tailpiece but to keep the promises made to advertise them they should be based on the principle of “resonance by sympathy”, i.e. the piece of “dead” string should vibrate and emit sound in turn to “enrich” the spectrum of harmonics. I have some doubts about it: a string cannot make the surrounding air vibrate well and I also doubt that it can transmit its vibration to the body, either through the bridge or through the tailpiece. To prove the validity of this theory, just do a simple experiment: stop the vibration of the dead string with felt! 😉

cordiera HTS by Francesco Bertipaglia

A tailpiece that plays on both aspects in an extreme way is the one designed by Kevin Marvin (you can see an image of the tailpiece here) for double bass and cello: he completely eliminates the body of the tailpiece replacing it with strings of different lengths. In this case the piece of dead string is long enough to vibrate sympathetically and often annoyingly enough to have to be blocked with strips of felt. I once made a Marvin-type tailpiece on a double bass. The effect was ambiguous: the instrument could work well for baroque music with a very long resonance (sustain), but the pizzicato sound didn’t work anymore: the instrument had completely lost its attack! The cause of this loss of attack is, in my opinion, the total lack of inertial mass of the tailpiece.

In the articles linked below, different types of unconventional tailpieces are exposed with respective explanations by the inventors regarding the envisaged effect.

HTS by Francesco Bertipaglia

Article in the Strings Magazine

Article in the Strad Magazine

Article by luthier David Folland on tailpieces

The resonance frequency

In the last linked article, in the chapter “Variations in Weight”, reference is made to the third aspect that I consider the most important, namely that of the resonance frequency. The resonance frequency is the frequency that is heard when the finger is tapped on the mounted tailpiece. To test the effect that this frequency has on the sound of the instrument, you can apply pellets with plasticine on the tailpiece and evaluate the change in sound. This way you can also realize if it changes for the better or for the worse!

Scholars around Carleen Hutchins have called “Mode Matching” the practical theory of tuning frequencies on the finished assembled instrument in which they attach crucial importance to the resonance of the tailpiece. Deena Spear, for example, claims that an instrument in which the resonance of the tailpiece coincides with that of the body (A0 or W’) has a sound comparable to a vase of flowers! In the practical theory of Mode Matching, mode B0 is normally made to coincide (by tuning the keyboard) and one of the resonances of the sound box. The tailpiece must be outside this system – either above or below it. The important thing is that it must produce a clear and free sound when tapped with the finger.

In my view, this is the only aspect to take into account when it comes to tailpieces. I’m sure that the material of the tailpiece as well as that of the tailpiece also have their influence on the sound as they operate as a filter based on their respective elastic properties, but compared to frequency tuning I think it’s really negligible. When Mode Matching is done right, the behavior of the instrument improves dramatically producing a richer, more defined and more spacious sound!

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