Some thoughts on fiddle bridges

Some thoughts on fiddle bridges

I’ve been told more than once that a fiddle bridge loses some of its sonic quality after a few years and should be replaced with a new one. Is there any quasi-scientific evidence for this, or is it one of those bits of received wisdom that goes forever untested? I know that many thousands of violinists and luthiers believe it to be true, just as millions of drivers believe that their car’s oil should be changed every 3000-7000 miles. [A fairly decent scientific study found no benefit from it. I have my oil changed regularly because the warranty requires it and … just in case.]

Thought Number 2: Does your luthier tune your bridge, other than to set the height and gross thickness? Or does s/he adjust the thickness of specific parts or alter the “heart” and “kidneys” (those openings in the bridge) or any other such subtleties?

Eons ago, I saw some documentary filmage about a physicist who studied the vibrational characteristics of the fiddle bridge and claimed to be able to adjust the sound at will by sanding a little here and there. I couldn’t tell any difference through three-inch TV speakers, but the violinist he was working with seemed to believe he was giving her the changes she specified. I’d love to find some information on that kind of fine tuning.

Re: Some thoughts on fiddle bridges

I’ve never heard that a bridge will degrade in tone over time. I can’t say it isn’t true; I’ve just never heard it. You sure it isn’t just a way for luthiers to drum up more business? :)

I never replace a bridge until something goes wrong with it, like warpage, a chipped foot, worn-down grooves, etc. I’ve never noticed a difference in the way a bridge sounds with age.

I usually get a standard set-up that doesn’t include the kind of bridge tweaking that you’re talking about. I know that that kind of "pro" bridge adjustment can make a lot of difference, but I’m no "pro" and it would be mostly a waste of money for me.

Re: Some thoughts on fiddle bridges

A couple of years ago I thinned the bridge on my old German fiddle, both overall and with more thinning on the bass side. This was in conjunction with lowering the action and slightly altering the profile by taken 1 or 2 mm off the top. I used the finest grade sandpaper for doing this and the thinning, and a micrometer gauge for taking the measurements (did Stradivari etc use gauges or calipers for this and other fiddle jobs, I wonder), and only worked on the side that faces the fingerboard - the other side should never be touched, apparently, because it’s supposed to be always perpendicular to the belly.

Everything went according to plan, the sound post didn’t fall over when I took the bridge off :-), and the tone ended up being a little more mellow.

I googled the Web beforhand for information on fiddle bridges and their dimensions, and found something useful to work with. Unfortunately, I now have no record of the link, or I’d post it.

As Bob says, when most fiddles are set up the luthier does little more than to make sure the feet are a precise fit to the belly, the bridge isn’t too high, and the profile is reasonable. Anything more costs money and needs consultation with the player. I seem to remember that the link mentioned that most bridges could do with a little judicious thinning to improve the tone. In my experience, this is within the capabilities of a fiddle player who is prepared to take it carefully and steadily.

Even if thinning or cutting down a bridge does go disastrously wrong, it isn’t likely to be a major financial disaster. I know one or two orchestral violinists who always carry a spare bridge - the type with the adjustable feet - in case of emergencies (such as the instrument falling over and breaking the bridge).

Re: Some thoughts on fiddle bridges

It’s occurred to me that a fall-off in the fiddle’s tonal quality need not necessarily be due only to the bridge getting old. Leaving aside the strings, which should be replaced regularly anyway, the other item which wears out in time is the sound post. Over the years the post will shrink and will therefore not be doing its job of efficiently transmitting vibrations.
Another item which can cause tone problems in the longer term (over many years) is the bass bar if it starts to come loose. Refixing it isn’t all that difficult a job, but the belly needs to be taken off.
And then there are cracks and splits, especially in the belly, as sources for tone problems, but these are usually fairly obvious to the naked eye.

Re: Some thoughts on fiddle bridges

this is the archival reference for violin bridges…

http://www.violinbridges.co.uk/index.php

make sure to check out the "references" section…great articles from the master set up folks

a bridge can make a very great difference in the violin tone and projection..remember that what you hear under your ear is not what is necessarily projected from the fiddle

Re: Some thoughts on fiddle bridges

It’s difficult to tell if the sound changes over time, since it would happen very gradually. But I didn’t even hear any noticeable difference when I got an entirely new bridge, except that it was easier to play (that old bridge was WAY too tall and the strings were under a lot of unnecessary tension)

How much does the "standard" setup usually cost? My new bridge set up for 50 USD, and I suppose that’s pretty reasonable?

Re: Some thoughts on fiddle bridges

[quote]
How much does the "standard" setup usually cost? My new bridge set up for 50 USD, and I suppose that’s pretty reasonable?
[/quote]

For having a new bridge cut that’s reasonable, especially if it was done by an experienced luthier.

Re: Some thoughts on fiddle bridges

S-bear, thanks for that reference. Just the kind of thing I wanted to see.

L-hound, do any of your classical mates use those bridges with the wiggly adjustable feet as a first choice or just for emergencies?

Re: Some thoughts on fiddle bridges

hi all. Following this interesting discussion about bridges comes a question to me. is there any relation between the thickness of the bridge and the resulting quality of the sound (tone, volume)? thanks all

Re: Some thoughts on fiddle bridges

A cellist in my orchestra told me last night he is having a new bridge fitted. The total cost will be about £80. Cello bridges are more expensive to buy and fit than violin bridges. 50USD for a fiddle bridge seems reasonable in that context.

Re: Some thoughts on fiddle bridges

Bob, the one or two classical players I know who have the adjustable feet bridges don’t have them as a first choice, but only for emergencies. An adjustable bridge should be fine, of course, if all you’re doing is setting up a hack fiddle for practice or travelling. With a bit of care in cutting down and perhaps a little judicious thinning I see no reason why it shouldn’t do a perfectly adequate job for general playing - we’re not talking about pros playing Beethoven quartets.

Re: Some thoughts on fiddle bridges

every part of the construction (or deconstruction) of the bridge will effect the tone and volume..the way the heart is cut out, the thickness of the bridge, even the hardness of the maple the bridge is cut from (that is why there are differing qualities of bridges)…all has to do with vibration and frequency response…too much tech for me, per se, but I do enjoy a nicely set up violin

Re: Some thoughts on fiddle bridges

sorry if i ask again, but, is it right that the thinner the bridge , the stronger the sound emission… or it is the other way round? my question was just as simple as this! thank you again .

Re: Some thoughts on fiddle bridges

"sorry if i ask again, but, is it right that the thinner the bridge , the stronger the sound emission… or it is the other way round? my question was just as simple as this! thank you again . "

Oh, that it could be that simple! Dissertations in mathematical physics have been based on the violin. The bridge alone is a complex union of several mechanical parts, each with a different function in transmitting the sound and none of them independent of the others.

I just had a peek at Sunnybear’s last reference. A good hint at how complex the question really is.

If you start with a fiddle that sounds pretty good as is and start thinning the bridge, you might go past an optimal thickness into a range where the voice starts to honk. You might boost high frequencies at the expense of mids or lows. Or …?

It can be fun to experiment with bridges. If you can use woodworking tools and don’t mind wasting a few bridge blanks, you might discover some interesting things. I run out of patience too soon. Maybe after I retire…

Re: Some thoughts on fiddle bridges

I’ve been building bridges for my ‘zouk for a while now, following on the pioneering work by Red Henry, who looked at the standard mandolin bridge on American-pattern instruments and thought that a piece of engineering involving two pieces of ebony and two brass screws couldn’t be the best way to transmit vibrations to the soundboard, and started building mando bridges using some of the aspects of fiddle bridges in the design.
Some of the aspects of his research bear out the basic principles; 1) a heavy bridge is not as responsive
2) the position of the cut-outs all contributes to how the energy is transmitted from string to soundboard
3) the wood used for the bridge does make a difference.
It does seem that the lighter the bridge, presumably up to a point where it can’t carry the strain any more, would improve the tone, as less energy is needed/lost to move the bridge before it reaches the soundboard.
You could always experiment by getting a replacement bridge and thinning it, but having your original ready if you mess it up.
I’d be interested to hear your results if you try this.

Re: Some thoughts on fiddle bridges

Interesting, G. Pete. It’s a bit surprising that hardly any attention was paid to mando-family bridges for so long. I can’t help thinking that we’re in a phase now where some ideas seem promising just because *anything* is better than the old ebony and brass bridge. I suspect it’ll take a lot of experimenting before the mando bridge is optimized. Meanwhile, there’ll be a lot of wine tasting before the next big breakthrough.

I’m also reluctant to extrapolate very much from mando to fiddle or vice versa. The differences are significant – soundpost, tension, bow vs plectrum, etc.

Re: Some thoughts on fiddle bridges

Tom Hosmer in a series of articles starting in May ‘80 of Frets Magazine went in depth on the carving of a violin bridge. He covered fitting, thicknessing, opening up the heart and kidneys, trimming the bottom arch and the bee sting. Very nice series of articles that I use as my base for setting up bridges. He can be found at:

http://www.hosmerviolins.com/

Re: Some thoughts on fiddle bridges

Hidden within the Hosmer link http://www.hosmerviolins.com/ is this one on “Some Principles of Violin Setup” by Joseph Curtin: http://www.josephcurtinstudios.com/news/tech/journal_vsa/principles.htm , and at the top right of the opening page of this link it is well worth clicking on “Articles of Interest” for further absorbing stuff, including this one http://www.josephcurtinstudios.com/news/strad/apr00/Gabi_strad.htm , on the directional tone colour of the sound of a fiddle (which explains why the instrument is so difficult to record).