Saturday, February 13, 2010

Fiddle / Violin Setup: What is it?

I get this question from time to time, and it is a very important one.  Especially since "factory setup" is so often listed on places like E-bay and other websites.  My definition of a factory setup is "the instrument looks like it might be playable."  That is far from what you want, especially if you are beginner and don't know anything.  You need to be sure your instrument is getting the correct setup for the type of music you want to play.  Most violin shops will give you a typical classical setup.  Although there is certainly nothing wrong with that, if you aren't playing classical music, you can go with a setup that will make playing much easier.  Likewise, if you take your instrument to a violin shop for a string change or other minor adjustment and the violin shop says "Your bridge is totally wrong!  We can cut you a new bridge for $60." run!  If it's working good for you, don't mess with it.  It will totally change your bowing arm position and possibly even your left-hand fingering due to the higher string height.

Here are the things that we look at when we look at setup:

Bridge Height - The height of the bridge will directly affect the height of the strings from the fingerboard. If the height is high, it can be impossible to play or hard to play. One of the reasons is that when you try to "fret" a note with your left hand, your fingers will touch another string if the strings are not close to the fingerboard. (This tends to happen anyway, so a decent string height is very important.)

Bridge Curvature - The curve of the bridge directly affects the position of your bowing arm, and also how easy it is to play double or single notes. A very curved bridge makes it easier to play single notes, but it also requires much more movement of the bowing arm to reach the E and G strings. A flatter bridge makes it easier to play double notes and requires less movement of the bowing arm. If the bridge is too flat, then it is too hard to play single notes. Generally, non-classical players strive for a bridge with less curve in it, but not flat.

Nut Height & Spacing - The height of the nut affects how hard it is to "fret" the strings. With a fiddle, the strings aren't overly stiff to begin with, but you really want to develop a light touch so that you can be fast when you need to be. Closer to the fingerboard is better as long as you aren't getting a buzz. The spacing of the strings will vary from instrument to instrument, and it generally is based upon the width of the fingerboard. Closer spacing works well for people with small fingers, and larger spacing works better for people with larger fingers...

Soundpost - The soundpost is the little piece of wood that looks like a dowel inside your fiddle. The position of the soundpost is paramount to good sound, and if you don't have a soundpost setup inside your fiddle, the top may collapse under the pressure of the strings & bridge. The soundpost is actually set inside the fiddle after the fiddle has been built. It is not glued. We use a special tool that we can get through the f-hole of the fiddle to set the soundpost up. Then we move it to the correct position if need be. There is a correct place for the soundpost, but that is not always where the best sound is. Usually, there is about 1-2 mm of play as to where the soundpost can be set. It is right behind the foot of the bridge on the treble side towards the outer edge.

Strings & Fine Tuners - The type of strings that you use will affect the playability and sound of your fiddle. You want to be sure to get flat wound strings. I only know of one or two companies that make round wound strings for fiddle, and in my opinion, they should just stop. These are impossible to play without squeaking...A LOT! Classical players usually use perlon strings, which are basically "fake" gut strings. These strings have more stretch in them, which is why classical players usually only have one fine tuner on their tailpiece. The more stretch your string has, the less the need for fine tuners. These strings are a little bit more susceptible to the humidity and temperature, which is usually fine for classical players since they generally play indoors only. Steel strings has less stretch and I would definitely recommend four fine tuners. In fact, four fine tuners are good for beginners regardless. It makes it so much easier to tune and less string breakage while you are learning how to do this. My personal recommendations for strings are these:

Steel - Super Sensitive Red Label for an economical steel string, and Prim for a great string with more sensitivity. This means that it doesn't take much bow action to get a sound. Pirastro Chromcor or Wondertone is also a good choice.

Perlon - The most common perlon string is Dominant. Mostly classical players use these. Crossover players tend to use Helicore or now Vision. I personally am using Vision right now. This particular brand is known for its fast stretch-in period, so you don't have to keep tuning and tuning and tuning like you normally do for perlon strings. I like the sensitivity and longevity of Vision. They are not cheap, though.

When you purchase your new or used fiddle, if the strings are not already upgraded, you should go ahead and pay for someone to do this for you before you take the instrument home. Keep the set that came on the fiddle as backups in case you break one.

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