Sunday, July 25, 2010

Fiddle / Violin Setup: What Exactly is it?

As the most important part of your instrument, setup is really something that every player needs to understand!  Especially beginning students!  A good setup can mean a difference as slight as a tone quality adjustment, or as major as a playability issue. 

Just this last week, I corresponded via e-mail regarding the purchase of a fiddle online.  "Austin" wanted to know if the fiddle he was thinking of purchasing was a good fiddle for a beginner.  He sent me a link to the website where the fiddle was for sale, and asked me quite a few questions about it.  Here's what I had to say about it:
Hi Austin -

I think the fiddle is fine, but the setup is probably not going to be fine. You need to make sure that you are buying from a shop that specializes in fiddle setup, not just fiddle sales. An inexpensive instrument can be a fine starter instrument, even if it doesn't have great value or symphonic tone quality. If it is not setup correctly, then it doesn't matter if it costs $1000 or more. It will be hard to play, and that is the last thing anyone needs, especially a beginner. A "factory" setup is not okay. Many online places make you think this is okay, but it's not. You want a person who plays and also specializes in setup/luthier work to set this up for you. You should expect to pay an additional $50-$100 for this, depending upon what needs to be done and where you take it.
Austin then replied with the following:
alright thanks a lot!!, so after buying this you recommend me to go into a music store to get it "set up"? what exactly do you mean buy "set up" though
And this, folks, is the million dollar question!  I reponded with quite a lengthy e-mail, and then decided that I really needed to post this online because too many folks don't know or understand the importance of a good setup.
Hi Austin -

I don't think a regular music store will be able to do this correctly for you. You really need to have this done at a violin shop. A luthier at a violin ship will have the knowledge and EXPERIENCE that is needed to do this correctly. Here is what we typically do when we set up a fiddle:
1) Adjust the curvature of the bridge
2) Adjust the thickness of the bridge
3) Adjust the height of the bridge
4) Adjust the spacing of the bridge
5) "Voice" the bridge, which consists of carving certain parts of the bridge to make it more responsive
6) Put the bridge in the proper place on the fiddle (which affects the tuning of the fiddle)
7) Adjust the spacing of the nut
8) Adjust the height of the nut
9) Set the soundpost in the correct location

Why is this all important? If makes the difference between having an instrument that is easy to play and having one that frustrates you.

When the bridge is shaped correctly, it allows you to be able to play individual strings without hitting other strings. If you are playing bluegrass or folk music and you want to play double stops (two notes at the same time) frequently, then you will want a slightly flatter bridge which makes this easier. The spacing of the strings on the bridge will also affect the same things.

If the bridge is too high, then the strings will be too high off the fingerboard. This causes the fiddle to play out tune and makes it hard to finger the notes. It also increases the amount of the squeaking that you'll get when you play because you'll be more likely to touch strings that you are not playing, and if your bow also touches these strings, all you'll get is a squeak.

If the bridge is too thick, then the tone quality of the instrument is affected. It is more likely to sound tinny because the bridge cannot vibrate as well. Voicing the bridge also helps with the tone quality and vibrations.

Many people do not know this, but fiddle bridges are not glued on the instrument. If the bridge is not in the correct location on the fiddle, then the intonation (playing in tune) is affected. This will also affect where you finger the notes on the fingerboard.

When the nut is too high, then it makes it hard to press the strings down when you play. It will also affect the intonation of the fiddle.

If the string spacing of the nut is too close, then you will have a hard time fingering one string without touching another string. The larger your fingers are, the harder this will be. Fiddle/violin spacing is typically closer than any instrument other than maybe mandolin, so you want this to be correct.

The soundpost is a small wooden dowel that is located inside the fiddle. It is also not glued in. We use special tools to set the location of the soundpost. If a fiddle does not have a soundpost, then the top of the fiddle can cave in due to the amount of pressure from the strings and bridge. If the soundpost is not in the correct location, then it will affect the tone quality of the instrument. In extreme cases, it could affect the soundness of the fiddle, but that is truly rare. This would most likely occur if the soundpost was not the correct height. Too tall of a soundpost can crack the top of the fiddle. Too low of a soundpost will cause it to fall or move on its own.

If you want to find out if your music store has the knowledge, talk to whoever will do the work and find out exactly what they do when set up a fiddle. Ask questions. Most regular music stores simply cannot afford to hire a violin specialist unless they sell and repair lots of fiddles.

You are better off to pay a little bit more and order from a reputable shop that will do all this for you before they even ship out the fiddle. That way if there is a problem, they will spot it before you even get the fiddle. You won't have to make a special trip to have the instrument setup. A reputable shop will also back up the instruments they sell and the work they do.

Please note that I don't personally know the music store you are ordering from, so I can't tell you anything about them. I'm not saying they are bad or are not reputable. I also don't know where you're from, so obviously won't know what music stores are in your area. If you can purchase locally, you are better off. It's always better to be able to talk to a person LIVE rather than on the phone or in e-mail.

If you have a teacher lined up to help you learn, then your teacher should also be able to help you with all of this. A good teacher will know where to buy and get instruments repaired.

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