I received an email from a Violin Geek Podcast fan recently about improving the set up and hardware on a relatively inexpensive student instrument and thought others might have similar questions - What makes the biggest difference in tone? Where should I spend money first to try to make my instrument more playable and enjoyable?
You’ll hear the biggest difference in tone with new strings - Thomastik Dominants are standards, though personally I prefer the Pirastro brand - generally a bit smoother sounding and less metallic edge. Each violin and viola is different so you’ll have to experiment to find the best match. Pirastro Tonica is great for a less expensive, comparable string to the Dominants. Better yet, Pirastro Obligato if you’re looking for a richer, darker, warmer sound, or Evah Pirazzi Golds or regulars if you’re looking for more brightness, complexity, and response. In my experience, the Evah Golds have elements of both the regular Evahs and Obligatos. These are the strings I’ve personally been thrilled to have exclusively on my violin for the last four years or so now. We often don’t know what we’re looking for as far as tone until we try a few types!
A new bridge can definitely help with bowing, particularly if hitting adjacent strings is of concern. Sometimes we just have to get better at string crossings though! Other times the bridge is carved such that it’s hard, especially on the middle strings, to balance on single strings. One might feel a certain string is “in a hole”. Maybe the bridge even looks rather flat (definitely not good, unless all you want to play is Old Time music with a lot of drones!). All this can easily be remedied with a new bridge or reshaping your current bridge. Bridge work may also help your fingering if the action is currently too high or too low for comfort and response.
It’s possible a new bridge might effect the tone a bit, particularly if the old bridge is warped, or quite thick and maybe not transmitting vibrations into the belly as well as something thinner with better grain might. These are relatively small gains in the tone department however, and in my opinion not worth the money on a student instrument unless your playing is also suffering from action and bridge shaping issues.
A new tailpiece could improve your sound, but typically not dramatically. Some people say there are specific weights for tailpieces that sound the best. I would assume something very heavy might mute the volume a bit, but I haven’t experimented personally.
One of the innovative Frirsz tailpieces which lengthens the bass strings behind the bridge, does give a bit more of a bassy and resonant tone, and can eliminate wolf tones (unsounded pitches usually in higher positions and generally on the lower strings). I’ve used one of these on my violin for the last five or six years and have been very happy with the subtle ways it has improved the tone. Again, the key word is subtle - definitely worth considering on a good instrument, but likely not worth the money on a cheap beginner violin or viola.
One often overlooked tone element for students just starting out is the soundpost inside the violin. This can dramatically change the tone, often as much as putting on a new set of strings might. It’s a post that sits vertically right behind the highest string helping to transmit vibration from belly to back and through the sound chamber. The soundpost is not glued in and can move if your instrument is dropped or if temperature or humidity changes cause it to swell or tighten. A luthier can tap it into the perfect position and you’ll hear better clarity when it’s in the best spot. If it’s in a less than ideal spot you might notice anything from a slight tightness of tone (subtle!) to an obvious buzz, though buzzes in my experience are more often caused by loose fine tuner hardware, string protectors rattling on the strings rather than sitting atop the bridge, or jewelry rattling with the vibrations of the violin or viola against your neck. Especially if your instrument was shipped in the mail, this could make a big difference in the tone.
People often ask about fine tuners... Sometimes the fine tuners are built into the tailpiece, other times they are added, and therefore can also be removed or changed. It’s possible that heavy metal tuners on all the strings could effect the tone, likely muting the instrument a bit. Since I’ve always altered fine tuners on violins or violas because of string changes I’m making, I can’t say for sure... which leads me to my next topic...
Having or not having all the fine tuners, while helpful for tuning when pegs are sticky or only catch in certain spots and otherwise slip constantly, should be determined by the type of string you’re using. All four are more commonly seen on student instruments because of set-ups with cheaper, all metal type string choices, though it is also easier to tune with fine tuners rather than pegs when we’re first starting out.
So, circling back around to our first topic, what’s the deal with strings? All metal strings, such as Red Label, the typical student string (many fiddlers often prefer them too), as well as many of the Chinese strings that come with inexpensive violins, don’t stretch much and can easily break when over tuned with pegs. Once they settle in, which doesn’t take long, they generally only need “fine tuning” anyway. The better sounding (in my opinion) composite (the types I mentioned above, as well as many, many others) and gut strings stretch quite a bit more as they settle in, as well as with temperature changes, by comparison. Fine tuners with these types of strings quickly tighten as far as they can go and then need to be loosed all the way, the slack taken up with the pegs, and so begins the cycle again. Fine tuners certainly won’t hurt anything in this situation, but they can become a bit extraneous.
The E String for violins is the exception. It is always all metal and should always have a fine tuner to avoid breaking it and to make the fine pitch adjustments it might need. The A for violas often retains the fine tuner as well. If pegs are sticky, it’s generally possible to just loosen them up with some peg drops or tighten them up with some candle wax rather than get new ones fitted. Your luthier can always help you make sure they are turning correctly.