Further Tonal Improvements to your Cello

Last time we discussed cello tonal improvement possibilities, mostly involving tailpiece & tailgut combinations. This time let’s consider things like strings, bridge, endpin and, yes, fingerboard.

Strings are an obvious and effective way to change the tone of your cello, but be aware that strings that work great on your stand-partner’s cello may actually have an adverse effect on the sound of your cello.

A teacher I know used to tell all of his students to use Larsen A & D (strong), Pirastro Permanent Soloist G & C, and change the tailpiece to an Akustikus. All good products to be sure, we handle a lot of each, but not necessarily suited to all cellos, or all tastes.

Our best guess is that 90% of all serious cellists use either Larsen or Jargar A & D. You can sometimes tone down a strident A with a light gauge of either of those (although you will lose some power) or beef things up a bit with strong or forte gauge. Larsen also makes a soloist version which adds brightness. Like most brands of cello strings, Larsen A’s do not always match their D’s, and many cellists solve the problem by using a regular A and a soloist D.

For those who want even more focus, Pirastro Permanent (we handle the soloist only, the others don’t sound that great) A & D work well, as well as Pirastro’s Evah Pirazzi’s.

The G & C strings present more variety and much more of a challenge to find the ones best-suited to your cello. In the past 15 years, new technology and the use of exotic metals have revolutionized cello strings, but most especially the lower ones. There are others on the market, some costing big bucks, but these are the ones we find work the best: we’ll describe them in order from darkest to brightest. Remember we’re only talking about G & C strings here.

Jargar – these strings are DARK, meaning chocolatey, but not with a lot of focus, and can be very difficult to engage; but if you have an excessively bright, hugely sensitive cello, you may want to give these a try. They’re fairly reasonably priced also.

Next up the scale for us is Prim. These strings work on a surprising number of good cellos – a fine professional from Mississippi still puts them on his cello which he uses both for solo work and for his position as section principal of a major symphony. They are slightly less dark than Jargars and have none of the engagement difficulties. And they are the string bargain of the cello world at less than $40 for the pair.

One step up from that would be Spirocore Silver. The silver metal darkens the sound, but these strings have a bit more focus than Prims. Silver tarnishes more easily than some metals so wiping them down after each use is a good idea.

Helicore would be next up the brightness scale: the U.S. manufactured string uses an interesting combination of silver and tungsten. Silver, as we mentioned, provides a somewhat darker sound and tungsten a more soloistic brightness: the combination puts Helicore somewhere in the middle.

Larsen makes two versions of a tungsten G & C, the more expensive of the two having a slightly richer sound, which you would hope for given the 2nd-mortgage-type price tag.

Spirocore tungsten is probably the most popular G & C among our customers and perhaps world wide: it produces a solo sound which is a bit metallic for a couple weeks, but mellows out after use without losing the focus. They are also among the longest lasting G & C strings out there, possibly making them less expensive in the long run than they seem at first. Some cellists change them every 6 months but others, me among them, keep them in excess of 5 years.

Highest on the G & C brightness scale is Pirastro Permanent soloist, used by a fair number of customers looking for power.

Things to remember about strings:

If you change one or two strings, that change will affect the remaining strings: i.e. using a brighter G & C will result in a brighter A & D.

You may not need to change strings, especially G & C as often as some people recommend. The tungsten strings in particular can, to a point, get better with age.

Again, the strings that turned the sound of your friend’s cello into that of a concert Strad, may actually make your cello sound worse.

An A string that is still too strident can be nicely modified by putting a small rubber washer between the string and the bridge. You’d think that something like this would be available at the local hardware store, but I can only get them from string companies. Your local shop may have some if you can find them no where else.

Experimenting with strings can be expensive. Some shops, ours is one, will let you try strings without obligation. If are able to take advantage of this, it is the courteous thing to do to actually purchase the strings you’ve decided on from the shop rather than run out and mail order them from someone else.

Bridges. 30-some years ago, there weren’t many choices in cello bridges. To be sure there were varieties that had several hearts, or a slightly different configuration of waist and leg-length, but those were mainly decorator versions of the basic French-style bridge. Enter the Belgian bridge – actually in existence longer than I realized – a radical departure from the traditional French bridge, especially in the arch that the legs make.

Most of us are more familiar than we’d like to be with the McDonald’s “golden arches”. My limited knowledge of their history tells me (possibly erroneously) that they were modeled after the famous arch in St. Louis: the point being that these arches are in the shape of a parabola, which you fondly remember from your analytic geometry, and a parabola gives us the strongest geometric arch known to man. While the arch of the legs on most Belgian bridges is not a true parabola, it is close and is much better at resisting the downward force from the strings on a cello than is the arch from the traditional French bridge. The result is more focus. It may also enhance the lower strings and give some added richness to the entire sound, but often not. It will be result in a brighter sound than the standard French bridge so the dark richness you want may be more available from the French. It is noteworthy though, that today one-half or more of all performing cellists use Belgian bridges.

Now comes a dizzying array of foot-widths, the distance between the outside edge of each bridge foot. For many years 90mm and 92mm foot width were the only ones easily available. Now luthiers use widths in excess of 96mm. Interestingly, we’ve found that narrower foot widths often work better for more focus without stridency: the most common cello bridge in our shop is a special-ordered 86 mm Belgian. This bridge has the added bonus of having a much lower heart, meaning more wood between the heart and the strings which adds richness.

A number of French bridges are using a sturdier arch than older styles, so quite a variety is available depending on what you want to achieve.

When I was studying restoration and repair, I was taught that the width of the bridge foot was dependent on the placement of the bassbar for optimum sound: the foot had to extend about 4mm past the outside of the bar. My experience has led me to believe that this is not the case and that sound can often be improved by departing from this rule.

Removing wood on various parts of the bridge will also change the sound. We won’t go into great detail here: your luthier is probably into such things and can discuss them with you when you go for a new bridge.

What do Melissa and I use? Both of us use Belgian, Melissa’s is 86mm, mine is 90mm.

Now let’s look at endpins. Various companies have, in the past few years, developed exotic-materials endpins that are claimed to be extremely light in weight and have the additional ability to transmit vibration (sound). To the floor, we presume. The claim is, of course, that your sound will be greatly enhanced by the use (i.e purchase) of this endpin.

Our experience is that in a concert stage setting, the large wooden box you are sitting on (the stage), can act, at least minimally, as an amplifier for your cello, which if it had the proper endpin, might come across as having a larger sound.

Both Melissa and I use steel endpins: the standard 5/16” diameter variety. Only we take the long, straight one out and substitute an old, somewhat shorter one that we’ve bent at 30-45 degrees, with a flat side ground on the part that enters the cello so that the thumb-screw will keep it from rotating while it’s in use. It’s a cheap version of something that cellist Paul Tortellier invented some 50 years ago. We like them because they make the cello (for each of us anyway) significantly more comfortable to hold, move with, and secure into a floor that would otherwise reject a straight endpin halfway into your big cadenza.

Here’s the interesting part. A colleague and I, in his house which has acoustically friendly wooden floors, tried both our cellos with four different endpins: a standard straight steel, a pricey ultra-light carbon fiber, a really pricey titanium, and my salvage bent steel endpin. My friend’s wife, a fine professional musician, listened from the adjoining room, not able to see which endpin was in use. We each played each cello with each endpin. The results: a tie for first place – the titanium and the bent one ($300 vs. $2.00), a close second and third were the carbon fiber and the straight endpin.

If the bent pin is effective in enhancing sound, my feeling is that it is probably because it allows the cello body to vibrate more freely rather than the pin transmitting sound through the floor.

Both my and Melissa’s personal opinion is that, despite the fact that some cellists think differently, the endpin is a variable with the ability to make only a small, possibly not audience discernable, difference in sound. The new exotic ones are attractive in part because they are something a cellist can purchase and often install her/himself without the aid and expense of a luthier.

Could Melissa and I make some money marketing these things with the right amount of hype? Probably. Would you really notice a significant difference in the sound of your cello after spending all that cash? Probably not.

So what about this fingerboard thing I spoke of at the beginning. Isn’t a fingerboard’s job simply to provide a stop-surface for the strings?

The initial design of the fingerboard back in the heyday of the gamba probably had that as its sole function. It was later discovered that it also provides your cello (or violin etc.) with a valuable stiffening device that keeps your instrument’s neck from warping, something that would almost certainly happen without a fingerboard.

But, as we discovered quite a few years ago in our shop, the fingerboard also has significant bearing on sound. Especially with bigger instruments like cellos and basses. Our mantra, that everything on your cello needs to vibrate well for maximum tone, extends big-time to the fingerboard. As a kid, or possibly as a parent, you probably played with popsicle sticks, holding them flat on the kitchen table with half the stick extending off the edge of the table, then thwanging them with your finger and delighting in the sound it made. Your fingerboard is very much like that popsicle stick and exactly how it vibrates will affect the tone of your cello. A lot. A cello that is dull and unresponsive very often has a fingerboard that is thick and undercut only partway back to the neck. Put your fingers underneath your fingerboard at the end nearest the bridge. You can feel a rounded undercut there. Now slide your fingers underneath the fingerboard and see if that rounded undercut goes all the way to the neck.

We found that we could significantly enhance a cello’s responsiveness and focus by undercutting the fingerboard all the way to the neck. However, if we took too much wood off, it could become tinney and whiney, correctable only by replacing it with a new fingerboard. A cello with a too-bright tone can often benefit from a heavier fingerboard – we use only the finest quality fingerboards we can find: they are usually denser – and leave them a bit thicker than normal, especially off the end of the neck. But we always fully undercut them.

Our recommendation is to not run out tomorrow and ask your luthier to undercut your fingerboard – although if you have a serious dullness and responsiveness issue, it may be a solution. The process is expensive and irreversible with your present fingerboard. If you need a new fingerboard for other reasons, think about what you are trying to achieve and ask your luthier to prepare it accordingly. Or if your luthier hasn’t considered this sort of thing before, email us and we can help you come up with some specifics.

There are other major operations that will change tone, but they involve the cello proper (nothing we’ve discussed deals with things that are an integral part of your cello) and the removal of wood. Regraduation is something we would rarely do to a cello we owned: we would never consider doing this to a customer’s cello. Even a bassbar is something we normally try to talk a customer out of replacing. We have great bassbar wood and feel that we are highly skilled in the installation and shaping of the bassbar. But if the tone is worse than before, there’s no way of going back.

As always, email or call if you have questions.