Short of getting a different cello, most cellists at one time or another are interested in improving the sound and playability of their instrument. Is there really that much that can be done to improve a cello, or should we be resigned to accepting its sound as our lot in our musical life?
Most of us have heard stories about string players who have taken their instruments to ‘great shops’ (most stories place these shops in NYC or London) to have their “sound adjusted”. An attendant, in impeccable dress shirt and crisp tie under a spotless white lab coat, peers dubiously over “expert” glasses at the instrument in front of him, silently takes it to the “master” in the back room (no customer has ever actually seen the master), and returns 15 minutes later with the soundpost critically adjusted. The musician tries the instrument, narrowly avoids swooning over the almost unbelievable improvement in sound, gladly coughs up several hundred dollars for the experience, and leaves convinced that he or she has come into contact with a power just this side of God.
In fact, a correctly placed soundpost is an important part of any violin-family instrument’s health and optimum sound. A post at the wrong tension or location can adversely affect both the tone and playability: but it is only one of several adjustments possible and, contrary to popular belief, there are other things that will have a much more pronounced effect than a small soundpost adjustment.
The most easily changed set-up item that can have a pronounced effect on your cello’s sound is the tailpiece/tailgut combination. (The wood “tailgut” is actually a somewhat archaic word derived from the now-rare use of real gut to connect the tailpiece around the endpin: “hanger” is often used now, but I prefer the old one. Sorry.)
There are essentially six different types of tailpieces that we use for cellos in the shop: 1. traditional wood: ebony, rosewood or boxwood, 2. traditional wood with fine tuners built in, 3. metal with fine tuners, 4. hard plastic with fine tuners, 5. soft plastic with fine tuners, and 6. composite material (like carbon fiber) with fine tuners.
There are four different tailguts that we consider: 1. real gut – great sound but it does break. 2. plastic with threaded ends for easy after-length adjustment, 3. wire, 4. non-stretch cord.
First the tailpieces. Our basic principal is that if you want more sound and brighter sound, use the lightest (in weight) and hardest possible tailpiece available, and attach it with the material that lets it flex the most. The two tailpieces in this category that we use are the hard plastic and the composite. We’ve found that the two are fairly comparable in result with the plastic actually sounding better in most cases: which is good news since the hard plastic is about 1/5 the cost of the composite even if it doesn’t have quite the status. For even more focus try a wire tailgut: or if you really need to boost the focus, try a metal tailpiece with wire. To darken things a bit, try the non-stetch cord (our favorite) which we carry in three different diameters, the smallest causing the brightest result and working backwards from there. For a cello that is too bright, try the old wooden tailpiece – ebony is the densest – with 4 auxillary fine-tuners added, and attach it with the plastic tailgut. (Those of you with a mathematics bent have probably by now calculated that there are 24 permutations of these tailpiece/tailgut possibilities). In short, heavy tailpiece + stiff tailgut = darker, somewhat quieter sound. Light tailpiece + flexible tailgut = bigger, brighter sound. Most cellists who experiment with these things end up with something in between.
Pay attention to your after-length – the distance between your bridge and tailpiece. 120 mm is spec., but you can darken your sound with less (as well as make wolf-notes less noticeable) or enlarge and brighten your sound with more.
By the way, should you want a little less squawk or twang from your A string, try a barrel-type wolf note eliminator attached about ½ way between your bridge and your tailpiece on your A string.
There are tons more things that can be done to improve the sound of your cello; we’ll continue with more of those next time.