If there is any shape more iconic or recognizable than that of the violin itself, it would most undoubtedly be the violin bridge. Symbolically speaking, a bridge is often used to describe the means of connecting one side of an object or idea to another. A violin bridge is no different. It is quite arguably the most important part of a violin in carrying the vibrational resonant energy across the strings to the body of the instrument, resulting in the generation of sound. But conceptually, this will also mark the transition in our journey where we leave behind the more basic or fundamental aspects of what makes a violin “good”, as we continue our quest by crossing over into the more refined aspects of the subject. So let’s pack up camp and get moving! There’s still much more to learn and experience!
A violin bridge is made of maple wood, just like some of the other parts previously mentioned, and mostly for the same reasons. The bridge is a light, thin, ornately carved piece of wood held vertically and perpendicularly in place against the top of the violin by the constant tension of all four strings. It stands freely and is not glued down. Not only must it be strong enough to counter the downward pressure of the strings so that it does not crack or buckle, it must also be able to resist the saw-like oscillations of the thin wire strings so that they won’t cut into it over time. Oh yeah, and it must also be an easily carvable, dense tonewood capable of transferring and amplifying all of the desired resonant frequencies created by the strings to the body of the violin, while at the same time dampening and suppressing the undesirable ones. Quite a demanding role, is it not? Well, it’s a good thing for us that maple wood fits the bill perfectly and the reason why it has been the sole source of material used in making violin bridges for centuries.
As you can see, the bridge plays a very important part in determining and enhancing the sound produced from a violin. But for something so small, how can you tell if it is a good one or not? Ah, I’m glad you asked! The answer lies in the details, and is why this post marks a milestone along our path as we move away from a wider view of the violin, its wood, and its parts, to a more focused and refined study.
The first thing to realize is that a violin bridge starts off as a blank (or rough outline of the general shape of the violin bridge) that must be carved and sanded down to match the unique curvature, height, and dimensions of each individual violin. Because not all violins are made exactly the same, so the bridge must be properly fit and customized to each violin. But while there are certainly general guidelines and measurements for carving a violin bridge, it is also a specialized form of art all by itself, catering to the luthier’s accumulated experience in the nuances of producing a desired sound from a violin. While I try not to endorse any particular luthier or method, I have found few videos more representative of the intricate process of bridge shaping than the following: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nkP6kxj3srE
Hopefully, watching the video will give you some ideas of what to look for in a violin bridge when shopping around for your own instrument. But just so that you can be sure, let’s go over some of them. Firstly, the grain of the bridge should run vertically. This allows for the greatest strength and resistance to the downward pressure of the strings.
The feet of the bridge should exactly match the curved contour of the top of the violin on which it perpendicularly sits. Remember, vibrational energy from the strings must go through the bridge to be transferred to the body of the instrument. Any air space under the feet caused by an improper fit will result in the loss of this vibrational energy into the open air, thus decreasing the sound quality of the violin.
When placed on the violin with the feet solidly flush, the side of the bridge facing the tailpiece (or the side you look at when playing) should be exactly 90 degrees from the top of the violin. The opposite side of the bridge should be tapered, meaning the upper part of the bridge closest to the strings should be thinner than the lower part closest to the feet. The bridge should not be warped, bent, or curved forward, which typically you do not have to worry about with new bridges but should definitely be noted when looking at a violin with an older one.
The curvature of the top of the bridge should be similar to that of the fingerboard. Looking down the fingerboard towards the bridge will help you see this. Now, the curvatures will not necessarily be an exact match, as typically the E string height from the fingerboard will be much lower than the G string on the opposite side. But you should observe it to ensure that the curvature is uniform and smooth.
The small grooves or notches on the top of the bridge, made to keep the strings in place, should be equal in their distances apart. This, in turn, allows the strings themselves to be equidistant from each other.
Finally, the delicate areas around the “heart” and “ears” of the bridge should not be broken or damaged in any way. Usually these areas are also carved to be tapered inward as well.
While there are certainly more aspects to the specific details of shaping the violin bridge, they can not be easily transcribed into words and oftentimes are the trademark of the individual luthier who creates them. But the above should help you assess the condition of the bridge on the violin you are looking at.
With all of this said, however, finding a poorly shaped or warped bridge on a violin that you are particularly fond of is by no means a reason to reject the whole instrument! The bridge is one of the few parts of a violin that is easily replaceable. Your instrument can be taken to any trained luthier to have a new bridge professionally shaped and fit to your violin. There are only a few choices you even have to make when doing this. Basically, you can pick a particular brand or quality of the blank you want the luthier to start with (the pricier ones will tend to be made from better grade maple) or you can communicate any personal preferences (like a specific string height). If you really have no idea, then the luthier will just use his/her discretion and expertise to choose the best one for your violin.
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