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stringed instruments - violins, violas, cellos and double bass

The orchestral string instrument family is made up of violin, viola, cello and double bass. In this article we will discuss the components and manufacturing of strings and give our recommendations in order to assist schools, parents and players to choose the most appropriate instrument for their needs.

The Components of a Violin
We will start by looking at the violin, how it is made and its various component parts, all of which are important to the quality of the finished instrument. Whilst concentrating on the violin these comments are equally pertinent for the other instruments of the string family.

part of a violin

Violins have been manufactured throughout Europe in considerable numbers for at least 200 years, in which time the central process of carving fronts and backs from solid tonewoods has hardly altered. Since the 1950s, large-scale production has also developed in Asia with now the vast majority of student instruments coming from China. Some very cheap student models feature pressed fronts and backs however, the end product is not of a high standard and can not be recommended. Better quality instruments have fronts and backs that are hand carved from solid tonewoods.

Fronts are made from spruce and should be dried to a moisture content of 8% or less. This is achieved by air-drying over a long period or by a combination of air and kiln drying. Fronts are made from two pieces split from the same piece of wood. The front can be referred to in a number of ways; table, belly, soundboard, the last description being particularly apt as the sound is amplified by the front.

Back, ribs and neck are made from wood from the acer family, usually maple or sycamore. Linings are made from willow, being relatively hard, but flexible; spruce or pine is used for the bass bar, soundpost and blocks.

The various components are glued together using traditional animal or fish glues as opposed to resin based or permanent glues (for ease of repair purposes). The wood is then varnished, usually on student instruments with a nitro-cellulose varnish.

the bridge is an important part of a violin

The bridge is an important part of the violin in terms of sound and playability and its correct fitting is vital. The more expensive the bridge, the higher quality of the wood (maple) used.

Pegs and End Pins
Pegs are generally made of ebony, rosewood or boxwood although some cheaper instruments use stained hardwood (usually pearwood). Correct fitting is important as tight pegs may cause damage to the instrument and loose pegs may slip and cause tuning problems.

Tailpieces are traditionally of the same wood as the pegs however over recent years the use of alloy and composition tailpieces with integral adjusters for use with metal and pearlon cored strings has greatly increased.

Traditional gut is now rarely used and the nylon adjustable tailguts are almost universal.

Integral adjusters are now the norm on student instruments although a single adjuster on the E is more appropriate for instruments fitted with pure gut strings.

Chinrests are traditionally ebony, rosewood, boxwood or stained hardwood although plastic chinrests are generally accepted by teachers for student instruments.

As a fingerboard will wear with use, the best material is ebony which can be re-shaped or scraped smooth. Stained rosewood is perfectly acceptable for student use; stained whitewood is only used for the very cheapest instruments.

Bass Bar
The bass bar is made from pine or spruce and is glued to the front adding support and tension. Any part of the bar that is unglued will cause vibration. The bass bar is an integral part of the soundboard for the transmission and quality of the lower notes.

The soundpost combines with the bass bar and bridge to create the "nervous system" of the instrument, these pieces playing a vital part in the quality of the final tone and sound. A well-fitted soundpost will release the full potential of the instrument; one poorly fitted will do the exact opposite. Located just behind (tailpiece side) the treble foot of the bridge, it conveys the treble vibrations directly to the back of the instrument, whilst acting as a fulcrum to allow the bass bar to vibrate fully.

Purfling (originally whalebone) is made from dyed wood, such as poplar and pear, or fibre. It is inserted into a channel cut into the front and back, usually after the body of the instrument has been assembled. Its presence is more than just decorative, as it also acts as a guard against cracks spreading from the edge of the instrument. Some low quality violins have painted purfling which performs no useful purpose.

F Holes
F Holes are cut with a fret saw and then carefully finished with a knife. In addition to allowing the sound from the instrument, their size and shape give flexibility to the front.

The bow acts as an extension to the arm, and should be able to transfer any minute nuances that the player intends. Because of this, the weight, (around 60g for a 4/4 violin bow) balance, spring and "feel" of a bow must be right.

The best bows are made from a dense, slow growing wood known as Pernambuco. Its dense fibres are ideal for the fine shaping necessary to form a bow, and the wood takes to being "sprung" extremely well. It is characteristically a deep red-brown colour, with a perceivable grain. It can be distinguished from its cheaper, faster growing cousin, Brazilwood, which has a grayer appearance, and a wider grain and is used for student bows. Other materials are also used for the bow stick; there are some good student fibreglass bows fitted with natural hair (such as the P&H brand), and carbon fibre is increasingly being used for better quality bows.

Steel mono core strings (such as Dogal Green and Astrea) are the norm for student instruments. Steel flexible core strings (such as Helicore) are very flexible and particularly popular for cello and bass. Synthetic gut (Dominant, Tonica etc) are favored by many student and professional players whilst genuine gut core strings (usually Pirastro Olive or Eudoxa) are found on the finest instruments. With genuine gut core strings an adjuster can only be used on the violin E string, (which is usually metal).

Set Up
Before every stringed instrument is dispatched from Normans it is set up to a high standard and rigorously tested to ensure the instrument is set to play to its full potential when you receive it. Component parts of this procedure include:

Soundpost set up
Bridge and nut profiled
Pegs tested for correct fitting
Feet of bridge adjusted for optimum contact with front
String height set to Stentor standard recommendations
Strings and adjusters checked
Bow tested for tension and straightness
All key components tested

Please note, all instruments are delivered with their bridge down to reduce the risk of damage in transit. This can easily be re-erected by your teacher.

What size violin for a child?

The importance of a child using the correct size of instrument cannot be over stressed. To size up the child, the instrument should firstly be held by the student in the playing position. An instrument of the correct size will allow the player to extend their left arm and comfortably cover the scroll with their hand, without stressing the elbow. The gap between the arm and violin back should be wide enough for a fist

In calculating the size of an instrument, a measurement is taken along the back excluding the heel button. The table below gives APPROXIMATE average sizes of violins & bows. There are variances from these:

355 mm
723 mm
330 mm
698 mm
315 mm
610 mm
280 mm
540 mm
260 mm
512 mm
240 mm
495 mm
215 mm
432 mm

Our recommendations on violas mirror those of the violin with Stentor making equivalent violas for all the models previously listed.

Violas are described by the length of their backs and not by fractional sizes. There is no absolute standard but currently instruments used by adults are mostly 15” to 16”. Stentor student models come in a variety of sizes from 12” to 16”. Sometimes younger students are taught viola on violins strung with viola strings. This is not recommended, as the true viola sound cannot be achieved.

Stentor violas
Stentor II cello

Again, student instrument recommendations mirror our violin selections, however, generally all but the very young player tend to opt for the Stentor II model due to its enhanced quality of workmanship, ebony pegs and fingerboard and better quality padded cover. As with the violins both models feature solid carved table and back, inlaid purfling and metal tailpiece with integral adjusters.

Double Basses
Stentor offer a student double bass featuring a laminated back and sides for customers on a low budget. However, most players prefer to opt for the Stentor Conservatoire model (available in 3/4, 1/2, and 1/4 sizes) which features a fully carved back and front, ebony fingerboard, quality machine heads, flexible core strings, good student quality wood bow and padded cover.

Double Bass sizes are particularly confusing to the uninitiated as the 3/4 size is considered to be the “norm” for a full size instrument. In rare instances when we have supplied 4/4 instruments (contrary to our advice) as customers have insisted this is what they want, they have asked later to return the bass as they have found the size to be inappropriate. Common sizes are 3/4, 1/2 and 1/4.

An additional choice is the Andreas Zeller which are made in Romania to Stentor specifications and offer outstanding value.

Stentor double bass

Silent Strings
For players who need to practice in confined areas (such as music students, or for long suffering parents!) the silent string range from Yamaha is a great innovation. The player simply connects headphones into the silent instrument, which is practically inaudible to anyone other than the musician when played.