Tailpieces and tailcords

TAILPIECES AND TAILCORDS

The most common materials for tailpieces are plastic, aluminium alloy and ebony, although boxwood, rosewood or pernambuco are also used. Many players find that wooden tailpieces offer the most attractive sound. Wooden tailpieces are, however, many times the price of their plastic and metal cousins.

Tailpiece Designs The most popular plastic tailpiece is the Akusticus, as it is light and short enough to suit most cellos – and is also inexpensive. There are drawbacks, however: the Akusticus is aesthetically unappealing and the steel tailcord with which it is supplied is very difficult for luthiers to adjust. Another good plastic tailpiece is the Wittner Ultra which is considerably longer than the Akusticus and can suit bigger cellos. The Wittner standard aluminium alloy tailpiece can be rather heavy for some instruments. Both Wittner and Akusticus tailpieces are made with integral adjusters.

Very fine wooden tailpieces are made by Bois D’Harmonie in a wide selection of materials and sizes. They are all available with light-weight integral adjusters and can be used to good effect with Kevlar or, if a smoother sound is desired, nylon tailcord.

Tailcords Traditionally, tailcords were made from natural gut. Few modern players now use gut tailcords as they tend – like gut strings ‒ to break unexpectedly. The most common replacement for gut is nylon which is much more reliable than gut but its elasticity tends to make cellos sound rather smooth.

Steel tailcords have been in regular use since the 1970’s as their greater strength and rigidity provides more clarity of sound than nylon. The popularity of the Akustikus tailpiece may be in part due to the fact that it is supplied with a steel tailcord, unlike the Wittner tailpiece which is supplied with a nylon tailcord.

The latest high-tech tailcord material is Kevlar, a braided synthetic fibre which is five times stronger and stiffer than steel. Kevlar’s stiffness gives exceptional clarity, brilliance and definition to a cello’s sound and greatly improves projection.

Tailpiece Case Study We were recently visited by a cellist friend who wanted to experiment with tailpieces to improve his sound. His instrument had a Wittner aluminium alloy tailpiece with a nylon tailgut. The Wittner tailpiece was much too long for the cello and was positioned so close to the saddle that the tailpiece was not able to vibrate freely.

We fitted an Akusticus tailpiece to the cello (using a Kevlar tailcord rather than the standard steel tailcord supplied with the tailpiece) which fitted the cello better and made the instrument considerably more open and resonant. We then fitted a Bois D’Harmonie 220mm ebony tailpiece with integral adjusters. The cellist felt that the wooden tailpiece gave the cello a warmer, more Italianate sound so he settled for this tailpiece, with a Kevlar tailcord.

Below is a table showing the weight, length, materials and tailcord details of Akusticus, Wittner and Bois D’Harmonie tailpieces.

Tailpiece Weight Length Materials Tailcord Supplied
Akusticus  77.2g  223mm  Plastic Steel
Wittner 103.3g  240mm Aluminium  Nylon
Wittner Ultra  81.4g 235mm  Plastic  Nylon
Bois D’Harmonie
(standard length)
 70.2g (ebony) 235mm E, B, R, P* None
Bois D’Harmonie (other lengths) various 200, 220, 250mm E, B, R, P None

* E = ebony; B = boxwood; R = rosewood; P = pernambuco
N.B. Akusticus and Wittner weights include the tailcords supplied with these tailpieces.

This article was first published in our newsletter News for Cellists of which there are three editions a year.  To receive our newsletter by post (UK only) or email, please contact us.

© Robin Aitchison and Sarah Mnatzaganian 2007.