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Tips on replacing your nyckelharpa’s tailpiece

by Bart Brashers

Measure the length of the A and low C strings before you start, to help you get the bridge back in its original position. When you take the tension off the strings, do so gradually and equally rather than one string at a time completely. Hopefully, the sound post will stay in place when you take the tension off. It’s supposed to, if it was built right. If it doesn’t and falls over, then after you’re done, put a very small amount of tension on the strings, just enough to keep the bridge in place, and put it back in place using a violin soundpost setter. If you put tension on the strings with no sound post, you run the risk of cracking the top, which is very bad.

Here’s a nifty trick: during a recent tailpiece replacement I first partially loosened the strings and pushed lightly on the sound post with a knife edge to see if it was going to fall over. It was clear it would, if I further loosened the strings. We thought about being clever with a few clamps, and lightly keeping pressure on the top. But looking around the shop we found that the largest spring clamps we had were just big enough and just the right shape to clamp onto the harpa body from the side, making contact just above and below the sound post. Perhaps it was a tad old, but the tension was not so much that it posed a risk, and it already had nifty rubber covers on the jaws so it wouldn’t scratch the finish on the harpa.

Picture of a tailpiece

This picture is of Esbjörn Hogmark’s own nyckelharpa. I had to doctor it a bit since the important part was in the shadow, so the exposure looks odd. I hope you can see the junction between the tailpiece and the body of the harpa, and the copper wire helping to assure it will stay in place. Note also the leather cord for the string goes through a separate hole, not the same hole as the copper wire. You can also see that the tailpiece does not touch the top surface of the harpa, but that it does touch the edge of that piece of wood. See below for full discussions of these important points.

There are several considerations to the tailpiece. The tailpiece has a “heel” that hooks on the end of the harpa. It fits into a notch on the end of the harpa, on the side. There’s a small piece of wood protruding out from the side that has been shaped to recieve the heel of the tailpiece, and should have a hole drilled through it for a wire (and maybe another for the strap) that helps assure the tailpiece stays attached.

The heel must

  1. Be angled enough to keep the tailpiece on the body.
  2. Have full contact with the EDGE of the top and the heel’s receiving notch.
  3. Not touch the TOP of the top, the surface where the bridge sits.
  4. Be tied to the body with a piece of 10-gauge copper wire.
  5. Be centered with respect to the body, and the heel’s matching notch in the body.

Point 1. is practical. If the tailpiece were to receive a blow upwards and the angle were close to 90 degrees, it might lift up from the body of the harpa. It may also pull the top with it, potentially splitting it. This happened to me once. Sören Åhker tells me that the angle should be about 82 degrees (3 mm over 20 mm depth). It’s this angle which keeps the tailpiece on the harpa, not the wire (or sometimes leather or even string). The tension from the strings forces the tailpiece heel against this notch, and the angle makes sure the tailpiece moves down and into the harpa.

Point 2. is for the sound. There must be good contact between the tailpiece heel and the edge of the top, and between the tailpiece heel and the matching notch in the body of the harpa, for the sake of resonance. The vibrations will get passed on to the body of the harpa better, and you’ll get a more complete set of overtones. It’s also better to be applying the force of tension directly on the wood that’s supporting said tension (the top), rather than on the side, which is in turn applying the force to the top.

Point 3. should be obvious. You want the tailpiece to touch the harpa’s body only ‘around the corner’ from the top where the bridge sits. It it touches the top, it will of course dampen the sound since it prevents the top from vibrating. It may also damage the top, which would be very bad indeed, and very hard to repair.

Point 4. is practical again, and is a back-up in case point 1. fails. I use normal 10 or 12 gauge household electrical wire (solid) with the insulation removed. It doesn’t have to be really tight, since it’s just a back-up. Insert if from the front (the side away from your body) and twist it a few times on the side closest to your body. I then usually curl the ends and fold the whole thing down and into itself, so I don’t scratch myself on it. Don’t reuse wire, since it can loose its strength from being wound and unwound. You can buy it by the foot at most hardware stores, and it’s cheap.

Point 5. affects the bridge’s placement. Since the bridge is floating (not nailed or glued to the top) it will sit in a place where the sideways force applied by the top half of the strings balances the force applied by the rest of the strings. Moving the tailpiece side-to-side will change this, and although you might not think it’s such a big deal, it only takes small changes to make the distance between the strings and the tangents (the action) noticeably different.