March 17, 2010

Guest Post: Andy on His Civil War Reenacting Fiddle

Everyone who has read my blog has heard me refer to my significant other, Andy. Andy has kindly written a post about his Civil War reenacting fiddle:

Since Christmas I have been excited. You see, for those of you who may not know me personally, for a little over a year now I have been learning to play the fiddle.  For about two years, I have been loving music from all over Ireland.  Well for Christmas, Steph bought me an antique fiddle (1920ish.)  She said this one was for when we go out reenacting.  So, since then I have wanted to make this violin a bit more correct for the Civil War time period.  Fortunately, violins have not changed very much over the last few hundred years.  The major changes I have to make are the removal of the chinrest and the conversion from steel to gut strings.  The other change I want to make is to the tailpiece.  You can see in the picture there are three tailpieces.  The black one that is not attached was the original.  It is broken, and the previous owner replaced it with the smaller sized one currently on it.  The brown one is one I am going to replace it with, because I want to have the proper size on the fiddle.

You can see from the close-up that the tailpiece was attached with a piece of wire.  I am going to replace it with a piece of catgut.  I begin by removing the things I am going to replace.  Most of the time you don’t want to take everything off at once, but as I am replacing the tailpiece and tailgut there isn’t much choice.  After unwinding the strings from the pegs, I can take off the old tailpiece.  I put the bridge aside for later

Before I can put the new strings on, I will need to prepare the new tailpiece.  There are a few things needed for this.  I need the length of tailgut I bought, some stitching gut (or an old gut E-string) and a lighter or source of flame.  When the end of the gut is burned, it unwinds and becomes stiff.  The stitching gut is tied around the ends as reinforcement.  These wider ends prevent the gut from slipping through the holes in the tailpiece.  Once the tailpiece is ready, I can begin to attach the strings.

The strings come in double lengths, so you can clip them in half—you actually get two strings (except for the G-string, which is wound with silver—that one is a bit more expensive!).  The strings don’t use ball ends like many steel strings, but they do use a similar technique of holding themselves in place.  The string is held in place by a knot tied in the end.  The package of these strings shows you how to tie the knot—you need to burn the end of the string to prevent it from slipping from the knot.
I had problems at first with the G and E strings, because they are thinner and the knots were small. By tying extra knots, I got them to stay.  The strings take a lot longer the stretch than steel strings, but they sounded great after they were able to stay in tune for more than 20 seconds.

Thanks, Andy! The above photo is of Andy's modern fiddle along with his "Civil War" fiddle. We are currently trying to learn to play the fiddle and guitar together--a huge task for us! We are hoping to record something so you can hear how the gut strings sound. Civil War tuning is lower than today's modern tuning, the sound is more melancholy. We were hoping to get a good Irish song recorded in honor of St. Patrick's Day, we'll try tomorrow.    

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