French vs Belgian cello bridges

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Cello bridgeHere is an extract from the Accessories 2010 supplement to The Strad magazine. It gives a nice comparison between the French and Belgian model cello bridges, including the effect on sound. It was written by Stefano Gibertoni.

French and Belgian models

The two main types of cello bridge design are the French and Belgian models. The French model has a low arch that is squarer and therefore less rigid; it has short legs, a low heart and there is more wood in its upper portion. The Belgian model has a high, sweeping arch that is more elliptical and stronger, with long legs, a high heart and a short, thick top edge. Manufacturers also make shapes that combine the two styles. The range of curves and models has never been greater, giving luthiers a wide range of possibilities to work with.

French vs Belgian cello bridgesThere is also a new model by Milo Stamm - the bar across the legs keeps the timber stable and prevents the legs from spreading over time due to the pressure of the strings. Stamm claims the bar also helps to balance and even the tone. After a few months, the wood is stronger and the bar can be removed.

Expected outcome in tone

We have noted how a bridge can be used to brighten the sound of a particularly dark-toned cello, or to soften the tone of an unpleasantly brightly toned one; it can also provide more volume and balance.

Cello expert Robin Aitchison describes the possibilities and the expected outcomes that the French and the Belgian model bridges can give on his website:

'The legs of the French bridge account for approximately half its height and within this basic design there is plenty of latitude for the luthier to choose slightly different shapes and thicknesses to control the tonal outcome. The French bridge is often a good choice for bright-sounding cellos. The reduced mass of wood above the Belgian heart produces a sound that is brighter and more open than the French bridge - and is often louder. The Belgian bridge emphasises the upper register of the cello and can also be used to make the sound of gut G and C strings more crisp and clean. Cellos with an inherently dark sound often benefit from the fitting of a Belgian bridge.'

Bright sound Dark sound
Belgian model French model
Hard wood Soft wood
High heart Low heart
High arch Low arch
Strong, elliptical arch Flexible, square arch

So, the French model is more flexible and will emphasise warmth, colour and depth, usually producing a dark lower register and a focused top, although perhaps losing some edge and volume in the process. The Belgian shape is more rigid and will improve brightness and provide a strong and powerful sound. In more recent years, the prevailing fashion has shifted towards a big, open sound, and the Belgian model has gained increasing popularity; new makers seem to prefer it, and it is the most popular choice for cello making competitions.

In the above table is a simplified, generic list of the influence that different choices can have on an instrument's tone. But the decision-making process of a violin maker is hardly ever this simple. This is intended only as a broad reference, not as the rule.

Click here for more articles on cello setup and tone.

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