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The Weekend Vote weekend vote: Do looks matter, when it comes to your violin?

May 15, 2009 at 4:01 PM

Do looks matter? Is there beauty in a banged-up old fiddle?

Well, we all know that there certainly can be. At least in my experience, I have not found that looks affect sound. In fact, most people accept that violins improve over time, as the wood ages. Conversely, time is not always kind to a violin's exterior.

But often, not always, much goes into the "look" of a violin: it may be painstakingly antiqued, or its varnish may be the pride of its creator. A violin can be a breathtaking work of art, and to live with such an object is, simply, an honor.

So how important are looks, when it comes to your own instrument? If you had to choose between a spectacular-looking fiddle that sounded quite decent, or an ugly one that sounded gorgeous, which would you choose? And tell us your thoughts about this subject: experiences you've had and choices you've faced.


From Allan Chu
Posted on May 15, 2009 at 4:31 PM

I voted with everyone else, but I think our subconscious would play tricks on us, making the ugly violin sound worse than it really does and the beautiful violin sounding better than it actually does.

My current teacher has a beautiful old italian that both looks and sounds wonderful. Best of both worlds :)

From David Beck
Posted on May 15, 2009 at 4:20 PM

As a young player I wondered why violin enthusiasts were so obsessed by beaten up old violins. I supose that when Italy declined as a violin making center, and 19th. century makers in France, Germany and elsewhere found it difficult in those days to explain and reproduce the sounds of those Strads and other great names, the decaying old Italian fiddles could not be replaced with new and the wrecks had to be recycled if at all possible. Eventually the restorers' and the photographers' skills came to present us with ever more glamourised images of those old fiddles and reality gave way to fantasy .... must we forever fantasise about combining the outline of Guarneri A with the soundholes of B and the varnish of C ??.  Maybe we need to stop dreaming and wake up !!

We should listen with our ears - but it's jolly difficult to do so. A plain but excellent-sounding instrument is often put to one side at the dealership, as will something looking "new" especially in the UK. Antiquing means extra work for the maker, and can result in work of artistic merit - but honestly, I prefer to bash up my own violins, thank you. 

I still like to think I'd pick the best violin regardless of appearance, but can any of us ever be sure ??

From Royce Faina
Posted on May 15, 2009 at 4:59 PM

sound & Playability- It could look like Willie Nelsons guitar or worst!  Sound & Playability!!!!!


From Anne-Marie Proulx
Posted on May 15, 2009 at 5:21 PM

It's funny, I really don't think our subconscious is that tricky with violins. If you want to avoid this for sure, bring a player with you and listen to every violin with your eyes closed without knowing which is which. This is a great trick IMHO! 

I defenitivly would prefer an ugly one with a great sound as long as it is not blue, red or purple but even so...  Luckily, I don't know of any good quality violins that are another color than in the Brown shades!  (let me know if you have a Blue, purple or red jewel and disagree with this!)


From Karen Allendoerfer
Posted on May 15, 2009 at 5:49 PM

 These choices make it hard (or maybe they make it easy).  I know I'm influenced by an instrument's looks, and anecdotal observation suggests to me that others are too.  But I think at the high end, with the absolute ideal sound, I would be able to overlook the appearance.  It's down in the modestly priced range, where I've landed in this economy, that it gets more tricky.  *None* of the instruments I can afford has the absolute ideal sound (or appearance).  But they all have good aspects here or there that I then have to balance against each other.  And then appearance is one of those factors--not the only one.  But if I like to look at it, I'm more likely to practice it!

From Graham Clark
Posted on May 15, 2009 at 6:10 PM

I like violins with character, both in sound and looks.

I don't mean I like damage - far from it. But the bland lines of an almost Platonically ideal violin do little for me, and may even influence me into thinking the fiddle sounds bland.

Still, I don't think I have ever seen a really ugly fiddle.



PS, my old fave fiddle is red:-




From Richard Hellinger
Posted on May 15, 2009 at 6:49 PM

There is such a thing as an ugly violin?

Posted on May 15, 2009 at 7:16 PM

ugly violin, never heard of such a thing...define ugly?

Now in the case of Trigger**, that's darn close to "mortally wounded".


** name of Willie's Martin guitar, a victim of years of careless, sloppy plectrum usage and "shall we say" a colorful life

From Royce Faina
Posted on May 15, 2009 at 7:51 PM

SAM- Speaking of Willie's guitar, how would your fiddle look after a gig infused with whisky & weed?

From David Beck
Posted on May 15, 2009 at 8:06 PM

ugly violin ?

Handsome is as handsome does.

Botox not included. 

Posted on May 15, 2009 at 9:48 PM


neither my fiddle nor I would be at a gig infused with whiskey and weed.. I treat my instruments with care and respect  A L W A Y S

From Dimitri Adamou
Posted on May 15, 2009 at 11:02 PM

I'd choose the ugly and get the damn surgery :)

But really, what is an ugly violin? It depends on the peformer to :)

As long as the violin behaves and is nice then I'll be happy.

Actually it does depend on the peformer, I should of voted for beautiful and decent sounding.

The peformer makes the tone, violin only helps. Blaming violin for bad sound just shows how much effort was gone into making a great tone.

From Laurie Niles
Posted on May 16, 2009 at 12:13 AM

That's a good question, whether it's possible for a violin to be "ugly"! I was trying to think of times when I thought a violin was ugly, and I couldn't, not exactly. But I could think of times when a violin turned me off, and it's always been a violin that wasn't played, wasn't loved. A broken-down violin with thick dust and an aura of abuse. But those can usually be turned around...Or, VSOs can be pretty depressing, but that's more about the sound.

From Hartmut Lindemann
Posted on May 16, 2009 at 6:44 AM

My main consideration is, that it can be re-sold again! Perhaps you might want to upgrade in the future!  An ugly violin  with  a great sound  by  an  established maker is OK.. Otherwise pay a smallish amount just for the sound.

From al ku
Posted on May 16, 2009 at 10:06 AM

when i look at a violin, in terms of "ugliness", even as an outsider, i look at it from 2 levels.

on one, if the violin is really beat up and banged up, esp with those very dark and dull varnish, with years of rosin caking under and around the bridge/fingerboard,  with dirt and dust and who knows what firmly imbedded into every little crevices on the violin, with associated smell, like someone's armpit,  that goes with it, i kinda consider it ugly.  but then, if i find the sound to anything but ugly, my mind does a 180.  then the violin is considered as having character:)

on another, after looking at violins for some time as an outsider, i do pick up things that may be considered by pro luthiers as good or bad craftsmanship, thus beautiful or ugly traits of trade.  my eyes are usually drawn to the cut of the scroll, f hole, the corners, the purfling, varnish, the overall feel how much care is put into it, etc, which may be a good measure in terms of how much care, experience and skill has gone into the construction of the inside and how much care was given to the search of a desirable tone.  more likely than not, if the none of the above meet even basic level of standard,  i consider the violin ugly, and i can almost assume the violin is not well made thus the tone iffy.  but i am sure somewhere out there there may be freaks of nature where the tone stands out regardless...

no matter how a well made violin was neglected, abused, banged up, and come across with an ugly patina,  certain traits of a good violin always shine thru with a scream, me think.

From Deborah McCann
Posted on May 16, 2009 at 12:37 PM
I also cheer the Cubs, vote for the horse least likely to win and work hardest with that student who nobody likes or believes in if they show any desire to play. I think this goes to ones ability to look at the soul regardless of the outside. It is sad, but we are conditioned to look at the outside first. When I was in the market of a violin a few years back, there were 3 sent to me. The one I chose, my former Guad, was not the best looking of the lot. All the instruments were attractive, but the Guad had this sweet voice that I, even as a 15 year old, could not ignore. It was a plain violin. It did not have the inlay work, the fancy pegs and tailpiece the other violins had. I have school violins that are the best sounding, but look like war was there, and some new ones that will never sound good and always look good. Students have to be trained to not look at a violin, but to listen and find the voice that expresses themselves. It is a part of our educating them after they learn the basic notes and are getting ready to go find there instruments, regardless of how little or how much they will spend. I bless my teacher, John Ferrell, for teaching me this about violins, and my mother teaching me about people.
From Anne Horvath
Posted on May 16, 2009 at 1:16 PM

I used to have a violin I named "The Ugly Violin".  It was ugly. 

It was a 100 year old assembly-line German (which is fine) that suffered through 100 years of hard-core use.  Ham-fisted repairs didn't help things.  Nor did 100 years of natural antiquing on top of original fake antiquing.  That never looks nice, and is why I don't care for fake antiquing in the first place.

I don't think looks matter.  Sound, playability, and condition are the three for me.

From Anne-Marie Proulx
Posted on May 16, 2009 at 1:55 PM

Al, a violin can stink? I will go to bed less ignorant.  I do know one thing though, it takes immidiately perfume odors so Chanelle, Givenchy and Cologne users, be aware. Your violin will be recognisable for a good while after you've stoped putting this!   However, if your perfume smells good, no one will complain!


From Michelle Guthrie
Posted on May 16, 2009 at 1:53 PM

Sound is what really matters.  Like with people - what matters is what's in the inside, not what they look ilke.  In general, I think the older and more used the instrument (or person), the better the quality.

From Vartkes Ehramdjian
Posted on May 16, 2009 at 2:38 PM

My Italian teacher was ( 94 when he died ) he was always a "bel homme"  a la Rossano Brazzi when it came to women till the last days of his life.

He always told me
"Vartkes a violin is like a woman, you have to handle it with care , love, finesse, and very gentle"

He went further to compare the "RE" string, "D"  string to the legs of a woman. etc.

"And when playing a romantic piece he said, like the second movement of the Max Bruch concerto , Mendelssohn ,Aram Khatchadourian, or Nicolo Paganini Number 1, played by Arthur Grumiaux,  (tell me please if I am wrong ) you have to make love to your instrument"
Therfore according to me there is no such thing as "ugly violin"

But.........................a violin will always  look beautiful, with a great sound in the hands of a violinist with a great heart and sould like Lara St. John whom I heard her play yesterday.

She has a  great and  fascinating tone which inspires the human mind.........................and body
et voila I mixed, sound, beauty, shape and heart and sould

Montreal Canada

From Jim Fields
Posted on May 16, 2009 at 4:56 PM

I actually faced a similar situation last year when I was shopping for a classical guitar. I was down to choosing between two guitars. They both were new and in the same price range except that one of them looked like it was test driven by gypsy Red Bull addict. Most flamenco guitars have a clear plastic tap plate below the soundhole to protect the top from flying fingernails. The guitar I was looking at was a classical guitar and didn't have one. As a result it had quite a few scratchmarks on the top that made it look ugly. It was also the best sounding guitar out of about a dozen or so that I had tried. It even sounded better than others costing twice as much. So I ended up talking the dealer into chopping $200 off the price and bought it. I've added a couple more scratches to it over the last year but it's opened up quite a bit and sounds even better that when I bought it. I'll take sound over looks every time.

From Mark Heckler
Posted on May 16, 2009 at 6:34 PM

If I could find the ideal-sounding instrument, I'd buy it regardless of looks. But things are almost never that easy!

Most people want something that they can be proud of both in terms of sound and looks. Sound is clearly more important, but just as you wouldn't show up for an orchestral performance in cut-off jeans, it's very likely that you wouldn't walk onto the stage with an outrageously-decorated violin you purchased from an eccentric collector, regardless of the sound.

This probably plays an even larger role with young students. If they have an instrument they are proud to pull out of the case, they're very likely to practice more, play more in public, etc. Of course sound is important...but the looks impact the "musicianship" indirectly in that way.

Great discussion!



From Royce Faina
Posted on May 16, 2009 at 7:43 PM

I'm happy that Sam does not infuse his violin playing with whiskey & weed!  Just make shure that you and Frodo do away with the eye of Sorin and we'll be happy.

Posted on May 16, 2009 at 7:53 PM

Beauty is not only in the sound but in the looks too. An ugly violin is an ugly violin. Period ! And if everytime you see it you feel like crying, then I am not sure that you will stop finding it ugly only because it sounds terrific. I think that both sound and looks are important although sound is of course much more so. A friend of mine has one of the most horrible violins I have ever seen and I must confess that everytime I see it I feel very bad.   Even more, if you play in a filthy ugly violin chances are that you will not play as well as you would play in a beautiful instrument. Cleanliness and good looks are part of the beauty of an instrument, I believe. Would you enjoy drinking  an excellent red wine in a cheap and scratched glass full of finger prints or lipstick marks ?

So, I am in complete agreement with Mark Heckler !

From Anne-Marie Proulx
Posted on May 16, 2009 at 8:26 PM

How can a violin be as disgusting as a dirty glass of wine filled with nail scratches, finger prints and why not that all the city has drink in before you...?  Even an ugly violin is steel quite a nice object. IMOH  I mean, as long as it is in the brown shades.  Yes, a green violin is pretty turn off...   And if the violin has a hole as big as a bullet hole in it, it is too scrap to play with anyway...  lol

The one (sorry I don't remember your name) who had the 94 years old teacher can say that he had an open minded teacher!  Sure you must be in love with your instrument!  When people ask me questions about my violin, I often refer to it as my husband!!!


- never complain about your look

- is always there when you want

- can not run away

- put it in his box when you are sick of it (if it happens)

Isn't it fantastic1

Ok, sorry for this "off topic" analogy!


From Elizabeth Cooke
Posted on May 16, 2009 at 10:53 PM

i voted for sound rather than looks... then again, i am lucky because i am pretty happy right now both with my violin's looks and sound.

as for people asking what an "ugly" violin would look like, i played on another violin briefly when my violin was getting some minor adjustments done a few years ago, and it had a pretty strange-looking stain near the tailpiece where the chinrest had once been... but even so, it didn't bother me that much.

i also imagine that it probably wouldn't be that impossible to improve the appearance of a less attractive, but better-sounding, instrument. a new coat of varnish, etc, would be pretty easy to do and wouldn't cost a lot. 

From David Burgess
Posted on May 16, 2009 at 11:08 PM

Why choose between sound and appearance? With a dilligent enough search, one can find both!

Anne-Marie made an interesting analogy between violins and marriage. People get married at the age of 18, only to find that at 40, the criteria have changed.

I'm a believer in life-long commitment to a marriage partner. A  violin choice offers other options. Which Strad hasn't been discarded (sold)?

From Pamela Schulz
Posted on May 17, 2009 at 5:07 AM

Right now I have a VERY well recycled battered old Mittenwald violin from mid to later 1800's.  I have taken the best care of it I possibly can, but it's definitely seen huge amounts of use and wear.  The varnish is dark and dingy, and the top edges are quite battered from the old-fashioned cases it used to be carried around in.  In fact, one edge was so bad it would snag sweaters!  (I had some repairs done to it).  I have had a huge crack under the chin rest repaired, as well.  There's about 5 old cracks on the top that over the centuries have been repaired.  Varnish is worn away where heaven knows how many people have put their hand while shifting into the upper positions.  The finger board needs replaning (it's got places where it's definitely wearing).  The pegs need replacing and their holes need bushing.  Sigh ...

It has great sound with the G & D strings, but not nearly as good on the A and E.  Meanwhile, we get along fine.  However, if I get some serious money, I might let myself get tempted away from this one. 

From al ku
Posted on May 17, 2009 at 11:00 AM

anne marie, violins have been known to the critter world as perfect litter boxes:)

From Karen Allendoerfer
Posted on May 17, 2009 at 11:42 AM

I don't think being beat-up or old or dingy necessarily renders a violin ugly.  I wouldn't mind battle scars or wear patterns that came from my own honest use of an instrument.  Or the same thing from an instrument that I inherited,  one that has a real story behind it. 

But there's something that seems wrong to me about my playing a brand new instrument that's been made and antiqued up to look like it's been broken in and played for years by a virtuoso.  The expectations that sets up are kind of out of whack.  It's kind of a romantic idea that all that glitters is not gold and some of the most beautiful playing (sound) can come from the most unlikely places.  Sure, that happens sometimes, but unfortunately, I can't say that it happens with me.  I don't want to set up impossible expectations for that kind of "wow, she must be *really* and unexpectedly good if she has a violin like that" scenario.

From Larry Deming
Posted on May 17, 2009 at 5:54 PM

In my case, I chose an unattractive bow that plays great.  The frog, which is usually a good indication of quality is plain at best.  It has no eyelet and the mother-of-pearl inlay is sort of a sickly sea-green.  I love this bow, though.  It plays whatever I want it to play.

From Laurie Niles
Posted on May 18, 2009 at 6:08 AM

Wow, 90 percent for the sound! Thanks to Karen Allendoerfer for inspiring this week's vote. If you have suggestions for the weekend vote, e-mail me.

From Tess Z
Posted on May 18, 2009 at 6:56 PM

There is/can be a huge difference between a new antiqued violin and an old violin that is antiqued the natural way. 

When wood is allowed to age gracefully over time, it gains a patina that cannot be duplicated by today's best antiquer's.  So, that said, a vintage violin might be 'unattractive' but it could never be ugly.

However, the same cannot be said about a poor antiquing job done by todays maker's.  Some minimize the procedure and only attempt to dull the newness of the varnish.  Other's try to replicate wear patterns and they end up looking artificial and forced.  That is ugliness.

There is a distinction that comes with time, build up of rosin, oil from hands and face, and bangs against the music stand.

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