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The Weekend Vote weekend vote: Do you believe that instruments by Stradivari and Guarneri del Gesùs are tonally superior to new violins?

January 7, 2012 at 11:28 PM

There has been a lot of media hype this week about a newly-released study on player preferences among new and old violins.

The upshot was that when 21 violinists were asked to rate their preferences among three modern and three old Italian violins in a blind test, they liked them about the same, with the exception that one of the Strads was generally less preferred.

I just thought I'd test the premise of the study, that "most violinists believe that instruments by Stradivari and Guarneri del Gesù are tonally superior to other violins -- and to new violins in particular."

del Gesu

Is this what you believe? Since this is a matter of perception, it doesn't really matter if you've ever tried playing a Strad or Guarneri del Gesù, it's more about what your overall impression is, based on what you know as a violinist. (BTW here is the abstract on the study.)

From Sue Buttram
Posted on January 8, 2012 at 1:36 AM
I'm never going to get to play on one of the suggested violins. I have to imagine that they are indeed better than the one I have.
From Laurie Trlak
Posted on January 8, 2012 at 1:49 AM
How often have we heard that it's not the instrument, it's the musician? Of course, it's not just the tonal quality and resonance but the responsiveness of the instrument that makes a difference, and in the hands of a skilled violinist the Strad or del Gesu is probably superior, but for the rank and file of us, I seriously doubt that it matters.
From Jeremy Buzash
Posted on January 8, 2012 at 2:27 AM
I think I would prefer a "most likely" option. Not all Stradivari's and Guarneri's are good instruments, but I bet it would be an interesting test to put the perceived "best" Strad (Maybe the Soil or Baron Knoop) and the "best" Guarneri (Vieuxtemps or Lord Wilton) against the best modern instruments one can find. That would be fun! I bet the result would be much different than pitting an average 1700 Strad against some great modern instruments.
From Royce Faina
Posted on January 8, 2012 at 3:01 AM
I have played violins my professors owned and those being sold by a Luthier in Houston, Texas. They were cream of the crop intruments. I also played a Cremona made violin made 1786 and a Ammati. So far no other violins come close to the beauty of sound of .the 1786 and the Ammai.
From Peter Sargent
Posted on January 8, 2012 at 2:45 AM
I am a professional violinist, violin maker and deal in rare violins.

I make violin comparisons many times thoughout the year. I am continuously trying to make the violins better and better. I have a degree in Engineering, which I sometimes think helps me.

Violin choice boils right down to ones desire and what feels good to them. Some of my new violins turn out well, while others end up being good anchors for my boat. The ones that turn out well for me, are nearly equal to the older masters. (In my mind)

Even though I might like one violin over another, the opinion seems to differ from violinist to violinist. I can never figure out why someone wants one violin over another.

Because I have many investment violins around me, I seem to fall in love with one for a while and all of a sudden fall in love with another. Others do not always agree with my violin love choice.

I feel I play better when I believe in the violin I am playing. I believe that it is more the player that makes good music, then the violin. An old concert violinist once had a fan tell him that his violin plays so well. He replied, "OK lady, here is the violin, make it play".

Older violins sound really good, when set up correctly. So do some newer violins for the same reason.

My opinion is that the best violin is the one you fall in love with, new or old. This love seems subject to change from time to time and some may think you have rocks in your head for chosing the violin that you did.

Peter Sargent
Sargent Violin Shoppe
St. Michael, MN.

From Lawrence Price
Posted on January 8, 2012 at 4:35 AM
I believe that instruments that were made by Guarneri del Gesù were in their time better than most modern instruments that are being made today. However there are almost no pristine examples extant today. My own old friend is a very early one and has suffered the ravages of time. We have grown accustomed to the sound of the old violins but they probably sounded much different when they were new. I believe that there are some modern makers who are rediscovering the acoustic principles that created the great instruments and are beginning to produce instruments that are for the ages.
From Royce Faina
Posted on January 8, 2012 at 4:35 AM
I also believe in the power of sugestion and I am happy that anyone would conduct a 'blind' study.
Something else I am a firm believer in; The senses are able to be 'finely tuned.' I have family members that swear they can tell no difference between my Eastman and higher quality instruments yet I swear to them I can and have demonstrated this. The same can be said with taste. I can tell the difference of wines between $10-$35. Any above $35 I cannot tell the diference yet some people very well can! The same with Scotch whisky or Bourbons... once they reach a certain price I cannot distinquish one from another.
From steven su
Posted on January 8, 2012 at 2:35 PM
I voted no but I really wanna say it depends on the instrument as well as the musician. I heard 3 Strads and 1 Guarnerius in concert. I was somewhat disappointed with the strads cause they didn't carry the sound as much as I thought they would. I also tried a local Italian luthier's violins. I was impressed with the sound and projection. I agree it's probably the set up of the instruments, especially old violins with all the wear and tear. Without proper care, they might not sound as good as they should.
From Aaron Krosnick
Posted on January 8, 2012 at 4:21 PM
My own experience is that the sound of a Strad or Guarneri violin is more flexible. One can find places "inside" the sound that don't yet exist in the new violins. I've heard the same kind of observation as applied to Steinway pianos. Volume alone is not the question. It's the possibility of expression in the older violins. I have a Sanctus Seraphin violin and a good, newer violin. I find the same difference. The new violin has a rich, big sound, but the Sanctus Seraphin has much more possibility of variation within the sound.
From Ulf Kloo
Posted on January 8, 2012 at 4:27 PM
I voted no, but you really have to specify which modern makers you want to compare with Strads and del Gesùs. I think you can probably find one or two dozen luthiers who make soloist style violins in that class today. I also suspect that the average sound quality of Guarneris is higher than that of Strads, because the focus on Guarneris has been more from a players' perspective rather than a collectors'. I think more Guarneris than Strads have been radically reworked to meet players' needs.
From Miguel Menchu
Posted on January 8, 2012 at 5:22 PM
That beauty in the picture looks like Barton Pine's violin. Is that an old italian?
From Ulf Kloo
Posted on January 8, 2012 at 5:29 PM
Sanctus Serafin made some of the finest violins on the planet, visually stunning too. If you generalize new violins, i can agree that many makers have focused a bit too much on power and evenness. But if you try many high class moderns you'll find violins with more interesting characteristics of sound and playability. Just as you have to try many old violins to find the great ones. I find that a problem with many old violins is that although they might have character, they actually possess a sound that is limited and lacklustre, and with poor dynamics, compared to many moderns. Players ultimately decide for themselves where their priorities lie, but I'm absolutely certain that many violinists would be surprised to experience the high quality level if they'd try a good selection of fine new violins today. The level is a lot higher than just ten years ago.
From Laurie Niles
Posted on January 8, 2012 at 6:12 PM
Miguel, the picture is of me holding the Vieuxtemps Guarneri del Gesù, several summers ago at Bein and Fushi in Chicago. It was a beautiful instrument, and Here is what I wrote about the experience.

I mainly wanted to do this poll to guage impressions, because the premise of the latest study, as stated in the first sentence of the abstract as well as the full study, was "Most violinists believe that instruments by Stradivari and Guarneri “del Gesu” are tonally superior to other violins—and to new violins in particular."

It didn't ring true for me; I think violinists are a bit more open-minded. Maybe the general public has that perception, but I think violinists know better. So far, this poll has been 50/50 pretty much the whole time, and that would bear out the idea that violinists are more open-minded about modern fiddles than the writers of the study supposed!

From Royce Faina
Posted on January 8, 2012 at 9:23 PM
One thing is for shure... each violin is as unique as people, even the $99.00 cheapies!!! Bows too! Anymore when I switch to another bow that's better than the one I was using with a violin and someone notices and asks about the previous bow I'll just tell them "They divorced!"
From Chris Buck
Posted on January 8, 2012 at 9:34 PM
If it is true that the old instruments were 'as is' without new strings or any kind of adjustment (thus stated by one of those involved) then the trial was flawed from the start. You can be assured that all the modern fiddles were 'set up' to the maximum of their potentail and all with the best current strings(Curtain is a luthier so has spin to gain) and most people understand that the older the instrument the more high maintanence so current adjustment and decent strings is essential. The only way to fully appreciate the supposed 'double blind' testing of instruments is to make sure that all of them are to THE BEST OF THEIR PLAYING ABILITY otherwise the whole experiment is riddled with holes. Was this truly the case? Not all instruments by the 'greats' are wonderful to play....the Lady Blunt or the Messiah strad's are an example......but some really shine and would be the 'tool of choice' for many a seasoned performer....Kochianski Del Jesu or the Nightengale strad just a start. Who chose the old instrumets? Were they considered the best of the best in ultimate playing condition? I have played more than a few dissapointing modern fiddles from top makers.....Zigmantovich, Curtain, Alf, Landon etc.......even if their best is highly palatable. This experiment has gone global and I do think it is a shame as it offers much less than could be expected. And the best string players of the world.....past and present....can't have all been wrong. Milstein, Heifitz, Oistrach, Menuhin, Kovacos, Perlman, Bell, Li, etc seem to prefer their 'tools' to be of the 18th century varieties though well set up and adjusted to the absolute. I think it was Kreisler who said: 'if a fiddle plays nice on the first bow put it down as it'll never improve, if it fights you let it teach you how to touch it and a love affair begins' and he played a couple of really fine souls from the past.
From Bart Meijer
Posted on January 8, 2012 at 10:31 PM
A lot depends on the way the question is asked.
Strads/GdG's better than the best modern violins? Probably not.
Strads/GdG's probably better than a randomly chosen modern violin? Yes.
From David Christianson
Posted on January 8, 2012 at 11:38 PM
I voted no, but not because of any first-hand experience. It was solely based on the reasoning that there are too many factors and differences in personal preference to conclude one is better than another.

I would contend that the best examples of DG's and Strads are such because they always have been the best examples; they started as great instruments, they were maintained and treated well, played by the best players who could afford to have the best luthiers repair and adjust them, and have thus enjoyed incredible longevity.

As far as old instruments go, who agrees on which specific instrument is the "best?" Can there even be such a consensus? To one, the Soil Strad may be it; to another, the Lord Wilton reigns supreme over all other DG's and all Strads; it's a mater of opinion. To yet another, perhaps their modern Zygmuntowicz is superior to all.

Or to be more granular, to one listener, the Soil Strad played by Perlman may be the best sounding fiddle, but the same Soil played by Menuhin is lacking. Or vice-versa. Maybe it takes a specific player to get the most out of a particular instrument? The sound, to me, is player and instrument as one, and they cannot be separated. So even a blind test with several instruments played by a single player, in my mind, does not tell the whole story because I might prefer one of those instruments when played by someone else.

So I'm starting to think the whole argument is silly. There never will, nor can there be, any definitive consensus. In my own opinion, no instrument is worth millions on tonal merit alone. But I would never begrudge the market for fine art and collectables, where reputation, rarity and provenance have their rightful influence.

Flame suit has been donned... :)

From Royce Faina
Posted on January 8, 2012 at 11:59 PM
I would like to see this double blind study be done by violinists playing the instruments set up to each of their preferences, their preference of bow & rosin, and see what the results would be! Each violinist play each instrument in different enclosed halls and amphitheatres. Novice to Master. Let the test keep being refined! Any data is worth the trouble!
From Betsey Karako
Posted on January 9, 2012 at 2:17 AM
There are some really amazing new violins out there today, but I do think that there is something about the quality of the sound of a violin as old as a Strad or a Guaneri. The sound of having been on the earth for hundreds of years, the sound of having seen so many events come and go, the sound of having so many hands draw a bow across the strings, the sound of so many different musical ideas expressed through it. I honestly think that even though there are amazing new violins out there, and they are getting better and better, there is just nothing that can compare with the sound of an instrument that is 300 years old. In my humble opinion, anyway. :)
From steven su
Posted on January 9, 2012 at 5:51 AM
While we are on the subject, I have a question about the measurements of strads and del Gesu. A luthier told me strads were rather thin so sound is always changing. Del Gesu on the other hand were built very thick so it was more difficult to play on. He had a book of measurements. I just wanna know if it is true

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