Describe the ideal violin for you, whether you already own it or not!

October 28, 2006 at 05:28 AM · Words to describe the tone of a violin include "mellow", "bright", "dark", "rich", "powerful", etc. I have to admit I find many of these terms abstract and hard to define. So, this is a question with many parts to it:

1. What are other words you have heard to describe an instrument (especially concering but not limited to its tone)?

2. Can you define those words more specifically?

3. If you play your ideal instrument, would you describe it?

or 4. If you are still looking for the violin of your dreams, how would you describe it?

Replies (27)

October 28, 2006 at 07:34 PM · So, even if you own more than one ideal violin--what makes your violins ideal?

My violin is not a perfect instrument, though I'm rather fond of it. It's nicer in the upper registers, and it has somewhat of a bright sound. So, when I say "bright," does that imply screechy? I don't mean it to, so I am curious as to what words people use to describe a good instrument.

October 28, 2006 at 11:34 PM · This is a fascinating question. I have often thought about parts of the ideal violin response, but never about the whole package.

To describe it fully would require many pages. Some parts of it come easily to mind, others will emerge over the weeks as I think further on it.

My ideal violin would be rather loud when I want it to be. It would stand up to some hard driving. But when I play pianissimo, it would murmur warmly, without a trace of hiss.

In the low registers, it would be very warm and robust, with a husky edge when I ask for it. Deep crimson velvet comes to mind. Also Chateau Neuf Du Pape.

In the high register, it would soar majestically with a clear silver tone that is either clear as a bell, or shimmering with an edge like a straight razor, again, when I ask for it. Also available as an optional tone color is that chunky, penetrating metalic sound that Christian Ferras gets in the alternating double stops and single notes in the third movement of the Sibelius Concerto, or Arthur Grumiaux in the Brahms double.

The middle strings will respond clearly in all positions, so I never HAVE to shift to avoid a bad part of a string. But there will be a throaty and husky sexiness to the higher registers that I can use as I wish.

There's more.

Of course, my $2,000 1997 Beijing no-label doesn't quite rise to all the demands of my ideal, but it comes far closer than I have any right to expect.

But the really interesting thing about it is how much closer the sound is getting to the ideal as I practice more, and as I benefit from the lessons that I am finally taking for the first time in decades.

Which raises the thought that the violin is one part of the story, the violinist is the other. I think it will be a while before I will have truly outgrown the capabilities of my violin. I made a very fortunate choice when I bought it.

I think it will be very useful to explore the question of the ideal violin to guide me towards getting as much of that ideal violin as my real instrument has to offer.

Thanks for a wonderful question

October 29, 2006 at 12:25 AM · one that I could play half decently! Honestly: mellow, rich, resonant, responsive. al

November 1, 2006 at 07:54 PM · I'm reminded of a friend of mine who plays viola. She played on a cheap clunker for a long time, but managed to get a great sound out of it. After a performance together, someone approached her and complimented her viola, and what a great tone it had. My friend was very gracious in her response, but mentioned to me later that it had more to do with the violist than the instrument itself!

As a young student, I was always amazed when my teacher would pick up my instrument and make it sound wonderful.

I guess in my search for an ideal instrument, I'd like one that doesn't take quite so much effort to produce that sound!

November 2, 2006 at 06:44 PM · Dear Jennifer,

The sound question has become a bit of a "thing" for me. Being new to violin but not music (I am a singer) my teacher asked me what violinist I liked. At the time I had a very basic appreciation of violinists and violin sounds and said, "I don't know? Whatever sounds good." Now this is a pretty basic answer but I think it sums it up because ultimately each persons individual preference will affect their penchant for a particular sound.

As I continued through the first year of playing I would listen to whatever and whom ever I could and read anything regarding the violin. What does "dark" mean? What is a "silvery" sound? Serindipitously in the August 2006 edition of the strad there was an article that refered to a luthier who has created a tonal evaluation list. I emailed him and he sent it to me. At the same time, I've been compiling a list of descriptions relating to sounds that I come across and refining the origional luthier's list. It is a work in progress and has helped me immensely in terms of understanding common violin references to sound characteristics AND determining what I like. Now when I listen to a new artist I can catagorize their sound and it gives me a better appreciation. I beleive when I'm at the point where I can afford a decent instrument, it will also assist me in making the correct choice.

I am happy to share my list with anyone who is interested. In fact, it would be nice to have people contribute who have more experience and aid in a refining concensus. (Sort of a Delphi reserch strategy so to speak).

November 2, 2006 at 06:07 PM · My ideal violin would have to be dark looking (yes I am superficial :P) dark brown, blackish, with an antique look. (My friend has shown me one violin that looks perfect for me, but it's a Chanot and I could never afford it. Oh, cruel fate...)

I'd want the tone to match the look...dark, and haunting...hard to exactly define that, but I'd want an instrument that can sound etheral and wispy, but also warm and carressing.

If only I was filthy rich. If only, if only.

November 2, 2006 at 06:11 PM · For me I think that beyond the attribute of a glowing tone--which my fiddle(supposedly a Mozzani though I doubt it)has, I would like a fiddle that is made to a slightly smaller model as for example a Guadagnini. My teacher had one with a plum colored opaque varnish and a warm glowing sound. It was so easy to play because of its size(and because it spoke so easily--I loved it.

November 2, 2006 at 07:21 PM · I like old violins, pre 1850, that haven't been French polished to death. I tend to prefer Italian instruments over others, with Tyroleans and even certain English makers (give me a John Lott "imitation" of a Guarneri del Gesu ANYDAY) close behind.

The sound is warm and resonant, not so much loud as it is full bodied. Strung up with gut strings, these violins can do the gamut of color ranges. I'm not into volume for volume's sake, though all of my best violins have projected well under all sorts of circumstances.

The best part about great old violins is that their resonance and overtones are clear. That allows the player to play with greater ease, particularly in the lower dynamics. I've always maintained that great violins and bows show their superiority not in terms of brilliance or volume, but in terms of their ability to do subtler shadings with ease.

November 2, 2006 at 10:36 PM · Lisa, I would definitely be interested in that list, and the article you mentioned. Paul, feel free to go on for as many pages as you'd like...

In a few years, when I hope to have saved enough, and know what it is I like, I'd like to commission an instrument (I'm afraid there are too many practical restraints for me to search for an older instrument)--and I'd like to be able to describe the sound that I'm looking for as accurately as possible!

Thanks so much to all for your insightful responses.

November 3, 2006 at 08:14 AM · As much like Kiri Te Kanawa's voice as possible: very warm and golden.

November 3, 2006 at 03:35 PM · Dear Jennifer,

The origional list came from Peter Prier who was very generous in sharing it with me. Over the past little while I have been gathering frequently used terms to describe violin sound characteristics from books, articles, websites, advertisements etc., and have integrated with components from his list to try and develop a sound characteristic resource. Although this was originally done to help me understand sound description for the instrument I believe it might be helpful to others and can be refined with additional input and consensus. There are still some terms such as "silvery" that I have no idea where to place so it is a bit of a work in progress.

If you e-mail me, I can send it as an attachment to you.


November 3, 2006 at 03:46 PM · Hi,

One of the best instruments that I tried, and the one I would love to have but never could is an early J.B. Guagagnini. How to describe... The sound was not loud, but resonant and extremely focused. There was as clarity to articulation of between the notes unlike anything I have tried. The range was huge. You could play from open, right on the bridge to a note, with the bow 5 cm over the fingerboard with 1 mm of bow and get a crystal clear sound that was soft. The violin felt like a laser. Point anywhere and it will carry. How long did that take to figure out? One two over scale and three notes. Are violins fun?

For me, three qualities stand out - resonance, clarity of articulation, range of dynamics and colours through contact points.


November 4, 2006 at 12:14 AM · Lucky you, Christian. Good choice of instrument.

The first Tarisio auction had a Guadagnini that probably had a lot of the same traits the instrument you tried did. So did Margaret Pardee's Guadagnini, which I think was previously owned by Juilliard Quartet leader Robert Mann. That particular Guadagnini is now part of the Juilliard collection. The other Guadagninis I've tried have had that characteristic piercing sound with the warmth fuzzy overtones. Maud Powell writes about that sound too.

I'd like to make a special mention of a particular good modern maker: Christoph Landon. A few years ago, he showed me a copy of a Guadagnini that he made. It was outstanding in every way, including tonally. I didn't compare that violin to authentic JB Guadagninis - I just liked the way it looked and sounded. For sure, that was a concert violin that I'd play on any day. Oh, and Mr. Landon is a very nice person to work with. I admire him very much.

Another great violin is Julius Schulman's 1716 Guarnerius, also known as the "Tiger Stripe". It has been since resold by Morel/Gradoux-Matt to a high level violinist. That Guarneri sounded fabulous and looked great too. It had a Joseph filius Andrea label but was authenticated to have hallmarks of Joseph Guarnerius del Gesu.

November 4, 2006 at 01:05 AM · yes talking about Guadagninis, I kick myself every time I think of it. Since I passed it up.

In 1985 I was looking for a fiddle, and found a fantastic Guadagnini (Turin period) from Moennig's shop in Philly. At the time it was the top price of $110,000. (looking back though it was a steal of a deal).

The instrument was a glorious concert fiddle which had the sizzle of a strad and dark complexity of a Guarneri. The overtones rang like bells in any given dynamic and any length of stroke. While I had it on loan, I won several competitions with it.

Today that instrument is worth more than my house.

BTW, great violin tone results from great playing technique and not just from great instruments. A fine violin can however provide inspiration for a good violinist to become a better one. Hence the constant search by most of us...........

The right instrument for a player imposes no limits on his/her technical abilities, hence it feels good to play it.

When an instrument and its player have that compatibility, musical performance will always benefit.

November 4, 2006 at 04:44 PM · David Halen, concertmaster of the St. Louis Symphony plays a wonderful Guad. I heard him play it during our performance in Aspen of Ein Heldenlieben. He sounded exceptional as well as the violin.

November 7, 2006 at 10:51 PM · Trying to describe sound in words can be satisfying, maddening, and almost impossible - along with any other direct experience. But that shouldn't stop us from trying, any more than it stops wine connoisseurs!

I've had the pleasure of trying some expensive instruments by such makers as Stradivari, del Gesu, Amati, Guadagnini, Tononi, Ruggieri, Balastrieri, etc. I've also tried some fine 19th cent. violins, as well as modern and contemporary. I don't have a single favorite; each one had something unique.

My own collection currently includes a 19th cent. French, and a contemporary Italian. My favorite, however is an orphan. It bears no lable and is not worth very much money. It is most probably Chinese, from the turn of this century. But this unheralded instrument, looks great, sounds great, is in mint condition - and I got it for a song! A beautiful replica of the Hellier Strad, it's got a sound to match, and has been the envy of some distinguished colleagues. One, a former Heifetz student and former Rosand assistant, whose own large collection includes a Guadagnini, made me two offers for it at the same gig! Another, who had been a Milstein protege, whose violins have included a Granchino, a Fagnola, and Ruggieri that had belonged to Leopold Mozart, told me repeatedly how lucky I am to have it, and how he wished he had one!

Now for the hard part: what does it sound like, and is it my ideal instrument? I'd say that for my current tastes, needs and playing style it is very close, indeed to my ideal instrument - along certain lines. It is very powerful under the ear, and it projects very well. The two don't always go together. But I've had a chance to verify this through a number of solo opportunities - including one with orchestra. It has very good articulation, with each note having a clear profile, which I like. It is distinctly bright, with a lot of cutting edge. It's very briliant without being strident. It has warmth as well as briliiance, with luminosity, and a complex mix of colors and hues. Complexity is very important. I've had this violin about a year and a half. I sometimes take it for granted - but I never tire of it. An otherwise good instrument without sufficient complexity can quickly grow tiring, and even annoying. It also has a lot of presence. Even when playing fairly softly, it seems to say: "HELLO! HERE I AM!" And to me, it certainly sounds beautiful.

The quintessential quality or timbre of an instrument is for me, the hardest thing to put into words. Take away 'bright', 'dark', 'powerful', 'mellow', etc. etc. The most basic indivisible personality that is left is more or less what I think of as the quality. Experienced ears identify a certain spectrum of Strad ot Strad-like, or del Gesu-like qualities, though this is cerainly argued over. To my ears this violin is in the direction of Perlman's brilliant Soil Strad. Also, the Hills, writing a century before my violin was born, and describing some Strads from the years 1720-1722 seem strangely to be in the same room with me and my copy of a 1679 Strad, made c.2000! "...a vigorous and incisive power...slightly metallic...This vigorous and incisive sonority and pungent quality formed a most effective tool for the use of a virtuoso."

This kind of violin is certainly not to everyone's taste - player or listener. Geoffrey Fushi wrote of concert instruments being "...edgy, bright, brilliant, extreme focus to the sound which is typical of the greatest concert instruments...This greatly enhances the projection of sound in a large hall, and adds a kind of electricity to a dazzling performance...Many violinists and students who have not had the opportunity to try great violins are often surprized at this cutting, edgy quality. They might at first consider it objectionable until they have had the experience of playing a larger number of exceptional learn that top violins all have this particular quality."

I mentioned earlier about my "Hellier" being very close to ideal for me - along certain lines. I'd also love a violin, no less clear, complex, powerful and edgy, that captures some del Gesu-like charactristics. Especially on the lower strings, I'd sometimes like a darker color, along with a broader and rounder sound. A Domingo to my "Hellier's" Pavaroti! One that - to take one very limited but hopefully telling example - would be perfect for the French horn-like passages in the Paganini Caprice #9, whereas my "Hellier" is perfect for the rest of the caprice. Of course I'd put my "del Gesu" to wider use than that! To take another limited example, last year I played a recital which included the Bach G minor. Whatever my deficincies, my "Helllier" did just fine. But I don't feel that it was a perfect match for that somewhat somber work, whereas it's perfect for the brilliant, celebratory E major, and closley so, for the stark B minor.

Of great importance is finding just the right bow to match both our hand and instrument. This subject desreves a thread of its own. So I'll just say that I feel absolutely equally lucky to have found such a match, made by the American, William Halsey in 2005. It's really an "Excalibur" for me and my violin - and the three of us make a rather good 'manage a trois!'

I'd like to end this already long post on a personal note. I feel like I've made some friends on, and so I'd like to say - don't be surprized if you don't hear from me for a while. I'm getting quite busy in my professional life, as well as other aspects. Also - dare I admit it? - while I flatter myself to think that I've had something to say here, I've also come to feel a bit of an obsessive/compulsive aspect to all my posting activity. So I think a break might do me good. My best wishes to all - and happy fiddling!

November 7, 2006 at 02:30 AM · Raphael,

I really enjoyed reading your post. Every word.

I especially like your comparison of violins to wine. So true, in so many ways.


As to the original topic, of course my needs are very different from most, since I only record, never perform at all. -But even for the great soloists, I imagine it must be very difficult at times to decide just how much "carrying power" one wants in a violin.

If all you do is live performance, OK we know how to proceed, but what of when you are recording said performance for posterity? Do you have one violin for live audiences, and another for recording in front of that same audience? I mentioned recently in another thread how incredibly awful I find the sound of one of Heifetz' recordings. It is on "The Art Of The Violin" and is his 1945 Carnegie Hall performance:

As I wrote previously, that violin probably sounded like the god of thunder & lightening to the audience, cutting through the orchestra like a knife and responding to every slash & pull of the bow with wonderful depth & ferocity. However, up close, in the mic, is sounds positively dreadful. ( the normal caveates of personal opinion apply here, of course) -DREADFUL. I know it' wasn't the mics themselves, because the orchestra sounds full & rich. Heifetz's violin is positively thin & squeaky. Up close.

Such a difficult thing, but also fascinating.

November 7, 2006 at 01:19 AM · Raphael, there can be a compulsive/obsessive component to posting on boards such as this so I understand your desire to take a break. However, you're also right when you say you have contributed. So, while we may not always agree, I do urge you to make the break temporary rather than permanent. And... if you feel like posting occasionally during that sojourn, please do.

As for my ideal violin, I'd like it to have a lob of about 16.5" and be called a viola. Oh and I'd like it to be one that was so easy to play I could skip ahead dramatically from where I am on the learning curve. :)


November 7, 2006 at 01:30 AM · Neil, I want one of those myself!

I think David Burgess makes one, but that "skip ahead dramatically" option costs an extra $10,000. (g)

November 7, 2006 at 02:02 AM · Raphael, same to ya. Y'all come back.

I think Fushi did an excellent job of describing that particular sound. If you have a violin that will produce that, you're really fortunate. I have one which will do it also, which is an equally inexpensive violin made by a local maker, which I picked up for nothing. That quality disappears at loudness above mf, but I think it would really benefit from a setup that wasn't basically random. I'd bet it's really a killer. I don't like the way it feels, but that could be changed too.

About the description of sound, there are two problems really. First, the one that Fushi overcomes, at least to me, but secondly there's no way to know how two different people perceive the same sound. I've noticed very often people will both perceive something as "good" but their detailed descriptions are very different. Possibly because they hear something different, or possibly because they can't describe it well.

The first time I heard the quality Fushi is describing was as a kid in a violin shop in Cincinnati when a player was picking up a repaired violin. Looking back, I see it as a defining moment for me. If I had been serious about violin, I would have found out what violin it was, talked to the player some, switched to him as a teacher, etc. The main attraction of violin to me is that sound, which is unlike anything else. If I hear someone playing and I don't hear that, I'm disappointed. It's kind of rare. Although there are lots of other pleasing kinds of violin sounds.

November 8, 2006 at 04:28 AM · Greetings,

the violin I hav eloved th emost was an Andreas Guarneri I was allowed to practice on for six hours by a luthier friend of mine.

It epitomized the words of Blake:

`When I have done I have not done,

For I have more.`



November 9, 2006 at 03:55 AM · Jim,

Well said.

But in retrospect, defining the sound of a violin in words is like describing the taste of colors.

November 11, 2006 at 05:56 AM · Well - that was a brief retirement! But I was just looking over this thread again and thought I should be fair to Fushi and quote a bit more, where he also speaks of "problems of semantics...two people may have similar impressions of a violin, yet choose radically different words to communicate the same idea." My Fushi quotes are all from the book (with CD's), "The Miracle Makers - Stradivari, Guarneri, Oliveira". My Hill quotes were from their famous book on Stradivari. People might enjoy a few more words from them. On Stradivari sound, generally "...a woody, round and brilliant tone...the bright, full woodiness is the most distinctive quality in Stradivari tone". From their book on the Guarneri family, on del Gesu tone, generally: "intense brilliancy allied to concentrated power. Verging toward the matallic in quality on the E and G strings, the A and D posses that 'full body' which supplies so desirable an adjunct to the tone of the middle strings."

Alright - it's really time to go. You won't have Nixon to kick around anymore. No, wait - wrong speech. Besides, that dates me too much!

Seriously, so long, and good luck!

November 11, 2006 at 06:13 AM · mine would come with a beer holder.

November 11, 2006 at 08:42 AM · I've found that to me, a really good violin makes me think of very good, old cheese. I don't know how I came up with these, but when I play something really, really good, I think it sounds like old cheese. Everyone thinks I'm crazy, but the layered, "old" sound... I'll stop this isn't making any sense.

November 11, 2006 at 09:32 AM · must be the smell


November 12, 2006 at 08:37 AM · Kevin, that Landon Guadagnini copy belongs to my teacher. I asked him about it today after I saw your post and he said it's the only Guadagnini copy Christophe made and that he is very proud of it. He even used it on one of his full page ads in the Strad. Sorry, but I forgot the name of the soloist (not one of the more famous ones who plays a guad) who owns the real one.

My teacher remembers that one day he was getting it adjusted and someone (assuming it was you) came in and after playing it told him he was very lucky to own it.

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