Stradivari and del Gesu. Is there room at the top?

October 31, 2007 at 01:19 AM · The question of the secrets of Stradivari and, Guarneri del Gesu have been discussed at length for many years and remain fascinating. However, I do believe that over the last three centuries there had to have been luthiers of equally superior talent but were not as known for a host of reasons.

Of course, it is very possible that the varnishes will forever remain unique formulas never to be decoded, the treatment of the wood and its sourcing will never be quite understood, but does that not predispose that Stradivari and Guarneri both had to know that whatever their secrets were, would impact their creations decades and centuries later? It just seems odd that they happen to know something no other luthier knew and today's luthiers struggle to discover. All the reverse engineering that has been done never seems to unlock the secret. Is it possible that the secret can never be achieved since no luthier today has the advantage of fast forwarding their own work 300 years? Perhaps there was no secret other than superior skill and circumstance? How many times have we heard of the blindfolded face off where another luthier's violin was preferred which invariably is followed by the argument that the comparison test was flawed?

Besides borax, shrimp, insects and whatever else Nagavary has suggested for the brew that may approximate Stradivari's secret, an ingredient that he can never stick in the spruce and maple syrup is history and time with a tiny pinch of myth. Isn't it true that occasionally a luthier in Cremona financially benefits from these ingredients over his or her equivalent from any other location?

This posting is in no way even suggesting or considering that Stradivari and del Gesu were anything less than brilliant or that their works are undeserving of their enormously high regard. It is suggesting, however, that past and present luthiers may not be fairly compared since they can never have the advantages that time and legend seem to do for one's work. The excitement of the journey often outweighs that of the destination. Maybe the secret is that there is no secret.

I am very curious to the views of others.

Replies (97)

October 31, 2007 at 02:12 AM · You wrote well, and yes I do think all the tests show that other violin makers have reached their standards. Many do think, however, that the very best of del Gesu and Strad are better than anything else, and I do not doubt that either. But the point is that only a few of their vioins reached this level, and that a lot of very talented makers since have done work on these instruments.

The most obvious differnece between these Elite Strads and del Gesus is the 300 years. We cannot prove it, but I think it is a safe bet that this is the difference.

The other thing to consider is that these elite Strads and del Gesus have not been part of many blind tests, if they were we may find out that they too are not better than the rest of the best. But my guess is they would win the blind tests, and that the many years are the difference.

October 31, 2007 at 03:27 AM · when the chemist doctor suggested or concluded that the chemicals are the reason that strads sound like strads, it is an overwhelming revelation. darnton and burgess stopped carving and said, heck with it, give me the juice. if global warming has not become an issue, there may be the talk of a peace prize. when the doctor's own (well, kinda his own) chemically treated violins fail to perform to even average standard, it becomes underwhelming to some. one camp says: hey, that is a good doctor doing good work. give him a break.

the other camp says: give us a break, too. is the doubting public in this case to blame for failing to get too excited for the huge leap of faith, once every couple years? you said, A leads to B and in demonstration, A leads to C. Hmmm.

even if chemicals one day are proven beyond reasonable doubt to be the key reason for the strad sound, how can anyone possibly duplicate stradivari's craftsmanship to serve as a control, to really make a valid point and rest the case?

science is great, made possible by hard working researchers with genuine interest for the truth. however, just because you are diligent and sincere, you can still be a bozo, science quotient wise. there is no prize for just showing up. no soup for you. but there is integrity and conscience. have to say something? try: i don't know.

recently, merck's hiv vaccine is proven to be ineffective, interrupting the global collaboration of the most caring and talented researchers all over the world. because of the humanities, the good intention, the need for an answer to a global crisis, shall we just let some people get the vaccine anyway because..because the intention was good?

granted, it is difficult to really study the heck of something when it is worth 7 mil and not yours. still, the level of so called research in violin making imo is pretty low, based mainly on anecdotal evidence.

what hey, it works pretty well so far... why fix it? how can you carry on the saga if the legend dies? the beauty is that the case cannot be rested!

October 31, 2007 at 03:19 AM · [The following is all in my opinion--take it or leave it.] I've seen and played a lot of Strads, del Gesus, and modern violins, and not seen anything comparable in the moderns. Even the really fine modern violins I've seen have been markedly different in distinct ways.

From one of the recent VSA competitions, computer tonal measurements were taken of all the winners, and they didn't even remotely resemble a Strad example. The differences were clear (but more importantly, they were all of the same type, and this has lead a few makers off in another direction from what's been traditional--and that's a good sign). Vuillaume felt that when his violins had aged like Strad's, say in 100 years, they would be equal, but now, 150 years later, no one believes they are. I think that if you're not the person or group with the bias of trying to prove that modern violins are equal, AND if you do the tests correctly (the tests as they have been done wouldn't pass muster in a shoddy backwoods college behavioral psych program, which is a whole other discussion) it's really pretty clear that they aren't.

That said, I don't believe that matching them is impossible; I only think that the avenues that makers have taken to do this are relatively narrow-minded and incorrect. I'm sure someone will get it, sooner or later, but I suspect that it won't come from the direction that people are currently thinking. In my opinion, some makers have come extremely close, in important ways, without going all the way, so to speak.

October 31, 2007 at 06:05 AM · Given that at a minimum every Strad/DG has been re-engineered with an increased string length and much higher tension via a new angled neck, and also therefore a new bass bar, was there something clairvoyant about those makers to predict the trend 100 years into the future or are the attributes of their unique/mysterious skill independent of these kind of mechanical variations?

October 31, 2007 at 06:58 AM · "was there something clairvoyant about ..."

Umm, no. The "re-engineerers" would have done something else instead if the results hadn't been pleasing to them. Speaking of the trend, not individual cases.

The re-engineering itself has got to be a fascinating thing, for example how some preferences won out, and why nobody's preferences would carry that kind of weight today and so on.

October 31, 2007 at 12:10 PM · Actually, the re-enginering is much smaller than it has been portrayed, as is the increase in string tension, which doesn't exist at all. For instance, according to all the evidence (Stradivari's templates and existing instruments), though the string angle LOOKS more aggressive, it hasn't changed a bit in reality, and is currently less than several of the classical period makers used. Modern strings are, in many cases, lower tension than previously, when players were advised to use the thickest gut they could handle. Necks are about 3mm longer, which is 1% of string length, and relatively insignificant.

I've laid the whole thing out multiple times in other forums, with little effect, so I'm not going to make the effort again--the idea has no romance, so it doesn't seem to catch people's attention.

Basically a properly-made instrument today is virtually identical to a period one, except in a couple of superficial ways that affect the player, not the tension.

Baroque instruments made according to authentic baroque measurements, which is what I do, are highly effective instruments and don't have the flaws of the wheezy things that now pass for "baroque".

October 31, 2007 at 04:56 PM · From Michael Darnton;

"I think that if you're not the person or group with the bias of trying to prove that modern violins are equal, AND if you do the tests correctly (the tests as they have been done wouldn't pass muster in a shoddy backwoods college behavioral psych program, which is a whole other discussion) it's really pretty clear that they aren't."


The tests are all really that bad? LOL

Then it should be easy to improve on them.

I look forward to future tests (of your design, perhaps?) which might carry greater validity for you.

Once again, I'll offer to show up anywhere in the US (a backwoods psych department might not be a good choice, ha ha!) with half-a-dozen modern fiddles, none of them mine if you prefer.

Accusations of "bias" or an "agenda" often come up in these threads.

Might some modern makers have an agenda? Might some old instrument fanciers, owners, or those involved in marketing them have an agenda?

Sure, but who cares? A good test is designed to separate these factors from the results, and is probably the best way to expose any agenda or bias.

Looking forward to participating,

David Burgess

October 31, 2007 at 12:30 PM · 3mm that's insignificant is more interesting than if the difference was large :)

October 31, 2007 at 12:45 PM · Yes Jim, I continue to be amazed at how subtle changes have a dramatic effect on sound.

Who would question that a true historical setup produces a very different sound from a modern setup?

Differences can include the bridge, bass bar, fingerboard length, fingerboard material, neck dimensions, the way the neck is attached to the body of the instrument, string design and material, fine tuner and chinrest. Any single one of these changes can produce a noticeable change in sound.

October 31, 2007 at 12:49 PM · You can stop the string with something like a pencil at 3mm to get the note (don't press the string down to the board!), and then tune your instrument up to that note to see the type of difference you could expect. That would be the equivalent of moving from modern to modern+. :-) You will find, I think, that you have students who play more out of tune than the difference, which is exceedingly small.

Another interesting issue is pitch standards, which varied from city to city much more than the violins, and was in some cases much higher than modern pitch (460hz), and others, far, far lower than what baroque players use today.

October 31, 2007 at 12:51 PM · I wasn't saying I thought the 3mm was significant, because I have no idea. I was asking literally why standardize a change that's insignificant. Might make more sense to standardize insignificant shorter. Measure once, cut twice and all that :)

October 31, 2007 at 01:24 PM · There's a proportional beauty to the current standard, and also hand placement for higher positions is more natural--something that early players didn't have to worrry about. There's also a valid and strong question whether the string length has actually changed.

It seems clear that necks were lengthened that much, but also many older instruments had the nut located further up the pegbox than now, which would have given a string length equal to modern, and, in fact, some existing examples have that.

It may have been a matter of leaving the nut (and string length, therefore) exactly where it was, and sliding the bottom of the back of the scroll up 3mm so that it didn't foul the thumb. If this was the case, and it's difficult to tell, then the string length changed not at all. If the fingerboard had been slid down 3mm to allow this clearance, and the inside of the pegbox changed accordingly, this would be difficult to detect, and I'm not aware that this issue has ever been looked at on the existing examples. Remember, that changes must have been incremental--I've seen instruments as late as 1835 with necksets that were the type current in 1770.

The Cremonese were fascinated with ratios, and it's easy to believe this scenario because of that. (Currently, the ratio of the stop length on the body--upper edge to bridge vs the neck length--nut to upper edge--is 3:2. With a 3mm shorter neck it would be3:1.9-something; much less interesting and likely.)

Violin history, lore, and present orthodox thinking are marred by a lot of inept brainwork, so it's always good to rethink things in view of the real evidence, not what "people think".

October 31, 2007 at 01:14 PM · How did they measure Hz in those days (to get 460)? Cycles per second I guess they'd be since Hz hadn't been born. Maybe beats against something tuned to a fork, with the fork based on a string of known diameter tensioned by a known weight or something. Or a stroboscope would be easy to make if they thought of it. Better than counting beats by ear.

October 31, 2007 at 01:31 PM · Most evidence of old pitch comes from organs (and records and evidence of their restoration) and wind instruments, which are more or less invariable. Flutes even came with sets of upper joints allowing them to be played in different places. A very few pitch pipes and forks survive, also, and some church bells were pitched to the organ when they were made, so they offer data, too. If you want to get excessively immersed in this, you can read "History of Performing Pitch: The Story of 'A'", by Bruce Haynes.

In a very general sort of way, pitch was a consensus, led by the winds or keyboard, and was all over the place. This would have had a much larger influence on tonality than construction of the violins, and in fact cities were sometimes noted as having specific tonal characters in their performances, just as you might classify modern orchestras by their strengths and weaknesses.

There are a lot of compendiums (compendia?) of organ pitch on the web, and here's one, layed out by time:

There's another, more extensive, list a few screens down the [very long] page, arrayed by pitch, here:

Note that the first pitch on the first site is very high relative to modern. There's also a small bit of noise around that Amati necksets of the time were more aggressive than modern by quite a bit. A violin neck at that angle, with the fattest possible strings, tuned to that contemporary organ would have sounded very different from a modern violin--in exactly the opposite direction from that which is codified as traditional by modern baroque scratchers. (Look to the bottom of the Dolmetsch chart to find a whole cluster of extremely high pitches located in the Amati period, the beginning of the Baroque period, but very different from modern "baroque" pitch.)

One modern researcher, by the way, criticizes Haynes, who spreads pitch all over the map, for trying to make TOO MUCH order out of things. :-)

October 31, 2007 at 01:29 PM · I love to puzzle about it, but as a non-luthier, have little to say that's helpful. What's intuitive I think is that what CAN be reproduced has been, many times.

What CAN'T be reproduced is the wood, mostly. These violins have aged and been played for 300 years, and that's what can't be produced, except the old-fashioned way.

In today's world, where almost every forest has been decimated numerous times for lumber, you simply are not going to find the sort of ancient, virgin wood that these people used. In that day, I imagine it was not unusual to have a forest of trees that were all many hundreds of years old.

My hope is that some of the fine modern makers today will be the prized and collected instruments of the future, but they are not starting with wood that can match what the famous Italian makers of that day were using.

I for one have a hard time believing that varnish would affect the sound to the extent some seem to think.

October 31, 2007 at 01:49 PM · It's worth noting that there were many, many violin makers in 1700 using the wood of that time, all of whose violins now have 300-year old wood in them, but only a very small number of them have turned out, in retrospect, to have made really great violins, in spite of the wood factor. Old wood definitely has an effect, but it does not, alone, produce greatness.

October 31, 2007 at 03:21 PM · michael, i wonder if you can explain something for me. i understand people have been using tech to capture the sound spectrum of violins to compare, this peak and that peak. are there any "formal" work done on registering the tap tone of the plates, in a comparison setting (not just mapping the thickness)? tx

October 31, 2007 at 04:49 PM · Tap tones are not all that important, if they were all that important almost all Del Gesù violins would have been ruined because most of them were regraduated and "lost" their original tap tones. The recipe is a bit more complicated, I think.

October 31, 2007 at 04:57 PM · may be that is why they sound so good now, luis:)

agree it is most likely more complicated than that.

when luthiers regraduate plates, what are the benchmarks then? thickness alone?

is there a correlation between tap tone peaks (if there are such things) and the audio peaks from real violin playing?

October 31, 2007 at 05:12 PM · Well, Del Gesù instruments were regraduated to be more "Stradivari like"... but the most coveted instrument in the world is Paganini's "Cannone", one of the few Del Gesùs who survived the regraduation era, it has quite thick plates. Paganini was allways looking for unregraduated Del Gesùs but they were already rare in his time.

Regraduation is considered a sin today, a non ethical practice.

I posted a sound sample with one of my violas playing the solo part in Harold in Italy here, the soloist is Alberto Lepage, with the Cordoba Orchestra:

October 31, 2007 at 05:17 PM · now that is a sound with a soul! powerful, clear, open yet soothing.

did you have to sneak into an old church at night to borrow the 300 yr old beam to make the plates? :)

October 31, 2007 at 05:31 PM · Hi! Thank you!

No, I've selected this spruce on Rivolta, Desio, near Milan, in Italy, in 1994, it's old enougth, I think. Del Gesù used "fresh" and unseasoned wood, some say 2 years old wood in some of his violins...

You can see pics of 3 of my 17 inches violas here:

October 31, 2007 at 06:44 PM · In my experience, graduation just isn't that important, unless you do something clearly outside of the realm of what has more or less arrived as "normal", a spec which covers both heavy del Gesus and light Strads if you look at them right.

A lot has been done with tap tones in new violins over the last 40 years or so. . . which has proven to be massively non-productive.

Very little has been done examining those features of good old violins, and the general consensus of the people who routinely work on them is that what's often the most striking is the *lack* of tap tones. This hasn't been appealing for tap tone people, who are looking for simple recipes to turn themselves into Stradivari. :-)

Someone in Germany is looking at the vibration of the whole instrument as a unit, which is certainly more reasonable than viewing the pieces individually. Then there are other people who are looking at a third characteristic, which they're calling "modal density".

October 31, 2007 at 11:06 PM · Al Ku, regarding your question about tap tones on old instruments, many people have been keeping records of this for many years, but I'm not aware of a published compilation. I seem to recall that Joseph Curtin had assembled tap tone information for quite a number of Strads, in an attempt to relate it to wood stiffness and density.

When I worked in the Weisshaar shop, Weisshaar always wanted this information any time we had a Strad apart.

Simone Sacconi, who probably worked on as many Strads as anyone, and saw them closer to their original condition than those alive today, observed the tap tones of Strad tops mostly at F to F sharp. He explains how he believes Strad put these tap tones to use his book, "The Secrets of Stradivari".

October 31, 2007 at 11:40 PM · Yes, I've heard of stashes of pitch here and there, but the problem is, I think, that no one has really done much with them that proves anything. In the early 1800s they came to the same conclusion as Sacconi regarding pitch, so he didn't really reveal anything, but really, how much can you do with F#, for instance?

I had an interesting event in my shop once when a tuner came by and watching me work, asked to tap my plates, and tested all the modes he usually checks. After doing so, he declared them all to be exactly right. Which is not a huge feat, if you make a violin basically correctly. The problem with this measurement is that it's similar to saying violins are 14" long, but making a violin 14" long does not make a Strad. That's why I made the comments I made about tuning not having revealed much of value.

November 1, 2007 at 12:34 AM · thanks michael and david for your time and insight. my ignorant and innocent question stems from the conjecture that if violin's voice has much to do with the vibration of the plates to elicit sound, one fundamental issue to clearly understand, if possible, is the property of the plate acoustically, or vibratorily (first time to use this word in my life). it will be more gratifying if one day we can distinguish with more certainty what has not been properly evaluated from what has been properly evaluated but not understood and from pure garbage:)

between F# and F, i will take F# anyday because it is so much more friendly to my index finger on the E string!:) besides, F# sounds nice and F always lame!

seriously, on the F or F#, let me ask another way...ever come across great sounding violins' plate that vibrate in a pitch far away from those 2 notes, or is there a consensus that however meaninful we don't know but we know there is something about F? how about paganini's cannon?

November 1, 2007 at 01:15 AM · For David Burgess:

As a question for more personal interest: if you did show up for a test against the 'old greats' with half a dozen modern fiddles, which 6 would it be?

Feel free to include yours! ^o^

November 1, 2007 at 03:10 AM · Al, This is a problem, to my mind. What you'd really want to have were the behaviors of great instruments, not, for instance, any violin by Stradivari, good or bad. But really, as I said at the beginning, I think this is all barking up the wrong tree, and as a maker, it doesn't bother me to see my competition all centered there baying to the stars. :-)

November 1, 2007 at 01:30 AM · wooooooooo

Luis, your violas are gorgeous!

November 1, 2007 at 01:52 AM · Mr. Darnton, I really enjoy your expertise, and I hope you keep writing on this issue, but I must say it is a bit much.

You wrote: “I think that if you're not the person or group with the bias of trying to prove that modern violins are equal, AND if you do the tests correctly (the tests as they have been done wouldn't pass muster in a shoddy backwoods college behavioral psych program, which is a whole other discussion) it's really pretty clear that they aren't.”

Mr. Darnton I do not mean to be disrespectful, but what makes it clear that modern violins cannot compete? And what have you showed that makes the dozens of blind tests all worth nothing? You throw out all the tests without any proof that makes them not valid, and then you state that the Strads and del Gesus are clearly in another league, with nothing behind it, and then expect your words to add up to something. It is like saying,” I am right because all your evidence is wrong.” You have done nothing to show why the tests were not valid and yet claim them ALL flawed, and then you did nothing to prove the old Italians are better other then claim they are better.

Just to clarify things, are you saying that the best moderns do not sound as good as most strads and del Gesus? Or are you saying that they do not match up to the best Strads and del Gesus?

Then you said, “Vuillaume felt that when his violins had aged like Strad's, say in 100 years, they would be equal, but now, 150 years later, no one believes they are.”

Have you heard Hahn? I think her sound is equal to that of the others and very much like the others, and yet it is done on a Villaume.

Then there is Tetzlaff who sounds incredible on a Greiner, etc.

My guess, and it is just a guess, is that if you were to take up Brugess on his challenge, you could only clearly win if you had the really elite strads and del Gesus, and even then I am not sure you would win.

Can someone who has been involved in a lot of these shootouts contribute?

November 1, 2007 at 03:06 AM · When I said that the tests that have been done are poorly designed, I did mean exactly that. If you have experience in designing scientific research, which I assume you don't, you'll know how hard it is to design a simple test that is valid, and with something as variable as violin, players, and interactions between the two, the problem multiplies. One play-off in front of an unqualified audience using one player doesn't prove much.

Certainly you've had the experience of making a violin sound good that another player can't get anything out of at all. Does that one trial with the two of you prove that the violin in question is good or bad? I've had the experience of showing one well-respected del Gesu to dozens of people over a four-year period, and only three made it sound good, and from those three, the sounds were truly glorious--clearly better than most violins I have ever heard. Two of those three players were well-known and world famous. All three clearly knew how to make the violin do it's thing, and when they did, the result was unforgettable. Many lesser players made it sound horrid. Was the violin good, or bad? It would have lost any playoff as such things are done, with B and C grade local players. On the other hand, to offer something totally contradictory, one characteristic of Strads and del Gesus is that they can be extremely responsive, to the point that it's nearly impossible to make a bad note on them, removing a lot of fear from playing, which frees up the player to be more artistic. Some players who've had Strads have told me that learning to use this characteristic to advantage can take months. What is proven about this by handing a player an instrument he's never played, in a blind trial, and expecting the most of it right at that instant? These are the types of things that confound tests.

Another example: I haven't discussed specific names other than Stradivari and del Gesu. It matters a lot how you classify things. I certainly believe that modern makers can top random third rate Italian violins, whose numbers are legion. So when we discuss this issue, are we comparing the best of moderns to the best of the ancients? I believe most amateur tests have compared whatever was handy at the moment. Just old doesn't mean good, by any means. I wouldn't presume to call a $50,000 old violin the equal of a $5,000,000 one, yet such tests don't discriminate. The only modern-Strad playoff I'm familiar with was Nagyvary's. . . . using physicists as judges. Gee, the next time physicists have a problem, can I be the judge? Oh, why not? I'm not qualified? What does that have to do with it?

One thing that stands out over an extremely long period, though, is that while great players have always had the opportunity to play new instruments, with very few exceptions, they have not. You mention Tetzlaf and Hahn. Would you like a list of prominent players who *didn't* do what they're doing? Do we have room on this page? Do you suppose those countless hundreds or thousands of great artists might have had a reason for their choice? I hope you are more sophisticated than to offer conspiracy theories as your response.

November 1, 2007 at 02:50 AM · Lyndon, my stock answer to this point: "I don't think any one will ever get Stradivaris tone without duplicating the complicated and time consuming tap tone tuning employed by most of the old masters, When a violin has been regraduated this tap tone system is often ruined as the regraduater had no idea what they were doing, . ." is, since nearly all del Gesus have been severely regraduated, who do you suppose the unknown genius was who did this. The answer is, of course, that this is the ultimate proof that tap tones don't mean squat.

Unlike the tuner folk, I believe, and my experience supports this, that the appropriate relationship of tones, which I think is co-incidental with good tone sometimes, not causative of good tone, is much more a function of some other much more important things than graduation, as I hinted early on. Or, as I said, tones are a result of doing things right, not a cause of good things. As my statistics teacher in college said (and boy do I wish more violin makers had taken statistics!), because states with more mules have fewer PhDs, and states with fewer mules have more PhDs, don't fall to the assumption that you can drive mules out on one side of the state by busing in PhDs from the other side.

At the bottom of all of it, I really don't think building a good violin is all THAT difficult, which is why some of the lesser Cremonese makers, whom many modern makers could run circles around, still made superior instruments; they simply knew how it was done, and they did it, and it worked. And it didn't involve tuning, virtually none of which would survive intact, based on the stuff that's been done to many of those instruments over the last 3-400 years.

November 1, 2007 at 03:11 AM · I thought the varnish used by the masters was a very important part of the great tone. The ingrediants they used are no longer available, and nobody knows exactly what they were.

The sound quality of a violin changes dramatically from the white (no varnish) to varnished. Varnish that is too thick will muffle the vibrations too much. Different varnished react differently with the wood.

Different varnishes age differently, too. Some varnishes can harden over the decades and worsen the sound of the violin.

I think the varnish of the great violins has much to do with the sound quality today, centuries later, besides the obvious build quality.

Today we can use old wood from trees grown high in the mountains and aged for decades but we cannot reproduce the varnish.

By the way, I found it fascinating to learn that the del Gesu violins are slightly flatter than Strads (by 3Mmm) which makes them project louder, while the Strads are slightly more arched, which makes them a little sweeter.

QUESTION: Are the violins that win tone tests the future collector items?

November 1, 2007 at 03:22 AM · Incidentally, those of you who think you're totally objective should know that it's standard procedure, and well known in audio circles, that sleazy stereo shops set up the speakers they want to push to a slightly higher volume. Most listeners, even sophisticated ones, are suckers for it, and will choose the louder speakers as having the best *quality* in blind trials, regardless of the actual relative quality of the speakers.

I have seen another dodge used in violin sales, and that is that the second violin almost always sounds better than the first, when players are making decisions in quick successive pairings, so I personally always insist that players switch around a lot. I have seen this tactic used to sell violins to the unwary, though. Try this one with friends someday, without telling them what you're doing, and you'll see how it works. I bet you even think there's a difference, even though you know what's supposed to be going on.

So much for objectivity.

November 1, 2007 at 03:58 AM · T, Strad and del Gesu arching heights really don't vary that much, especially when you compare the best examples of each. The best ones usually hover in the 15-16mm range, though there are exceptions. Extreme del Gesus fall in the lower heights rather than high (I think the lowest I have measured was around 13mm), and extreme Strads usually (not always--the Soil is very low) are at the high end (I know a couple with 19mm arches on their tops) , but the normal winners run around the 15-16mm zone, in a general sort of way (if I remember correctly, the Cannone is around 15.5mm, for instance).

As for the varnish question, the next time you see a color photo of a Strad, be aware that most are missing more than 50% of their varnish, sometimes as much as 70 or 80%. You can see this by comparing the brightly colored varnish, which tends towards orange or bright brown/orange in photos, vs the yellow background color on backs. Tops often have even less original varnish--sometimes virtually none. Cremonese varnish is unique in that it wears extremely poorly, and most of the great player's violins have very little left--60% coverage is unusual. So if there's something to learn from this it's that the great Cremonese violins have very little of the great Cremonese varnish on them, where the lesser violins of other schools often have much more of their varnish.

Think about this for a moment, and you'll realize that it simply reinforces your point that less varnish is usually better.

You can see some examples of Strad varnish, or the lack thereof, on a couple of the instruments we've sold, at my company's website,, in the gallery section (follow the "read more" links for each instrument to see photos)

November 1, 2007 at 03:38 AM · OK, thanks for the facts. By the way, in no way do I wish to suggest that I know much about the great master instruments, although I have read a few books that claim to. Varnish was one of the points made strongly in one of the books.

That book also made the point that del Gesu violins are also more sought after by some violionists than strads, which is reflected in the higher prices ($6 million versus $4 million, etc.) The reason is because the del Gesu has a bit louder projection needed for concert halls. Indeed, the legendary Cannon was a del Gesu. The book suggested that the reason for this was the slightly lower arching.

Which leads me to think that I might want to record with a Strad but perform with a del Gesu!

Finally, about my previous question. Are the new tone test winners today the collectibles tomorrow?

November 1, 2007 at 03:54 AM · "Are the new tone test winners today the collectibles of tomorrow?"

Excellent question. The winners would like you to think so. I know of one winning instrument which was still unsold (and still for sale) four years after winning, so one may suspect that there may be more to tone than just what it takes to win the contest.

Referring to my previous comment on speakers, volume might carry the day, for example, when 300 violins are being quickly run past the judges over a day or two's time, and the loud winner may not turn out to be the most sophisticated.

I once met a cellist, by the way, and a good one, who was playing a really loud trashy modern instrument for several years, swearing it beat everything, and that modern instruments were the way to go. Everyone I knew who knew him commented on his crass but loud tone. Then one day he showed up with an old instrument with more tonal sophistication, and that was the end of the new = loud = good phase. But I don't mean to imply at all that new instruments can't be tonally sophisticated--some are wonderfully so, though they are usually not, in my experience, the same ones that are loud.

My current model on that (which is pro tem) is that loud ones just dump everything out all at once, and you have to take it, at the volume offered, but sophisticated ones save things that need to be coaxed out in various ways, offering more opportunities, and don't just dump everything into one blaring voice. That's an idea to think about, at least.

November 1, 2007 at 04:18 AM · David, with reference to your playoff challenge test design, in view of some of the stuff above, what test design can you think of that would negate the effects of playing order, unequal volume bias, and the fact that to gain the most from an instrument it's necessary for a player to become totally familiar with it and it's options, which can take months (this is reasonable, since players don't usually choose a violin based one five minute trial--they have to work with it a week or two at least to understand how it will work with their style in the future). And how do you define the type of player who's universal to all styles and maximally competent on all types of instruments, so that each instrument gets a fair, maximized showing? Who can be the tester?

Or to put it in car terms, what validity do you think a race would have in showing various cars' optimum performance if each driver were put in an unfamiliar car that he'd never driven before, the second the race began, and maybe forced to drive blindfolded, to boot?

When you solve those problems, I'll come up with a further list for you to ponder. Personally, I think it's impossible to design a valid test for this type of situation.

November 1, 2007 at 04:20 AM · Lyndon, I'd sure like to know your sources for all of this hidden "lore" that the whole rest of the violin world seems to have missed.

November 1, 2007 at 04:32 AM · "I think it's impossible to design a valid test for this type of situation. "

The fact that a test is even conceivable might say something, which is whatever differences might exist are subtle ones. Not the family Buick vs. a nitro fuelie.

November 1, 2007 at 04:32 AM · Great responses Mr. Darnton! I love the passion and the knowledge!

I think you missed my point: I meant that Hahn and Tetzlaff are getting very much the same sound! It is not only as good, it is very much the dark, colorful, complex sound I hear in the older Cremonese instruments.

As for the tests: your points are valid and I am sure we could come up with a lot of other factors, but I don’t see how you have shown anything other than the tests could be better. I think the tests, in general, were impartial and well done, and the results were ALWAYS the same—the moderns held their own or did better. The ALWAYS is what kills most of what you have said about this. The point is: something does not need to be perfect in order to be worthwhile and informative. And it is hard to discount something when there is that much evidence.

The thing that saves you is I am not sure if any of the elite Strads and del Gesus have ever been involved. If someone gets them to show up, which I dont think anyone would risk, well I think that could put the issue to rest. Actually only if the elite cremonese won, if the moderns won than excuses, like we have seen everytime before, would again be made.

I don’t think there is a conspiracy going on, but I do think there is a type of club membership that happens if you play on one of these, and I think this has a lot more to do with it than anything else. A soloist’s career is automatically better once he has one of these old Italians. I also think our minds can play tricks on us very fast, even the best of us. Everyone thinks the violins are even until they find out one is a strad and then everyone is no longer listening to determine which sounds best, but which is the strad. And when it is done, the strad usually lost out.

You did not answer if you think it is most strads and del Gesus or the best strads and del Gesus? And what do you think would happen if you went out of your way to meet Burgess’ challenge. I think you would come out even at best….seen it too many times to think otherwise.

Did you know that for a long period of time Ricci preferred playing on his Bellini than the del Gesu? I know. I took lessons from him when he told me so! Does this matter to you?

The stuff about how the sound waves are different is interesting, could you tell us more? Is this true of the Grieners as well? I ask because that physicist who works with him has done more to evaluate these sound waves than anyone out there, so I have been told.

Oh and the stuff about old ones saving stuff that needs to be coaxed out, I think really adds up to the violin not being able to cut through, not much more...though your verbage sounded good.

November 1, 2007 at 04:44 AM · There are quite a few violinists playing on fine instruments who really don't have fantastic careers. It doesn't guarantee anything. Hillary Hahn is proof that audiences don't really give a ---- what you're playing on.

November 1, 2007 at 04:53 AM · Last first, I'm referring, for one instance, to the way that some violins give exactly the same sound over the end of the board and near the bridge, some very opposite sounds to the extreme, and some give results in between somewhere. In general, the ones that sound the same either place are the loudest, and also the plainest, and tend to be difficult to play quietly. This is an extreme case, and one I find very often with new instruments, but not often with the best older ones. It's not verbiage, but a real effect that you should examine in more detail.

For what it's worth, I was present at a blind cello trial in Chicago a decade or two ago, and the winner was an old cello of not excessively elevated rank. After that, the results were interleaved. No really great old instruments were in attendance, but several relatively fine new ones were. The new ones were clearly not the clear winners in that test.

So now we have three players on your list. I know many people, however, who do not agree with your assessment of Tetzlaf and Hahn's tonal qualities. I do also recognize, though, that a certain type of player overpowers the sound of the violin and can make pretty much the same sound on a cigar box. I'd offer that this is more about the player than the relative qualities of the instruments, though, and there are plenty of people (more, probably) who don't play that way.

Solti is supposed to have once told the Chicago Symphony that what the players did was for themselves--that 99% of the audience wouldn't get it at all. With that comment in mind, it seems that impressing the average audience really doesn't require much of the player. Or much of an instrument, either. Now I suppose that most of that audience feels that they're better than that, and they're probably wrong. But they get to vote on which violin is good, nevertheless. Picking judges who can actually tell the difference, repeatedly, would be another criteria for valid tests.

The folks on the headfi headphone forum are fond of the addage that it's hard to hear better audio equipment going forward, but once you're accustomed to better stuff, it's impossible to move back. Inherent in that is the fact that people don't really hear as much as they think they do.

November 1, 2007 at 08:52 AM · I'm not brushing it aside--but you've made some very strong claims, especially about this being a method that was commonly known up to 1850.

November 1, 2007 at 08:56 AM · I disagree that Tetzlaf and Hahn achieve the same "dark complex" colors as other violinists. Sure their tones are pure and clear, but the range in characters and the complexities in the sound produced, in my opinion, do not rival those violinists who perform on Strads/Del Gesus...

I'm also very interested in hearing more from Mr. Darton. Keep them coming sir!

November 2, 2007 at 01:00 AM · From Julie Slama;

"For David Burgess:

As a question for more personal interest: if you did show up for a test against the 'old greats' with half a dozen modern fiddles, which 6 would it be?

Feel free to include yours! ^o^"


Julie, I don't have a list in mind. How I would choose would depend on how the test was conducted. If the "old fiddle" camp was to use just any Strad, I might just invite makers with some kind of decent track record to participate.

If the old fiddles were to be some of the best, meaning that they've basically been "pre-evaluated" over the years, I'd want a similar opportunity. I might solicit violins from many makers, and go through them with the help of a musician who is experienced enough to know how to find the playing technique a fiddle requires very quickly.

If the "old camp" has close to 500 Strads to choose from, I might like at least 50 modern violins to pick from. I know that's not fair to the moderns, but the logistics of dealing with even 50 violins at once (storage, shipping, insurance) is a bit overwhelming. I'll accept the handicap.

Regarding Michael's many assertions, there are so many I disagree with that attempting to refute them all might take all day. I believe I already addressed the one below, and gave evidence to back it up, citing a print source which shows that "tap tones" have been studied for a long time.


"Very little has been done examining those features (tap tones) of good old violins, and the general consensus of the people who routinely work on them is that what's often the most striking is the *lack* of tap tones."

I have a couple of violins leaving the country shortly, and my top priority is seeing that they are “right” and stable. It’s not like these players can easily drop by for a sound adjustment.

So I'll address just one post.

Quoting Michael;

“David, with reference to your playoff challenge test design, in view of some of the stuff above, what test design can you think of that would negate the effects of playing order, unequal volume bias, and the fact that to gain the most from an instrument it's necessary for a player to become totally familiar with it and it's options, which can take months (this is reasonable, since players don't usually choose a violin based one five minute trial--they have to work with it a week or two at least to understand how it will work with their style in the future). And how do you define the type of player who's universal to all styles and maximally competent on all types of instruments, so that each instrument gets a fair, maximized showing? Who can be the tester?”


*Playing order? That one’s pretty simple. You do several rounds, mixing up the order.

*Unequal volume bias? Perceived volume is important to soloists, so compensation being necessary is arguable. It's one of the qualities of the great old Italians often mentioned by players.

*Familiarity of the player with the instrument? This could be a problem with a player who has spent much of their life on one instrument, but there are numerous fine players who can come fairly close to nailing what a violin wants or finding the “sweet spot” in several seconds. Other players have more difficulty. I might suggest using one of the former. ;)

Another quote from the same post:

“Or to put it in car terms, what validity do you think a race would have in showing various cars' optimum performance if each driver were put in an unfamiliar car that he'd never driven before, the second the race began, and maybe forced to drive blindfolded, to boot?”


Drive blindfolded? Do you really think driving blindfolded can be validly compared with playing blindfolded? Most of us find it much easier to play a violin blindfolded or with our eyes closed than to drive the same way. But I suspect you already knew that. ;)

Professional drivers and journalists routinely evaluate cars. Really good racers who normally drive a variety of cars can find an unfamiliar cars limits very quickly. In fact, there’s a race series which deliberately puts famous drivers in equally matched, unfamiliar cars. Good drivers mostly turn out to be good drivers.

Interestingly, car testing has produced results not unlike those in the violins world. A relatively cheap American Corvette routinely competes very favorably with, or blows away many of the mega-buck exotic sports cars. Nevertheless, what do you suppose “Mr. Hollywood” drives? ;)


“When you solve those problems, I'll come up with a further list for you to ponder.”


Yes, I know. It’s easy to find fault, more challenging to embrace a concept and come up with solutions. I’ve given an example of the responses that can be made, and that will have to suffice. I have people waiting for instruments, I’m behind, and I don’t serve them well by spending too much time here. My first duty is to the people who have trusted me with their hard-earned money.

If I leave readers with one thing, it would be this:

Please don't assume that any one maker speaks for the violin making community. Makers of equally high stature, with equally impressive backgrounds, have disparate ways of looking at things and doing things, with equally impressive results. Most of them don't post here.

For example, most of the makers who have posted in this thread (myself included) may not pay much attention to "tap tones" but some other darned good makers do!

The longer I'm in this business, and the more I learn, the more suspicious I am of statements which sound like "this is the right way" or "that doesn't work", or "this is what/how makers think". As with any endeavor, the downside of having reached hard and fast conclusions is that it makes it very difficult to learn.

A while back, someone posted a lengthy list of well-known players who use modern instruments. Does anyone have time to find that?

November 1, 2007 at 12:24 PM · This is second hand info, but I believe Isaac Stern was interested in modern makers, and when he found one that impressed him, would acquire one or two of his best violins. I don't know if he played them in concerts or not.

I think one test that would really work would be if you had a recognized soloist do one rehearsal on the modern and one on the 'oldie'.

Perlman comes to mind - orchestras are so desperate to have him that he gets whatever he wants ^o^

The apex of violin making is when you produce an instrument that not only sounds beautiful, but can cut over a full orchestra while retaining all its colors.

November 1, 2007 at 01:04 PM · it has been a sweet treat to read the opposing views of david and michael and feel the amor they have for each other:):):)

it is a big universe out there and there is so much to tap, including my resonant skull! thank you all!

November 1, 2007 at 07:28 PM · Michael's a good guy.

We dice a bit on the forums, but I hope there's no ill will. I'm not aware of ANY two makers who agree on EVERYTHING.

November 1, 2007 at 02:21 PM · People who read much in the sciences will recognize what I'm saying about research: a huge amount of consideration goes into methodology, and most of the analysis and criticism of research results involves methodology. I'm not being unreasonable: I'm being thorough, and scientific.

Makers have been chasing Stradivari since 1800, and in the general consensus of players, they have not caught him yet. Makers have protested that they've caught up with Stradivari for most of that time; in the general consensus of players, voting with their dollars, that hasn't happened yet. Most people agree, however, that makers are getting much better, and I don't dispute that. It's a valid criticism that dealers operate with a degree of self interest; makers consistently fail to recognize that they do, as well. Players, generally, have not been fooled by either side's posturing. I think that about sums it up.

By the way, and I don't think that David should dispute this because I've seen him gracefully redirect conversations that got too close for him on some issues, and I have done so as well, makers historically have had a tendency to be close with what they know, in proportion to their success. So in a sense, all the fascination with certain topics is almost, in some respects a definite indication that those are topics not worth following. I used to believe it setting people straight, and published a number of articles (more than 40!) that my shop friends considered traitorous (I've seen my articles on violin set-up on back-shop bulletin boards around the world), and have since learned that actually you can tell people exactly what you do, and most of them still won't believe you, so fascinated are they with the red herring topics. :-) The internet is particularly favorable in this regard because most people forget what they read a week later.

November 1, 2007 at 02:20 PM · Going back to the original question: "Stradivari and Del Gesù. Is there room at the top", I would say yes: Katarina Guarneri (Del Gesù's wife) is there too.

November 1, 2007 at 02:31 PM · Ha! According to some measuring scales, she's the one to catch up with! :-) Suffice it to say that it's going to be a long time before the macho world of cigar-smoking, feet on the table violin dealers is going to admit that the greatest violin maker of all times was a girl.

... and that's a whole other discussion, starting with the fact that the last del Gesu, a famous one, too, is dated a year after del Gesu's death, and bears an original label. . . . For a fun exercise, go through the later del Gesus and separate them into two clear types; those like the Cannone and the Carrodus, and the other type, the work of an inexperience maker with a different eye for details, with wobbly outlines, edgework, and f-holes, and handlebar scrolls (the posthumous del Gesu is this type.)

November 1, 2007 at 02:47 PM · Yes Michael, the Leduc (Szeryng's violin, by the way) has an original label dated 1745 but Del Gesù died in 1744, so...

Some old writers mention Katarina's labels, but certainly they have been taken of the instruments and substituted by more prestigious names.

I would love taking Biddulph's book, entering the Time Machine and going to Cremona to have a wine bottle with Katarina in Piazza del Duomo... first she would complain bitterly about Del Gesù but, eventually, she would start spilling the beans and we would talk about arching, thicknesses, models, varnish, etc.

I would show her the photos on Biddulph's book and she would say "I've made this... and this too... and that one..."

November 1, 2007 at 04:14 PM · I agree with Michael that the logistics of doing a meaningful comparison between old and new instruments, makes an actual scientific experiment dangerous. That being said, if it were proven that modern instruments were superior, I very much doubt that it would affect the market. The very best antique instruments are at the very least as good as the best moderns, and the latter have none of the romance or investment potential.

November 1, 2007 at 04:27 PM · Elmar Oliviera by the way performs on various new violins. He played Brahms concerto with great success last year on a new violin by a German maker (forgot the name) with the Waco Symphony last year.

November 2, 2007 at 10:09 AM · From Michael Darnton;

"It's a valid criticism that dealers operate with a degree of self interest; makers consistently fail to recognize that they do, as well."


Yikes, a rather sweeping statement, worded as if it were fact, apparently asserting that makers have a particular, consistent and flawed thought modality.

Well..........I get together with probably, on average, over 100 makers per year, so I guess I'll just say that the existence of a pervasive form of "schitoma" is a surprising bit of news. (wink)

November 1, 2007 at 06:32 PM · To be honest I have to say that I find the way makers conduct business is far more comfortable than how the average dealer does business. I never, ever, feel pushed or pressured by a maker. Of course it is a business for them as well, but I've never heard a maker try to convince me (or any of my peers). It seems more like, this is what I have, take it or leave it, and, even more often, "how can I make it better".

There are some great dealers out there, but there's also many who I feel very uncomfortable with. It's like I'm buying a used car, and frankly, most of the people I've talked to feel this way too. Just too much pressure.

November 2, 2007 at 12:49 AM · "Makers have been chasing Stradivari since 1800, and in the general consensus of players, they have not caught him yet."

Do you really think it is as easy as that? You don't think that reputation and psychology has anything to dowith this? It is interesting that in all you have written you have never said anything about either of these factors, which, if you are fair, you must admit has a lot to do with all of it.

I am pretty sure of this much myself: If someone had the guts to take Burgess up on his challenge he would find out that the older instruments are sweeter, more complex and darker, and the newer ones would be louder, fuller, have more presence, a thicker sound, and would cut through much better. I say so because that is how it has ALWAYS worked out in all the blind listening stuff I have been involved in.

And Michael you have not answered my question: do you think most of the Strads are many cuts above, or just the elite ones?

You surely do not want to take Burgess up on his challenge (no one ever does), and yet you assert what you believe as if it were truth that cannot be challenged.

One last point: if Strad and del Gesu really were that much ahead we would not even be having this conversation. And the tests, even if not perfect, would not show what they have showed.

Another point: if a really great test were set up who would not show up, the modern maker or the guys with the old stuff?

oh but the guys with the old stuff have evertying to lose and nothing to win, right? Wrong! If it is so lopsided then they have nothing to lose either because there is no chance of them losing. But the truth is they would not show up. You know this just as well as we know most players play on an old Italian (why they do is antoher matter, which you have avoided), and yet you will not factor it in.

Still looking for someone who has been in many of these shootouts.

Bravo Mr. Burgess and Michael, though in my book Burgess has won this thing hands down.

November 2, 2007 at 05:33 AM · For some reason this thread reminds me of The Princess Bride, when the short guy tries to trick the hero into drinking the poison.


"Inconceivable!" :)

November 2, 2007 at 05:29 PM · If there is room for the top,Carlo Bergonzi must br the candidate.

Quoted from Michael Darnton:

"[The following is all in my opinion--take it or leave it.] I've seen and played a lot of Strads, del Gesus, and modern violins, and not seen anything comparable in the moderns. Even the really fine modern violins I've seen have been markedly different in distinct ways."

What a humble opinon from the one who have made many fine violin being used by the professionals!

November 2, 2007 at 09:04 PM · Getting back to the varnish question:

If we define "varnish" as the complete finishing system, it could have a marked influence on sound, even if the top, highly colored portion is largely missing.

Many researchers note an isolating layer between the colored varnish and the wood. I haven't seen any data on how far this penetrates into the wood, but many have postulated that the presence of this wood sizing or isolator has a stiffening effect.

To get a crude idea of how this might influence sound, hold a paper towel in the air and tap it with your finger, or scratch it lightly with your fingernail. Repeat this after spraying it with spray paint, varnish or lacquer (not enough to build up on the surface) and allowing it to dry.

I think you'll find that you've just made a paper towel much more resonant!


I just thought of a less messy way of doing this. Spray your paper towel with spray starch.

If you want to go a step further, you may find that different materials and different application methods create subtle changes in the sound of your paper towel.

November 2, 2007 at 06:49 PM · Orders of Magnitude difference between the rigidity of a 1 2 mm piece of wood, and a piece of paper. The Starch Test you propose is pretty meaningless. If you want to know the difference, then spray a piece of veneer.

November 2, 2007 at 08:08 PM · Valid points perhaps, but I was looking for something to illustrate the concept, which could easily be done (or imagined) by anyone, and which would produce a dramatic or easily noticeable change. Paper towels are basically made of wood fiber.

I think I mentioned that this test is crude.

There's a good deal of data showing the effects of coatings and sizings on wood vibration, with thicknesses more typical of a violin. I just didn't want to get that technical, nor do I have permission to reproduce the data.

In one series of tests, various sizings and coatings were applied to pieces of spruce, and then the surface was sanded back to the original thickness, leaving nothing but what had penetrated the wood. Frequencies were measured before and after, and they all changed, meaning that stiffness, mass, or both changed. In most cases, frequency rose in spite of increased mass, demonstrating an increase in stiffness.

More sophisticated tests have also been done, which included measuring changes in damping.

There's a fellow in Germany who will perform tests like these on wood samples for violinmakers (for a fee).

I really should be working.....thought I'd put up a quick post, and guess I didn't anticipate needing to defend my little science project.

I'll stand by the silly starch test. ;)

November 2, 2007 at 09:11 PM · "I'll stand by the silly starch test. ;) "

We could do the test using one of David's varnish covered shirts.

November 2, 2007 at 10:08 PM · Very funny Jim. :)

I actually have two shirts which I wear when varnishing, with varying amounts of varnish on them.

If I send you one for testing, you have to replace it with a T-shirt like a staff member at music camp wore, which said,

"The beatings will continue until intonation improves". :)

November 2, 2007 at 10:28 PM · I don't have anything close to that, but I can send you "American by birth, Southern by the grace of God" and a John Deere cap.

November 2, 2007 at 10:43 PM · Just a wild guess, but might that cap might be, uh, green?

November 2, 2007 at 10:46 PM · It might wash up to green. They're my prized possessions. I'm not trying to put you down or something :D

November 2, 2007 at 10:55 PM · Wouldn't want you to go to no trouble.

What time o year you usually do yer washin'?

November 2, 2007 at 11:14 PM · 'round bath time o' year use'ly.

November 3, 2007 at 02:48 AM · Yup, once a year is good. I tried goin longer, but the dawgs took to sleepin' outside.

November 3, 2007 at 04:26 AM · I call BS on the old Italians (including Strads and del Gesu's) being better than moderns.

I'm tired of this old game. Just my opinion...

November 3, 2007 at 12:49 PM · All you need to do is to put your money where your mouth is by buying one of my instruments. :-)

Players could change the perception in a generation. BUT THEY DON'T. By a huge margin, they prefer old ones to new ones. Talk to your friends, make buttons, collect petitions, write letters to the editor. I doubt you'll change anything. I'd love it if you did--unlike all those 100 prospective saints David knows whom I never get to meet, I recognize my self-interest.

I call BS on your calling BS. :-)

November 3, 2007 at 12:57 PM · I don't have an agenda. I just decided to say out loud what I know in my heart to be true.

November 3, 2007 at 01:15 PM · And I don't have an agenda, either. That's why I'm supporting an idea that's contrary to my interest, because I'm listening to facts, plus I prefer to use my ears for this type of decision.

November 3, 2007 at 01:23 PM · "That's why I'm supporting an idea that's contrary to my interest, because I'm listening to facts, plus I prefer to use my ears for this type of decision."

Just wondering, what kind of sounds do facts make?

For this type of decision, I use my ears, too, but I use them to listen to great instruments, old or new. :)

We'll just have to agree to disagree here, Michael. :)

November 3, 2007 at 01:51 PM · Actuallyl it is the older instruments that will not "call" anyone's BS. The truth is the owners of these mega buck fiddles will not show up to anything where great new violins are present.

When tests have been done, and granted I doubt if the elite strads and del Gesus were there, the outcomes are almost always in favor of the moderns or even at best.

And again, if the difference were so great then we would not be having this deabte.

Still looking for someone to jump in here who has been to A LOT of these shoot outs, I know many took place in CA

My ears have told me there are differences, as I stated before, but I would take a violin that has a lot of presence and can cut, over a vioin that is complex and colorful but lacks guts.

To be fair, I have never played the elite strads and del Gesus. On tape, those recording with different fiddles have matched the sound of those on the elite strads and del Gesus. Just listen to Jensen latest CD and this will tell you as much, as will Hahn and Tetzlaff.

November 3, 2007 at 01:57 PM · Yes, this appears to be a subject where a lot of people have to do that, not just the two of us. :-)

November 3, 2007 at 02:48 PM · From Michael Darnton;

"And I don't have an agenda, either. That's why I'm supporting an idea that's contrary to my interest..."


Hard to discern where the interests might lie.

According to the Darnton & Hersh web site, the instruments they sell include "exceptional antique Italian instruments".

Wasn't there also a five(?) year stint in sales at Bein and Fushi??

From Andreas Tespolulos;

"Still looking for someone to jump in here who has been to A LOT of these shoot outs, I know many took place in CA"


Andreas, I've attended quite a number of comparisons between new and old, and have had a lot of communication with those California guys, but I'll disqualify my conclusions for this discussion.

Instead, I'll just offer to do it all over again, with whatever safeguards the "old camp" wants in place, and whatever fiddles they want to use.

And I'd be happy to include one or more of Darnton's fiddles in any preliminary modern elimination rounds we might do.

November 3, 2007 at 02:35 PM · This past summer I heard a great sounding fiddle in a violin shop. Curious as to the make, I inquired.

"Oh, this is a David Burgess," was the reply.

What a great fiddle!! I encourage anyone looking for a great violin to get in touch with this master!

November 3, 2007 at 03:20 PM · looks like the gurus are still inseparable in that brokebackplate mountain embrace:):):)

michael has earlier asserted that the tests have not been conducted to his standard. agenda or not, i can buy that because after all sound is quite subjective in that beyond articulation, projection, playablity, or even the aura associated with the prestige of playing a hottie or what have you, there are individualistic issues on the part of the listeners that are undeniably important.

for instance, taking straight from the other thread where people are discussing the key sound features of the greats where apparently no two sound the same, one can make the argument that if one can travel back in time, bring back the top 10 players in history and make each take turns to play just one single violin on the same stage, what will you get?

blindfolded or not, you will get the sound of 10 "different" violins, thus 10 different verdicts from the listeners.

now, imagine you make the 10 players play 10 different stay, i'm out of here!

since violinists are so particular about the individuality of a violin's sound which has as much to do with the violin as the player, the outcome of having a reaction to a sound testing is therefore so complicated that a side by side testing, no matter how you control it, can still theoretically fall flat because one simply cannot control the uncontrollables which are definitely there.

are the testings unnecessary? no, they are very important because a lot can be learned in each step of the way if people are open minded about the findings, keeping good records of the data collected so that the future generations can hopefully make more sense out of them. one way to do your own share of due diligence, that can be controlled, is try to stardardize the parameters for the testings.

conclusions, on the other hand, may be postponed for now indefinitely:)

November 3, 2007 at 05:20 PM · David, it's true that my experience is extremely varied. I see that as an asset, not a flaw. Most everything I've done has been for self-education, not income. Bob Bein told me when I started selling for him that even though I intended to do it for only five years, and I told him that at the start, I would find the money addictive. He was wrong: some people don't find money to be all that interesting. That job was, for me, for access to instruments and players and to get their feedback and impressions in a real situation, not the one of flattery that makers usually encounter, and when I had what I needed, I moved on. In my current job, one of the shop directives is to keep me out of customer sales interactions, so I can spend more time with the violins--mine and others--and my income mostly isn't a result of sales. It's just another educational opportunity, and my partners are already voicing concern over where I might be when I've tapped that aspect out. :-)

November 3, 2007 at 07:08 PM · A frame of reference I have besides the violin regarding the artisitc and scientific debate is photography. There are and have been hundreds upon hundreds of studies that measured resolution of lenses, film grain, speed of a developing agent and so on. Many of the studies were faithfully done, and they did render correct answers regarding what was technically best. It then comes down to what you did with these tools. Often, the most talented of photographers know their equipment well and have their preferences but are not too caught up in it. Sometimes their casual acknowledgement of the scientific merits of their equipment is such a far second to their artistic vision and abilities that it becomes irritating to those who are fascinated by camera equipment.

My assessment of the Strads and del Gesus is that owning one is something I don't need to worry about. It would appear that instruments of their caliber which have not been or will be procured by monied collectors will more than likely always remain in the hands of the very few who are fortunate enough to be graced with extraordinary talent.

I would contend that similar to photography, even the most discerning of ears would not be able to determine which of the masters specifically made which instrument if you could not rely on looking at the violin. Even then, how many experienced dealers often debate makers when a label comes into question or the instrument is not labeled at all. I believe that listening to what the violin produces as it is played and saying with absolute certainty that it is old or modern is fully equivalent to someone looking at a photo and saying, "Nikon F4s, 80mm 1.4 at f.8 at 1/125 on Ilford film, developed in Kodak TMax developer....You look at the photo and determine whether it as a whole has merit. I would think that the same would apply to a violin. I am not certain if a modern maker's well crafted violin could be played to a group of one hundred people who all knew what to listen for without their being a 50/50 split vote of modern vs. old.

Recently, I was looking to buy a flat screen TV and there were two that caught my intention; one that was absolutely horrid which was an easy decision and the other one which had an incredible picture and was at a good price. The salesperson then came over and proceeded to show me the next level which was twice the price of the one I liked. When I looked back and forth between the two, I saw the difference which was slight but nonetheless there. It was not his or my imagination. All the dizzying technical data that he regaled me with was evidently making that slight difference in quality. He did, however, talk me out of any sale. When I went home and sat on the couch and looked over at the wall that was reserved for the TV, it dawned on me that I wouldn't be watching two screens in my home. The one that I liked which too had great technical merit would have given me exactly what I wanted since I would have nothing to compare it to. Similarly, the more one considers the advantage of 300 to 400 year old violins that can never be duplicated, the harder it is to give the modern luthier the credit he or she well deserves. Maybe the difference between superb and superb+ is tangible but ultimately negligible. My thoughts about the myth of Stradivari and del Gesu is not their myth per se as much as it is the myth of the contemporary listener who without a controlled comparison still defers to the 18th century violins from Cremona. Isn't it natural to prefer something that is more difficult to obtain if not impossible? Isn't that ultimately the advantage the old masters have and the disadvantage talented luthiers of today have?

To dismiss Stradivari and Guarneri del Gesu is to not really understand their monumental contributions. The reality is though their final products were assisted by variables that they either couldn't predict or were outside their control (i.e. age, Tarisio, Vuillaume, Paganini, Ysaye, Kreisler, Menuhin...

November 3, 2007 at 09:58 PM · Nice posts by so many!

Most have stated the classic arguments and did it well. Michael has relied on the player’s choice over the years, which I think is the strongest argument of all. The others have stated that this choice is highly influenced by the prestige gained by playing a Strad or del Gesu, and the psychological factor these instruments naturally create, which I think is very true as well. It is also true that there are now many great players playing on moderns, and they are getting an incredible sound as well. Jensen, Tetzlaff, and Hahn have to be 3 of the best 10 on the planet today, and they are not playing on Italians and are getting an awfully great sound.

Then there are all the “tests” that have been done which line up strongly on the modern side of this issue.

I liked Andreas’s argument that the difference cannot be as great as some would have it be because we would not be discussing this if it were.

Well Andreas, you asked one of the CA guys to show up, and while I no longer live in CA, I was part of that for a good 2 ½ years.

There were many “shootouts” when I was there, and there have been a few since, which I have heard the details of.

I am afraid that you will probably be disappointed with what I have to say about them because the results were very much like your conclusions. The great older Italians (no del Gesus that I can remember) were almost always very dark, and the sound was in general more refined, more colorful, more complex. But this came at a cost because the great moderns had, as you said: more presence, a thicker sound, and they cut much better.

The more difficult the room the better a few great moderns did: Needham, Burgess, Croen, Bellini, Zyg, Pereson (not exactly a modern maker) etc. All the various fiddles we saw from these makers did really well.

We saw a few Strads (probably a half-dozen or so) and some Guadininis, Amatis, Bergonzis, etc. Some were great, some were not much.

Perhaps nothing tells our story and experience better than the conclusions of the last two shootouts that happened after I left CA, written by one of the guys who attended almost all of these events.

I guess in the last shootout they had 4 or 5 of these older Italians, including 3 Strads, and had some of the better moderns they knew of. They did two days: one in a great big hall in L.A., and another at the outside bowl in Hollywood.

There were 9 players involved, 4 were soloists, 4 were section players, and one was a very good keyboard player who also doubles as a violinist. In the Hall the 4 section players and the Pianist liked the older Italians better, and the 4 soloists picked a few of the moderns over the Italians. In the outside theatre, however, the moderns swept on all accounts. The consensus was that the older Italians lost their integrity (the core of their sound) in this environment, while the moderns did not.

I understand why the soloists liked the moderns better and why the moderns did better in the outdoor conditions: it goes very much with my conclusions, which is that no violin gives it all, and every violinist has to make a decision about what matters most to them. The soloists picked the instruments that cut best and had the most presence (this is not necessarily volume), and the others picked color and complexity. In the outside hall the violins that were dark and complex had no chance because the situation was too demanding.

Maybe nothing shows more of my conclusions better than an incident at a hall last year. One of my friends (one of the infamous “session players”) was subbing with the phil and a superstar soloist was in town to play with the phil. In one of the rehearsals, during the break, he took his Needham (a great modern) and played the Bruch from where he was sitting, which was a few feet behind the soloist. I was in the back of the hall. The soloist’s was still there and the soloist played with him in jest, in a kind-of back and forth “answering” manner (one playing a phrase of the concerto with the other answering it, etc.). The soloist’s sound was more complex, darker, more colorful, but my friend’s sound had a lot more presence and cut through a whole lot better. The difference was striking—a roaring lion next to a pup—and everyone still on stage could hear it as well. To me this was meaningful because it was in a real situation against one of the elite del Gesus.

Out of all the modern violins I have heard only one maker was able to capture that old Cremona sound, but it came at a cost—the violin was really dark and did not cut as well.

Maybe the other elite Strads and del Gesus would do it all, but from what we heard it came down to dark, color, complex—verses—open, thick, a lot of presence, and the ability to cut through. Pick your poison.

November 3, 2007 at 11:19 PM · Jensen is always playing on a Strad, so take that list down to 2 not playing Italians. Hahn plays a Vuillaume which is hardly a bargain for the average player.

Again, just because a famous player has received a free instrument from a top maker and has their picture prominently displayed on the maker's website (along with some glowing testimonial), doesn't mean they ever use it in public. Don't be fooled...

November 3, 2007 at 11:07 PM · I'm making mostly 17 inches violas and luckly Strad and Del Gesù never made this size, I think. Del Gesù never made a viola.

Anyway, players will have to recur more and more to modern instruments... Michael Tree told me reccomends his students getting contemporary instrumens.

Just give a look in recent auctions and you will see few top old instruments there compared to 30 years ago... When a player gets a good instrument, he will keep it for 10 or 20 years, or even more, that means that the instrument will not come back to the market soon.

So top instruments are becoming more rare... The Hill's mentioned the Milanese as "cheap jackets". Well, those cheap jackets got quite expensive now too. The world population is 4 times bigger now and the number of old instruments remained the same. Worse: some were lost or are not in good condition anymore.

In the Hill's times instruments were more spared than today, players travelled much less and gave less concerts too, I think.

And the number of fine players is increasing, not only because the world population increases but because people in other places (such as Japan, Korea and China) are producing fine players too.

So, there is no choice: more and more players will have to play contemporary instruments.

November 4, 2007 at 12:02 AM · Luis...

This is true of bows too. It is much harder to find bows in a certain price range than it was even 3 years ago.

November 4, 2007 at 12:01 AM · Pieter, I meant Jenson, not Jensen (

She does play on a Zyg, and Emil C. plays on a Needham (for those of us who know he is a world class palyer, as well).

Here is another point to consider: many of these soloists own some moderns as well, in fact most of them do, why would they do so if they did not compare to the Old Italians.

As for makers giving these guys instruments: out of all the modern makers we got to know, and we got to know many, only one has given his instrument to famous players.

I am not sure if Tetzlaff has that arrangement with Greiner, but I do know he beieves in the violin he plays (a Greiner).

Oh and congrats on the Scott, I heard it is great!

November 4, 2007 at 12:57 AM · I was told (by a friend) Greiner gave Tetzlaff 7 or so violins to choose from, and he's changed violins a few times since. Apparently the first Greiner he chose is not with him anymore.

I also sincerely doubt that some of these makers hawk their wares using famous people's names, and the famous violinist doesn't get anything in return. It doesn't work like that in ANY other business, why would this be different?

The Scott is amazing. Practicing right now in fact. It's a really great instrument.

November 4, 2007 at 01:00 AM · A friend of mine commented on hearing a great opera singer once in a large hall. He said she was not loud, but it did not matter: when she sang the quality of her voice was such that he wanted to hear her and subconsciously leaned forward to hear her.

A lot of what we expect now live comes from hearing recordings which are miked close to the violin, giving an unnatural balance, and several violinists have commented to me that this has not been good for the quality of the sound that's expected from the player vs the volume. Food for thought, and not something I have an opinion on. It sounds like many above are saying we are a loud time, not a quality time. If that's true, "loud" will be perceived as "better", whereas higher quality will not be. As quality instruments become increasingly scarce, maybe this will be perceived as a positive move.

November 4, 2007 at 02:47 AM · From Pieter Viljoen

"Again, just because a famous player has received a free instrument from a top maker and has their picture prominently displayed on the maker's website (along with some glowing testimonial), doesn't mean they ever use it in public. Don't be fooled..."


It's a good point, Pieter. Did Tiger Woods pay for his golf clubs?

I've been solicited for free fiddles or discounts a few times, but I don't really know how prevalent this might be. I suspect that the people who do it aren't talkin'.

Which "Scott" did you get? Kelvin or William? (they're both really good, IMHO)

Worth noting is that the "California guys" (Raymond etc.) have never asked for anything, or even hinted at it, not even free shipping. It's one of many reasons I put quite a bit of faith in their opinions.

November 4, 2007 at 01:44 AM · Kelvin Scott.

November 4, 2007 at 05:27 AM · Michael, I did not mean that we concluded the moderns were louder, we concluded that they had more presence and cut better. In fact, I went out of my way to say it is not about, "volume."

Pieter, I do not know if this is going on in the violin business. I just know that we did not see it happening. I do know that many makers liked the idea of Michael B playing their ax because he has played on so many scores, etc. But I think it normal for a maker to want big time players to play their violins because it is part of the reason they make fiddles, it shows they are making a good fiddle, and it is good PR. I also know, however, that he had to pay for his Needham and no one even came close to offering him a free ax. He plans on getting 3 more moderns, and he knows he will have to pay for those too. Granted he is not Perlman, so it may be different with a big time soloist, but again we saw only once case of this, other than that all the makers looked squeaky clean! In fact, all the makers we met were just great guys, like I am sure you have learned about Kelvin Scott.

BTW, the Scott we saw had the best antiqued finish around, and it played like a dream. I understand that yours has a big sound, if so then it should be quite an ax!

November 4, 2007 at 06:02 AM · Raymond,

There is nothing "dirty" about giving a top player. Mike is a great player, but I'm talking about internationally known artists, a house hold name... Pinchas Zukerman, Jaime Laredo, Anne Sophie Mutter, Janine Jensen etc... their endorsement (clearly) makes people want to at least try an instrument.

I do know for a fact that a number of the big names were given instruments for free.

The Scott is great... it's not just pretty but it plays incredibly.

November 4, 2007 at 02:14 PM · Raymond mentioned one modern which had the sound characteristics of the old, so I think that shows it's possible to do. I think a few makers are capable of coming quite close, and I say this based on playing and hearing something like 50 per year.

I generally don't try to build that way any more. My experience has been that given time to adjust to a violin with more presence and punch, most violinists don't want to go back. This seems to be true with sound adjustments as well.

I have a European concertmaster coming here today to possibly swap a darkish, more Cremonesish (hee hee) sounding violin for one with more edge, presence and punch, but no less bottom end. It will be interesting to see what happens.

From Lyndon Taylor;

"... more than 50% of people are tone deaf and pick louder over better quality,..."


Lyndon, I have "perfect pitch", so at least I'm not TOTALLY tone deaf. (big grin)

There's still one more post left for someone to try to invalidate the work that the Californias and others have done. I wonder who it will be? (wink wink)

November 4, 2007 at 02:23 PM · Raymond, since you say more cutting, I assume these trials were with an orchestra, piano, or something behind? My experience has been that to determine how well something cuts through, there needs to be something there to cut through, and the winner on that job is not obvious when the violin is alone. I've heard amazingly "penetrative" violins simply disappear when there was actually something there to penetrate. On the other hand, one of the concertmasters of the CSO was considering a particular del Gesu (one of those extremely dark with no edge Cremonese) which he returned because 1/ he couldn't hear himself in the orchestra; 2/ EVERYONE else complained he was playing too loudly. This instrument was also a non-starter by itself, alone.

I always tell people to do trials in full context, but no one ever listens to me. :-) If you are going to be playing alone all the time, playing alone is an adequate test; if not, then not. David, there's another point to consider for the instrument play-offs.

David, knows, of course, that pitch deaf is not the same as tone deaf in this context, any more than recognizing color is the same as recognizing great art. :-)

David posted that (wink, wink) comment long after I'd posted; no wonder he's omnicient. [Here it is, just in case he does the revisionist history thing again: "There's still one more post left for someone to try to invalidate the work that the Californias and others have done. I wonder who it will be? (wink wink)"] And now you can see MY time stamp go out of order, too, just like his. :-) I wonder if he plays this fair with violin trials, too.

November 4, 2007 at 02:37 PM · ever see a car magazine organizes a race between a vintage ferrari and a souped up vette? i have not:)

i am sure there are enough supporters from each camp, but somehow i think the car people have better sense to come up with the concept, gee, lets see who is "better"... to me that is the definitive proof that gas fume does less damage to the brain than rosin:)

so now the contest is between dark, complex, sweet sound vs cutting and power now? oh come on! are we selling the modern makers out too cheap here???!!!

but can you really COMPARE the two on those terms??? nuts!

are we talking about exhibition of personal choices (kids are out of the house so let me get that porsche because i want to) or actual audience demand (sorry, can't really hear your beautiful dark voice all the way in the back here)?

ever see a music critic suggesting a player, whatever he/she is playing, to change instrument? (he did a convining job on the piece but can use a different violin...he had some tech issues but the violin is to blame...) on the contrary, isn't there a critic in texas recently commented that the playing was too "loud" for the hall? was the critic talking about the violin or the player you think?

i have never heard emil play live, only on cd. i am not sure what violin he used for that recording, a modern or an older violin. to my ears, it is a violin with an edge, something that fits his writing style(thus personality?). if, instead he would have used a violin from another era, do you think we would have failed to recognize his brilliant, unique voice? hell no.

sorry to have used up this last post. i have submitted another thread for the continuation...:)

This discussion has been archived and is no longer accepting responses.

Facebook Twitter YouTube Instagram Email is made possible by...

Shar Music
Shar Music

Yamaha Silent Violin
Yamaha Silent Violin

Pirastro Strings
Pirastro Strings

Find a Summer Music Program
Find a Summer Music Program

Dimitri Musafia, Master Maker of Violin and Viola Cases
Dimitri Musafia, Master Maker of Violin and Viola Cases Business Directory Business Directory Guide to Online Learning Guide to Online Learning

Dominant Pro Strings

Antonio Strad Violin

Bay Fine Strings Violin Shop

Bobelock Cases


Los Angeles Violin Shop

Nazareth Gevorkian Violins

Metzler Violin Shop

Leatherwood Bespoke Rosin



Johnson String Instrument and Carriage House Violins

Potter Violins

String Masters

Bein & Company

Annapolis Bows & Violins

Laurie's Books

Discover the best of in these collections of editor Laurie Niles' exclusive interviews. Interviews Volume 1 Interviews Volume 1, with introduction by Hilary Hahn Interviews Volume 2 Interviews Volume 2, with introduction by Rachel Barton Pine