Great instruments. Easier or harder?

November 8, 2009 at 04:08 PM ·

Just curious as the pros/cons of great instruments.  Are wonderful violins easier to harder to play.


Intonation: From my understanding a great instrument will resonate any pitch.  So is intonation harder?


Responsiveness:  Hard passages when well practiced would speak correctly and to the players demands but are mistakes more noticeable?


Feel free to include any other aspects that I'm not thinking of.




Replies (21)

November 8, 2009 at 04:25 PM ·

I remember reading somewhere where Menuhin said his strad will give him more headache on intonation while his del gesu is very forgiving. So I think intonation is not universally better in great instruments.

Regarding difficult passages, I read a thread in other forum stating great instruments will indeed help on those passages, like the instrument is almost playing itself. At the same time, I think the bow is very important too. It can really make big differences on how much easy it is to pull off difficult passages. A good bow can "stick" to the string better and will not feel clumsy on string crossing, and can make the sound "pop" out from the instrument rather than smear each other.

In general, I think it's hard to put down a conclusion whether good or great instruments are harder to play. The word "easier" can mean many thing. I find some violins can respond to bow really quickly and reponsively, beginner to intermediate students will find it's easy to pull off what they've learned. But that's about it, you can't manipulate the sound because if offer only 1 dimensional sound. Some violins, at first glance, feels a little slow on the response (and can be described as difficult to play for beginner to intermediate students), but once you start to explore different tone colors, they'll give you back what you can, and can be controlled easily.

Some said strads are easier because they respond to bow really well, but some said it's difficult because you have to be very careful with the bow speed and pressure to execute the ideal sound. While del gesus are known for the ability to handle bow pressure, in a way it's easier to control, but some might feel difficult because heavier bowing is needed often so it feels rather difficult to drive the sound out of the instrument.

Most of the time it's about personal preferences and opinions.

November 8, 2009 at 05:50 PM ·

Intonation: From my understanding a great instrument will resonate any pitch.  So is intonation harder?-- Hmm, this is interesting. After I bought my violin (most recent one), my teacher asked me if it was easier to play/ play intune. I said yes, then he asked if it was an older instrument; which it is (ish, late 1800's I believe). He said older instruments will initially be much easier to play intune. He used to play on a really old instrument which he said he 'almost couldn't play out of tune initially, then my mistakes came back' (paraphrase). Basically, I heard/found it easier to play more in tune on an older instrument.


Responsiveness:  Hard passages when well practiced would speak correctly and to the players demands but are mistakes more noticeable?-- Well, thats interesting. The really 'good' violins are primarily played by people who make very little mistakes, so who knows!

November 8, 2009 at 06:45 PM ·

I've found that golden period Strads (and a similar period Francesco Stradivari) can be demanding, but rewarding if you get everything right.

This is also something that many Strad copies by better makers tend to show.  You get a wonderful affirmation if you play a note on pitch-- sort of like a "ping" from a bell.  Double-stops are especially rewarding.  Stray just a little from correct pitch, however, and the tone is markedly less good.

By contrast, most of the excellent del Gesu copies or derivatives I've tried don't sound that much worse if you're a little out of tune.  The reward for getting it right is there but you have to be fussier about wanting it.  Where they sometimes get difficult is in the amount of right-hand digging required, which varies.

One of the easiest violins I ever played, and one I still think about was a Sanctus Seraphin.  Almost automatically played in tune, and I was able to alter dynamics through telepathic signals alone.  No bow technique needed.  I wonder why it died at the auction.  Whether that counts as a "great" instrument vs. the best Cremonese is another question.

November 8, 2009 at 09:38 PM ·

 In general I have found that fine old instruments are very easy to play, with the difference between Strads and Del Gesus being relative. Usually, modern instruments are the ones that need much more work. In fact, many people used to modern instruments will need to adjust to an older one by lightening up on bow pressure or the sound cracks.

Both Strads I've played have been extremely easy to play, as was the Del Gesus. My favorite was a Pressenda.

From talking to many soloists about their instruments, it seems that while there are many fine old instruments that are more difficult to play, they are eventually abandoned out of frustration. One famous example: Jacqueline Dupres' Davidoff cello was neglected: she preferred her Peresson.

November 8, 2009 at 10:30 PM ·


I think Scott`s idea is right.   There are a fair numbero f anecdotes cocnerning top soloists who have used big name instruments that were akward and ultimately passed on them.

The easiest,  and by far,  the best violin I have ever played over a couple of Strads and a Del Gesu was an Andrea Guarneri. That was so easy to play it was a joke.   I would give a thousand cases of prunes just to play on that violin again.



November 9, 2009 at 12:23 AM ·

Just want to add that, although I never played any strads of del gesus, the biggest name violin I've ever played was a nicolas gagliano. I don't regard it as easy to play, but not hard either, feels quite similar to my own violin but with a lot more maturity in sound and a lot of depth and solidness (heck I was handed over some fine early 20th century french bows, so it should add quite a bit more weight to the sound too).

November 9, 2009 at 02:47 AM ·

My stand partner has several name violins. One is almost impossible for me to play, the other plays itself.

November 9, 2009 at 03:03 AM ·

It seems that just like everything in the violin world it is highly personal and individualized.  The instruments themselves seem to demand more or less based on their own personality.


Thanks for the insight


November 9, 2009 at 06:13 AM ·

My instruments have included while in school a German (Italian label) violin, later a Dutch Cuypers, Then a "modern" Italian some called Enrico Rocca, then some violins by modern makers, then a Vuillame, finally a Brothers Amati, but now back to playing on a local modern maker. The Amati beats them all for ease of playing, and carrying power. I think a person's playing is improved by having a great instrument to play on. Bruce

November 9, 2009 at 02:25 PM ·

My response to the question is somewhat anecdotal and personal, but while I was living near Washington DC I had the chance to see and play a violin by Guarneri del Gesu and a violin by Stradivari, both of which are in the collection of the Smithsonian. In my small group were mostly people who were not good players, but one was an excellent violinist. When I tried the Strad, it was a struggle and my already bad sound became even more pathetic. The Guarneri, on the other hand, played warmly and sonorously without effort so that I sounded like a really bad beginner on a really good violin.

The professional violinist played both instruments beautifully. He later said that the Guarneri gave him the sound freely while the Strad made him go looking for it. But once he found it, there was no clear consensus from my group as to which was the better-sounding violin. It's always risky to make conclusions based on a single example of each maker. I have never heard a violinist who has played a Strad say that they were easy to play, but with over 600 of them out there it would not surprise me if some were much easier to play than the one I tried.

November 10, 2009 at 12:20 AM ·

 "I think a person's playing is improved by having a great instrument to play on."

Bruce, do you have to rub it in?

November 10, 2009 at 03:53 AM ·

I am curious about the comment about improved playing.  As in immediately or as in someone will grow into a nicer instrument thus improving their playing?


The original question still stands as to whether someone will improve more playing on a great instrument or a less gifted instrument?


Thanks for all the input


November 10, 2009 at 03:55 AM ·

Oops i guess I didn't put that into the original post.  But it was the intention heh...


So Following all of this Which is better for a violinist who has fundamentals and techniques down?




November 10, 2009 at 04:16 AM ·

Regarding better instruments improve playing, it can be in many aspect.

Better instrument will make you struggle for better intonation because of clearer sound (first glance might appear to sound easier to play in tune, until when you start to play with piano and hearing you're out of tune *so clearly*), give you more colors so you have to work on bowing and left hand to get the color you want, and the passages are clean and clear so you have to play more carefully, then there's also more possibilities of dynamic range for you to explore.

In short, better instruments give you more possibilities to experience and enhance your musicality. Then when you go back to lesser instruments you'll realize how limited they are, so you have to work *harder* to get the same result (not that it's impossible to do unless those violins are piece of junk), hence that's why better players still can sound good on cheap violins but they have to work harder.

November 10, 2009 at 04:36 AM ·


I've found the opposite: I play better in tune on a good instrument.


I believe that for much of the repertoire, a great instrument is simply a requirement. Works with a great deal of double stops or percussive chords can tire the ear if played on anything less. A good example is any of the Bach fugues, the Brahms Concerto, or many of the Paganini Caprices. Number 9 will sound dreadful if played on a poor instrument. 

A good responsive instrument will let the player focus on the music, rather than overcoming the weaknesses of the instrument.


November 10, 2009 at 04:52 AM ·


Scott,  I suppose it is also sometimes true that a player with a good isntrument will search far and wide for the best possible luthier to set it up.  perhaps that also makes it easier to play in tune?




November 10, 2009 at 04:57 AM ·

 Here's a concrete example of why a better and more responsive instrument is a necessity:

This weekend I had to perform Mozart's Symphony No. 20. In the first movement it has passages with lots of trills, like something out of Dont or Kreutzer. With a responsive instrument, one can get through the passage easily and lightly. But with a slow-responding instrument, more left-hand and thus more right-hand pressure is needed, either slowing you down or causing you to play louder than desired. There's nothing so frustrating as an instrument that slows you down.

November 10, 2009 at 02:39 PM ·

Scott - I think some violin do require more attention on intonation. My current primary violin does require me to play more carefully, while one of my lesser one (although still produce clear sound), seems to let me hit the correct tuning more confidently.

By the way, just want to add to Scott's explanation on responsiveness - to me it means how accurate it respond to the player's playing, playing from airy tone to aggresive one, from ppp to fff. I've played quite a few violins that seems to respond to the slightest touch of the bow, but hard to play ppp. I find violins that are not overly quick on the reaction to the bow stroke are usually much more easy to control.

November 10, 2009 at 03:46 PM ·

From my brief but memorable encounter with a beautiful and to the best of my knowledge, legit Stradivari, given my meager abilities it sounded really beautiful in x's(he's a nice but kinda shy strad owner) hands but downright unremarkable in mine, so at least in my experience it was a quantum leap to say the least.

November 10, 2009 at 11:56 PM ·

"Great instruments. Easier or harder?"


If by "great" you mean "expensive", it will depend on specifically which instrument you are talking about. In general, I'd say that Strads and Guarneris are much easier to play than your average student instrument.

November 11, 2009 at 12:52 AM ·

I had the opportunity to play a 1725 Guarnerius this summer. First thing I noticed was the lightning response, very easy to play. It was so fast I had to adjust to it. Just pure sound with ease. I've never experienced anythng like it.


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

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

Shar Music
Shar Music

Pirastro Strings
Pirastro Strings

JR Judd Violins
JR Judd Violins

Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra
Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra

Dimitri Musafia, Master Maker of Violin and Viola Cases
Dimitri Musafia, Master Maker of Violin and Viola Cases Shopping Guide Shopping Guide

Metzler Violin Shop

Southwest Strings

Bobelock Cases

Johnson String Instrument/Carriage House Violins

Jargar Strings

Bay Fine Strings Violin Shop


Los Angeles Violin Shop


String Masters

Nazareth Gevorkian 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