Can a non player be a luthier?

July 6, 2011 at 10:30 PM ·

Do you guys think a person who is not a violinist (does not play a violin) can be a luthier (making, restoring, setting up)?

Can such a person be an amateur luthier?  Can it be an expensive hobby?  Is this a futile endeavor?

Replies (21)

July 6, 2011 at 11:01 PM ·

Yes, being a luthier is a costly hobby. You have to invest anywhere from 2000 to 5000 $ on a complete set of tools and be ready to invest up to 200 - 300 $ for the materials of each violin you make (wood, varnish, accessories).

If you want to be a good luthier, then your instruments must (ideally) sum up the following 3 qualities: be nice to look at, be great to listen to and be comfortable to play on. While the first point may be achieved by simply being a talented craftsman, being able to make an instrument that not only sounds good, but is comfortable to play requires that you actually know how to play it. Not like a professional, but at least on an intermediate level.

Finally, if I were to succumb to my snarkler instincts, I would say that no, you cannot be a good luthier without being a semi-competent player. Jacob Steiner of Absam was a professional violinist while being an excellent luthier and Antonio Stradivari was also quite a decent violinist, along with all who were apprentices at his shop, who had the weekly obligation of playing the newly completed instruments at church. On top of that, any self respecting violin making school out there has violin playing classes. So if the Cremona school and the Salt Lake City school have violin playing in their curriculum, there is no reason why you shouldn't begin taking lessons in violin playing with all urgency.

It's not a requirement to know how to play violin, but it helps a great deal. Otherwise, you risk producing instruments that look nice and just that.


July 6, 2011 at 11:45 PM ·

I don't know if it is a requurement, as I am not a luthier, and not even a professional player.

That said, I would think it would be a tremendous handicap to try and make a violin without being able to coax quality sounds from it, experiment, and have a good feel for the differences in the work you did and the final outcome. I guess you could rent a violinist, but it wouldn't be the same.

July 7, 2011 at 01:19 AM ·

While I agree that it can be a huge advantage for a maker to play, and that making can be an expensive hobby, there are some problems with  supposedly historical info posted in this thread. I mention this lest anyone should stow it away as fact. There are already too many myths associated with our trade, and with Stradivari without compounding the problem.

July 7, 2011 at 05:01 AM ·

 I've met quite a few very good luthiers who couldn't play for cr@p. One would think it would be necessary, but it seems not to be a requirement.

More interesting is the number of fine bow makers who can't play either. Similarly, it would seem necessary to be able to play spicatto and all the other strokes to make a good bow, but few bow makers I've met have been able to.

July 7, 2011 at 06:12 AM ·

I know a a number of people who can design, engineer, and build some pretty fast and powerful cars, but they couldn't win a race in one of them. I'm sure violin-making is the same way!

July 7, 2011 at 09:45 AM ·

Making cars is team work. Violin making is not (unless you have some apprentices doing all the work and you just smack a label on it). And unlike driving a car, violin playing is not potentially life-threatening! :))

You can be a luthier without violin playing, but you can be a better one with violin playing.

July 7, 2011 at 10:20 AM ·

Perhaps one could come up with what aspects a luthier needs to know - I doubt that ricochet bowing would make a hill of beans - on the other hand they would probably have to know how hold a violin comfortably (that is in a position unlikely to cause pain and use-injury) and to coax a full tone out of the instruments (else how to adjust the plates etc or even find a buzz).  From what I have read here, they also would need playing/listening skills that a performer-violinist would not have - how to predict from the sound of an unfinished instrument what it will be like after complete assembly/finish. 

Thus, seems to me that luthier-violin school might look very different from performer-violin school.  Perhaps a legitimate college specialty?  Hey how about it David... 'professor of luthierian violining' has a ring to it...

July 7, 2011 at 10:30 AM ·


Sounds like a religion. :-)

July 7, 2011 at 11:51 AM ·

Sonny if you are interested in violin making the easiest and least expensive way is to start by doing set ups and repairs. If you can get and old dilapidated violin open it up, have a look at the inside, replace the base bar, replace the back block and endpin. Take the fingerboard and nut off. Close up the violin, learn how to clamp and glue. Now you do the set-up with a new bridge and sound post. All these actions will take the minimum money and you will know if you have the stomach to make it a pastime and carry on.

You do not need to be a violin player to be a good luthier. Playing 'Twinkle'  will be good enough. What is needed is an aptitude and love for working with wood. 

July 7, 2011 at 12:25 PM ·

Is there any evidence that the Amatis, Stradivaris, Guarneris (other than Peter of Mantua) Bergonzis or any of the great Brescian, Venetian, Neapolitan, Milanese, Parisian etc., violin makers or, for that matter, Tourte, Pecatte, Voirin etc. could play more than a few isolated notes?  You'd think that you'd find something in the historical record about at least some of them if they could play.

July 7, 2011 at 12:49 PM ·

I play the violin and viola today (but no Bach partitas or suites..) only to evaluate the sound. But I could make an instrument today even if I were not a player.

Being a player is good but not essential for a maker. The maker must be able to understand what the musician wants and convert that information in sound adjustments or in the sound of the instruments he is making, this may be more important than playing.

Many modern and old makers were players.

Talking about Pietro Guarneri of Mantua, the Hills say: "We thus discover that the master had devoted his early years to becoming skilled in music as well as in violin making; and we have here the only instance yet recorded of one of the great Italian violin makers engaged in this dual calling".

The Hills presume that Pietro violin master was Francesco Orcelli, an "accomplished musician and fine violinist", who was Andrea Guarneri`s brother in law, proving "an intimate relation between palyer and maker".

Talking about Del Gesù`s mystery as to the activities of the master between the year 1723 and 1731, the Hills venture to state that: "May he not, following in the footsteps of his ancestor  Orcelli, and his uncle and godfather, Pietro, also have been both a player and a maker of violins, a player of more ordinary capacity than his relatives, possessed of no desire to be attached to one of the Ducal Courts? Singing and dancing to the accompaniment of music was much favoured by the mass of the people throughtout Italy, and Cremona, the seat of instrument making, must from this very fact have inspired some members of her craftsmen families to become players. We have no doubt that such was the case, and supposing it in the case of del Gesù, his double calling would in the circunstances seem to fit in with the tradition handed down to us by the last of the Bergonzis".

In another part of the Hill`s book on the Guarneris they state that: "we regard it as certain that many of the makers wo setled in the smaller musical centers could play well enough tho take the minor parts in orchestras, and indeed would need to do so to supplement their earnings as makers. These were the days of many disdness... ..."

And Stradivari, would he be a player? I suppose so, and it seems there is one written evidence of this in Sacconi`s "I Segreti di Stradivari" and, in the catalog of the relics of the master we find in nol. 222:

Sul retro del foglieto sono tracciati alcuni righi musicali, autografi di Stradivari, con numeri al posto delle note.

I would translate this as (tradutore traditore!):

"In the other side of the paper, there are some lines of musical notes, written by Stradivari own hand, with numbers instead of musical notes".

Why would Stradivari write some lines of musical notes but for play them in an instrument?

The musical notation in numbers points out to Strad as a player that was not able to read music. Louis Armstrong was not able to read music. I remember Mozart`s irritation on the fact that many opera singers were not able to read music, so he had to teach them their parts till they could sing it by heart.

July 7, 2011 at 01:50 PM ·

"Talking about Pietro Guarneri of Mantua, the Hills say: "We thus discover that the master had devoted his early years to becoming skilled in music as well as in violin making; and we have here the only instance yet recorded of one of the great Italian violin makers engaged in this dual calling".

It would be nice if the Hills had left it at that, rather than continuing by engaging in pure speculation about other makers.

July 7, 2011 at 02:11 PM ·

Yes David, I think you are right about that, if Del Gesù were a player some document would mention that, and it is not the case.

July 7, 2011 at 04:49 PM ·

I know a great mechanic that is a lousy

July 8, 2011 at 08:25 AM ·

Barry very nice poem, but parental guidance needed for reading your profile. 

July 8, 2011 at 01:09 PM ·

Turned out to be an interesting thread.  Perhaps, I should take some lessons.  Is 41 year too late to start learning?  I can sight read OK and used to be able to play a bit of piano...

Maybe getting proficient enough in violin to be able to evaluate the sound is a pre-requisite.

July 8, 2011 at 04:18 PM ·

My thought: if you like the violin, you should examine whatever directions you like. I do think you could enjoy coaxing sounds out of it, and that does not mean playing in the typical sense. I didn't pick up the violin until after age 50, and I do enjoy it. I have also purchased cheap VSO (Violin Shaped Objects) and worked on them a bit; not to their benefit, but just for fun. Take it whatever direction you enjoy.

That said, if you want to excel at violin making, you will need to get a feel for what changes make a changed in the sound; there is no schematic or footnotes that get you all the way; that is why it is considered art more than construction. Try and find what will lead you in that direction; playing might, but there may be other paths.

July 14, 2011 at 04:48 AM ·

Trying out a new violin in an Italian Hotel room a few days ago, I asked the maker his impression of the sound.

"I am not train-ed", he replied.

I bought the violin, regardless, relying largely on my wife's opinion. She is "train-ed" but not as a fiddler, and has an acute sense of hearing.

A luthier who can play will still need to rely on the advice and feedback from expert players, teachers and dealers. It will be their endorsements that will generate sales, not his/her own publicity. And many will be the pitfalls should the maker be relatively unskilled as a player. The maker of my first professional instrument could play viola very well, but he has seemed to be in the minority.

The last amateur maker I met had taken a whole year to complete his viola. Hardly a hobby for the impatient !

July 15, 2011 at 03:59 AM ·

 It also depends on the definition of Luthier that you are using.

I break it in to two camps:

Luthier is some one who makes stringed instruments


Luthier is someone that make a living at making stringed instruments

The First definition is easy to achieve. Making a simple and cat howl making Violin shaped object can be done in a short amount of time.

The second is much harder.  

I have made 13 violins so far (4 of which people have been willing to pay money for ) in two years.  The first 8 were interesting but not up to par for even a student player.  I don't consider myself a luthier and am grateful to the players that spent the time to try my creations and let me know what felt or sounded wrong so I could try to fix it on the next one.  My skill (or lack there of) in playing goes only as far as playing scales.  

I am a hobby Violin maker and I admire those that have the skill and practice to be true Luthiers who can pick the right wood, carve and tune that piece of wood into the best violin piece that it could ever be then assemble it into a pleasing shape and varnish it to bring out the beauty.  After the Making is over, they go even further to setup the instrument to achieve not only the best sound but shape that sound to a specific players requests.

July 15, 2011 at 02:53 PM ·

John, you are assuming that the majority believe all the blather. That is going to be less and less true as internet savvyness develops.

July 18, 2011 at 01:01 PM ·

One of the top viola makers today, Hiroshi Iizuka, doesn't play. (What he does have however is an excellent ear.)

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