The Gap Between Modern Makers

October 28, 2014 at 02:18 PM · Well, over the last 10 years, I've done my own meager collecting of [cheaper] violins and attempted to learn what I could about setup and some of the finer details.

In 2007, I played a 1997 David Burgess violin and have since insisted that it was like no other violin I've ever played. The problem with that was that I haven't really been all around the block to compare with other great modern makers, so no one should be surprised by that statement.

That being said, I've learned enough to where I've gotten some phenomenal playing instruments for 1-2k, that I was sure could at least come close to old instruments priced 50k or more above.

Welp, I head up the second violin section in our local community orchestra here in Parma, OH and have a couple additions to my section this year. I noticed the one lady plays rather well, and every rehearsal I would hear her play this or that behind me and think, "Boy, she sounds pretty good."

Soo, I went to orchestra rehearsal tonight, did some of my librarian duties, struggled through the string bowing rehearsal (we're not terribly good, and that's not a very good advertisement), and at the end of rehearsal she comes up to me and says, "Are you a luthier?" She asked because I adjusted someone's sound post last week after rehearsal and she must have seen it.

I said, "No, I do some of my own adjustments and make my own sound posts, but I'm not a qualified luthier."

Jokingly, she says, "Then I shouldn't let you touch my violin."

I says, "No, don't let me touch your violin.... What kind of violin do you play?" (A question always toward the front of the discussion when making new friends)

"A David Burgess."

I think my head exploded, but I'm still evaluating that. Someone playing a $30,000-ish violin in our rather mediocre community orchestra.

I believe I meant to ask, "Could I possibly play it a bit, please?"

What came out was, "CANIPLAYITNOOOW?"

She was very gracious and did so allow.

Now, the reason that I was so thrilled at this opportunity was because 8 days ago a kind and very skilled soloist played with our orchestra at our first concert of the season. When I found out he played on a Joseph Curtin, I inevitably asked him before the concert-day rehearsal if I might play it a little bit. Another gracious person.. I finally got to try another top-tier maker with a huge reputation. It was ca 2008 and a copy of Guarnerius.

I played it a bit, and it had a firm and crisp response very typical of the Guarneri reputation, ie, takes a little more bow pressure to keep it going. The tone was powerful, but I recall the previous week walking in (late) to rehearsal while the soloist was playing Zigeunerweisen and honing in on his instrument which seemed somewhat to lack sweetness, at least at the range at which I was unpacking my instrument maybe 40 feet away, which may not be saying much.

Nevertheless, I've come to play with an aggressive style and feel I can judge an instrument by playing it. And I felt a bit restrained by the Curtin. It wouldn't let me go as close to the bridge as I wanted, even when applying sufficient pressure and proper bowspeed. Though, I did not have too much time with it before he had to start warming up. But I trust my instincts here.

SO, at long last I had something to compare to a Burgess. A 1991 Burgess.

Two things struck me in comparison regarding the instrument itself: One, the model was the same or similar (to my untrained eye) as the 97 I played. It was not a copy of a Guarnerius, or a Stradivarius. It was a David Burgess. A very distinctive, beautiful and original model. The second, that very deep and dark varnish like the 97 had, and the crisp workmanship that showed so little wear over the last 23 years.

I have heard a lot of hype about the antiquing of new instruments, but until I saw the Curtin didn't know what I would think. The truth is that I was rather disappointed in the appearance of worn edges and dirt-ified wood. Where was the elite workmanship that showed the meticulous hand of the maker? And I felt like I was looking at a Guarnerius (like so many many others I've seen) and not a Curtin. It seemed only to impress upon my mind what had already previously been impressed by great pictures of old Guarneris before. I remember the first time I held the 97 Burgess, I had to soak it in for a bit because it was something new and exciting.

I don't mean to bash anyone here, and maybe this won't get posted anyway, but these are just my personal observations and taste. The Curtin was a fantastic instrument with tremendous capabilities and the workmanship was superb.

So, looks aside, what would my hands think of the playability, how hard would my mind have to work to keep a powerful tone going due to the response of the instrument?

I was ecstatic to hold a Burgess again and couldn't help but think, "Was it as good as I remember it? I didn't know half as much back then as I do now about instrument setup and craftsmanship." And, "But this is a 1991, the 97 was maybe better?"

So I started Tchaikovsky over and over again, familiarizing myself with the instrument until I had the bow sawing against the bridge. And the instrument just wouldn't break. Any increase in bow speed was exponentially audible in the hall which does not have good acoustics and seats about 1300. I just wasn't used to this kind of pallet, but what really surprised me was how much more accessible the Burgess was than the Curtin. Others have testified this as well about his instruments: a sharpness of response and clarity that is perhaps lacking (which is to say not on the same level) in other modern makers.

It blew me away all over again, just like it did 7 years ago. What a joy to play..

One other note of interest. I know that Curtin set up the Curtin I played and it was purchased straight from him. Sound post roughly 3mm behind bridge. The Burgess was set up by Stearns, and the sound post, I was surprised, was way behind the bridge. I didn't have my scale, but I'm guessing around 6mm. Though the original Burgess bridge was quite thin (something else I took note of), so the usual 4-4.5 mm base that I would have used to judge the gap by eye was maybe around 3.5 (sry if I'm wrong DB) So maybe it was only around 5. I feel sure, though, that the 97 I played at Burgess's home was not that far behind the bridge. And the response of the 97 was better. There was something very cohesive and immediate about it (and more color, too, I think) and I am guessing this was because Burgess did the final touches of the setup, which is very crucial.

I am also happy to say that I was able to straighten the bridge out for this kind lady. Most people don't even notice when it starts to lean.. and to me, that felt like the good deed of the year.. lol.

Anyways, I was hoping to get many of the more experienced players on this site to comment on differences between these great modern makers and who they think really stands out of the crowd in their own trial experiences.

Many thanks for reading and comments,

Jesse B

I should also note here at the end that the soloist who allowed me to try his Curtin did also try a Burgess and eventually settled on the Curtin.

Replies (34)

October 28, 2014 at 04:18 PM · I had a similar experience. Tried a Burgess that a standmate had at a music festival ~2008 and couldn’t get the sound image or response out of my head!

So, after trying dozens of other top contemporary makers, I commissioned a Burgess. It was completed earlier this year and is remarkable.

David makes a unique violin that can produce a big, bold sound whilst projecting not only volume, but nuance of sound. It is responsive, resonant, and brilliant. It appears to have nearly unlimited power. And the tone colors just go on and on and on….........

October 28, 2014 at 04:36 PM · That is a very enthusiastic review! :D

Thanks for posting!

October 28, 2014 at 08:57 PM · Back to your title. I think it is safe to say that NO two top (or any) makers produce identical violins. I haven't even seen, let alone played, any of those (well, a Kurt Widenhouse or two, but that's probably a step down) but I know that there are players who, like the Curtin owner, prefer all of them. That could be partly because no two players are identical. There are even a very few who like ones I've made. I agree that individual models can be more interesting than just the old master models. But that's because it is my own approach.

October 28, 2014 at 10:42 PM · Another thing I didn't mention was that the Curtin was 'valued' at $48,000 according to its owner. While the owner of the Burgess said it was 'valued' at $31,000. And there is certainly no justifying that, especially when the Burgess sounded better in the hall and was easier to play.

This is partly what I'm referring to with this perceived 'gap' in modern makers. How much is just advertising, and WHICH ones are in fact superior in craftsmanship and knowledge. And that's not a question I expect to be directly answered. Indeed, all the top-tier makers are very very good at what they do. I think I have just been impressed by a true ARTIST.

And yes, it was easier to play for me, but I think easier to play for anyone. When you get to a certain level of playing, a violin either is or isn't easier to play, regardless of style. Though your point is taken Mr. Reed. I know what you're saying.

And indeed, I second the great review, and CONGRATULATIONS Mr. Bevan on your Burgess!! I envy you.. in the best of ways!

October 29, 2014 at 07:53 AM · I'm afraid that there are some great fiddles out there that are not easy to play, from old masters to moderns. This does not mean that they are not as good. In the end fiddles are what you have to adjust too, and it pays off to keep trying even if at first the instrument is like a bucking bronco.

October 29, 2014 at 09:27 PM · Just a note about the sound-post position you noted, an instrument with a thicker top will need it's sound-post set farther back from the bridge then say one with a thinner top. The reason that this is the way it is, is that the sound post acts kinda like a connecting rod to the bottom of the violin transferring vibrations from the top down. But, wait... there's more... (sorry I just could not resist that quip. lolz) The space between the bridge and the sound-post act on a mechanical level kinda like a lever pushing the sound-post up and down. So a violin with a thinker top/bottom will require a longer lever/ space between the bridge then one with a thinner top that vibrates easier. Thought you all might like that info and that it might help you get the best adjustment out of your particular violin.

October 29, 2014 at 09:48 PM · John, thanks. I did know that, but I also know from my own experience that any given violin has several sweet spots for the post (in regards to distance behind the bridge). At least 3 in my opinion that all allow the strings to vibrate freely. This post however is way back there. I am going to take a measurement next rehearsal. I never tried going farther back then 4-5mm, and I would not be surprised if, as the first few, there are more locations that allow any given violin to vibrate freely. I wish I knew the actual geometry, though.. Need to do more research.

October 30, 2014 at 12:26 AM · I would also check what tension strings are on the violin as well, as there might be a "sweet spot" relation going between the string tension and having the sound post so far back. It might allow for a lighter tension on the strings giving more response... Just a thought... Hummm, this begs more research on my part. :-)

October 30, 2014 at 04:10 PM · The only time I find reason to position the soundpost far behind the bridge, is when the violin has an obnoxiously bright or hard treble and I'm trying to de-emphasize it, while this may be more likely to happen on overly thick violin tops, this is by no means a rule, both thin top and thick top violins can have an obnoxiously bright treble. I suspect with the Burgess instrument in question it could function better with the soundpost closer in the normal range.

October 30, 2014 at 07:15 PM · I learned that you can also adjust out the harsh tone of a violin by taking a little 350 grit or finer sand paper, attach it to a carefully bent piece of coat-hanger and sand the inside left edge of the right hand f-hole. The position of the sanding is very important and should on be done no farther then 3mm in from the edge and no lower then 6.5mm down from the top of the f-hole. This should be done very carefully as the removal of the thickness of a single sheet of paper can make a drastic change in sound. This is a last ditch effort and should only be done after other methods have been exhausted. This particular technique has worked well on several harsh sounding Chinese violins, giving them a new much sweeter tone to the highs.

October 30, 2014 at 08:23 PM · Gosh golly, Jesse and Douglas, I'm blushing!

Lets see if I can come up with something to say about "the gap between makers" without offending any makers:

At a convention once, we crammed six makers into the back of a taxi so we could go to dinner together. The last two pretty much dove in horizontally, and there was no gap between makers at all! :-)

Regarding soundpost position:

I make my instruments quite a bit thicker in the soundpost region than many other instruments are, for durability reasons. Because of this extra thickness, the distance between the soundpost and bridge often needs to be a little greater to attain the same degree of physical flexibility in that area, and to attain the "fullness" the instrument is capable of producing.

Regarding ease of playing:

All other things being equal, I think just about anybody, whether amateur or soloist, will prefer an instrument which isn't difficult to play. For this reason, it's a major focus of mine.

October 30, 2014 at 09:58 PM · Lol David, was the taxi ride a little 'breathtaking'?

You should come to Australia, here we can fit 6 violin makers, 6 cartons of beer, one dog, two sheep and the racing pages of the local paper all without a gap!

That's all ok until someone drops their pencil.

October 30, 2014 at 11:49 PM · David... I wonder why more luther's don't do so as well? It seems to me as if your "thicker" sound-post location would be a common sense technique... (Head scratching)

October 30, 2014 at 11:50 PM · Mind the gap!

October 31, 2014 at 03:22 PM · Hahaha, you guys are great.

John, the Burgess has Eva Gold strings on.

Lyndon, I quite agree! I'm not as seasoned as you are, but I do find that the post being closer to the bridge is optimal for richness of sound.

One thing I noted about the Burgess was it had a wolf B at first. That was when I took a look at the bridge and noticed it was leaning forward. After I CAREFULLY adjusted it, the wolf completely went away, but I still thought the high b could be sweeter, and that's when I checked the post and wasn't surprised. I also think this was the difference in richness that I experienced between the '91 and '97 Burgess violins.

"All other things being equal, I think just about anybody, whether amateur or soloist, will prefer an instrument which isn't difficult to play. For this reason, it's a major focus of mine."

Mr. Burgess, I noticed! And seriously, if you have two phenomenal sounding instruments such as the two I played, which will any musician choose but the one that's significantly easier to play?? Though, I also know that many people don't connect ease of playability with tone production and projection. I happen to think they have a direct relationship with one another.. and a lot of violinists play a violin that projects wonderfully and is easy to play and think it has a simple tone because they haven't experienced something with such a wide palette of options and color. But you've spoken about that before..

October 31, 2014 at 05:51 PM · I wonder if you'd have the same trouble if you found two fine old instruments in the attic. It seems that there's a lot of fiddling about (heh!) that one needs to do with setup, strings, matching bow, and so on that can make a huge difference. When you play a good antique, the owner's usually had a few decades to figure out what works.

At a VSA convention, there was a room with work from many "Hors Concours" makers out on show. I found a bow that I liked and walked around trying the violins. As it happened, there was a new Burgess there, looking as fine as always. It felt a little tight-- no actual flaws, but not much pleasure for me. So after a few minutes of trying everything I could think of technically, I put down the (excellent) gold-mounted Samuels I had been using and picked up one of the Morgan Andersens that was sitting on the table next to the Burgess. Voila! A totally different experience.

Technique also matters. One time, I brought a few instruments to show a teacher. One was quite a rare specimen of a well-regarded living maker (not in this discussion). I was having trouble making it work consistently well, and my teacher, who was trained in a very elegant, Franco-Belgian sort of way, sounded really awful on it. When he had his next student try the violins, she hated all the ones I preferred and sounded great as she dug into the one I was having trouble with. A small girl with a very aggressive bow technique, and probably a very Sartory-ish bow.

November 1, 2014 at 01:17 AM · Stephen, how interesting that you should say that; I was playing the Burgess with the owners very own... Morgan Andersens bow!

That other violin sounds like such a big difference, I'd think it had gut strings on it or something.

November 4, 2014 at 12:00 PM · You folks are precious!

I shall chastise David Samuels for making a bow which didn't work well with my violin, and I shall also send Morgan Andersen a pair of Burgess napkin rings and matching beer coasters. ;-)

If anyone doesn't already know this, many of us always try to adjust a violin using the bow which the player uses, when we have that option. To some extent, violin adjustment can be targeted to sound and respond well with a particular bow.

November 4, 2014 at 11:54 PM · You know, I never thought of that.. It makes perfect sense, of course.

November 5, 2014 at 12:25 AM · On ease of playing —

I don’t know any violinists who actively seek out a violin that is hard to play. Some players like a violin that can be driven hard (as do I), but that is different from being hard to play.

Jesse, Stephen,

Thanks for the homework, guys! Now I’ll have to go testing Morgan Anderson bows to see if they edge out my current ones :-D


I’m assuming the Burgess beer coasters and napkin rings come in beautifully carved flamed maple?

November 6, 2014 at 12:44 PM · Naturally. Of course, we also want to keep a certain "organic" element, and the product should be a "process inherent" part of the making. ;-)

Here are photos of the napkin ring and beer coaster:

The napkin ring is a natural artifact of taking a cut with the curved chisel (gouge) seen in the background.

The beer coaster can be, well, anything a maker has sitting about. LOL

November 6, 2014 at 03:40 PM · How much does drinking on the job effect the tone??? I'm sure fine violin making requires higher skill levels than just plain driving....

November 6, 2014 at 04:30 PM · I don't know, since I've never actually tried it.

You'd need to ask Guarneri. ;-)

November 6, 2014 at 05:01 PM · I'm glad to hear that, David, My friend Jacob Saunders has a strict policy for himself and his apprentices, no drinking till after work, I think that's a good idea, he has a story about a tryout that had too many glasses of wine at lunch and didn't get the job, that being said there is a long history of alcoholism in almost any industry, violin making included.

November 7, 2014 at 09:00 PM · Is that why I found two empty beer bottles when I removed the interior door panel on my car, chasing an irritating rattling noise? ;-)

November 8, 2014 at 12:16 AM · Bud Light? Pshaw! Pabst Blue Ribbon!

November 8, 2014 at 01:34 AM · Fantastic “organic” napkin rings! That’s one heck of a chisel…

Bud Light?! Hmmm....

November 8, 2014 at 12:18 PM · "That’s one heck of a chisel…"

The "monster gouge" in action:

It is braced against the chest, and the work is done with the legs.

Oops, I forgot to put a beer in this photo. LOL

And my hair is shoulder-length now.

November 8, 2014 at 12:25 PM · clean workshop, filthy mind???

November 8, 2014 at 12:37 PM · Is this better? (gouge is in the background)

November 8, 2014 at 04:23 PM · Wasn't trying to attack you personally, but there's a common impression around messy workshop people like myself that the clean workshop crowd spend more time cleaning than actually working, hence the expression, I didn't make that up, honest!!

November 16, 2014 at 01:34 AM · I would imagine the clean workshop people spend a lot LESS time cleaning up.. and following the logic, indeed, less time working as well! :-)

And David, don't be too hard on yourself when you try out for our own shop!

November 16, 2014 at 01:39 PM · You'd hire a long-haired freaky looking guy like me????

I'll be right there.... ;-)

November 16, 2014 at 08:44 PM · Oops, sorry David, I meant "when you try out for Your own shop"

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