There's a local guy who lists two or three older European violins on craigslist every month for pretty cheap. Recently he listed a violin made by Etienne Vatelot from the mid 1950s for a very good price. So I arranged to meet him Sunday afternoon. I brought along my extensive repertoire of recent works, including not only "Twinkle Twinkle" but "Baa Baa Black Sheep" and "the ABC song" as well.
I arrive at his modest workshop and meet him. He's a very nice man. We chat for a bit - seems he's an ex-guitar player who now plays bluegrass fiddle. He pulls out his two least expensive violins, the Vatelot and a 1969 German instrument he just got in trade at a fiddlers convention the past weekend.
I pick up the French instrument, and look it over carefully, applying my full 6 weeks' worth of expertise. Yes, it seems all the parts are there. No cracks or splits or screws or duct tape. It looks like it's been played a bit over its life, but otherwise it looks pretty good.
So now it's time to hear how it sounds. I pluck the strings and - it's horribly out of tune. I turn to the seller, who looks back at me and asks "Is it out of tune? Let me get my tuner." He tells me he just put a new set of strings on it. He says he has a terrible ear for pitch, so when he plays he just tunes the strings with the tuner and goes from there. But this isn't even close. The A string is lower than the D. Then again, at least the A string is tuned to an A, even if it's the wrong octave - nothing else is within a half tone of where it's supposed to be.
He pulls out a clip-on tuner and asks me to "tune it like I want". I get the G, D, and E strings reasonably in tune, but the A string is really, REALLY tight - every time I get it to about f-sharp it slips back. I tell him something is wrong - perhaps it's the wrong string - and hand it back to him.
He gets a pair of calipers to measure the strings. The "A" string (N.B. my use of quotes) was .02 mm thinner than the D string, so he thought it was probably okay. Maybe they mislabeled the string in the pack he used. He put some drops on the peg so it would hold better and told me to try to tighten it anyway. He tells me, "The worst that can happen is the string breaks".
Well, he was wrong. I turn the peg to a little bit above G when I hear a loud crunch. Instead of the string breaking, the bridge snapped. Not just fell, but cracked in half. Whoops. Once again, I hand him the violin.
"Oh, this is embarrassing. I'm really sorry about this", he tells me. He lets me try to cheap German fiddle. It's heavier than the French one. It plays well to my novice specs, but I notice it's a bit bright and I'm having trouble bowing cleanly on one string. I thought this was due to me not knowing how to bow properly, but he tells me it has cheap strings, and bluegrass fiddlers like to shave the bridge flatter to make double stops easier. He'd "fix it" for me if I was interested. He then pulls out an 1870s German fiddle that he has for sale for over $2000. More than I plan on spending at the moment, but I can tell it sounds better and plays much easier than my cheap rental. It looked and sounded like a very good instrument - not sure which of the instruments was the outlier.
He told me on parting that he'd let me know when he cut a new bridge and restrung the Vatelot, but I don't know if I'll be back. He did seem like a very nice, honest guy who just made a mistake. He did have a small selection of very reasonably priced instruments, sells them on approval (I can take the instrument home/to my lesson/etc.), and accepts trade in/trade up. But I wonder about a luthier who's tone deaf and can't tell an A string from a D string. It might be safer to go to one of the violin shops in town, even if they're a bit more expensive...Tweet
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