What makes a good violin good?

November 10, 2018, 9:44 PM · I've read about instruments from famous makers with imperfections- knotted or imperfect wood, asymmetrical construction, and even visible tool marks. What ultimately makes a violin sound good?

Replies (21)

November 11, 2018, 2:55 AM · It's the rosin (just try it without)
November 11, 2018, 4:04 AM · "What ultimately makes a violin sound good?"

Simple: the player!

November 11, 2018, 4:54 AM · I think it ultimately depends on the quality of the wood and the skills of the maker. The maker doesn't necessarily need to invent anything. He may just happen to be a very good imitator. I heard many good Chinese violin brands are copies of Strads or some other famous European violins.
November 11, 2018, 5:32 AM · In theory you could churn them out on a CNC machine so that they are all exact copies and free of defects, but they still might not sound like a strad.
Edited: November 11, 2018, 2:49 PM · What makes a good violin? A good maker!

What makes a great violin? A great maker - but not every time.

And sometimes a really good violin comes out of the "random" assembly of mass-produced parts into a "factory fiddle." (Monkeys randomly writing Shakespeare - but that hasn't happened YET.)

I agree with Matt. It follows what Michelangelo reportedly said about some of his great sculptures - "the final result is in the block of marble, you just cut away everything else."

With a violin it starts with knowing how to select the right wood - ends with cutting away everything else and finishing it properly - and then "setting it up."

I have met all of my violin makers and viola makers and had some interesting talks with them. One of the things that was interesting was to have the opportunity to play on a just completed violin "in the white" and later to play the same instrument after it had been stained, varnished and dried. Another interesting experience was playing on a 1698 violin made by Antonio Stradivari at Ifshin Violins before they had finished setting it up - I did not see how it was really (much) better than my 2 violins I was taking home that day after Haide Lin had finished setting me up new bridges and soundposts - but talking with them some time later I was told that they finally got it to its true voice and sold it to the SFSO for $2M.

You cannot simply take the measurements of a great violin and apply them to some wood. You have to understand how the physical properties of those particular pieces of wood must be shaped to create an instrument with the best possible resonances for that wood. (I think that is the simplest way to say it.)

Great makers select great wood, but sometimes they have had to work with what they could get - even with knots - I've seen some ancient cellos with really big knots in the back.
And tool marks are often the "mark of the maker." I've read (or been told) that you do all the work with tools, not sandpaper, I don't know if that is really true.

As a violin buyer you will be directed by your own hearing characteristics, skill level (all aspects), and the knowledge you have accumulated, and your purpose for that specific instrument.

Edited: November 11, 2018, 10:18 AM · As with playing, great making is a combination of excellent, objective observations skills matched with precision in application and the congenital inability to be satisfied with what one's self is doing.

https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/the-big-questions/201205/are-we-objective-we-think

No one really knows where they are, except in hindsight when they can see the flaws they previously missed.

November 11, 2018, 11:33 AM · There are lots of entertaining theories about the "secret" of the old Italian violins. Two that are plausible to my mind; 1) The quality of the wood; In the 17th century Europe was coming out of a cool period that produced tighter growth rings in the wood. And the industrial revolution had not yet started, so the air was cleaner, without coal smoke. 2) No sandpaper or power tools. Power tools generate heat and lots of vibration. Sandpaper cuts across fibers while knives and scrapers cut with the fibers. It's a book-length topic. The best modern makers are making instruments as good as the old masters, at a fraction of the price.
November 11, 2018, 11:56 AM · Lots of theories but no proof and precious little agreement. The amount of virtual ink that gets spilled on Maestronet...
Edited: November 11, 2018, 12:08 PM · Exactly. Indeed I doubt we would all agree on how to just describe greatness in a violin.
November 11, 2018, 12:49 PM · A better question is,

How can you tell when you have an exceptional violin in your hands?

...from the label? ...because the seller says it is?...because it's expensive?....

November 11, 2018, 1:50 PM · I think a "good violin" is an objectively recognizable thing, but a "great" violin is just a good violin that has subjectively appealing qualities to the one using it.
November 11, 2018, 2:40 PM · Joel wrote:
"There are lots of entertaining theories about the "secret" of the old Italian violins. Two that are plausible to my mind; 1) The quality of the wood; In the 17th century Europe was coming out of a cool period that produced tighter growth rings in the wood. And the industrial revolution had not yet started, so the air was cleaner, without coal smoke. 2) No sandpaper or power tools. Power tools generate heat and lots of vibration. Sandpaper cuts across fibers while knives and scrapers cut with the fibers."
_____________________________

Joel, the same grain widths are available today, as we see in the 17th and 18th century instruments.

Knives and scrapers will cut across the grain just fine. We makers do it all the time.

Edited: November 11, 2018, 6:46 PM · Re: "In the 17th century Europe was coming out of a cool period that produced tighter growth rings in the wood."

While that is true for Europe, there is no shortage of slow growth wood in other colder climates around the world even today's, so I don't buy that argument

I am with Andrew, it's all about the maker and also time perhaps.

November 11, 2018, 7:24 PM · Tastes are deeply personal to the player, as well. I tried the same Strad as Andrew Victor, at roughly the same time, and I loved it. Along with a golden-period Strad that I encountered not long later, it's still my favorite violin that I've had the opportunity to interact with directly.

What was awesome about it? It had a sheen of resonance, especially in the upper partials -- almost like playing a bell, it seemed like. It was phenomenally, precisely responsive, with a terrific range of color and nuance. It required a light and refined touch, though. It wasn't the kind of violin you can dig into. (But there wasn't any need.)

November 11, 2018, 7:38 PM · -David B. & Roger St.-P. Thank you for your expert replies.~JQ
November 12, 2018, 6:49 AM · I had the good fortune to have played a few Strads( Lord Newlands, Hubay) and a Guadagnini. The sound on them all was like a thin beam of light and very singing and focused. One does not need to press to get the sound out. Fortunately, at the last encounter with the Guadagnini I had my Guarneri Vuillaume with me to compare. The sound of the Guadagnini was more focused but did not have the expansiveness nor the opulence of sound of the much lesser Vuillaume. Surely the Guadagnini having this laser-like quality could project further in a hall, but the Vuillaume also has no problem projecting either. Holding these old violins in my hands though I all the time get the feeling that the wood is so dry to the point of fossilization from the years. I also notice they are very light in weight compared to a similar size modern violin.
November 12, 2018, 6:25 PM · Re:" I also notice they are very light in weight compared to a similar size modern violin"

How much of that attributable to the dryness of the wood? 5% maybe or is it more? Would 5% be noticeable? Or is the lightweight related to the thinning of the plates over centuries by expert luthiers? I always wonder what would happen if I handed over my instrument to the best luthiers on the planet who would spend countless hours setting and fine tuning it.

Edited: November 12, 2018, 7:14 PM · Drying happens early in a violin's life; virtually all the moisture is removed before the violin is even made. Over decades, the hemicellulose in the wood decays, while the cellulose remains intact. That's responsible for some of the reduction in weight.
Edited: November 13, 2018, 11:28 AM · What makes a violin "sound" great is options. Dynamic level, tone color, attack, response, ease of projection. Some violins you can hear every nuance of vibrato, others not, for example. And there are many other small things you need to be able to do with the sound.

To me, a great violin takes a wide range of input and does something different with each. If we say "this violin has a great tone", that's really nothing if you can't vary the sound -- it would become very boring to play.

November 12, 2018, 10:31 PM · Zygmuntowicz said something about Strads having so many cleats from the centuries of repair and more repair. That led to a very stiff top.

I've never tried a Strad. Nothing to compare it to. Vuillaumes are pretty friggin loud, but the one I tried wasn't too focused and didn't quite sound as great as a lesser Italian I tried that day.

My fancy [long-dead maker] Italian has more tone colors than my moderately priced violins. Almost too many colors for a non-professional player like me. I've spent hours playing the first 8 measures of Bruch to see what colors are best. And to repeat it over and over....impossible. Who has the time for this type of playing?

Edited: November 13, 2018, 10:18 AM · To answer Tom's question above:

Someone who has a sound concept in mind already, and wants to be able to render it real without having to think about it.

Arguably, it is the difference between artistry and competent workmanship.


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