Self taught luthier made my violin

May 10, 2019, 12:10 AM · I was so surprised the other day, when a reputable luthier told me that my violin, constructed by a self taught luthier has so many imperfections, by comparing my violin to a Stradivarius mood. Differences I could see, such as a flatter plane of the fingerboard making for less clearance between the top of the violin and the bottom of the fingerboard, smaller f holes, tops flush to the sides of the violin and there were more items noted. I thought it was so unique and an example of masterpiece of contemporary violin makers. Boy was I wrong, let this be a perfect example of how proper guidance in buying a violin would have prevented me from ever buying this imperfect home built. He told me that the violin should have never been sold. It has served its purpose, but who really knows what to look for when you are a teenager upgrading to a new instrument. I bought this violin in 1985, I am not sure what drew me to the violin, maybe it was the uniqueness of a one piece back the shop owner identified. Who knows!? Alas I have fallen in love with a new violin and it is made so well, and has an amazing sound. This violin will take me to a higher level. I will say that the reason for not being content with the violin I have is that there was an inherent lack of responsiveness while I was playing some more advanced repertoire and etudes. It simply wasn’t easy to play. I played the new violin and it was like going from a 78 rabbit with rack and pinion steering to a Cadillac Eldorado. Who would have thought ...a violin that is easy to play. I have learned so much as a result of this experience. It is my hope that anyone looking to upgrade, find a ship willing to show you that there instruments are properly made and compare any more anytime you you might be interested in to a high end instrument. Don’t allow yourself to be rushed into buying something you aren’t absolutely sure of. There are some classic violin construction basics, atleast try and understand some of these before you buy something you think you love only to learn that you didn’t bug what you thought you did.

Replies (11)

Edited: May 10, 2019, 6:43 AM · Some luthiers are self-taught in the same way as I'm a self-taught violinist (frankly I should be banned from teaching anybody) while others have shown considerable skill and artistry. In the early 20th century it seems almost every violin-maker in Britain was self-taught. I've owned 3 violins by these guys; the first one looked awful but sonically was at least an improvement over the hideous wrecks I would otherwise have been forced to play at school. The other two stood up well against "professional" standards on both counts. One self-taught maker of this generation, Wilfred Saunders, even went on to found the Newark School of Violin-making.

While of course you're right to stress the importance of acquiring an educated eye as well as ear before committing yourself to buying any instrument, I believe the amateur tradition has contributed a great deal to the violin-making industry. A marked prejudice can still be observed amongst the priesthood of the business, but this has the fortunate side effect that excellent instruments by little-regarded makers can often be bought for bargain prices, far less than one would pay a "reputable" luthier to commission a new instrument.

Edited: May 10, 2019, 7:52 AM · I have to agree with Steve. I bought a violin from a local amateur maker in 1990. It was his #11. By profession he was a mechanical engineer and was using modern, sophisticated technology in his making. I first heard this violin when he brought it to a rehearsal of our local community orchestra and different violinists were trying it during our break. I was at the back of the hall when I first heard it and immediately thought "I have to have this one." Trying it confirmed my desire, but one of our high school violinists got first dibs on it. Fortunately for me, her teacher told her, since she was planning to major in violin at college, that a certain 19th century French violin was a better choice. So I ended up with this violin. But only for about 10 years because it was the violin my granddaughter chose from my collection when she got to that stage in her studies and I gave her choice of whichever of my violins she wanted.

It had a few "microscopic" departures from usual design that an amateur maker might not appreciate but it was extraordinarily playable and had marvelous tone. I heard the video of my performance on it at a wedding and the sound just soared out in that large church venue. One lovely feature was a D string that had all the richness of its upper G string - so a player could be kind of lazy on certain tough pieces of music and no one would ever hear the difference.

This amateur maker also had attended workshops and was advised at one to raise his price on this instrument from his previous $400 to at least $1,400. That was almost 30 years ago. By now he has completed his 101st instrument including 12 violas and 3 cellos and become the town's luthier an bow rehairer, etc. He has sold all the instruments he has made except #1 and #101, which he keeps for sentimental reasons. I now own his violin #11 and viola #6 and my granddaughter still owns #11 as well as one made in Germany by one of my wife's ancestors (listed in Henley) and brought to the USA in the late 19th century by her grandfather and on which he earned his living - until her father (then a boy) sat on it. It has sinee been repaired.

I agree there can be real bargains from unknown amateur makers.

Edited: May 10, 2019, 8:02 AM · When I was a kid my violin teacher said I needed a full-sized violin and he knew where there were a couple of good ones to choose from. I chose the Birds-Eye violin because was gorgeous (they sounded the same to me). I played this violin throughout my childhood.

Fast forward to becoming a "returner" 25 years later. My (new) teacher said my violin sounded "stuffed" and I should take it to a luthier for a check-up. I showed it to Dalton Potter who said it was "built like a tank" and "utterly hopeless" in terms of tone improvement. He got his little measuring tape out of his pocket and determined that the violin also was 7/8 size. A little research showed it was built by a man in San Diego who was primarily known for making guitars and had decided to pursue violin-making in his retirement (from some kind of day job, not from guitar-making). The violin cost my parents $400 in 1976.

Meanwhile I visited the home of a local pro violinist who had some nice violins and he let me play them. After playing my violin for a minute, he handed me one of his. I applied the same amount of zeal to the first note and it just about knocked me down. All my life I had no idea a violin could sound like that. It made me wonder how on earth my childhood teacher, himself quite a good violinist, could recommend that instrument to me. Hmmm, I wonder.

I suspect self-taught luthiers are in the same category as self-taught cabinet-makers, portrait-painters, and other craftsmen (here I'm trying to pick "crafts" where there is a strong element of artistry). That is, once in a while there is a really good one but that's not the norm.

May 10, 2019, 5:23 PM · I think there's a relatively well-known paper which researched many violins and reported a surprisingly high number of those which placed in a "better" sound category were made by amateur makers. Unfortunately, I couldn't find it just now.

Of course as a reverse generalization, this would be just as bad if not worse, so the moral is to judge each violin by its merits, not as generalizations based on assumptions.

Edited: May 10, 2019, 6:47 PM · My current viola was made by an amateur luthier in the 1970s and the tone and response definitely make it suitable for professional use. I paid a low-end professional price for it (low 5 figures), but by the time it reached me it had already been used in Hollywood studio orchestras for 20 years, and when I purchased it I was comparing it to other violas in the same price range.

Regarding Timothy's point about craftsmanship, about a year ago I weighed my viola and discovered to my surprise that my 15.75" viola was lighter than many factory-made 4/4 student violins. Clearly the maker was confident in what he was doing.

May 10, 2019, 8:51 PM · Many makers were self-taugh or received no formal training, they were mostly musicians or falegnami (woodworkers). Of coarse formal training is important, but some makers made good violins without formal training.

A good number of makers we love today had no teachers. Life in Italy was hard, and they had to struggle to survive working in many professions as violin maker, player, cooper, teacher, etc. The following list of self taught makers or "diletanti" speaks for itself:

Sergio Peresson

Otello Bignami

Romolo Parmeggiani

Gaetano Pareschi

Alberto Guerra

Giuseppe Pedrazzini

Celeste Faroti;

Luigi Bertelli

Andrea Cortese

Gaetano Chiocchi

Valentino de Zorzi (an important florentine maker that started making violins when he was 40 years old!)

Giancarlo Guicciardi (prior to working with Poggi)

Anibal Fagnola

Emidio Celani

Howard Needham said me he is a self-taught maker too.

Some say Lorenzo Storioni had no master too, as well as Giuseppe Rocca.

The ever increasing prices of their instruments is a question of market, and after some decades, market disregards formal training.

In general, biographies will not mention "self-taught" directly, but just mention that the maker "got some advice from the Bisiachs..."

May 11, 2019, 1:23 AM · Another Italian autodidact to add to Luis's list - Giuseppe Matesic was a medical doctor (gynaecologist?) living in Florence who I think started making violins relatively late in life. When I was in Florence in 1997 for a conference I went looking for a new violin without a great deal of money to spend. At the workshop of the Vettori family I tried several violins made by apprentices but it was the one by Giuseppe Matesic (in the shop for its final setting-up) that blew me away. Next day I was introduced to the maker and we soon arranged a deal. To my eye the construction looked exemplary, although experts have noted certain "amateur" characteristics. I played it happily for 20 years but finally decided to move on so it's now looking for a new home.
May 12, 2019, 8:59 AM · Tim wrote, "I have seen and heard some amazing instruments made by unknown makers." Yes my daughter has a violin that says "Hermann Jaas" inside it. But when I had it appraised, I asked the luthier who Jaas was, and he just laughed and said the violin was made by Eduard Reichert who apparently was fond of putting random names inside the violins produced in his workshop.
May 13, 2019, 1:19 AM · I recenly bought a violin from a maker and outstanding violinist named Aurthor Mikhailov. It's is #22, out of 22 he's made (2018). It's really an exemplary instrument certainly suitable for professional use, and when compared with other violins from various shops in the surrounding area, it was distinctly better than several violins more than TWICE it's price.

He makes violins in his house, and isn't present online at all beyond teaching & performing. I think there's a lot to say about how just the fact that a maker is nearly unknown drives the price down so much. He has sold 4 or more of is violins in the past to students of my teacher, and it was my teacher that reccomended him to me.

May 13, 2019, 2:12 PM · I don't know. As long as it sounds good and plays well, it doesn't really matter if it's way off pattern. But there is a reason why most people base their violins off established designs. Sometimes experimenting can really pay off, but it sounds like this one didn't really benefit from the oddities. Hope you didn't pay too much.

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