Like many people, I tend to see the things I’m interested in with much more detail than things I have no special interest in. For instance, before I became fascinated with mushroom identification, I rarely noticed them in the woods as I walked through them on my way to a trout stream. Later, I started seeing mushrooms everywhere in the forest, because I was focusing my observation skills on finding and identifying them.
The same is true with fiddles. Even when I snapped the photo in this post of my two fiddles on a chair, I wouldn’t have been able to tell you all the differences between them visually. Fiddles all look like fiddles, right? Fiddles, or violins, have well established general shapes, but there are exceptions. Many electric violins look much different, and some newer carbon fiber violins have kept a general violin profile, but streamlined some.
The violin goes back to the 1500s, and when we look at this instrument historically, we look to some key families of violin makers. Maggini. Stradivari, Guarnari, Amati, and Stainer. Much of how a fiddle looks today was established by this makers, although there have been some key changes since. For instance, in the 19th Century, there was a demand for a longer fingerboard to play the highest notes. As well, fingerboards became more tilted for more volume to accommodate playing in larger orchestras. Makers like Stradivari used a nail and glue to help secure the neck to the corpus of the fiddle. Today most makers just use glue and a dovetail joint with a the fitted neck resting and glued on a tab extended from the bottom plate. The chin rest didn’t appear until some time in the 19th century. Today many players also use shoulder rests which attach to the fiddle for added comfort and utility.
Let’s have a closer look at the two fiddles in the picture. The one on the left is a French fiddle. It has a Vuillaume label and says Vuillaume lettered on the back of the fiddle. Of course in the violin world, there is a time-honoured tradition of misleading labels. I suppose this fiddle could have come from the Vuillaume shop, but more likely it is a copy of a Vuillaume fiddle. This maker adopted the Stradivari violin shape, as did many other makers. In the case of my French violin, it has been restored. The chin rest is original. The pegs have been replaced with new ones. The fingerboard has been replaced with a rosewood fingerboard, rather than the more popular ebony. It also has a rosewood tailpiece known as Hill Style, with the ridge line down the centre of the tailpiece. This tailpiece has 4 microtuners. Most fiddle players seem to use 4 microtuners. Orchestral players often will have anywhere from no microtuners to 1 on the E string or sometimes 1 on the E and 1 on the A string. It’s possible that the additional weight from microtuners can affect sound in ways some people find unacceptable.
The fiddle on the right is a German copy of a Maggini instrument. Maggini was a pre-Strad maker in Italy. Instruments in this style have some distinct characteristics. Look first at the f-holes in both instruments. On the Maggini copy, the f-holes have a longer shape. Is the Maggini copy a bigger instrument than the Vuillaume copy? It looks like it in the picture so I measured as best I could. The corpus or body of the Maggini copy is about a 16th of an inch bigger than the French fiddle, as is the overall length of the instrument. Does this difference affect the sound? Undoubtedly it does, but there are many factors at play so it is complicated. A little reading tells me that Maggini copies are often bigger than Strad copies. The shape itself is also subtly different. In a general sense, of course, they both look like like violins, but like with many things, the devil is in the details. My Maggini copy has what I believe to be a light-weight aluminum tailpiece with microtuners. How big a deal is the tailpiece to the sound of a fiddle? I don’t know the answer to that yet but my guess is that the positioning of the tailpiece is more important than the material.
There are two other distinctive differences with the Maggini copy. Look at the purfling, that decorative linear element that runs just inside the edges of the fiddles. The Maggini copy has double purfling. Purfling is basically an inlay, so on the Maggini copy, two trenches had to be carved to fit double purflling. This is extra work for sure in instruments made by hand, but double purfling seems to be consistant in Maggini copies. Next look at the scrolls at the top of the instrument. The carving on the Maggini copy has a more complex carving on the scroll, to look like there is an extra wind of the wood as it scrolls.
The finish is also different on the two fiddles. It appears that original finish on the French fiddle has been stripped off and replaced with what appears to my eye as a simple oil finish, such as tung oil or linseed oil . The Maggini copy has a strong reddish stain and a hard varnish. I’m guessing it has an oil varnish but another possibility is a spirit varnish (shellac). I don’t have enough experience looking at violins to really know. I’m sure there are some people who could tell you more about the finish at a glance.
It would be interesting to see the inside of these violins to see if any interior restoration work has been done. It kind of looks like there is a repaired crack on the French violin, but it’s hard to say. Cracks can be very effectively repaired by re-gluing and adding cleats to the back on the inside of the instrument. Can the cleats affect the sound? I don’t know.
There are many factors affecting sound of a fiddle. I’ve learned though, that some are much more profound than others. For instance, my Maggini copy had a significantly harsh sound, harsh enough that it wasn’t much fun to play. I read on a forum that adding paperclips to the bridge can take that harsh edge of the sound. I tried that with some success. This led me to think that if I added mass to the bridge and it improved the sound significantly, I might be able to improve the sound of the instrument by trying a new bridge. Of course I could have taken the instrument to a good luthier for a new bridge, but I got it into my head, after watching some YouTube, that I could carve and fit a bridge myself. I bought a bridge blank, and did my best carving it, and amazingly enough, it made a huge difference to the sound. It’s a louder fiddle than the French fiddle for sure, but the sound is much less harsh than it was.
This led me to the conclusion that while many factors do affect sound, if the bridge is a problem it can destroy the sound of a perfectly decent fiddle. It would be interesting to try to assess the relative level of importance various factors have in making a fiddle sound good.
There is a lot of mystery, at least to me, on the relationship between fiddle quality and price. The price of violins runs from $100 (how is that even possible) and millions of $$$. In the orchestral world, there is an expectation that students will require an instrument which costs many thousands of dollars. Assessing the quality of an instrument is not easy. For instance, maybe a particular violin has a great sound that only a great player can bring out. It seems that the relationship between cost and sound is hard to assess, or at least as a violin becomes more expensive the improvements in sound become less obvious or improves by tinier increments.
Fiddle players have different requirements than orchestral players. For instance, we don’t need to be heard over a huge orchestra. More likely we only need to be heard over a small stringband or a piano player. Fiddle music is much different than orchestral music and an instrument which a fiddler might love, a classical player might pooh-pooh. Many fabulous fiddle players play fairly inexpensive instruments. As well, in some areas, fiddle players set up their instruments differently. Appalachian players often use flatter bridges, so much so that it has become like a tradition. There is also a tradition among some fiddlers to drop a rattlesnake rattle into the fiddle. This might be to keep the interior clean, or create some kind of change to the sound, or simply to ward off the devil, depending on who you ask.
I had an idea that to better understand what makes a fiddle sound good, I might buy a couple old beat up fiddles, take them apart and try to improve them. Then I watched a set of videos by Jon Mangum on Youtube on how to make a fiddle. Broken down into steps, it seems that each step, while in some cases difficult, is not out of reach in terms of learning to do it. Maybe I should try to make a fiddle? I’ve messed with making instruments using rudimentary technology – like oil-can banjos, but along the way that became unsatisfactory to me and I abandoned instrument-making completely. Getting involved with trying to make a fiddle has to be a crazy idea. I’d need to tool up, learn a huge amount, practice various processes to get good at them. What folly! Still, maybe…..