Sunday, October 9, 2011

New or Old. Which is Better for Violins, Violas & Cellos?

Written by Andy Fein, Violin Maker & Owner, Fein Violins, Ltd.

I'm often asked: "Which is better? A new instrument or an old one?"

There is a mystique about old instruments. After all, Stradivarius & Guanerius were making instruments in the 1700s. Aren't all old instruments better than new ones? Well, yes and no. It depends on what you are interested in.

Stradivarius and Guarnerius made new instruments. Seems like a simple and intuitively obvious statement, but not everyone realizes that. Yes, Stradivarius, Amati, the Guarneris, Guadagnini, Montagnana, Vuillaume, Lupot, and the Chanot/Chardons were all real people. Real people making brand new instruments. Did they sound good when they were made? Probably, but we have no real way of knowing that. But judging from the people that played them and loved them, they were very nice sounding new instruments.

There were also a bunch of other makers from the 1500s on through the 1900s ( and even today)  that made passable, mediocre and downright lousy instruments. Are those old instruments better than a good sounding new instrument? Probably not.

Here are some considerations.



Shiny or Antiqued? Most professional musicians prefer an old or old looking instrument as opposed to a shiny red or gold instrument? Why is that? Climb up on a conductor's podium and survey the string section if you ever get the chance. If there is a shiny new instrument in the orchestra, your eye is drawn towards it. Not a good thing if the conductor thinks there's something wrong in your section. Be prepared to be the conductor's personal chew toy for the day.

On the other hand, if you're a person that enjoys the newness and the shininess of an instrument, then why not play it. After all, you're the one that has to love it.

Personally, I don't make a judgement. Most of the great Cremonese instruments were shiny and bright red when they were new. Now, they are not. Which is better? Only your eye and heart have the answer.

On the other hand, I think the way the varnish has worn on old instruments contributes in a small way to the overall tone that is produced. Instruments that I make with an antiqued finish seem to have a bit of an "older" quality to the tone. But the difference is very small compared to wood quality, work quality, and model.

Condition. A new instrument will be ( or should be!)  in perfect condition. No cracks, unglued seams, or a worn fingerboard. That is, everything  about the instrument should be in perfect, brand new working order. That is rarely the case on an old instrument. Most old instruments that have not been actively played and maintained will require a large amount of repair work just to make them playable. An old instrument might need new pegs, a new bridge, a new soundpost, new strings, fingerboard adustments, new pegs, new tailpiece and tailgut, and a new chinrest. The old instrument might also have cracks that need to be repaired and seams that need to be glued. Uh-oh, that $25 great find just turned into a money dump! If you purchase an instrument from a shop, all of those things should be taken care of before the instrument is offered for sale. If they are not, no matter how great the instrument sounds, think long and hard before purchasing it. A reputable shop would not offer an instrument in that condition!

Cracks. A new instrument will not ( & should not!) have any cracks. That is rarely the case with an old instrument. That is one of the reasons an old instrument in very good condition is so valuable.

Some cracks on the top are not very serious. Cracks near the wings of the f holes are common. Any crack that is near the bridge, particularly in the sound post area, is very serious. If you are going to be actively playing the instrument, avoid an instrument that has several cracks or any serious cracks.

Just about any crack on the back is serious. Cracks in the soundpost area are devastating to the value of the instrument. For good reason. They are hard to maintain and hard to tonally adjust. In other words, they will drive you crazy and nickel & dime you to death!

Attribution and Value: Old instruments are more valuable, right? Not necessarily. Please read my blog on values of stringed instruments. An interesting case in point was the recent auction that sold off many instruments from the closing of the Moennig violin shop. Many of the instruments were labelled as one thing and determined to be something else. This is from one of the most well respected shops of the twentieth century. All the more reason to go back to my mantra- Play an instrument whose sound you love! If you love your instrument, whether it is or isn't a valuable instrument should make no difference.

If you buy a new instrument from the maker or a shop, you know where it came from. A simple fact, but it needs to be said.

Tone. A good sounding new instrument is better than a lousy sounding old instrument. And vice versa. Use your ears. Trust your heart. What sounds good to you? A new instrument that is made well will become more open, responsive and mellower as it ages. But, don't ever buy an instrument based upon what you (or someone else- teacher, dealer, maker) thinks it will sound like in the future. It could take decades for the instrument to really "open up". If you don't like the sound of the instrument when it is new, don't buy it! If you do buy it, you could be setting yourself up for years of struggling with your instrument. Doesn't sound fun to me. A good sounding new instrument will sound good right away. And there are many, many good sounding new instruments available.

Model and Dimensions. Over the centuries, there have been variations in models, arching heights, and dimensions. Many old instruments have body lengths that are shorter or longer than is standard today. Not a huge problem unless you are a particularly tall or short person. String lengths have varied. A big problem if you are used to the standard string length. Your intonation will be lousy for a while. Most modern instruments are made on a few standard Stradivarius or Guarnerius models. Other models will feel strange to a modern player. Something you can get used to, but it will take some effort. Until the mid 1800s, Stainer models were more highly valued than Stradivarius models. Stainer models have very high arching. Some sound good, most have a "nasal" quality to the sound. If you look at an old instrument from the side (so that you can see both the top and the back) and it looks like a football, it is probably not going to be a concert quality instrument. Generally, you would avoid these problems in a new instrument. If not, there's something wrong with that new instrument.

So which is better- a new instrument or an old one? The answer is whichever instrument is best for you. that is a better instrument. Play an instrument you love the sound and looks of. If you do, everyone that hears you will know that you love the music you are producing. And if you don't like the sound of your instrument? Well, your audience will perceive that as well. So, Play an instrument whose sound you love!

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