|f holes, The 'Harrison' Stradivarius circa 1693|
By Andy Fein, Violin Maker & Owner, Fein Violins, Ltd.
It's pretty hard to miss the very distinctive feature of the violin family's sound holes. The f hole. They are almost like a violin maker's fingerprints. Very distinctive and a true sign of a maker's skill.
|Stradivarius f holes, Royal Palace of Madrid Stradivarius circa 1700|
But why f holes? There are many other sound hole patterns that would probably work as well.
First, the shocker. When violin family instruments were evolving, the letter that we know today as a small italic 'f'' was actually a long, descending or medial s. That type of 's' was used in the beginning and middle of words in print and in cursive in Latin, Italian and other formal scripts.
|Medial "s" in the word 'Congress' in the U.S. Constitution, Bill of Rights|
|Label of the Brescian master Gasparo da Salo, viola da gamba circa 1570, "Gasparo da Salo, In Brescia" showing the medial "s"|
|Viol by Jakob Stainer circa 1671 with sound holes that are not f holes|
|Sound hole on a Viola da Gamba (Viol family) by Boller Bugger, Mantua circa 1630|
Whether you believe my conjecture or not, f holes are a defining feature of violin family instruments, differentiating them from the older viol family of instruments. F holes. Violins have them, viols don't.
|The f holes of the 'King' cello by Andrea Amati, circa 1538|
The earliest examples of f holes are on the earliest violin family instruments by Andrea Amati (mid 1500s) and Gasparo da Salo, and Pietro Zanetto ( both from Brescia, mid to late 1500s). These makers used fairly wide f holes, with the Brescians' being very long as well.
|f hole, Pietro Zanetto viola, circa 1564|
|f holes, Andrea Amati violin circa 1560|
|f holes, The 'King Henry IV' violin by Antonio & Girolamo Amati, circa 1595|
|Girolamo Amati f holes, circa 1604|
|f holes, Gasparo da Salo viola circa 1609|
If you look at the f holes of the generations of the Amati family there is a general trend towards a narrower and more elegant f hole. Stradivarius learned his trade in the workshop of Nicola Amati. By the time Stradivarius was working in the Amati shop, the Amati f holes had become very round, flowing and reflective of the curves of the instrument. They had become an integral part of the artistic presentation of the instrument.
|f holes, Nicolo Amati Violin, circa 1628|
|f holes, Andrea Guarneri viola circa 1664|
Think the f holes don't make much difference? Sing a scale in to the f hole. Feel a certain note vibrate? Now cover up one of the f holes with a soft cloth and repeat the scale singing. Feel and hear a difference? Yes, f holes matter.
Air is flowing back and forth through the f holes as you play your instrument. How that air flows, how smoothly it flows, and how fast it flows are all characteristics of your instrument's tone.
|f holes, The 'Harrison' Stradivarius, 1693|
|Stradivarius f holes|
|The most perfect f hole? The 'Messiah' Stradivarius, circa 1716|
|The 'Wieniawski' Guarnerius del Gesu Violin, circa 1742|
|f holes, Maggini violin, Brescia circa 1615|
And the outside notches? Umm, I dunno! Artistic balance?
|Cellist Julia Bruskin, Vuillaume Cello, circa 1849|
|The 'Wieniawski' Guarnerius del Gesu Violin, circa 1|
|f holes, Nicola Bergonzi viola, Cremona circa 1781|
|A cello by Matteo Goffriller, circa 1730|
Need even more f hole trivia? You can often tell whether a maker was right handed or left handed by the cut of the f holes. The bass f hole is usually neater with a right handed maker, the treble f hole is neater with a left handed maker. An excellent example of this comes to us from brothers Matteo Goffriller (probably right handed) and Francesco Goffriller (probably left handed). I once saw a viola they made together and I'm almost certain each brother cut one f hole. Their better one.
|Francesco Goffiller violin, circa 1726|