Sunday, August 4, 2013

The String Instrument FAQ

Written by Andy Fein, luthier at Fein Violins
 and Ben Schuneman

We get tons of questions every day, from friends and customers, about violins. Some are humorous to those of us who are around these instruments every day and know the terminology, but all are asked in complete and earnest sincerity. This will be a running blog that will get refreshed every so often. Enjoy!

"I have a Stradivarius that I found in my attic! It must be one of those lost treasures you hear about all the time! Is it worth millions?"

I opted to open with this one, because we here at the shop get asked this question quite often.

There were several luthiers (violin makers) throughout history that were so absolutely famous and influential that they changed how violins were made. For instance, Stradivarius and Guarnerius were two such incredibly influential violin making families; Stradivarius, of course, being the more famous among non-musicians because of numerous articles about similar "lost treasures."

Perhaps inspired by reruns of The Antiques Roadshow, we get many calls about an old violin found in someone's attic because the violin's label has a famous name written on it. For instance, here's a photo of a label from a 1923 Roth violin taken in the shop.

As you can see, there are two names on the label. The first, 'Ernst Heinrich Roth', indicates the maker (or master of the workshop of makers) of the violin. The label also contains the town in which it was made, in this case Markneukirchen, Germany, and the year.

The last name on the label, Josef Guarnerius in this photo, is a professional nod from Roth to Josef Guarnerius because Roth would have used one of Guarnerius' patterns for the manufacture of his own violins. This is the part that confuses all of our callers. That second name, whether it is Amati, Guarnerius, or even Stradivarius, is simply there for the luthier to designate the model of violin they were copying.

Most likely, the violin with the label that says "Stradivarius" is just a violin making company giving thanks to the Stradivarius family for providing such great work from which to model a new violin.

Still not convinced? OK, you have a better chance of any the following happening to you (God forbid!) than that Stradivarius or Guarnerius in the attic being genuine and valuable:
1) Lightning striking you.
2) Lightning striking you while you read this.
3) A coconut falling on your head.
4) A shark attacking you in Lake Superior.
5) A police officer believing your excuse for speeding.
6) A police officer believing your excuse for driving drunk.
7) Your dog eating your homework.
For more reading.

"Is the bow hair really made out of horsehair?"

To answer the question simply, yes. Hair on the bow IS actually made out of horsehair. That isn't to say that there aren't synthetic products available, it's just that high quality bows for professional players are still made the old fashioned way, with horse hair.

The violin bow maker doesn't just walk out to the field and start plucking some horses tails, however. Actually, very little horsehair for bows is collected from live horses, but is usually from animals that were already, um, er, finished using their tails. Not all hair is the same, either. Everything down to the breed, age, and gender of the horse is considered when evaluating the highest quality hair for bows. If you notice that bass players have black hair on their bows, that is because it is coarser than white hair, which allows for more grip on the thicker bass strings.

Even after picking out the best quality hairs, most bow makers go through at least three rounds of trial and testing to make sure that they get the absolute best hair for their bows. But what makes the hair good? Usually they look for absolutely fine, straight hair, usually white because they think it has the best texture for play, and hair with no bends or irregularities. All of this adds up to a very playable bow that "bites" into the string.

"But I'm left handed, can I buy a left handed violin?" 

Alas, there is no such thing. Or, on the other hand (pun intended), all violins are left handed. Every single violinist learns to play with the violin in the left hand, and the bow positioned in the right. If you think of an orchestra with large violin sections, things would get quite treacherous (not to mention visually distracting) if you had people playing in two different directions. With standard, 'right handed' violins, the bow moves upwards to the left. If you had a 'left  handed' violin, the bow would move in the opposite direction, upwards to the right. (It's only funny until someone loses an eye!) In fact, a left handed violinist could have an easier start to learning how to play because they would be able to pick up the complex fingering positions with their dominant (left) hand faster than those of us who are "righties." Although, I'm sure somewhere out in the world there are a few "left handed" violins. Somewhere.

"How did you learn how to play without frets? It looks way too complicated for me!"

This is one of those that just comes down to simple muscle memory. "How did you learn to swim without thinking about every distinct motion?" has the same answer as this question. Practice Practice Practice. After awhile, a violinist doesn't need to look at their fingers to know that they will be in the right place. It's not as hard as it sounds! (and speaking of sound, someone who is learning a fretless string instrument has to use their ears from the very start!)

"What kind of wood do you use to make a violin?"

This question is a little bit more involved than it sounds. Violins are made up of a variety of different woods. The front of the instrument is made out of spruce, and the back, ribs, neck and scroll are made out of maple.

 The fingerboard is made out of ebony, and the pegs can be made out of a wide assortment of materials. Some common examples would be ebony, boxwood, rosewood, or carbon composite.

Bows can also be made out of many different woods. The highest quality are made out of a brazilian hardwood known as Pernambuco. They can also be commonly be found made out of carbon graphite.

 The frog on the bow is usually made out of ebony.
Frog on a French Cello Bow circa 1800

"I accidentally dropped my bow, and it snapped at the head. Are they really that fragile?"

Unfortunately, yes. The bow has to be able to sustain tension from the horsehair and still be supple enough to give bow control to the player. If dropped from even a few inches, it could land in such a way that it would crack or even break. Always take care of your bow as you would your violin (and NEVER use it to 'applaud' a soloist or conductor. We cringe every time we see someone doing this! The simple force of that motion can cause a bow to snap.)

"What kind of glue do you use?"
If you didn't like the answer about horse tails on bow hair, stop reading now, because the answer is ...... horse hide glue. Yes - Horse. Hide. Glue. I know, yuck. But this very traditional glue (Amati, Stradivarius, Guarnerius and ALL the old European luthiers used hide glue!) is a very strong glue that has all the right properties for violin construction. So far, there has not been a synthetic glue that does the job as well. Where does the glue come from? Well... same as the tails, we get it after the horse is finished using it.

"What's that piece of wood that's inside the violin and underneath the bridge?"
Or, fairly often, "What's that piece of wood rattling around inside my violin?"
The soundpost. Standing betweewn the top & the back. A view from inside.

That's the soundpost. It should be standing up inside the violin, near the E string side of the bridge.

"Which is better, an old instrument or a new one?"

There is no easy answer to this question. Instruments from centuries ago, and modern instruments, can have similar sound characteristics and can be compared equally by those characteristics. There is very little structural difference between the two, and, as a result, there is no generalization that can be made comparing the sounds of old and newly made instruments.

Old instruments come with the advantage that they're usually better "settled" than new instruments. New instruments are generally healthier. That is, no cracks or structural damage.

On the whole, the answer really is- Which instrument sounds and feels best to you?

Do you have a machine gun in your case?
No, it's a violin. The Thompson machine gun (machine gun of choice for Chicago's gangsters of old) fit inside a viola case, not a violin case. I have this on good first-hand knowledge from a violin dealer that had a shop in Chicago during the twenties and thirties.

1 comment:

  1. Really nice blog, clean, simple, entertaining and informative. Nice read.
    Keep them coming.