Violin Information

The Greatest Makers

The violin family was developed in Italy in the mid 16th century.  They evolved from violas da braccio's (arm viol) family of instruments and the viol family (violas da gamba). The da braccio's were held under the chin and the gamba's were held between the knees like a cello. 

The name "viola", comes from the Medieval Latin word vitula (meaning "stringed instrument").  A violin is a "little viola", and a violoncello (often abbreviated cello) is a "small violone". The bass did not start off as part of the modern violin family as it is a mix of violin and viol. It originally was a 5 string instrument and is still tuned in 4th's today instead of 5th's like the other violin family instruments. Most early basses were Viol shaped.

The violin family may also be partially descended from the lira da braccio and the medieval Byzantine lira. Some only had three strings, were tuned differently, some had frets, the shapes were somewhat different and didn't have the tonal qualities that the modern looking violin has.

The oldest documented violin family instrument to have four strings, like the modern violin, is a viola that was constructed between 1536-1559 by Andrea Amati in Cremona Italy. The instrument  (pictured left) was made for King Charles IX of France who commissioned Amati to construct 24 instruments for him. Violin making spread from there to much of nearby Europe (other cities in Italy, Germany. France, England, Austria and Bohemia). 

The violin immediately became very popular among street musicians and the nobility.  "The Messiah" or "Le Messie" was made by Antonio Stradivari in 1716 and remains in near new condition.

The Amati viola pictured, I had the good fortune to examine and play on several occasions from 1973-1981 when it was owned by my first violin making teacher, Willis M Gault. Some of Gaults tools and forms and this viola are now at the National Music Museum in Vermillion, South Dakota. 

For more information on the history of the violin click here

Some of the more famous violin makers between the 16th century to the 18th century.  These of course also make them the most copied.

  • Andrea Amati (1500 - 1577) - Cremona
  • Gaspar da Salo (1542-1609) - Brescia
  • Hieronymus Amati I (1561-1630) - Cremona                                                
  • Nicolo Amati (1596-1684) Teacher of Antonio Stradivari - Cremoma
  • Andrea Guarneri (1626-1698) - Cremona                                                        
  • Pietro Guarneri (1655-1720) - Mantua                                                            
  • Giuseppe Guarneri (Joseph filius Andreae) (1666-1739) - Cremona               
  • Pietro Guarneri (1695-1762) - Venice                                                          
  • Bartolomeo Giuseppe Joseph Guarneri - del Gesu (1698-1744) - Cremona
  • Antonio Stradivari (1644-1737) - Cremona
  • Alexander, Nicolo I and Ferdinand Gagliano (1700-1800) - Naples
  • Giovanni Battista Guadagnini of Piacenza (1711-1786) - 4 cities in Italy
  • Jacob Stainer (1617-1683) of Absam in Tyrol (Austria) 

 

Basic Construction

See the Violin Making Picture Diary for a step by step photo tour.

A violin is made with a spruce top (also known as the soundboard, top plate, table, or belly), maple ribs(sides) and back, 2 end blocks, 4 corner blocks (some lower quality instruments skip these), neck, bridge, soundpost, strings, and other fittings like a chinrest, tailpiece and pegs. In all about 50-60 parts. The violin has a distinctive shape with its "hourglass" shaped body and the arched shape of its top and back. The body has two upper, two lower, and two narrow center or C-bouts that provide clearance for the bow.

The violins sound depends on its shape, the wood it is made from, the thicknesses of both the top and back, and the varnish which coats its outside surface. The varnish and especially the wood continue to improve with age. Because all of these parts are natural, it is impossible to completely control what the sound of a completed instrument will be like. However, if properly made, a good violin has a complex sound because of the overtones produced by all the parts working together.

     One or two piece back? 

One of the most often asked questions string players ask is “is a one-piece back better than a two-piece back?”

The answer is complex, but basically No, one is not really better than the other.

How a two piece back is made:

Most violins are made with two-piece backs because the wood can be cut from a tree only slightly wider than the instrument, and many similar pieces can be cut from the same tree.

To make a two-piece back, the wood is cut out of the log in a wedge (see image above) from the edge of the tree towards the center (Quarter cut). This wedge is cut down the middle, opened like a book, and the thick edges are then glued together. The grain pattern in this shape is the strongest and most stable orientation for a violin back.

How a one piece back is made:

A one-piece, quartered back is cut similarly to the two piece but from a single piece wide enough for the entire back. This back has the same grain as a two-piece back, but needs to come from a tree that is more than twice as wide. Backs like these are fairly rare because of the size tree that is needed, although some of the American maples easily grow big enough to get this orientation.

A slab-cut back is sawn through the log from one side to the other with the center of the board bisecting close to the center of the tree. A slab back tends to produce a deeper, rounder, smoother sound. Many great-sounding  instruments have been made from slab-cut wood, however slab backs are not as stable as quartered backs, and over time the arching will deform.

It makes no difference as to whether the back is made of one or two pieces, but rather that the wood is good and the maker is talented enough to understand how to treat the different pieces to make a quality instrument.  The main reasons for using a one-piece back on an instrument have to do with tradition and beauty.

Slab backs are rarer and can be very beautiful. The grain in a slab cut back can look like contour lines on a topographical map. Because the wood of a slab cut back is a little weaker, they are usually left a bit thicker than quartered backs.

The extra cost of the wood adds to the cost of the finished instrument. Making a perfect center joint in maple can be a difficult thing to do well, but may not take any longer than the constant redrawing of the center line while making a one piece back to keep the sides symmetrical. A two piece back is actually the strongest option as a single slab cut piece is more likely to change shape over the years.

  How the Sound is Produced                                                                                                                                                                                                                                               

  When a string is vibrated, these vibrations run down the length of the string at the pitch created by the tension it is under, the thickness of the string, the material it is made from and the length of the vibrating portion of the string. It then travels through the bridge. The action of the violin bridge is essential to the tone of the instrument. Parts of the bridge act like a spring while other parts provide a direct path for the sound. If poorly cut, a bridge can easily dampen the sound significantly.  The vibrations then travel through the top.   Underneath the treble side of the bridge below the top is the sound post which extends from the top plate to the back plate of the instrument. This side of the bridge rests almost on top of the post which acts as a pivot for the sideways rocking motion of the bridge.                       

Nicolo Amati (1596-1684) Teacher of Antonio Stradivari                                                       
Andrea Guarneri (1626-1698)                                                                                           
Pietro Guarneri of Mantua (1655-1720)                                                                                      
Giuseppe Guarneri (Joseph filius Andreae) (1666-1739)                                                     
Pietro Guarneri (of Venice) (1695-1762)                                                                       
Giuseppe (del Gesu) Guarneri (1698-1744) 
Antonio Stradivari (of Cremona) (1644-1737)
Alexander, Nicolo I and Ferdinand Gagliano  
Giovanni Battista Guadagnini of Piacenza (1711-1786) 
Jacob Stainer (1617-1683) of Absam in Tyrol                                                                             
Nicolo Amati (1596-1684) Teacher of Antonio Stradivari                                                       
Andrea Guarneri (1626-1698)                                                                                           
Pietro Guarneri of Mantua (1655-1720)                                                                                      
Giuseppe Guarneri (Joseph filius Andreae) (1666-1739)                                                     
Pietro Guarneri (of Venice) (1695-1762)                                                                       
Giuseppe (del Gesu) Guarneri (1698-1744) 
Antonio Stradivari (of Cremona) (1644-1737)
Alexander, Nicolo I and Ferdinand Gagliano  
Giovanni Battista Guadagnini of Piacenza (1711-1786) 
Jacob Stainer (1617-1683) of Absam in Tyrol                                                                    
Nicolo Amati (1596-1684) Teacher of Antonio Stradivari                                                       
Andrea Guarneri (1626-1698)                                                                                           
Pietro Guarneri of Mantua (1655-1720)                                                                                      
Giuseppe Guarneri (Joseph filius Andreae) (1666-1739)                                                     
Pietro Guarneri (of Venice) (1695-1762)                                                                       
Giuseppe (del Gesu) Guarneri (1698-1744) 
Antonio Stradivari (of Cremona) (1644-1737)
Alexander, Nicolo I and Ferdinand Gagliano  
Giovanni Battista Guadagnini of Piacenza (1711-1786) 
Jacob Stainer (1617-1683) of Absam in Tyr                                                               
Nicolo Amati (1596-1684) Teacher of Antonio Stradivari                                                       
Andrea Guarneri (1626-1698)                                                                                           
Pietro Guarneri of Mantua (1655-1720)                                                                                      
Giuseppe Guarneri (Joseph filius Andreae) (1666-1739)                                                     
Pietro Guarneri (of Venice) (1695-1762)                                                                       
Giuseppe (del Gesu) Guarneri (1698-1744) 
Antonio Stradivari (of Cremona) (1644-1737)
Alexander, Nicolo I and Ferdinand Gagliano  
Giovanni Battista Guadagnini of Piacenza (1711-1786)                                                                    
Nicolo Amati (1596-1684) Teacher of Antonio Stradivari                                                       
Andrea Guarneri (1626-1698)                                                                                           
Pietro Guarneri of Mantua (1655-1720)                                                                                      
Giuseppe Guarneri (Joseph filius Andreae) (1666-1739)                                                     
Pietro Guarneri (of Venice) (1695-1762)                                                                       
Giuseppe (del Gesu) Guarneri (1698-1744) 
Antonio Stradivari (of Cremona) (1644-1737)
Alexander, Nicolo I and Ferdinand Gagliano  
Giovanni Battista Guadagnini of Piacenza (1711-1786) 
Jacob Stainer (1617-1683) of Absam in Tyrol
Andrea Amati (1500-1577)                                                                                                      Hieronymus Amati I (1561-1630)                                                                                     
Nicolo Amati (1596-1684) Teacher of Antonio Stradivari                                                       
Andrea Guarneri (1626-1698)                                                                                           
Pietro Guarneri of Mantua (1655-1720)                                                                                      
Giuseppe Guarneri (Joseph filius Andreae) (1666-1739)                                                     
Pietro Guarneri (of Venice) (1695-1762)                                                                       
Giuseppe (del Gesu) Guarneri (1698-1744) 
Antonio Stradivari (of Cremona) (1644-1737)
Alexander, Nicolo I and Ferdinand Gagliano  
Giovanni Battista Guadagnini of Piacenza (1711-1786) 
Andrea Amati (1500-1577)                                                                                                      Hieronymus Amati I (1561-1630)                                                                                     
Nicolo Amati (1596-1684) Teacher of Antonio Stradivari                                                       
Andrea Guarneri (1626-1698)                                                                                           
Pietro Guarneri of Mantua (1655-1720)                                                                                      
Giuseppe Guarneri (Joseph filius Andreae) (1666-1739)                                                     
Pietro Guarneri (of Venice) (1695-1762)                                                                       
Giuseppe (del Gesu) Guarneri (1698-1744) 
Antonio Stradivari (of Cremona) (1644-1737)
Alexander, Nicolo I and Ferdinand Gagliano  
Giovanni Battista Guadagnini of Piacenza (1711-1786) 
Jacob Stainer (1617-1683) of Absam in Tyrol
Andrea Amati (1500-1577)                                                                                                      Hieronymus Amati I (1561-1630)                                                                                     
Nicolo Amati (1596-1684) Teacher of Antonio Stradivari                                                       
Andrea Guarneri (1626-1698)                                                                                           
Pietro Guarneri of Mantua (1655-1720)                                                                                      
Giuseppe Guarneri (Joseph filius Andreae) (1666-1739)                                                     
Pietro Guarneri (of Venice) (1695-1762)                                                                       
Giuseppe (del Gesu) Guarneri (1698-1744) 
Antonio Stradivari (of Cremona) (1644-1737)
Alexander, Nicolo I and Ferdinand Gagliano  
Giovanni Battista Guadagnini of Piacenza (1711-1786) 
Jacob Stainer (1617-1683) of Absam in TyrolMajor changes in the construction of the violin occured in the 18th century, specifically in the length and angle of the neck, as well as a bigger and longer bass bar. Most older instruments have had these alterations, and are no longer in the same state as when they made.  Today, instruments from this "Golden Age" of violin making, specifically those made by Stradivari and Guarneri del Gesù, are the most sought-after instruments by both collectors and performers.How the sound is produced When a string is vibrated, these vibrations run down the length of the string at the pitch created by the tension it is under, the thickness of the string, the material it is made from and the length of the vibrating portion of the string. It then travels through the bridge. The action of the violin bridge is essential to the tone of the instrument, parts of the bridge act like a spring while other parts provide a direct path for the sound. If poorly cut, a bridge can easily dampen the sound significantly.  The vibrations then travel through the top.   Underneath the treble side of the bridge below the top is the sound post which extends from the top plate to the back plate of the instrument. This side of the bridge rests almost on top of the post which acts as a pivot for the sideways rocking motion of the bridge.

Inside glued to the top almost parallel to the strings and underneath the bass side of the bridge is a long, thin wooden strip called the bass bar. The bass side foot of the bridge transfers the energy from the strings to the top plate of the instrument. The bass bar helps to transfer that energy to the large top plate.

The vibrations then travel down through the sound post and are reflected off the inside of the back of the instrument. It bounces around inside and makes its way out through the sound or "f" holes. The actual character of the tone is affected by many things. The quality of the strings and what they are made of, the wood selection of the entire instrument, the workmanship with the thicknesses regarding the particular pieces of wood being used, the body shape and arching, the varnish materials and application, the cut and setup of the bridge and post and other components, the quality of bow and hair and the player themselves.

Anything that is glued on the instrument is done so using animal hide glue (almost always horse hide glue), a traditional glue that has been used for centuries, it is a strong water based glue that is reversible.

The purfling (a decorative black/white/black striping) runs around the edge of the spruce top and provides some protection against cracks that might originate at the edge. It also allows the top to be more flexible and allows the top to act like a bellows. Some instruments have a scratched on or painted on purfling and this is a sign of a poor quality instrument with the exception that some of the old masters inlaid the purfling in the top and scratched it into the back, which did work out as the back does not move the way the top does. The back and ribs are typically made of matching maple, with a fancy pattern referred to as "flame," "fiddleback" or "tiger stripe". This wood is in general referred to as curly maple.

The neck is also made of maple matching that of the ribs and back. The fingerboard, a naturally dense and black wood typically made of ebony. Sometimes, on very low quality instruments it is made from a lighter and softer wood that is stained or painted black.  Fingerboards have a small lengthwise "scoop," or concavity, slightly more pronounced on the lower strings, especially when meant for gut or synthetic strings. This scoop allows the string to vibrate more freely and helps to prevent buzzing against the fingerboard.

Some old violins and some that are made to appear old or needed so because of damage, have a grafted scroll, sometimes noticeable as a glue joint between the pegbox and neck. On many copies of old instruments, these lines are actually scratched on.  Unless an instrument has been left set up with its original baroque neck angle and length, any instrument made after around 1820 has had their neck grafted to a slightly increased angle, and lengthened when the tuning pitch of the orchestra changed to a higher pitch. The neck graft allows the original scroll to be kept with its instrument which helps to maintain its value.

The bridge is a carefully cut piece of maple. It forms the lower point in the vibrating length of the strings, while the nut forms the high end. The bridge transmits the vibration of the strings to the body of the instrument. The curve or arc of the top of the bridge where the strings rest, hold the strings at the correct height above the fingerboard. This curve allows for the bow to play separately on each string with the bow. The Sound post which can be seen through the treble f-hole is often referred to as the "soul" of the violin and must be positioned just right for the best sound. It is made from spruce and set into the instrument with a special tool that allows for adjustment. It should never be glued in. It fits precisely inside the instrument between the back and top, below the treble foot of the bridge, which it helps support. It also transmits vibrations between the top and the back of the instrument. The soundpost, can be adjusted slightly in any direction in connection to the bridge to change the instrument to be brighter, darker, or have a faster or slower response.

The tailpiece holds the bottom ends if the strings to the lower bout of the violin with the addition of the tailgut, which loops around the endpin and fits into a hole in the bottom rib and block. The E string on the violin, will usually have a fine tuner - a metal lever which is adjusted by a small screw that is turned by the fingers. Fine tuners can also be used on the other strings, if the strings are made from steel or synthetic materials. On student instruments, the tuners are often built into the tailpiece. Some people use just one tuner while others use them on all four strings.

At the scroll/neck end, the strings wrap around the tuning pegs in the pegbox. Strings have a colored "silk" wrapping at both ends that is used for identification purposes and to keep the strings from slipping on the pegs. The pegs, which are set into matching tapered holes in the peg box walls, allow the pegs to be loosened and tightened to set the proper string tension. The pegs must fit very precisely so that they may both turn and stick at the perfect place. The tailpiece end of the string has a ball or loop depending on the strings construction and this end attaches to the tailpiece into a hole or to a fine tuner. This end of the string is also wrapped in silk and color coded. Knowing the two end colors of the string, can often identify the brand and string pitch.

Strings were first made of sheep gut often referred to as catgut. Modern strings are made from gut, solid steel, stranded steel, or synthetic materials like nylon, and are wound with various metals. Many E strings are unwound, either plain chrome or gold-plated steel, but some are wound which can help make a warmer sound.

Strings have a limited usable lifespan; other than the winding of a string coming undone from wear, a string will go "false" which has an effect on intonation, or when it just goes dull. The lifespan of a string also depends on how much one plays. The E string tends to break or lose its tone more quickly than the others. In general strings last from 3-12 months.

The range of the violin is from the G below the middle C on piano to the highest note of the modern piano. The highest notes, however, are often produced by natural or artificial harmonics.

Children use smaller string instruments than adults. Violins are made in "fractional" sizes, and are available in 4/4, 7/8, 3/4, 1/2, 1/4, 1/8, 1/10, 1/16, and 1/32 sizes. The sizes below 1/4 were developed (in the early 1900's) along with the Suzuki program for violin students as young as 3 years old. Fine hand crafted fractional sized violins smaller than 1/2 size, are extremely rare. A 3/4-sized instrument is not three-quarters the length of a full size instrument, but has a relationship to the air volume inside the body. The body length of a 4/4 violin is about 14", a 3/4 violin is about 13", and a 1/2 size is approximately 12 1/4". With the viola, sizes are referred by body length in inches rather than fractional sizes. A "full-size" viola is generally in the 16"-17" range.

Occasionally, an adult with a small frame may use a  "7/8" size violin instead of a full-size instrument. Sometimes called a "lady's violin", these instruments are slightly shorter than a full size violin, but often tend to be decent quality instruments capable of producing a sound that can be similar to full size violins. 

The violin bow is adjusted at the frog end with a screw adjuster which tightens or loosens the hair. Just forward of the frog, a leather thumb wrap and winding protect the stick from wear and provide more grip for the player's hand. These winding's may be made from wire, silk, or whalebone (on old bows) and imitation (plastic) on new ones. Some student bows just have a plastic tube instead of the leather grip and winding.

The hair of the bow comes from the tail of a horse. Applying rosin to the hair makes the hair grip the strings, causing them to vibrate. The wood stick is traditionally made of Brazilwood or Pernambuco (a higher grade and thus cost of Brazilwood).  Some student bows are made of fiberglass. In recent years graphite, carbon-fiber and other man made materials have been used for the stick and at comparable qualities to wood bows of the same price range.

The standard way of holding the violin is with the left side of the jaw resting on the chinrest of the violin, and supported by the left shoulder/collarbone, sometimes with the assistance of a shoulder rest - the chinrest is a late 1800's invention. The strings are set into motion by pulling the rosined hairs of the bow across the strings (arco) or by plucking them (pizzicato). The left hand fingers change the vibrating length of the string when the fingertips press the string down firmly against the fingerboard, thus changing the length of the string.

Violin or Fiddle - There is no real difference between the violin and fiddle, only how they are played and how they are set up. Any violin can be a fiddle. Typically a fiddle is set up with steel or ropecore strings and has a flatter bridge for easier string crossings. Some people who play fiddle like an instrument with fewer overtones but the professional fiddlers I have worked with have used just about any type of sound. Most fiddle players, because of the harsh conditions in which they often play, don't spend huge amounts on a violin. Fiddle players, just like violinists, spend a lot of time experimenting on which strings they like better. Unlike the violin, most fiddle players don't spend as much to upgrade their bow as the technique for fiddle playing doesn't utilize some of the advantages that you get with a high quality bow. One misconception, that many old time fiddle players have, is that leaving the rosin dust on the violin helps with the sound. The only thing that this does is to damage the instruments varnish and to keep the violin from vibrating. This old tale may have arisen from a fiddler whose instrument had too many overtones for his liking and the rosin dust buildup deadened the instruments overtones. Even for learning fiddle, I would recommend taking lessons. The basics are the same and when you get to the point of moving in the direction of the fiddle, I would still recommend getting a teacher, although the availability of fiddle teachers is limited. Using a teacher will allow for much quicker learning and avoiding bad habits that will prevent quality playing.


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