Consider the following:

“In order to assess tone properly, a player usually must have a keen musical instinct developed from long years of experience in playing a stringed instrument and also hearing many instruments played by others. Tone tastes vary. Some prefer soprano brilliance while others favor darker alto tonal shades. The basic requirements for tone are an easy and responsive speaking voice, carrying quality, equal sound volume on all four strings, and agreeable tone color. This formula is the essence of normal judgment in the selection and valuation of an instrument regardless of its age or original derivation.”

Violin Iconography of Antonio Stradivarius by Herbert Goodkind (page 46)

By and large, players develop a keen musical instinct through years of experience because it usually takes time to come to a clear sense of what to look for when listening to and judging instruments. The reason it takes time is three fold. One: We are usually not taught how to evaluate instruments so we rely on our preferences. That is, we either like it or we don’t like it. Two: We have no guides or specific things to be aware of when we are actively evaluating an instrument. Or the criteria and standards we have with which to evaluate an instrument are either inadequate or deficient. Three: We hold views or notions about instruments, which are false, only because everyone else is holding those views. This prejudices us and makes truly judging musical instruments extremely difficult.

What follows are my own criteria for judging bowed stringed instruments, although they apply as well to harpsichords, clavichords, and fortepianos. These criteria come from direct observation of the sound of great antique violins, pianos, harpsichords, and organs.

Carrying Power - to completely fill a very large hall

Projection of tone - the sound goes out to the listener

Great Volume - to play concertos with a large ensemble

Ease of Response - ready to sound at the will of the player

Balance of sound across the strings

Directness of sound - to create the feeling of immediacy in the sound

Evenness of sound up and down the fingerboard

Depth of tone - to create the effect of Paradox

Intense Resonance - to fully support the softest sound produced

Clarity of tone - to be easily heard in a complex texture

Penetration of tone over large distances without loss of quality

Breadth of tone - to surround the ears of each listener

Flexibility of response -reflects the bow's slightest motion

Subtlety of tone - mirrors the soul of the player

Brilliance - to excite or stir the listener

Color - conveys every timbre and affect intended by the player

Tonal Reserve - a sound that keeps on giving, never caving in

Strong Sensation of Pitch - makes playing in-tune easy

Ringing tone - gives the effect that the instrument is singing

Intensity of tone - creates a feeling that the instrument is alive

Sweetness of tone - to gratify the player as well as the listener

Focused or Centered tone - creates a solid core to the sound

Buoyancy of tone - a lightness of effect...the sound floats

Velvetiness - the effect that the sound is integrated and smoothly blended

Resiliency of tone - sound appears to bounce, when needed

Stability of tone - the tone/pitch holds steady on long slow bow strokes

Personality - the voice of the instrument feels human

Fullness of tone - the ears and mind are filled with the sound

Strength of timbre - the sound color is clear and powerful

Ease of producing harmonics

Each note begins with a Cercare dela Nota (pronounced: chair-car-eeh - a 17th century Italian technique in which a lower note rises suddenly and silently to a main note)
Overglow-the effect of the sound continuing to sound into the next note creating a seamless gesture of notes...otherwise known as legato in music.

Distortion Resistance - strings resist being distorted

Powerful Upper Register - imitating the high notes of a singer

Ease of making a good sound when bowing Close to the Bridge

Able to generate full resonance even using a very slow, soft bowing stroke

I offer the following as sound samples of some of my violins as a way of providing you something with which to observe many of the above traits. Obviously, some traits, like carrying power, tonal reserve, penetration and power can't be determined by a recording but others, such as balance, resonance, ring, intensity, focus, et cetera can be assessed with a relative degree of reliability, which is why the violins by Stradivari and Guarneri have such a profound impact on recordings of music when those instruments are used. They clearly sound better than the instruments by more recent makers.







It is important to understand that each of the above traits is the direct result of acoustical principles rightly applied. So, to rightly judge musical instruments, it is best to look first to what a maker did right. And only then, weigh that against what is missing or sensed as not working for you.

In every case, when evaluating musical instruments, it is important to trust your own senses more than what other people say. But that too can be tricky because there are many factors, especially in the bowed stringed instruments, that influence the way the instrument sounds. The list below ranks these factors from the most influential or important to the least influential and important.

1. The Concept of Sound in the Imagination of the Player.

2. The Bow and the Room

3. The Acoustical Principles-there are 13 in all, which create the traits in the list above.

4. Varnish and the manner of preparing the violin to be varnished.

5. The Set Up of the instrument, which includes: soundpost setting, bridge cutting and fitting, string selection, string spacing, tailpiece adjustment, after-length adjustment, nut adjustment, fingerboard preparation, neck size and finish, and Tuning peg fitting and adjustment.

6. Playing-in of the instrument.

7. Type and Quality of the Wood and glue used in the instrument.

8. Design of the instrument, which includes: the shape, the modeling, and the placement and size of the f holes.

9. Age of the instrument.

10. The Quality of the Workmanship with which the box was made.

11. The Quality of the Appearance and the Finish/Polish.

12. The Manner of Presentation of the Instrument
Most people tend to trust their sense of sight because it is with that sense that they most immediately encounter the world outside of themselves. To trust your sense of sight first and foremost in matters of reading, art, sculpture, movies, photographs, garden design, etc. makes absolute sense. But, in all matters acoustical, the sense of sight is of little or no value or use, and will lead to prejudice if you are not careful. Obviously, if you are hard of hearing or deaf, then you must rely on your sense of sight when it comes to musical instruments. Otherwise, you are well advised to set your sense of sight aside when evaluating musical instruments or your eyes will prejudice your ears. Once you have heard and tried out a violin, then look at it carefully to see that it is made well and to get a sense of the overall aesthetics of the maker’s art.

Therefore, cultivate, develop, and learn to trust your own sense of hearing when evaluating musical instruments. Saying this may seem a self-evidently reasonable, and all too obvious a suggestion, but it is a plain fact that most musicians don’t do this. That is why its importance can’t be stressed enough. What I propose to do is to take the above list and go through each factor and briefly explain how that factor influences our perception. Furthermore, I propose to start with the last or least important factors first because that is too often how we encounter musical instruments for the first time.

Factor 12. The Manner of Presentation of the Instrument

We have all heard that first impressions are the most important. That is why sales people take so much trouble to foster an environment which will make buyers feel comfortable and special. They know that when people feel comfortable and special, they will feel more confident when parting with their money. As long as you know that you are going to have to pay more for anything which is presented in such a way as to make you feel special, and you don’t mind paying more just to have that feeling, then enjoy the service you are paying for. However, most musicians are not so wealthy that they can afford to pay to support the added costs which go into maintaining an establishment which will make customers feel comfortable and special.

If you are making a serious effort to get the best instrument you can afford, visit every dealer in your area to see what they have in stock, visit with every violin maker in your vicinity to hear what their instruments sound like, and feel like to play. Also, visit dealers of rare instruments to hear and play some antique instruments. Just remember that the manner in which musical instruments are presented for your inspection will influence your decision about what instrument to get if you are not fully aware of how it will cost you.

The one real value which a dealer can provide to you is unwasted time. If your time is at a premium and you have a dealer who is both reputable and energetic, that dealer can find an instrument like the one you are describing much faster than you can. The more clear you are about what you are looking for, the faster that person can find an instrument with which you will be happy.

Factor 11. The Quality of the Appearance and the Finish/Polish

Consider the following quote from one famous musician:

“He who values a bird for its feathers, and a horse for its blanket, will also inevitably judge a violin by its polish and the color of its varnish, without examining carefully its principle parts. This course is taken by all those who judge with their eyes and not with their brains. The beautifully ‘curled’ lion’s head can improve the tone of the violin just as little as a fancifully curled wig can improve the intelligence of its living wig stand. Yet, in spite of this, many a violin is valued simply for its appearance...” from the Introduction §3 in "A Treatise on the Fundamental Principles of Violin Playing" by Leopold Mozart 1756

When you evaluate musical instruments by how they appear, it may make you feel safe. But think about it! Musical instruments are primarily intended to be heard. If you don’t learn to judge them primarily on how they sound, you will likely be deceived into choosing something that looks good to you but sounds mediocre.

However, there are some things which have a visual component which also have an influence on the sound. One, the smoother the surface of the violin, the more high overtones will be heard. A less than smooth polished surface tends to sound less brilliant. Two, high gloss varnishes tend to be harder and low gloss varnishes tend to be soft. Be aware that hard varnishes can be made to appear dull, but soft varnishes are very difficult to make glossy. Harder varnishes tend to be brighter sounding. And soft varnishes tend to be duller sounding. But, again, lacquer is very hard and very dull sounding. In spite of this it is used on many factory made instruments because it is easy and cheap to apply and polish. But lacquer makes the sound choked. The advantage of lacquer is that it is totally reliable for the manufacturer to use because it is predictable and they know that most people who buy violins don’t know any better and probably won’t pay for a more sophisticated finish. The color of the varnish is totally unimportant.

Shellac or French Polish can be a beautiful finish for furniture but it is much too stiff and hard a material to use on a violin. It makes the sound tight and inflexible. And every true connoisseur of violins understands that the best varnish for a violin is an oil varnish because that is what the ancient violin makers used and those instruments are still the best ever made.

Factor10. The Quality of the Workmanship with which the box was made

This also has little or no influence on the quality of the sound as long as the joinery is sound and the parts have been properly glued together. If the workmanship is too lax, the durability will suffer when the instrument comes apart because the joints are not tight and the surfaces were not made to match or meet precisely enough. However, even the best made instruments can have the top or back come unglued due to changes in the weather as the wood swells and shrinks with changes in the humidity. If the workmanship is precise and careful, that in and of itself will not guarantee that the instrument will sound good. It will only guarantee that people will think that the workmanship is good. When you view the violin with a wholly unromanticized point of view, a violin is just a box with a fancy shape that has 4 strings on it and a way of changing the pitch of those strings. The only thing that really elevates a violin from the status of a “wall hanging” to musical instrument is the quality of the sound. To an unsophisticated listener, even a wall hanging can sound good. But in every unsophisticated listener there is lurking a very sophisticated listener. It only requires a certain number of comparison “taste tests” to cause that hidden listener to emerge and develop a way of articulating heard experiences. There is a good reason, after all, why we use the phrase “tell the differences” to refer to those who are sophisticated. Sophisticated listeners are those people who can “tell the differences” verbally about what they are hearing.

The true quality of a violin is not at all dependent with how well the box is made. For argument’s sake let’s say that that statement is false. That would mean that every well made violin would be as good as a Stradivari or a Guarneri violin. We know that such a thing is totally rediculous. The reality is that the quality of a violin depends on the maker’s knowledge and skill in the Art of Acoustics not on how well crafted the box is.

So what are the drawbacks of “Good Workmanship”? Good workmanship, without the benefit of the Art of Acoustics, usually translates into a tight, pinched, hard edged kind of sound. This is because instrument makers who place a great deal of value in the precision of their workmanship tend to not place as much value on the precision of their acoustical thinking. Consciousness of the disparity tends to make such workmen more conscious of the need for an extremely high level of craftsmanship to make up for the disparity. The result is work that is self conscious. The feeling of the sound of self conscious work is tightness, hardedgedness, and pinchedness.

The main advantage of good workmanship is that it makes people who don’t trust their ears feel more confident about something well made because it relies on the false logic “that if it looks good, if must sound good.” The truth is, good sound is usually made by workmen who actually spend a great deal of time and energy thinking about cause and effect in sound and experiment a great deal to try to create an instrument that sounds good according to their standards and criteria. Generally speaking, the criteria which makers hold as their standard is what they are personally able to achieve. In this regard, makers and players are quite alike, that is, the criteria which they hold as their standard is what they are personally able to achieve.

Does this mean that good workmanship is not desirable? No! But why settle for good workmanship when you can have great workmanship. Great or masterful workmanship is characterized by four distinct attributes.

One: It is always dimensional and complex.

Two: It always appears neat and easy.

Three: It always appears direct and deft.

Four: It is always right the first time every time.

Anytime you encounter masterful workmanship it is a true pleasure to observe because it never appears fussy or overworked. It is a pleasure because it feels perfect without actually appearing so.

As for bad workmanship, well, I have personally seen 19th century European factory made instruments hold together which were so indifferently made that they didn’t even have corner blocks. So from a workmanship standpoint an instrument has to be really badly made for it to fall apart. This means that workmanship doesn’t really count for much when evaluating violins. As long as a violin has all of its parts properly made and accounted for and those parts look to be well made and neatly assembled, then the instrument should not be discounted merely because the purfling is not flawlessly applied or the carving of the scroll is not a perfect volute. If these were the standards of perfection in quality which all instruments had to live up to before being considered, then you would be obliged to discount a good number of violins made by Giuseppi Guarneri “del Jesu”, because some of his instruments appear to have been made rashly and in a most unworkmanly like manner.

It is the sound which must be crafted in the most workmanly manner, and it is the sound to which Guarneri was the most attentive of all violin makers. But neither he nor Antonio Stradivari were able to make every single instrument sound at the same high level they achieved in their greatest masterpieces. They merely knew how to make more masterpieces than any other violin maker of that or any other time.

Factor 9. The Age of the Instrument

Age is more important to the quality of the acoustics than the manner of presentation, the appearance of the finish, or the quality of the workmanship. The older an instrument is, the more stable all of its parts have become and the more “cured” and hardened the varnish has become. These changes which age brings means that the sound you hear now will likely be the sound you hear a year from now or 10 years from now. That assumes that the instrument has been “played in.”

New instruments continue to change due to stresses of tension from the strings bearing on the top. The varnish needs time to oxidize and harden and to polymerize and become tougher. The wood needs to be exercised so that its natural disinclination to make a sound is made more yielding and pliable. Beyond these factors just mentioned, the effects of age are negligible in spite of the fact that people, ever since the 16th century, have been touting age as the most important factor needed to make an instrument sound good. Let’s back up and take hard cold-blooded look at the assumption that instruments are good because they are old. If it were true, then all the instruments made prior to 200 years ago should be equally good, don’t you agree? After all, they are all equally old. Well, we know that that is not true. Today, we know that violins made in England, France, Austria, Germany, and Bohemia during the first half of the 18th century are not as good as violins made in Italy at the same time. And in Italy, the Cremonese violin makers are generally considered to have made better violins than the makers working in Milan, Naples, and Venice. Furthermore, if that assumption were true, then the best violins made in the early 19th century in France should have had fully long enough to become great violins. But they are not, and it is not for the want of being played. Also, we know that, but for a few exceptions, the instruments made in the 16th century are not as good as those made during the 17th and 18th centuries. Yet, following the logic of the false assumption, those instruments should be significantly better than violins made in the 18th century because they have had 100 years to improve even more.

We know that wine improves with age. Therefore, it seems only good to think that violins also improve with age. But not all wines improve with lying around for a long time. And wines that are held too long past their ideal age can turn into vinegar. Stews too improve with age. A stew made fresh is usually not as good as the same stew served the next day, once the flavors have been allowed to marinate into all the ingredients. After the third day, the stew starts to turn bad as molds and bacteria begin their work on it. Practically speaking, misapplying knowledge from one thing to another is not a good idea because it can lead to a host of false conclusions and notions.

So, what is the reality? The reality is that good sound is the result of knowing how to apply acoustical principles...in the same way that gourmet food is the result of knowing how to apply the principles of good cooking. The best instrument makers, like the best chefs, are the most skillful at applying their knowledge of acoustical principles. The reality is that by the end of the 18th century knowledge of the acoustical principles employed by makers like Stradivarius and Guarnerius had all but disappeared. From then on, makers mostly copied the work of the great masters. However, copyists usually only copy what they can see and the acoustical principles are not visually obvious enough to draw the attention of a copyist. The acoustical principles, to be known, need to be deduced from the heard effects for which they are the cause. Once a maker knows what all the acoustical principles are and has figured out how to apply them, he or she can build extremely high quality sounds in any kind of instrument. The effects of age help establish whatever quality of sound a violin begins with. If the quality is high, age makes that quality even more obvious to players. If the quality is low, age can’t help raise that level of quality.

Factor 8. The Design of the instrument, which includes: the shape, the modeling, height of the ribs, and the placement and size of the f holes.

The design of an instrument has a far more powerful influence on the quality of the sound than age, workmanship, finish and presentation put together. The aspects of design can either be governed by whim or by acoustical principles. When they are governed by acoustical principles, then copying the design down to the last detail will cause some of the acoustical principles to find their way into the instrument, if only by accident.

If a maker fully understands the reasons and principles behind every detail of the design, then he or she would have no need to make copies, except as a marketing strategy...that is, because violinists want to own a copy of either a Stradivarius or a Guarnerius. However, these “labels” can be misleading. The design of a Stradivarius or Guarnerius will not result in an instrument that sounds like the original, unless, that is, the maker knows and understands all that Stradivarius or Guarnerius knew and understood.

But let’s assume that what I have just said is not true. Then every instrument passing itself off as a copy of a Stradivarius or Guarnerius would sound great, exactly as the originals sound. Well, we know that that is not at all true. In fact, every copy made of the designs of these two great makers has failed to measure up to the original. Occasionally, some copies at first appear really good, almost as good as the original, but time and playing-in reveals the weaknesses in the copy and reestablishes the true worth of the great originals. In such cases, it is not the instrument that changes so much as it is the judgment of those who initially thought the instrument was as good as the original. Judgment alters with the fading infatuation with a new toy. Does this mean that all these features in the design of a violin aren’t that significant? No, indeed! They all contribute to the total overall quality of the sound. But they, in and of themselves, are not capable of guaranteeing a truly outstanding musical result.

Factor 7. Type and Quality of the Wood and glue used in the instrument.

Violin wood is primarily priced and sold on the basis of two criteria. One is age. The other is called straight grain. Age guarantees a certain state of dryness. Straight grain ensures viewers that the wood has no obvious, hence disturbing, peculiarities that make those who judge musical instruments with their eyes feel unsettled. When wood is old it is thought to become more dimensionally stable. This is true in that it takes about 5 years for the volatile hydrocarbons in the wood to evaporate out. That is a good thing. Beyond five years, wood only gets older, not necessarily better. Straight grain allows the possibility for selling a violin which has little true musical worth...because those who don’t know any better tend to assume that if it looks good, it must also sound good.

For the best possible result, wood should be selected on the basis of more than 15 criteria before being acceptable for use in a violin, none of which involve age or straight grain. What can be determined visually in the best wood is the ratio of winter wood to summer wood. Beyond that, the other variables are acoustically determined.

As for glue, very few glues actually fail to hold the parts together. The real question is how much sound does the glue suck up? Hide glue is the best because it is so hard that it can’t absorb sound energy and ruin the sound of the instrument. White and yellow glues are the worst because they are soft and act as a damper on the sound of the violin. They also are subject to something called “creep”. Creep is the tendency of a glue to very gradually flow when under tension. The parts under tension move apart or move in opposite directions. Hide glue does not exhibit this fault.

Factor 6. Playing-in the instrument.

The important influence playing-in a violin has, on the perception of the quality of the instrument, is something almost everyone can agree on. The question is this. Exactly what does playing-in a violin do acoustically to influence the sound and how much is needed to bring an instrument to its fullest potential?

Here’s how it works. Playing-in has a pronounced effect on people’s perception of how a violin sounds and plays. This is because we humans are unsure about how to evaluate experiences that require the use of our ears. The reason for this is simple. We can shut our eyes, pinch our noses, and keep our mouths shut to avoid sensing with those senses. But not the ears. Our ears are permanently open. We hear everything within earshot of our ears. The reason we don’t notice everything we actually hear is that we learn to be very selective about what we listen to. This makes our ears the doorway to our Souls. The very nature of our Souls is dictated by how we listen and to what we pay attention using our ears. Learning to listen in a truly unbiased and pure (being free of expectations, prejudices, notions, and desires) manner is extremely difficult because it involves mostly unlearning ways of using our ears which we have acquired at great effort since childhood. The best musicians and musical instrument makers are those who have learned the hard way to listen truly and purely to sound and music. And by doing so, they have learned to trust their ears implicitly.

When we learn to trust our ears, we discover how marvelously competent they are at hearing absolutely everything and how amazingly incompetent our intellect is at figuring out and explaining what it is we are hearing. Where playing-in is important for the perception of the sound of a violin is that the act of playing-in attunes our ears ever more keenly on everything in the sound of the instrument. We learn to hear the instrument more and more for exactly what it is and how it is doing its job. We discover more and more how it responds to different bows, how it behaves under different literature and management of the bow from piece to piece. And we evolve, over time, an idea of what the instrument can and can’t do. The more it can do well, the higher we hold the instrument in our esteem. The less it measures up to our standards of quality, the lower it stands in our estimation.

However, there are, indeed, a few things that happen physically to an instrument as it gets played in. First, like anyone who has undertaken a rigorous exercise program, the initial stages are difficult until the body has learned to move in an integrated manner. Playing-in a violin allows the instrument to “learn” to sound on all its pitches. It “learns” to make soft sounds and loud sounds. It learns to sound fast notes and slow, etc. The violin needs time and playing for the wood and varnish and strings to move or vibrate in a manner that is integrated instead of disparate.

Playing-in a violin that is good will result in its goodness becoming more obvious.

Playing-in a violin that is mediocre will result in an easier to play mediocre violin.

Playing-in a poor sounding violin will result in a better bad sounding violin.

Playing-in a great violin will reveal over time exactly how superior that particular violin really is.

How good, bad or indifferent the quality of the sound of the instrument is when it is new and unplayed, that doesn’t change over time except that it becomes clearer, more obvious, and more integrated. Integrated here is used in the same way the cooks understand the word.. It means blended. The longer a spaghetti sauce simmers, the more its flavors mingle and become integrated into one highly dimensional flavor. So it is with violins when they are played-in.

All the parts, surfaces, and coatings become accustomed to vibrating together.
Integration generally means that the sound will be smoother, be easier to produce, ring more, and have more depth. It won’t make a raw crude sound sweeter or an unfocused sound more penetrating. It won’t create intensity in a flat lifeless sound or make up for an inferior set up. And it won’t magically turn a weak sounding instrument into a bold powerful sounding violin. All playing-in will do is to make all the initial traits of a violin more obvious. If the initial traits are wonderful, with a year or two of playing-in, the violin will sound even more wonderful. If the initial traits are disappointing, a year or two of being played-in will merely increase the disappointment.

Playing a violin in definitely has a more of a profound effect on the sound of an instrument than the type and quality of the wood (as determined by the standards of the market) or glue used in the instrument, than the design of the instrument, which includes: the shape, the modeling, and the placement and size of the ff holes, than the effects of age on the instrument, than the the quality of the workmanship with which the box was made, or the quality of the appearance and the finish/polish. and the manner of presentation of the instrument. This says more about the true nature of the relative unimportance of the nonmusical matters as they relate to sound than the intrinsic value of playing-in itself says. Yet, too often these nonmusical matters are the most important matters on the minds of players when evaluating violins.

Another question arises. What about ease of playing? Obviously, the more played-in a violin is, the easier it is to play. But this is all relative. Players who customarily play on mediocre instruments expect all violins to play as easily as their own instrument, not thinking to ask if their instrument can meet the demands of someone who customarily plays on a Strad or a Guarneri.

Here is an interesting statement made by Ruggerio Ricci in the liner notes of the LP recording he made for MCA Records (R63 1314) MCA-2537 back when LPs were still being made, on 15 Famous Violins made in the 18th century by Cremonese and Bresian violin makers, titled The Glory of Cremona. Quote:"A Stradivari generally requires a more gentle and coaxing approach than does a Guarneri. With a Strad the note change is often more fluid. The sound of the Guarneri, on the other hand, has more core and often permits greater intensity in playing. One can dig with the bow and sob or break on the note as Italian tenors do. There is more of a note break, as in a wind instrument. Yet there are many intangible factors. For instance, who is to say why one instrument demands more vibrato than another? Generally speaking, the more output and resource an instrument has, the more difficult it is to play. Ultimately, it is the player who must adapt himself to his violin if it is to respond to its best advantage."

Factor 5. The Set Up of the instrument, which includes: soundpost setting, bridge cutting and fitting, string selection, tailpiece adjustment, after-length adjustment, nut adjustment, fingerboard preparation, string spacing, neck size and finish, and Tuning peg fitting and adjustment.

Set up can make or break the impression a violin creates in the mind of a violinist, but it can’t transform a mediocre violin into a great violin. A good set up can make any violin more comfortable to play than it would have with a poor set up. A good set up can make any violin more even to play than a poor set up. A good set up can improve the feel a player experiences when playing the violin. It can bring out the best of every instrument and reduce the feeling of tension and stress in the left hand of the player. The importance of these improvements ought to not be underestimated.

Every violinist needs to experience at least one extremely well set up instrument early in their lives so they know what a well set up violin feels like. That single experience should not come too early or the awareness will not be sufficiently educated to know the difference. Nor should that single experience happen too late, otherwise the player will become accustomed to playing on poorly set up instruments and never develop a sophisticated taste for a high quality set up.

The size of the neck should be finally determined only after a violin has been selected and the decision to purchase it has been made. Players with small hands will only feel comfortable with a neck that is on the thin side. Players with large hands will feel comfortable with a neck that is more massive. Players who are very sensitive to the size of the neck need to have this work done by the finest set up specialist they can afford. Players who make a decision to acquire a violin primarily on the basis of how it feels at the neck to play should be aware that such a decision is made on a non acoustical basis. At the same time, once a neck has been reduced for one player, the violin will only feel comfortable to a player with a similar hand size as the player who ordered the neck reduced to increase their own feeling of comfort. This means that if a decision has been made to acquire a specific violin and to have the neck reduced in size, the chances for reselling the instrument, even if it is a really good instrument, will have been materially compromised.

There is always a danger when customizing anything to one's self that no one else will want the same exact thing. Those who can afford to alter every instrument they own to match their personal requirements, can probably also afford to permanently own every instrument they have altered for them. Inexperienced players need to understand that, until they have the earning power to own a genuine Stradivarius or Guarnerius, they will need to be able to resell every instrument they buy. They need to remember that every other player ought to be as fussy about every violin they are considering owning as they themselves are. Therefore, it is healthy to be somewhat circumspect about certain matters of set up as being accomodatable or not acceptable. We humans can get used to many things. What we can’t accommodate ourselves to, we should be better off avoiding altogether, especially where violins are concerned. Merely because something feels weird, uncomfortable, different, unusual, or intense is not a sign that that thing is inferior. Take the feeling of string tension, for instance.

The better a violin is the more stiff the strings feel to press down to the fingerboard. A professional violinist once related to me that he had just returned from Genoa, Italy where he played the Paganini Guarneri del Jesu violin. He said that the strings were so stiff feeling that his finger tips were bleeding after only 30 minutes of playing on that violin! Even when the distance of the string to the fingerboard is close, stiffness in the feel of the strings will not diminish. This phenomenon is independent of the diameter of the strings, the material of which the strings are made (to some extent), and the pitch and length of the strings. The phenomenon is related to the way the acoustics of the box have been executed. The more pure the acoustics have been rendered, the stiffer the strings will feel. The more impure the acoustics of the instrument, the more flabby the string will feel. The best instruments always have a significant stiff feeling in the strings. This phenomenon is related to the musical effect of “reserve” in the sound. Stiff strings resist being made to vibrate by the bow. This means that the stiffer the strings are, the more the instrument can be pushed by the player to produce ever increasing levels of sound. Instruments that have little stiffness to the sensation of pressing the strings or bowing the strings will have a definite point after which the strings will no longer tolerate being driven by the player. These instrument won’t get any louder after that threshold has been reached. The lower that threshold is, the more you can be sure you are playing an inferior instrument.

Be aware too, that many extremely fine instruments have been made, especially in the 16th and 17th centuries, the strings of which do not feel as stiff as those instruments made by the best Italian violin makers of the 18th century. These instruments are inferior only in that they are not “concert” violins. However, they pull their own weight in the orchestra pit, in a quartet, or when used with other Baroque instruments. But compared to most modern made instruments, even strings of these earlier Baroque instruments feel stiff. Players need to pay attention to this phenomenon as it will be one of their best signs for an instrument of quality. They must also pay attention to the feeling of excessive height of the strings above the fingerboard. Broad, vigorous players usually like to have their strings higher above the fingerboard than those of players whose personalities are of a more refined nature. The better a violin is, the stiffer the feeling of pressing the strings is, the lower the strings can be to the fingerboard without buzzing against the board. Good players like to be able to play on top of the string instead of playing on top of the fingerboard. If the strings feel stiff enough, even a lowish setting of the strings above the fingerboard will feel adequately resistant, to being pressed down, to a vigorous player.

The issues of tailpiece adjustment, soundpost setting, bridge cutting and fitting, string selection, string spacing, and after-length adjustment would require an entire book to discuss in detail as to what is appropriate. However, a highly qualified set up person knows how to make these adjustments intelligently and quickly and a valued violin should only be adjusted by one who knows what they are doing. It suffices to say that these matters should never be taken for granted. A bad set up can make a great instrument appear incompetent just as a superior set up a mediocre instrument appear credible.

Most players prefer to play instruments which are easy to play, present no limitations on what they can do, and offer no meaningless resistance to being played. Given a choice between a balanced sounding mediocre violin with a great set up and balanced sounding superior violin with a mediocre set up, I have found that most players will opt to play the instrument with the best set up. The reason is that instruments which are comfortable to play create the best technical impression about the player when he or she does not have to worry about feeling awkward while playing. If players feel comfortable, they tend to assume that they are playing better, even when the actual sound they are making is feeble, thin, and pinched because the instrument is not very good. This observation is not peculiar to string players. Some of the greatest organs in the world have what can only be called difficult or unmanageable actions, heavy and sluggish. Despite the extremely high quality of these instruments, they are avoided by most modern organists because they have become accustomed to playing on instruments which offer no special or meaningful resistance to having their keys easily depressed. The result, predictably is that “button punching” has become a central musical aesthetic for organists. The same is true for playing other instruments including the violin.

Set up is something which every violinist needs to become involved in, if not personally then intellectually. Those players who understand the importance of the set up and understand the basic principles behind a careful and “polished” set up will likely be found playing the best set up instruments around. Players who neglect to understand the importance of set up, get accustomed to playing on poorly adjusted and poorly setup instruments. Learn as much as possible about set up by studying it from the point of view of being an end user. Any string player who is willing to learn things like bridge adjustment, soundpost setting, tail piece adjustment, peg easing, string replacement, etc. can save themselves, over an entire lifetime, the price of a reputable mid 19th century violin in repair costs and fees. However, any string player who wishes to learn to adjust his or her own instrument would be wise to buy a cheap violin to do the learning on before they apply that knowledge to their own professional instrument.

Factor 4. Varnish and the manner of preparing the violin to be varnished

Almost everything written about the violin in the last 200 years mentions the importance of the varnish as the determining factor in the quality of a violin. Therefore, nothing further need be said about the importance of varnish except to amplify the observations made by Simone Sacconi in his book, The “Secrets” of Stradivari. He carefully observed the physical properties of the varnish on over 350 Stradivari violins. His observations should be taken very seriously if you want to learn what those physical properties are. Too often violins are summarily cast aside because there are visually disturbing imprintations in relatively new violins. Since ease of being imprinted is one of the main observations Sacconi makes about the varnish found on Stradivari violins, it is important for a properly varnished new violin to have a varnish which shares every property of the varnish found on the greatest violins ever made..including ease of taking an impression.

An extremely high quality violin varnish requires “the strong heat of the sun” to properly cure or dry (as taken from a letter written in 1638 to Galileo from a Father Micanzio quoting the nephew of Monteverdi) And even when such a varnish is totally dry, until the materials in that oil varnish have oxidized and polymerized, the film is very tender and responds to heat and humidity very easily. It takes about two years for oxidation and polymerization to harden the film to make it less impressionable. Yet, the varnish will chip when scratched and melt when overheated. This means that the better a varnish is, the more care needs to be taken for the instrument during its first years...just like a newborn infant. Failure to take such care will result in damage to the varnish, hence to the appearance of the violin, and lower the resale value of the instrument for the short term.

When new instruments are varnished in films which are not easy to impress, chances are those instruments are varnished with such films because the maker doesn’t want his or her instruments to be judged faulty because of an imprintable varnish. Chances are, too, that the maker will have short changed the instrument in other ways which are deleterious to the sound of the instrument.

Therefore, take the trouble to read and memorize everything Sacconi wrote concerning the physical properties of the varnish of Stradivari and adjust your thinking to conform to those observed properties. Otherwise, your ability to rightly judge violins will be materially compromised.

Though it may come as a surprise to you, the varnish is not the most important factor in determining the quality of a violin. Ole Bull, the great 19th century Norwegian violinist, in his book, Notes on the Violin, asserted that the manner of proportioning the parts of the violin was far more important. He was not very clear about exactly what a violin maker had to be doing to realize that manner of proportioning. But he felt very strongly about it. Perhaps the following will shed some light one what he meant.

Factor 3. The Acoustical Principles

There are 13 acoustical principles which govern the business of creating a highly enhanced tone quality in any instrument. They are the foundation of all the great instrument making since the 14th century. These principles govern the actual proportioning of the parts of a musical instrument. Without these principles, musical instrument