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Discover Mid-America — October 2007

No such thing as a
mass-produced fiddle

by Vicki Walker

Vintage fiddles — the antiques can be hundreds of years old and worth thousands of dollars.

Imagine the challenge of a fiddler weaving through a crowd of partygoers on her way to a fall festival bandstand — while cuddling and protecting the vintage fiddle like a mother cradling a newborn.

State fiddling champion, Steve Mason, brings one of his old fiddles to life at his home in Lawrence, KS. (photo by Ron Johnson)

The thought is enough to inspire some festival-goers to stand aside and tip their hat in respect to the musician and musical instrument.

Whether you are a fiddler, a connoisseur of vintage instruments, an heir to an old fiddle or bluegrass fan — fiddles are works of art that carve their own story throughout history.

The makings of a fiddle

As you're dancing a jig at a fall festival or before you climb up in the attic to retrieve a vintage fiddle, you might stop to ask yourself: What is the difference between a fiddle and a violin?

History would reveal nothing, however, as the fiddle and violins are virtually the same instrument.

“The difference between a fiddle and violin is in how it’s played," said Dianne Gillenwater, a classically trained Kansas State Fiddle Champion from Topeka.

Indeed, the only difference is folks who play bluegrass or old-time music refer to their instrument as a fiddle, while those who play Bach and Vivaldi tend use the word violin. Although with the influx of younger players who have been classically trained, and now wish to play bluegrass or Old Time, the two groups will interchange the other’s vernacular.

Most people when they hear the word violin, think Stradivarius. Indeed, the brand is highly regarded. Antonio Stradivari only made 3,000 instruments when he was working during the 1700s, and all but about 300 have been documented and claimed.

But the renowned instrument is a copy of the original violin, which was made by Andrea Amati in the early 16th century.

In fact, all violins are copies of the first fiddle carved by Amati, said Steve Mason, a Lawrence, KS luthier or expert who makes or restores string instruments.

“It is truly replication at its finest,” Mason said.

The five great violinmakers are Andrea and Nicola Amati (father and son), Antonio Stradivari, Giuseppe Guarneri and Joseph Stainer.

Violins were the purview of the wealthy for centuries. The instruments were prized possessions because they were hand-made.

The violin was the “electric guitar” of the 1500s, Mason said. It was tuned in fifths and designed to be the loudest instrument in the orchestra.

A line of fiddles at KC Strings in Merriam, KS, waiting to be played. (photo by Ron Johnson)

Amati’s first violins were made of blonde wood, but since wood darkens with age, when Stradivari began making his violins in the 1700s, the “norm” for vintage was dark wood.

Made from European soft maple and Alpine or Engelman spruce, usually from Bosnia, fiddles are made to last. Spruce is one of nature’s strongest materials (Howard Hughes’ Spruce Goose behemoth airplane was made of spruce.)

Michael Richwine, who works at KC Strings, a violin shop in Merriam, KS, plays and collects vintage fiddles. While walking through the shop, bodies of violins, cellos and basses hang from pegs in the walls and the ceiling, awaiting the expert's restorative touch.

“Violins are made by hand, still," Richwine said. "You won't find violin factories, like mass production."

Designing a masterpiece

Tone is the most important aspect of a good violin, and is complemented by clarity balance and richness. And you get those qualities from the wood, how it is carved, the bass board, the strings and then, of course, the player.

The violin looks like a woman’s body. The head is a scroll, stretching out to a slender neck, curving out on both sides to shoulders that slowly work their way back into a slender middle, then arch back and down to make the hips, ending in a tailpiece.

The “S” holes on either side of the fingerboard, which cradle the strings, let loose the power of the sound.

That sound, for the most part, is right up against the fiddler’s ear, so that tone and getting the power out of that tone becomes all important to be able to project to an audience.

During the Patent Era of the 1880s-1920s, innovation and creativity spurred the creation of new instruments such as the harp guitar. Americans played with the designs of the fiddle, including eliminating details like the bee stings or changing the shape of the S hole.

Around the edge of the violin is a delicate scroll-like detail that curves out at the top of the “waist” of the body. The point at which that scroll curves out and back in is called the “bee-sting.” The scroll is called “purfling” and is hand-carved and a delicate carving to achieve. This may be one reason Americans decided to eliminate it at one time.

The shape of the S hole is carved on either side of the fingerboard, which is where the strings are attached. Sometimes the early American luthiers would make the body smaller or add a fifth string, which adds a low C chord.

A fiddle at KC Strngs being worked on by a luthier. (photo by Ron Johnson)

Johnny Gimble, one of the best-known swing fiddle players in the country and who played with Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys for years, played jazz and swing with the five-string violin.

A five-string fiddle is used a lot in Texas swing and jazz. It allows the fiddler to continue a melody while playing the chords at the same time.

While the five-string fiddle is still in use today, the other innovations were not widely accepted. Tradition won the day.

Violin making and playing are tradition–bound sports. When you think that the fiddle made in 1510 by Amati is virtually the same design made by KC Strings in 2007, it shows the importance of a great design.

The changes that occurred mostly in the 19th century did so to improve tone quality and the need for players to play high notes. A bass bar was added inside for stability and string function. The neck was lengthened by one centimeter. The fingerboard was lengthened and raised. Knowing these changes and when they occurred can help the collector date the instrument.

Most changes happened in the mid-to late-1800s and into the 1900s.

Coming to America

A 100-year-old violin is a youngster, says Mason. But for a collector or musician, the century mark is common for most vintage violins found in America.

During the westward expansion extra items like musical instruments were last on the list to be included in the wagons. However, music, like life, did find a way.

Some of the most bizarre instruments ever created were crafted in the Ozarks. For instance, the cigar box fiddle, which was made of a wooden cigar box, carved down and strung. It quickly became part of the folklore of Missouri.

Music was the way to cross class lines, and the violin was welcomed in all homes – rich or poor. It was the great equalizer.

During this era, more instruments were patented and sold through the Sears catalogue and door to door by Gibson salesman than ever before. Hundreds of thousands of imports from Europe entered the mainstream. The cost of a violin ranged from twenty-five cents to $25.

Luthier Michael Richwine puts his early German violin to work. (photo by Ron Johnson)

According to Mason, every small town had a luthier and all homes had some kind of musical instrument. Without radio, TV, the Internet or iPods, people had to make their own music. People, of course, had been doing so for centuries, but thanks to American ingenuity, they could do it on a grander scale.

Dating a vintage fiddle

Varnish is key to determine the year or era a vintage fiddle was crafted.

Stradivari created a varnish that has become known as Cremona varnish, which was in use until 1750. Unfortunately, his formula has been lost to the ages. It was so good that not only was it used for musical instruments but for just about anything that one could varnish! Scientists today are still trying to figure out the mystery of its properties.

There is an old wive’s tale about how to tell if you have a Stradivarius violin — that is to scratch it. The story says it will heal itself — the scratch will close — the finish is so soft, like skin around a human wound.

Shellac was the finish used up until World War II when the synthetic varnishes were introduced. Knowing the difference between the two can help date the instrument.

Older fiddles are traditionally darker because of the finish used.

The neck of the violin is often a different color from the body due to the use of the old Cremona varnish. On a hot day, because of the properties, it will leave a sticky print of your fingers. So knowing that can put the date on the fiddle to about 1750 or before!

The bass bar, which is a separate piece of wood that runs the length of the body inside the violin, was added in the 1800s.

The lengthening of the fiddle neck was done in the 1850s. All of the changes made to the fiddle were done to gain a greater tonal quality, which would resonate the sound better to the audience.

Another way to date a violin is knowing the violin’s country of origin. For example, Czechoslovakia, which is now Czech Republic. The country was formed in 1919 and it is said that it took citizens ten years to learn how to spell the name of the country. Having a violin with the name of the country misspelled makes dating it to within a decade easier, Mason said.

Tags are another way of dating a violin. The fiddle maker will stamp or tag with a cloth inside the fiddle his name, city and the date. The date was usually handwritten. The tag usually can be seen through the S hole.

However, at the turn of the century, tags were faked on a regular basis, with Nicola Amati and Antonio Stradivari the most popular fakes. Both Richwine and Mason caution collectors and fiddle heirs to understand that everyone says they have a Stradivarius, and almost no one does.

Finding a vintage fiddle

For fiddlers, like many other antiquers, the past is important. And, playing an instrument that has a past is one of pleasures of making music.

Richwine plays a fiddle he bought in a flea market in White Cloud, KS. He paid $300 and today it is valued between six to eight thousand dollars.

“This fiddle was played in Vienna during the time Mozart was performing, about 1765,” Richwine said.

Richwine purchased another vintage instrument at a local estate sale. Made in Markneukirchen, Germany in the 1920s by luthier Robert Doelling, he paid $100. He has seen similar fiddles by this maker offered for $4,500-$5,000 at dealers in Michigan and Virginia.

Most of the vintage instruments on today's antique market were made in Germany between 1880 and 1930. Those were the years when musical instruments flooded the marketplace.

Although some people collect vintage fiddles, musicians all over the country play the antique instruments.

Fiddel collector Becky Pringle says the instruments "sing to her." (photo courtesy Becky Pringle)

Rebecca Pringle, a collector and player, collects many different kinds of vintage and foreign instruments. Her house in Independence, MO, is a virtual museum of music.

Pringle finds her treasures in many different places, from flea markets, swap and shops, antique stores and music shops.

Dianne Gillenwater owns and plays a 1765 fiddle, which she found in a flea market.

“Fiddle collectors like the hunt, like to see what they can pick up and make of old instruments,” Gillenwater said.

However, many fiddles are heirlooms, passed from generation to generation.

Pringle, who played with the Irish band Scartaglen in the 1960s and 1970s, has an heirloom fiddle with a tale.

When she was young, a luthier loaned her a black fiddle when Pringle was in a school band and studying classical music. Built in 1782, the fiddle was stained with Oxblood varnish, which can turn dark with age.

When Pringle played the fiddle, “It sang to me.” It would be 30 years before she would play that fiddle again.

When the luthier died, his daughter let Pringle select an heirloom as a keepsake. She chose the black fiddle.

Pringle, who had left classical music behind in favor of performing of Irish music, said the fiddle had played Irish music, and it felt like home.

"Wood breathes and absorbs sound, so if a fiddle hasn’t played a certain type of music, it must be broken in," Pringle said. "Fiddles have muscle memory."

Richelle Basgall, a professional fiddler from Roeland Park, KS, who has a fiddle originally bought by her great uncle in 1908 in Paris..

“They were making these out of Germany as a fundraiser for the war effort,” Basgall said. “He passed it down to my father and my father to me.”

The fiddle is carved around the body with the Latin phrase, “Viva Fui in Silvis, Dum Mortua Dolce Cano” — which translates into "I live while in wood, I sing sweetly in death."

On the back of the vintage instrument is a delicate carving of a cathedral with the head of the maker, Gaspard Pruggard Duiffo. It was a replica of a violin made in 1510.

However, fiddlers hold a firm belief that instruments should be played and not displayed. Rarely do collectors buy a vintage violin and hang it on the wall.

The reason comes from musicians believing that a fiddle and fiddler are one in the same. The fiddler plays the strings, stroking the notes in a pattern from history; the wood breathes the music and transfers that into the sound that radiates from the strings and out to the audience. It is truly a symbiotic relationship.

Cost of a vintage instrument can range from $100 to thousands of dollars. Cost depends on the age, the quality and the make of a fiddle as well as how much work needs to be done to restore the instrument to pristine performing condition.

Restoring vintage fiddles

Restoring antique instruments is not only an art, but also a centuries-old craft.

Mason describes the difference between a fiddler maker and a luthier or one who restores fiddles: “The first is the writer, the second the poet.”

The work is intense, Mason said, because you are fixing other people’s mistakes.

An ad in a 1902 Sears, Roebuck catalog shows a fiddle outfit on sale for $3.75.

In restoring a vintage fiddle, luthiers often steam the instrument open wide as the glue holding the wood together is water-based. Since wood shrinks with age, glue can come loose. Gently pushing those age cracks together is one way to restore a fiddle. Rarely do they actually add wood to fill a crack.

Mouse holes are common in vintage instruments, especially those that have been kept in the attic for generations. These must be repaired with new wood. But, matching the wood and the finish tests a luthier’s skill.

Restoration experts often use a French polish to restore the shine of an old varnish.

Henry Strobel, of the Salem, Oregon-based Henry Strobel and Son, was one of the first luthiers in the country to set precise measurements for the fiddle's neck, scroll, body and fingerboard in order to make the instrument as indistinguishable as possible for a hand-made instrument. His book, Universal Measurements for Violin Makers, written in 1985, has become the standard for luthiers everywhere.

For it is in the minutiae, the small details, that a true masterpiece is created. Those masterpieces were created hundreds of years ago, and to make them sing again, the luthier applies his skill.

It is that skill that the collector must judge, whether or not a vintage violin is worthy. And if you’re lucky, it just may sing to you.

Vicki Walker is a Kansas City, MO-based writer.

Upcoming ‘fiddle’ music festivals

Music festivals are a great way to learn about vintage fiddles and the people who play the antique instruments. Don't hesitate to ask about them about their fiddle (just don’t ask while they’re playing). After all, fiddlers are notorious storytellers.

On that note, here's a list of some music festivals in the Midwest — Vicki Walker

21st Annual Greater Downstate Indoor Bluegrass Festival
Nov. 9-11

34th Annual SPBGMA Bluegrass America Showcase of Bands
Oct. 11-14

Fall Bluegrass Festival
Nov. 8-10
Mountain View

SPBGMA 24th Annual Newton Thanksgiving Bluegrass Weekend
Nov. 23-25

Oklahoma International Bluegrass Festival
Oct. 4-6
405-282-4446 or 1-877-203-1206

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