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Custom made or Old?


Karla
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As some of you know I have just started to play the violin. I purchased a 1981 German model 2.5 months ago and have been playing like mad. (Sometimes it sounds like mad too)

I have been playing guitar now for almost 16 months and had a custom made classical guitar made for me in that time. I also own a high quality manufactured guitar and finally a 100 plus year old one. All of the guitars are classical and all have their good and bad points. That is except my handmade classical one. That one just doesn't have any flaws. It plays perfectly and is the most versitile guitar I've ever played.

I know that one day I shall be upgrading my violin and have been following the threads on this with interest. I have been targeting vintage and older models but am now thinking about my guitars. While the tone on my 100 year old guitar is quite sweet with the old wood, it has a lot of flaws and doesn't have the complexity in the overtones that my new one does. I have played and listened to numberous 50 plus year old guitars and feel the same way about all of them. Nothing beats the new technology for the complexity of the overtones.

My question is this. Is this also true of the violin? Will I have a better time finding the perfect tone by having one made then looking for vintage ones? (Yes I know the instrument has to open up some before it is at it best)

Also one other question if I might sneak this one in. I found this amazing violin at a store for 400 bucks. It has a solid quilted maple back and tightly grained tiger strip maple neck and scroll. The top looks to be spruce. Inside I note that it was made by someone in WA state in 1964. It is easy to play and the tone is better than almost any student model I've played but not exceptional. Would this be a good investment purchase for later resell? Most custom made violins I see are in the 1K plus range. The instrument is really nice to look at to me but I don't know much about them.

Thanks for all your opinions (I'm sure there will be many and varied) as it all helps.

-Karla (still a newbie)

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Since no one else has jumped in, I'll guess give it a shot.

Are you looking at about $1K or so? If so, I think your biggest challenge would be finding someone who does commissions/custom work. Most instruments in that price bracket are factory or shop instruments, worked on by several people.

Commissioned instruments have their pros and cons. Violins are so idiosyncratic; a maker's violins may share certain characteristics in tone, but you can never predict with certainty how yours will turn out. It's a matter of taking a gamble, and having a lot of confidence in the person's work. My husband commissioned a violin several years ago, after trying several times to buy one particular instrument by that maker. That fiddle wasn't for sale, so he ended up commissioning one as close to it as possible. One of the advantages is that the maker studied the way he played, took some measurements, and made the neck to fit his hand. As a result, he has a violin that's larger in dimension than his others but just as easy to navigate. On the down side, it took time... two years from start to finish, and the varnish was quite soft for at least another year. As it turns out, he's delighted with it. However, he had another modern instrument previously (by a different maker) that *didn't* develop as he'd hoped, and ended up selling it. So it just depends.

Unless you're really set on a particular maker and know exactly what you want, I'd start by visiting all the shops and trying loads of existing instruments first -- both old and new. Chances are good you'll find something you like.

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Other than good master-built old violins (not mass-produced commercial) which will cost $$$, it is possible to end up with something old and exceptional - from a tonal point of view - by carefully selecting an older German or French trade fiddle and then having it modified or re-worked as necessary. The selection will have to be made by somebody who has the knowledge and experience to know what to look for regarding dimensions, model, arching, quality of wood, etc. Re-working any old trade fiddle won't necessarily produce the desired result.

New instruments always have some disadvantages tonally compared to (good) older ones. There is no substitute for the effects of age.

Either way, old or new, re-worked or not, I doubt that you will find your ideal violin for much less than 4K.

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"carefully selecting an older German or French trade fiddle and then having it modified or re-worked as necessary"

This poses an interesting situation. Rather than buying new wood, is it possibly better to buy a 'heavy' well grained production violin that is a 100 years old? Then disassemble, regraduate, and rebuild completely. Do you think that makes a better violin than starting with newer wood (<10 years old or unknown age)? I'm 'sort of' doing that now with an old Czechoslovakian violin with carved-in bass bar. But, I would have never thought of purposely trying that on a German or French violin.

Regis

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If your only consideration is sound, my answer, based on my own personal experience is an unqualified "yes". But, keep in mind that such a rebuilt instrument will not have a market value which will reflect the amount of work put into it. The only reason I do that kind of thing on a fairly large scale is that it makes economic sense in South Africa. I pretty much charge for everything I do the same figure in the local currency unit as what a similar job in the US would cost in a US$ figure, but the local currency is worth 1/7 of a US$. So, what would cost a local customer of mine the equavalent of US$1000 would most likely cost US$7000 if the same job were done in the US. In short, a rebuild including re-graduation, new bass bar, neck reset, new pegs, new fingerboard, nut and saddle, soundpost, bridge, tailpiece, chinrest and strings I do for the equivalent of about US$450. Over here that's decent money.

The most important thing is to choose a worthy instrument. It is actually not that common to find such instruments with arching and channeling which have the potential to be turned into something special. Also, many Czech trade instruments - expecially if they are less than about 60 years old - have a type of spruce which does not work tonally. The summer growth is very hard, and this results in a violin with a brash, unsophisticated tone. I have however worked with Czech trade fiddles which had a more normal type of spruce, and they can be made to sound quite nice.

Two things which I didn't mention, but which are equally important - a neck reset involving a shim under the neck root to increase the overstand is almost always necessary, and sometimes the ribs are very thick. This is difficult and time-consuming to remedy.

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Quote:

Also one other question if I might sneak this one in. I found this amazing violin at a store for 400 bucks. It has a solid quilted maple back and tightly grained tiger strip maple neck and scroll. The top looks to be spruce. Inside I note that it was made by someone in WA state in 1964. It is easy to play and the tone is better than almost any student model I've played but not exceptional. Would this be a good investment purchase for later resell? Most custom made violins I see are in the 1K plus range. The instrument is really nice to look at to me but I don't know much about them.


If your intent is to buy the fiddle to make a profit on it in resale, I'd advise against that, unless you have the expertise to look at the fiddle and decide what it would be worth all fixed up and you also have the knowledge, tools and materials to fix it up properly. Without such knowledge and expertise, you might well be spending another $400 or $500 to get it into tip-top shape, and find that in tip-top shape it's barely worth the $800 to $900 you have invested in it.

Fiddles selling for a couple hundred dollars are easy to sell. A classified ad will probably work. Selling a fiddle in a private sale for $1000 that's worth just $1000, retail, is hard to do. Why would someone pay full retail from a private seller?

On the other hand, if you want to buy the fiddle for your own use, and it sounds good, is in good shape, is set up well and has more or less standard dimensions, then $400 may be a good deal.

As a private individual (non-dealer, non-maker), buying cheap fiddles with the hope of reselling at a good profit is a good way to end up with a house full of cheap fiddles that no one wants.

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Well, guitars and violins are very different animals. While violins get better with playing, it's not the case with guitars, unless you change their tops entirely (that's why most of all old guitars have lost their original tops).

Most of the Italian art works we see today (including violins) were made by comission of the Catholic Church and nobles. But as a maker, I have to agree that violins come to light differently. I have a close friend that is an old top player. Sometimes I take some of my instruments to him. He describes some as "soloist" intruments and some as "chamber music" violins. Well, as player, I have to agree with him, and in general top soloists prefer the type described as soloist (it just ocurred yesterday, when I showed 3 violins to the soloist Benjamin Schimid, from Austria). Soloists have some requirements that I find commom. But there are some very good players that prefer the "chamber music" type (they are easyier to play too).

That's why I allways prefer to have some violins with me to be tested by players, but I do know that some makers can't do that for many reasons.

Karla, if you are still a newbie, I'm still just a member!

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Whew... I just got back from town and I hardly know where to start. I am learning so much.

First many thanks for the informed answers. Not too many people understand the fact about soundboards and guitars and it is the reason that the old ones sound boring to me. The complexity is gone from the tone after some time. If this isn't the case with violins than it might be worth checking into the older ones still.

I bought a 1981 German made one 14 or so weeks ago when I first started. I bought it by trusting my ear and listening to about 50 violins all being played in one day. I paid just 575 bucks for it. I don't have any price limit on a violin and would be willing to spend 100K if the tone did 100K worth of pleasure for me.

When I bought my German (starter) violin, I knew it was just a starter violin. That said, I discovered today that it is a WAY good one. My teacher has offered to buy it from me on several occasions and I now know why. I went to a few violin stores with my trusty violin to hear some examples and get a feel. I played many of them and even the much pricier ones were no match for the tone of my 81 German one. I did not try anything over 2K but I did that the fist day and still liked this one better.

So with this experience I am breaking down some of the paradigms that seem to surround this world of violin. The first one is that I was told by several people that the bow had more affect on the violin than the violin. They told me to spend more money and effort on bow selection. I learned today that while that might be true, I must also like the tone of my violin to start with. I would never offer this advice to a person starting out I think.

Secondly I learned that not all bows make a difference I played lots of bows today (all in the 500 and under range) from all over the world, old and new. Only one of them made a significant difference to my violin. That one was a used one and when I put it to my violin it made the tone deep and dark. This is really cool because the graphite bow that I normally use makes my violin play brighter. I bought the old bow and have already spent some time with the two bows playing each of my songs. (I only have a few songs in the 12 or so weeks that I've been playing) Anyway, I am discovering that I really like the darker tone for some of the songs and I really like the brighter tone. So I am learning that the bow can make a big difference too.

I can't wait to play some more with all of this. I also went back to the store where this handmade instrument was for 4 hundred. It is so pretty that I really wanted to buy it but I just couldn't get over the mediocre tone it produced. Not even for 4 hundred dollars. My friend said I should buy it as a wall hanger, but I am not interested in that just yet.

Custom made violins go for 5-10K around here. I looked at one at the handmade instrument show last month for 10K that I really liked. I didn't really care for how it sounded though. I didn't give it a really fair shake though because I just heard it in a noisey hall. Because the show had guitars too I was too distracted to really do violin shopping. This show happens every year though and we have a huge number of luthiers around here who will custom build a violin for me. I am pretty picky about how it sounds at the other end though and wonder if I have a chance of getting one that I will like.....

I am still a newbie because I have only been playing for so little. (I started the violin at the end of FEB) I have no clue at all how the titles and stars happen on our profiles. I am a WAY beginner here.

Thanks again all for the input.

-Karla

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Well Karla, you are in the right path. Playing different violins and keeping an open mind is a good way to understand violin sound. Violins sound is an aquired taste. You have to play and listen to many many violins in order to form a table value to compare instruments. We do that all the time uncounsciously. We know this cake is prety good because we compare it with thousands we have sampled. The same ocurrs with violins. The day before yesterday I played a Villaume violin for the first time, and talked about it with the soloist that plays this violin. Now I have incorporated the Villaume sound to my "sound encyclopedia".

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Thank you for that input too. Today I learned some more about all of this. I asked my teacher at the lesson about if a really, really good bow could upgrade my violin's sound really really a lot. He goes into his shop and pulls out some bows. None of them really meant anything to me. He then pulled out his own personal bow and while the sound didn't get affected 100x (it cost 100x more than my own bow) the way I could play was definately affect by that many times. I could hardly play badly. So now I think I understand how the bow fits in all of this. It isn't that it aurally affects the tone of the violin so much as it affects how darn good the player can play.

My teacher also informed me (much to my disappointment) that I will indeed need to upgrade when I start to move down (or is that up) the neck. He might be right. We decided that I had about 1-2 years to think on all of this. In the meanwhile I am going to build up my encyclopedia.

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Karla,

In my experience, a good bow can make a violin sound different. I expect you'd have to pay more than $500-$700 to get into the area where you'd often run into bows that would sound different on a decent instrument. I suspect that the higher you go in price, the more often you'd run into a difference, given a decent-to-good instrument.

As you found out, they also affect how easy/difficult it is to do different things. Most bows are compromises of some sort. A bow that is very lively and responsive in the hand may not be able to handle as much power as a stiffer, stronger stick. When buying a bow, you have to decide what you want to do with it and whether or not you can adjust your bowing technique and style to what the bow wants.

As your needs and technique change, you may discover that what you need or want in a bow changes as well.

The same applies for violins. In your position, I'd be hesistant to spend a lot of money on a violin right now because it's likely that if you stick with it for long enough, what you want in a violin will change. In your position, I would be happy if my next violin lasted me 3-5 years. More would be great of course, but I'd settle for 3-5 years.

And one day when you're in the market for a *really* good bow, you might want to take a shopping trip to Port Townsend, WA. There seem to be a lot of good bow makers who hang out up there.

However, given that you're a beginner, I wouldn't worry too much about it right now. I'd get a reasonable wood bow or shell out $200 for a good, consistent carbon fiber bow and work with that for a while. Some of the CF bows in that price range are very consistent and deliver high quality for the price.

- Ray

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Hey thanks for the information. I actually have a graphite (or is it carbon fiber?) Whichever one is more expensive... that I bought with the violin for 200 or so dollars. It is my favorite bow because I can play the fastest with it. I bought the bow that makes my violin sound darker because for 150 bucks the sound difference was pretty cool. It was even more amazing on the cheaper violins. This bow just has a really good tone. It isn't a whole lot easier for me to play though. My teacher's bow was in the 5-10K range and that one was amazingly easier to play. It felt like the bow had shocks and just absorbed my bad technique. The sound wasn't amazingly better tonality wise but because I had more control, the sound would ultimately be way better I suppose.

Yes, it is probably good to wait and I do inted to do just that but I hope to get educated between now and then. Because violins are harder to figure out than guitars (the range of quality is amazing) I was hoping to narrow down my prospects to either old or handmade.

I was able to buy my forever guitar within a few months of study. This guitar is concert level quality and the tone is just perfect for me for the genre I play. If I know what music I intend to play can I assume my tastes won't change in tone?

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