Violin at night

Are old violins better?

This is one of the most popular questions for people interested in the violin. There are no doubt supporters on both sides of the equation, and tests have been setup in the past trying to answer this question, such as the double-blind violin test, which we have included the link to below. But in most cases, there seems to be something fundamentally misleading in the question itself – which violin(s) are you comparing? Jump to conclusion >

This article is meant for the general violinist/student who is looking at getting an instrument for everyday use. And here, we also assume by violins, we mean properly made violins, and not violin shaped objects (VSO). So to put it in plain language, asking the question “Are old violins better?” is similar to asking “Are old cars faster?” Where the “better”, in most cases, are referring to the tonal quality and performance of the violin, rather than historic value, just like “faster” in a car. And the answer to both questions is “well, sometimes”, or “maybe, but not always”, because it depends which violins or cars you are comparing. Let’s take a closer look at the topic.

Going with the car analogy, if you are comparing an old Ferrari maintained in top condition, compared to a new entry level sedan, although I’m not a car expert, I think there’s a good chance the Ferrari may be faster. Similarly, for violins, if you are comparing a masterpiece from Stradivarius or Guarnerius maintained in excellent condition, there’s a good chance that the classic Italian masterpiece is going to be better than most modest new violins. However, that does not mean all old violins are better than new violins. It depends on which old and new violins you are comparing.

It will be hard, and quite impossible to compare all violins ever made. But we can compare the same violin to itself when it is old and new. To do that, we need to understand what happens when a violin gets old. Simply put, two things change as a violin matures – the material (wood), and the interaction of the violin wood as a result of becoming a musical instrument, where the former has a stronger effect on tone than the latter. We will explore each here.

Wood itself, is naturally moist when it is freshly removed from a tree. The wood needs to be dried, naturally, for it to become good tone wood. By naturally, it basically means, as little intelligent deliberation as possible for making it try faster. Examples of such deliberation may include baking, exposing it to lots of sunshine, or putting it in an environment that is unnaturally low in humidity. These deliberations damage the wood structure as it dries, and the  process lessens the tonal quality of the wood. Extreme examples will show that the wood will crack as a result. The most natural way to try good tone wood is to let the wood dry by natural wind, in the area/climate it was harvested from. This process takes about 10 years. This is the first part, where the wood matures.

The second part is where the wood gets made into a violin. In the process of making a violin, many layers of varnish (colour and coating) are added to the wood. Different varnish tries at different rate, but generally, all of it will be tried and integrated into the wood in a 1 – 2 years. And the act of playing and practicing on the violin as an instrument also has effect on the tonal property of the wood. In fact, this is observed across various audio equipment. One example is headphones. If you talk to an audiophile about headphones, they will tell you that a headphone takes time to warm up or “burn-in”. And this is done by simply using it, i.e. playing music on the headphones. What this does is that it makes the headphone diaphragm more responsive, especially to the frequency ranges that it is most often used for. And in human terms, the sound becomes more “open and transparent” and it is like “removing the veil” from the sound. This is the same case for violins, where the wooden sound box functions as the diaphragm, and will benefit from the “burn-in” process. Similar to headphones and other audio equipment, this process does not change the fundamental tonal property of the instrument. It opens up the sound a little more, but won’t make it sound “completely different”. If you listen to a violin previously played lifelong by a master or composer, if listened and compared carefully, you can feel, as a musician, that the tunes they played most often sounded especially “good”. And this is part of the reason why.

Joshua Bell talks about a violin having its previous musicians imprint on it.


So an old violin is always better, right? If we are comparing the same violin, and the old violin is maintained in excellent original condition, then the old violin will most likely have better tonal quality. But if the sound box has been damaged or cracked, there’s a good chance the original new violin will sound better. This is because a properly made violin should have been made from dried tone wood (naturally dried for about 10 years) to start with, and as discussed, the “burn in” effect is a relatively small incremental gain, and not a fundamental shift from the sound signature.

Now that we understand what happens when a violin matures, we are in a better place to answer the original question in the post “Are old violins better?” To make it more clear, we will try answering it from the general violinists’ perspective, and re-phrase it to “Should I buy new or old violin?” This comes down to available budget and value. If your budget is unlimited, then by all means choose your heart’s desire, be it new or old. But for most of us out there, it would good to consider the following factors:

  • do I want to spend more on the quality, or the historic value of the instrument?
  • does the instrument require a lot of cost for maintenance?
  • do I want an instrument established by predecessors or do I want to make my own story with it?

“What if I want to spend on the quality and ease of maintenance of a new violin but want the appearance of a historic instrument?”

This is very understandable, especially for classical musicians, as we all have an appreciation of the historic legacy of art, if not we wouldn’t be here. We at wilisonstrings.com make antique styled violins. In fact, you can send us photos or drawings of your ideal instrument, and we can commission a violin/viola for you with that style.

We hope you enjoyed reading this article and found it helpful. Please feel free to contact us if you have any questions about the violin, and we will try our best to answer your questions.

violinist

Is the bow worth it?

Violins have long been adorned for their beauty, both artistically, and musically. And it is not uncommon that musicians are willing to invest generously in order to hold onto these great instruments, to offer their best performance on stage with their skillful hands. But wait, that’s only one hand on the violin – the other is on the bow.

It is easy for us to think that music comes from the violin, because it does. When we draw the bow and play on the instrument, the sound is indeed coming out of the violin, not the bow (by intuition at least). And without going into a lot of complicated science, engineering, and things that don’t seem to exist in our daily experience, we will try to answer the question, as simply as possible, is the bow really worth it.

Sound comes out of the violin sound box (most of it), and it undoubtedly has a great influence on the final outcome of the sound that reaches our ears. But the sound box/violin itself does not make music. A great musician and an untrained person playing on the same violin will both make sound. One transcending you to the heavens, while the other may… you know what I mean. The violin makes sound, and the musician makes music. And it is through the bow that the musician makes great music that is amplified through the sound box of the violin.

For those of you who are audiophiles out there, you may know what this means already. The action and performance of the bow is the audio source, while bridge serves as an interconnect that brings the signal to the violin for amplification. So even the smallest details from the source becomes significant as the signal is being amplified by many folds.

With the analogy of a painter, the bow is like the paint brush. The painting artist has in his/her mind the vision they want to bring to life. And through the brush that controls and executes various techniques and colours applied, the vision comes to life on the canvas. It is a true that a great painter will likely be able to draw great works even on mediocre or sub-par brushes. But it’s also true that with superior brushes, the artist will be able to define texture and colours much better, and create works at a different level that gives them greater freedom to express their vision.

Is it worth it? It comes hand in hand. One hand on the violin, and the other on the bow. So yes, it’s worth it. With a good bow, you will find yourself having much more colours and textures to work with when playing your favourite pieces. And with mastery over time, you will find that these details, amplified by the violin, brings you to a new level of expression.

violin tailpiece

Choosing the right tailpiece for your violin

There is a vast variety of tailpieces to choose from these days, varying in cost, aesthetics, origin, and materials. So how should you choose the right tailpiece for your violin?

Before answering the question, we need to understand how a tailpiece can affect a violin. It comes down to two things: sound and appearance.

Appearance can be subjective, and we won’t be diving into much detail here, besides that it’s worth noting the more you like the violin, the better you will play on it, and the more enjoyable the experience becomes. When it comes to sound, the type of material has significant influence, provided that the violin is well setup, has a good quality tailcord, and the instrument at hand is indeed a violin, and not a violin-shaped-object. Wood produces a generous and natural sound compared to metal. The difference here is similar to comparing gut strings to steel strings. And similar to strings, of course the quality of the tailpiece itself is important too.

Two factors are especially important to making a good tailpiece: the type/quality of wood, and weight. On top of that, it is also important to consider the match or the synergy between the violin and the tailpiece. Generally, denser/heavier tailpieces, like ebony, produces a darker and more focused tone, while woods like boxwood and rosewood produce warmer and more euphoric tones. Pernambucco tailpieces generally produce brighter and more focused tones. While craftsmanship in terms of appearance does not affect the sound itself, the knowledge and the ability to find the balance between the wood and the weight is essential. So craftsmanship does play a very important role.

Commission a tailored violin with the fittings of your choice:

Violin bow history

Bows, history in the making

The western bow has changed its shape and form over time as technology and the craftsman’s techniques evolve. Such changes have enabled players to develop more advanced bow skills, and ultimately, improve the quality of sound and music they produce. In the video above, Paul Prier from JonPaul Bows gives us a short introduction to bows.

A history in the making

Like any technological innovation, the bow has been evolving over time. The improvements made to the bow allowed for greater strength, flexibility and control for musicians to produce better sounds.

Apart from changes to the shape of the bow, there has also been continuous progress in the material for bow making. Bow makers were able to make new improvements as they experiment with different types of wood for their bows. One of the most celebrated types is the Brazilian pernambuco wood. Its blend of strength and density makes it suitable for making the highest grade of bows that are still widely used to this day.

However, with the advent of carbon fiber nearly thirty years ago, equipment traditionally made from wood and other materials underwent a revolution. One example of the application of this new material is in sports equipment, such as racquet sports and golf. As the technology of carbon fiber continues to mature, adoption of carbon fiber became more widespread. These days carbon fiber is involved in a wide array of commodities made in the highest quality, ranging from aerospace engineering equipment, sports and entertainment gears, to daily live products. And now, carbon fiber has found its way in bow making as well.

A new age in bow making

Bows made in carbon fiber is good news for string players. With the right skills and techniques, the properties of carbon composite fibers can be adjusted and fine-tuned to match and surpass the physical properties of wood traditionally used in bow making. Moreover, carbon fiber is consistent, and its production quality can be well controlled. The result is increased bow performance at a lower cost.

This does not mean traditional bow making from wood has been made obsolete. The knowledge accumulated in the past three centuries combined with modern technology is still essential for making a high quality bow. Coming from a traditional French bow making background, JonPaul Bows has dedicated to the art and science of this trade since 1996. Their US made bows are among the finest bows available. With JonPaul Bows, you can enjoy the latest premium quality bows made by a leader in the field of carbon composite bows.

Bonus: Indestructible, almost…

On a beautiful day, with a touch of comedy, Paul decides to show us what happens when a construction tractor runs over one of his bows.

Although all things can be destroyed, if you try hard enough, this should be about the closest you can get to an indestructible bow. We are confident that your bow will survive a fall, playing in the orchestra pit, or a miscalculated “bow aerobic” where you failed to retrieve in mid-air.

Happy playing.