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A Master Builder

Posted by pick1 on Sunday, February 1, 2009

I have been watching and participating in an argument on this site this week concerning builders. This cat fight was started by a new member innocently asking for a list of current fiddle makers and we took it to World War Three, arguing and defending positions and ideas. Points were argued that a master work should be expensive and an $1800 fiddle could not possibly be any good. Points were argued about power shop tools versus a sharp pocket knife, and an imported white instrument versus an instrument  made by someone who would go to the woods with a chainsaw to begin a build. 

Yesterday, I had the privilege to play one of the best sounding fiddles I have ever heard. The builder is old. I don't know how many instruments he has made in his eighty plus years but its obvious he has mastered the craft of sound. This instrument is to be sold, asking a fraction of that $1800 figure. This builder does not have a shop full of impressive tools and machines. Most of his tools are kept in a cigar box. His finishes are limited to varnishes at a local hardware store, obviously brushed on with arthritic hands. I would bet this builder has never contacted StuMac or International Violin, first, he has probably never heard of them and second it would be long distance. He remembers that tonewoods come from trees, not supply houses.

We defend what we do. We think credibility comes from prices we command or the importance of a musician playing our instruments. We can argue the amount of sawdust we produce someway gives credit to what we put on the market or how pristine finishes make a better sound. Yesterday, I learned a lesson. A masters work does not need an impressive label or an expensive price tag. We could all learn from a man who produces quality sound with a chainsaw and a pocket knife.

5 comments on “A Master Builder”

bj Says:
Sunday, February 1, 2009 @4:02:29 PM

I think you'll appreciate this. It's one of my favorite YouTube Videos, and it's of a fiddle maker--

I own a handmade fiddle that my luthier at first turned his nose up at, when he got his first glance, since nothing is quite perfectly "standard" on it. But when he put the bow to it, his face lit up, and he ended up ripping through three tunes on it before checking the bridge and tweaking the soundpost for me.. There's something much more appealing to me in that fiddle than in the german production fiddle I have, or even the little old french fiddle. They all sound good, but my hand tends to go to the Stockdale fiddle first.

OTJunky Says:
Sunday, February 1, 2009 @4:45:12 PM

Yeah - I read that thread. All those threads have lots of unstated undercurrents that don't pop up to the surface. I do think that some folks in the "retail" trade do us all a real service by intelligently employing whatever cost cutting measures they can to provide us all with affordable, playable good sounding fiddles. And I think they sometimes read Chuck's admiration of custom built instruments as an attack on what they're doing. I don't know if Chuck means it to sound that way - or is just trying to support the builders he admires.

I'm 63 and have had a lot of fiddles pass through my hands over the years. My own view on pricing is that an OT fiddler can get all they fiddle he/she will ever need - strictly in terms of sound and playability - for between something like $800 - $1,200 dollars if you take your time and you know what you're doing. Sometimes you can get lucky and find one for less. If you're in a hurry or don't know what you're doing then you have to rely on the expertise of some seller you trust and you can pay up to a 50% premium for that.

I think the price ranges might be higher for a good Bluegrass or Swing fiddle.

That said, there are more things that go into a fiddles "value" than just sound and playability. If I could afford it, I would probably pay an additional premium to get a fiddle from a maker whose history and reputation I respect, built with materials whose origins I know, and finished the way I want it finished - maybe as much as $1,000.

The only reason I've been reluctant to do this is that I've made it a policy over the years to never own a fiddle that I'm too emotionally attached to - for the same reason that I don't want to own too expensive a car. If I were too own either of these things, I'd spend to much time worrying about and protecting them from the outside world - and I don't like spending time that way. But that's just me.

But there is so many variables that go into any fiddles sound and setup and so much subjectivity in the judgement about tone, that I have trouble buying the argument that a custom built fiddle is always going to sound better than one you might find elsewhere - though I guess a custom built fiddle is guaranteed to look the way you want and to provide you with a story to tell.

Of course, I don't really believe that an original Strad is always going to play or sound better than a countless number of currently available "lesser" instruments or than some instrument built by a good modern maker - so I guess I'm a bit of an iconoclast in this regard.


kubasa Says:
Monday, February 2, 2009 @8:55:54 AM

Yes, it was an interesting discussion. Unfortunately, I think it's just a sad reflection (in my opinion) of what is going on in the marketplace and the economy today. The retailers, marketing folks and all associated channels are simply trying to make a living. I can't blame them for that. Unfortunately, while striving to make a living, they've changed the dynamics and change people's perceptions.

I remember when I was taking viola (yes, viola) lessons back when I was in grade school. My teacher had ordered a new violin from a local man. It was going to take him 1 year to build it. I remember wondering why it would take him that long to build it. Come spring of the following year, she received her completely hand made instrument. It was absolutely beautiful. The wood, the color and most of all the sound. She even let me play it and right then and there I learned an important lesson - that craftsmanship is not something that comes out of a catalog. He also restored antique cars. Some of them ended up in museums and in Hollywood because he was just that good.

Anyway, when I wanted to get back to playing a bowed instrument (not a viola - no offense), I looked around for a nice fiddle but all I could find in my price range in my area were shiny cookie cutter instruments made overseas that just didn't appeal to me. Don't get me wrong, some sounded nice but I like to have a connection with things. I had no connection with these instruments. I do a lot of woodworking and someone said to me, "why don't you just make one". Well, I'd never thought of that but the more I looked into it, the more I liked the idea. A year later, I ended up with an okay instrument that is not a work of art, but I built it and I wouldn't trade it for anything. There's a sense of pride that a person feels when they really accomplish something and that's how I feel whenever I finish an instrument. Course, I've only done 3 so I'm still very much a beginner but that's okay with me because this is just a hobby. I may be wrong but I'd imagine that the same sense of pride is what drives your friend to build his instruments and so he continues building like he's always done without the need for glossy brochures and marketing hype.

Twelvefret Says:
Tuesday, February 3, 2009 @7:51:11 AM

I apprecitate OTJ, trying to understand my position. As a none paid promoter of fiddles, it allows me to be more objective than someone in the retail business.

I have been involved with the medial profession for 27 years. Doctors should and mostly seem to make therapeutic decisions based on defined standards and accepted policies. If this is true in medical arts, its certainly valid in musical instrument building. When a dealer says that the line is blurred as to what a master builder is, that's BS. The problem is is that instrument builders are not forced to prove what they say and document the processes.

While I can appreciate the $1000 price ceiling of Paul's, after seeing the work that goes into a handmade product, $1000 is not that much. If it were possible to take Paul, OTJ, to the shop and allow him to compare what he is accustomed to a custom product, I think he would come away impressed and perhaps communicate with the same passion as I do.

Ozarkian DL Says:
Monday, March 30, 2009 @9:02:07 AM all posts. The worth of a product stems from the mind of the purchaser ( & seller ).
Thnx. fer the URL BJ.

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