Dec 30, 2012

Violin Modifications by Rowell & Siders Luthiery

I'd like to explain a little about the process of "tuning" the body of a violin. In previous posts I eluded to this process but didn't go into much detail.

Using the following techniques can turn a $200 violin into a $2000+ violin. The good thing is that you can get a very fine violin that is 90% finished for very little money. The bad thing is that it still takes about 10 hours of complicated work to get that 10 fold increase in quality.

The cost of making one from scratch is a thousand dollars and as many hours of work. The obvious option of just buying The 'Lady Blunt' Stradivarius of 1721, currently the most highly valued violin in the world (almost $16,000,000) is beyond the scope of this article, and the budget of anyone I know personally.

  In this particular case, the violin was a pawn shop Chinese violin made of good woods but mass manufactured and with very poor sound quality. All the musicians that tested it for me mentioned it's "tinny", "flat" sound and poor playability (difficulty in avoiding the dreaded "screech").

Standard wisdom dictates that overly thick top and bottom plates are probably the culprits. This makes it a good candidate for improvement as overly thin plates cannot be made thicker (ideally).

First the violin was disassembled, the front, back, neck and finger board removed. We then test the front and back plates against traditional specifications for thickness, weight and most importantly tone.

Two techniques are used to evaluate tone.

The "tap tuning" method entails recording the sound of the wooden plate with specialized recording software while tapping it with a mallet (not too hard ).

The other, more in depth method is called "Chiladni patterns" (a complex procedure where sound waves are injected into the plate causing granular material to form patterns at certain frequencies).

The tapping technique tells you how much material needs to be removed. The Chiladni technique tells you where is the best place from which to remove it.

It sounds very scientific and definitely outlines what would otherwise be a completely nebulous activity. But it's hardly an exact science. Ultimately there is what's considered "best", what's achievable with the particular pieces of wood, and what your client personally likes.

There are guidelines as to what the targets are: higher pitch for a solo instrumentalist (i.e. bluegrass) and lower pitch, ostensibly for beginners and easy playability.

The higher pitch makes it a little louder but also requires greater control from the musician to get a good tone. The lower pitch sounds warm and mellow by comparison, is slightly less loud, but the whole instrument resonates more easily with the bowing of the strings.

Aside from volume, this distinction is strictly subjective. I'm more partial to the melodious violin so that's where we set our targets for this one.

Once your targets have been set and your starting points established, the wood it's self presents limitations as to whether those targets can be reached.

For example, there are two important tones for each wooden plate, and the relationship between them is critical. But changing one also changes the other, you have two moving targets to shoot for. The proverbial "herding cats" scenario.

For another example, you many need to remove wood to lower a tone, but the wood is too thin already. Removing more wood, making it thinner may risk breaking. You have to balance all these factors to get the best out of what's available. It's a juggling act!

There are many other steps in getting the violin back together again once this critical tuning step is complete. The position, shape and tuning of the bass bar on the top plate, alignment and position of the neck, and fingerboard, fitting of the front and back plates including new linings for this particular violin. (the Chinese factory used some kind of soft spongy linings, more like cane than wood).

The bridge alone is a very involved step as it has to be fitted exactly to the violin to match the neck angle and curved top plate. And finally the setting of the sound post, by far the easiest step in improving a violin's sound.

Hear Jim Hughes play the violin we've just described here.

We always use the traditional hide glue for all parts so that the pieces can be disassembled in the future for further repairs. It's far more difficult to assemble with hide glue compared to the ease of using modern synthetic glues. But the modern glues don't soften with heat, so when a repair is needed, even more damage is done trying to get them apart.

Instruments get better and become more valuable with age. Hyde glue insures it will be repairable and ever more valuable hundreds of years from now.

So that's a very brief description of how we fine tune a violin here at Rowell & Siders Luthiery. Give me a call if you'd like an evaluation of your violin (or mandolin).

Rowell & Siders Luthiery
Keith Rowell

Example of Chiladni patterns on a violin back.

For those not yet bored by the subject, here's a little more detail of the most crucial step.

In the Chiladni patterns, mode 2 and mode 5 should ideally be one octave apart and tuned at a particular note (see video). You adjust the notes lower by removing wood, (going higher is not an option, it's a one way street). Let's say the modes are too far apart, you can't raise the lower one, so the upper one has to be lowered to bring them into harmony.

Now in doing so, you want to make sure you don't fall below the ideal set by historic standards. It's not just how much wood is removed either. From where the wood is removed dictates which mode is modified the most. Remove wood from the wrong place and a mode that is already too low becomes even lower (thankfully, the Chiladni patterns exercise defines these areas pretty well).

Once you've mastered how to achieve these goals, the fine art is to discern what a violin needs and the least invasive way to achieve it.

All of this however doesn't even begin to scratch the surface of the long standing debate of 440hz vs 432hz historical orchestral standard for the note "A". Some subjective judgement is required.

Dec 12, 2012

Hollywood Calls

I got a call from a movie producer last night. Obviously I'm flattered. The request is to find the oldest recording of "Red Wing". So if you have an old recording of this song. Please let me know. Will's message follows.
Nice to meet you tonight. Please let me know if you hear of an exceptionally old version of "Red Wing"....something possibly recorded long ago on a poor recording device would be ideal....maybe even if someone owned an old private family version of it. Either way, I appreciate your help tonight. Best wishes, Will -- Will Wallace Producer Sunflower Productions, L.L.C.

Oct 21, 2012

Switzerland's Bluegrass Connection

Toni Noetzli stopped by to say hello on his way around the US following the roots of Bluegrass and Old Time music. Toni is the president of the Swiss Bluegrass Assn. founded in 1994. I'm always amazed at how popular bluegrass is in other countries. American culture has a following all around the world. I know Japan has a big following, and I've seen bluegrass bands playing in the subway in Paris. Until now, I didn't know Switzerland had a following too!

It was a special treat to have Toni and his wife Ursula for tea and music that afternoon. You can contact Toni at    

excerpt from Bluegrass Industy News:

The 17th Annual General Meeting of the Swiss Bluegrass Music Association Dec. 1, 2011 marked a changing of the guard in the officer corps with Toni Noetzli taking over from Kent Miller (chairman since September 2006) as president. Toni joined the board in December 2009 as chief editor of the association's quarterly newsletter, a job he will continue to do.  His “day job” is in the field of sports journalism. Known as a "walking dictionary for the 'Tour de Suisse,'" Toni can usually be found on the tracks of a famous skier (most recently Dario Cologna) or biker, depending on the season. Bluegrass has become his passion when he joined a monthly slow jam some years ago.
Thanks to broadcaster, country music historian, and festival organizer Walter Fuchs of Bühl/Baden, Germany, for the following links to performance videos from the bluegrass and old-time-music gathering at the Klosterhof Kusterdingen Cultural Center Jan. 5, 2012 - Translated to English

Jul 17, 2012

Levi Bulloch

I got a call from my old buddy Rusty Dickerson to come sit in on a practice with the Oconee River Boys. There I made this video of John Williams on banjo, and Oconee's newest member Levi Bulloch on fiddle. I particularly like to old time sound of just the banjo and fiddle together on this one.

May 23, 2012

Jim Hughes's Celtic Fiddle

Jim Hughes dropped by this week with two new hand crafted instruments: a Celtic Fiddle, and a Gourd Banjo. I'd call it a Gypsy fiddle, but in the "Green Isles" they're called "Tinkers". I happened on a Tinker's wagon in Scotland in the countryside once. All brightly painted with a huge arching roof. This fiddle would fit right in!

I can hear his buddies now saying "you don't have to worry about any body stealing it!"  : ) It's sure painted loud! But the coolest part is the 6 strings and 10 tuners. (6 at the top, 4 fine tuners at the bottom). It definitely has a droning bagpipe sound. Just very cool!

Jim also brought along another gourd creation. This one a banjo. I think the banjo head is a great amplifier and a fine idea for the gourd "ensemble". Stay tuned for the "gourd orchestra".

May 4, 2012

Bluegrass Instruments for Sale

The estate of Orren Siders would like for these fine musical instruments to be played and enjoyed as they were meant to be. He would have wanted them to gather memories, not dust. 

I've played them all. They are all very fine, very well cared for instruments. Details and particulars about each one are listed at the links below. 

You may contact me by email , or phone, or at the comment boxes at the bottom of the posts.

Make an offer.
Keith Rowell

  1. Blue Ridge Guitar   15 or so years old?
  2. Engelhardt Bass      ???
  3. Bass Caddy

Apr 6, 2012

Parlor Music

Keith playing Parlor Music from the 1800's. Elzick's Farewell, Dusty Rose, Kentucky Waltz. The first two are of Celtic origin, the last is all American.

Mar 10, 2012

In Memory of Oren Siders

Oren Siders died Friday march 9th, 2012. I'd spent the day with him Thursday making a mandolin. He seemed fine, but was a little tired as usual. We glued the back on his mandolin, and knocked off early. I learned today, that he had some complication Friday in his abdomen which would normally be treatable, but in his weakened state it was too much.

I remember, at his retirement party, all these people I'd never met saying what I already knew; how he was so generous with knowledge on how to fix things, loaning and sharing tools and instruments and just about anything you can imagine. Almost any time I called him he'd be off somewhere managing the pouring of a foundation, or fixing a pump, or welding and repairing some piece of equipment.

We loved him. He kept the jam going . He made sure we had amps and mikes and a place to play. Whenever we were without a venue he snagged me to go talk to restaurants and we'd find a new place. That's how we wound up at PJ's.

He played bass to support the group but appreciated being relieved so he could practice some lead. It baffled me how he could keep time so well with the base, but "stray so far" with the fiddle! That is, until I tried it! Playing bass is tough, but fiddling' is just an exercise in unmercifully arduous dexterity. At our age, you shouldn't even try, but Oren seemed drawn to big, complex problems. So I was not surprised when he decided to make bluegrass instruments from scratch.

For the last couple of years we've spent Thursdays in his shop working on fiddles and mandolins. We'd shave and tap and tune pieces of wood, listen to a Lester Flatt album from 1952, and give chewing "tebakky" to Dusty his horse who would stick his head in the door to see what's going on. I wouldn't take a herd of horses for that time now.

Adios cowboy, you'll be sorely missed.

Oren's funeral will be held at Williams Funeral home tomorrow (monday march 12th at 2:00, visitation at 1:00)

Funeral Home Listing

Feb 16, 2012

Highlights of RedWing 2011 at PJ's

Some material from last year at PJ's. Sandy is conspicuous by her absence in this photo! Click the photo for more photos.

Once again, RedWing is looking for a new location.

For you restaurants, give me a call. We always bring in a steady crowd.

Jim Hughes Plays a fiddle modified by Keith and Oren

Jim Hughes stopped by to show me some of his "Gourd Instruments" and commented on the sound of my Chinese fiddle. Oren Siders and I (Keith Rowell) have been working on perfecting the "Tap Tuning" and "Chladni patterns" techniques of fine tuning the wooden parts of violins and mandolins for a couple of years now. Jim gives us a thumbs up!

To answer Jim's question "what did you do to it" click here.

Below is a photo of Jim's gourd instruments. They're very cool. He's been busy since I've seen his first one a year ago. It's always nice to see you Jim!

Jim's email:
and phone: 770-883-7653