Why does one instrument sound great while another doesn’t …?

“There are so many rules about how to make a good violin, and yet so few makers actually succeed! In the last 3 years I’ve restored, set up and sold some 500 violins. The more violins I play, the more obvious it becomes that some valuable handmade instruments are complete lemons while some modest workshop efforts sound fantastic! What’s more, a brand new instrument can often outplay a venerable 18th century masterpiece.”

Is it all “emperor’s new clothes”? Does anyone ever assess a violin without looking at the price tag?

“I’ve had the chance to play some priceless Italian violins, including a £550,000 Montagnana (a bit dull), an authentic David Tecchler (a
soggy sponge), a £70,000 Gagliano (a banjo wrapped in a dumpling), and various Simonazzis, Sgarbatos and Barbieris which were plain nasty. On the other hand I fell in love with a Jacobus Horil and would have killed to own a particular Degani. I’ve also played some very expensive contemporary luthier-made violins, Scottish English and Italian, which were very poor, and a couple which were truly wonderful.”

It’s impossible to avoid the conclusion that the tonal quality of a violin has little or nothing to do with its financial value or its geographical origins.

“In short, a big price tag is a guarantee of nothing. Conversely, I have found that higher level workshop or “trade” instruments such as JTLs, Neuner & Hornsteiners etc. are always good and often quite outstanding. In fact the best sounding violin I ever played was a higher end Ernst Heinrich Roth workshop instrument from the 1960s, worth about £3000 at the outside.

Talking with makers, there does seem to be broad agreement about the most important elements of a good instrument, great wood, correct thicknessing for the particular pieces of wood, adherence to tried and tested proportions, and then some indefinable “feel” which you either have or you don’t.

It’s also clear that Asian makers, even big names, are failing to make violins which a serious professional would ever want to play. This seems to be largely down to poor wood chosen mainly for looks and ease of machining, unsympathetic thicknessing by formula, and a tendency to economise at every stage of the production process.

I thought that I could do better, and decided to put my money where my mouth was! My favourite violins are French instruments made at the beginning of the 20th century by the Jerome Thibouville Lamy workshops. JTL produced thousands of violins in all sorts of shapes and sizes, to suit all pockets and aesthetic sensibilities. All of these violins sound good, and most are exceptionally good, rivaling the best single-maker instruments of the period. JTL achieved their success by using good tonewood, getting the thicknessing & bassbars right, and never compromising the structure of their instruments.

A bit of research amongst makers in Eastern Europe led me to believe that I could follow the JTL model and produce affordable violins and violas with volume, sustain, projection, power and sweetness, which would work for classical or traditional players. A tall order indeed, but from the first prototype I was astounded by our success; in fact the first two violins we made were immediately chosen and bought by professional players from amongst my stock of older violins.”
(Martin Swan)