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Violin makers' basses

Discussion in 'Basses [DB]' started by josiah goldfish, Apr 13, 2014.

  1. I was thinking about this the other day, that most standard shapes we see in basses (gamba, violin corner, busetto) vary from maker to maker. That's obvious enough, but if we analyse the reasons for this differences, we notice some interesting patterns.

    I've found that one can look at a bass and say either 'that was made by a bass luthier', 'that was made by a violin maker' or 'that was made by a monkey with a spoon'. The violin maker basses tend to be constructed, unsurprisingly, like a violin. As a trainee violin maker, I find this fascinating as some of the most beautiful basses (to me) are the quirky, uncertain basses made by violin makers. It's almost as if they're not sure what to make of a customer's request of 'a double bass' and so they just adapt a violin model to look kind of bassy.

    Personally, I really like this kind of bass. Seems nowadays the differences are very subtle between makers, and violin makers sort of either leave basses alone or they build something like a modern bass, not a violin.

    Anyone got any pictures of 'Violin makers' basses? It would be interesting to see the many different styles that range from maker to maker.

  2. arnoldschnitzer

    arnoldschnitzer AES Fine Instruments

    Feb 16, 2002
    Brewster, NY, USA
    Sorry, I've been trying to figure out what you meant by your post. What specifically tips you off that a bass was made by a violin maker, bass maker, or monkey with a spoon?
    Greg Clinkingbeard likes this.
  3. jefff100


    Jan 23, 2010
    Central NJ
    While I can't speak for Joe here, a lingering odor of rotten bananas might give a distinct clue as to the latter.
    josiah goldfish likes this.
  4. Jsn

    Jsn upright citizen Supporting Member

    Oct 15, 2006
    San Francisco Bay Area
    No, Palatino, nooooo!"
  5. I guess I wasn't clear.

    When a bass luthier makes a bass, that's all he does: makes basses. So he has access to all the popular patterns and he knows what he's doing. He's done it before, and he specifically makes basses so he knows what shapes are considered standard. He has specific bass making tools.

    Violin makers, on the other hand, seem to be not quite so sure about how one makes a bass. You'll notice that a lot of basses made by violin makers have quite abrupt, cello like upper bouts, and often look like big violins. Not like basses. Also, they're often a bit wonky or quirky because the maker doesn't necessarily have the tools made specifically for basses. A lot of these basses are also unusual in size and playing length.

    Basses made by monkeys with spoons are quite obvious I think. It's because of the odour of bananas ;)

    Of course, this is all just a generalization, and is merely me thinking out loud.
  6. arnoldschnitzer

    arnoldschnitzer AES Fine Instruments

    Feb 16, 2002
    Brewster, NY, USA
    Again your message makes little sense to me. I know many "bass luthiers"; some only make/repair basses, others dabble in cellos or violins or guitars or whatever (I'm in that group). "Popular patterns"? What the heck are those? Every bass maker I know has developed his/her own designs. Yes, some are derived from existing models and refined for the particular player or use. Violin makers tend to use existing models because, I think, they are more reverent toward the old makers and many believe the pinnacle of instrument-making happened 3 centuries ago. Not most bass-makers, who understand how much bass playing has changed in the past century or so. As far as tools, violin-making happens on a smaller scale, so if anything the violin-maker's tools are capable of being more accurate, not more "wonky".
    drurb, Paul Warburton and ChuckCorbis like this.
  7. And I know bass luthiers as well. The basses I commonly see that are made by bass luthiers are almost always a gamba, violin or busetto pattern. 'Violin makers' basses also follow these patterns, but most old basses I see that have been made by a violin maker are awkwardly proportioned, unusually varnished, or a funky shape. Whereas most bass luthier basses seem to be what we would think of when we think of a double bass, violin maker basses quite often have something about them that makes you look at them and think 'hmmm, something's... off here'.

    Your comment on violin makers tools doesn't make much sense to me. Yes they'd be more accurate on a smaller scale, but trying to carve a huge bass top with one of the smaller chisels I use for violin scrolls would be ridiculous, and the top would most likely be 'wonky'. Same with any other part of a bass, and if a smaller tool is needed, a bass luthier will have those tools.

    You say you make guitars, correct? If you were asked to make a bouzouki, how do you think it would turn out? i have no doubt it would be playable and would probably resemble a bouzouki, but would it be as refined as a bouzouki made by a bouzouki luthier? That's all I'm trying to say. Bass luthiers spend all their time making basses, violin makers don't. Thus, a bass made by a violin maker will quite probably not look the same as a bass luthier's bass.

    Thanks, I hope I explained myself properly this time,

  8. I'm sorry, I guess I'm not making much sense and probably won't. I'll just shut up now.
  9. arnoldschnitzer

    arnoldschnitzer AES Fine Instruments

    Feb 16, 2002
    Brewster, NY, USA
    No, that's not a good idea because it will squash your curiosity. But I do suggest that rather than making a statement about how violin makers' basses, bass makers' basses and monkeys' basses are noticeably different (and definably so), perhaps you might ask other makers and connoisseurs their observations. It was the generalizations and the matter-of-fact-ness that precipitated my strong reaction. Plus I like to argue (in a friendly manner). Nobody learns much about anything if he only converses with folks who agree with him. By the way, I don't make guitars, though I did make some electric guitars and bass guitars in my 20s (a few centuries back). I recently built a viola and a cello, both of which were a bit out of my comfort zone; I learned a lot, and especially I learned what NOT to do. Cheers!
  10. MikeCanada


    Aug 30, 2011
    Toronto, ON
    I have seen a number of first basses by luthiers who either were new makers, made other instruments, or had extensive repair experience but had just started making. Some of them did seem to be "different" than basses by seasoned pros, but I use the word "different" in a very neutral way. Some of them were very nice looking instruments, some of them were very nice playing instruments, some of them showed that the maker had a lot of potential etc. Every maker I talked to about those instruments admitted they would do things differently next time, and would point out "flaws" like "it's a lot heavier than I intended to make it" or "I would cant the back/slope the shoulders to make it easier to play" or "the scroll is awkward because I attempted to scale up my violin scroll and it doesn't look right" and other such comments. A first build of any instrument, or bows in my particular case/experience is going to involve a fair amount of experimenting and learning on behalf of the maker. Again, I don't feel like that necessarily leads to a bad/wonky first bass/bow, but if the maker was to continue to make several more, I think you would see some evolution as building continues.

    When it comes to outlines/proportions, there are a large number of bass models that are often copied or a source for inspiration. Unlike violins where string length, body size, shapes etc. are very close to standardized and there are slight variations between makers, basses can be vastly different. Take a look at some of the French basses with very small sloping shoulders, or German/Czech basses that often have gamba outlines. Both "schools" might have basses that seem similar to each other, but there is a lot of variation between makers. A lot of the old Italian basses have very violin-looking outlines, and a number of them along with some English basses have been reshaped and sized over the years so they conform more to our current preferences.

    Makers often either attempt to make a copy as faithful as possible to a particular original, or take inspiration from a few instruments and come up with their own model. The model often goes through several alterations over the course of a build, and will occasionally be significantly altered for the next one or thrown out all together. Even if you take a lot of pictures and draw scale models and make templates etc., the drawing and the finished product do not look the same, and you make different choices when you are working with a 3D instrument instead of a 2D drawing. My first head and frog templates were thrown out and I started over again for my next bows, and the finished first bow has been altered several times. It is a very functional bow that I have used for rehearsals and concerts, but what I saw on the page and in the brass template translated differently than expected to wood.

    If you haven't made a bass, try drawing the outline from the top, bottom, and sides of a paper airplane you have never made before, coming up with a template, and then making said airplane. Does it look like your pictures? Did you alter it along the way? After you tried flying it the first time, did you go back to the drawing board? I am not trying to be patronizing, but this will give you a very simplified and significantly less time/resource intense experience of what a build can be like. Unless your math/physics/art skills are very well tuned, chances are the three steps (drawing, template, finished product) will be different from each other, and if you were to do it all over again you would likely have some changes you would make.

    As far as tools, that's a whole separate argument. You need the right tool for the job, regardless to the size of the job. Some work can be done with tools that are not optimal for the work and still yield a very good product, even if it would be easier/better to use a different tool. Craftsmanship is really what matters the most though, and you would be amazed what a skilled maker can do with what seems like very few tools. Although broad generalizations get people into trouble, I have seen a number of "makers" with HUGE shops stocked with hundreds of tools, several of which still have original tags on them who put out work that isn't necessarily impressive, and makers with small shops and significantly fewer tools produce amazing results. Tools do not make the maker, training and experimentation leads to experience and knowledge, and it is amazing what you can do with the latter.
    josiah goldfish, drurb and Jsn like this.
  11. arnoldschnitzer

    arnoldschnitzer AES Fine Instruments

    Feb 16, 2002
    Brewster, NY, USA
    Mike, that's a very well-reasoned thesis. I hope you don't feel insulted when I mention that your use of bold letters is a bit off-putting, and comes off as didactic. But your points are valid, though I don't see much relation to the original thread. Are you in agreement with Josiah that violin makers, bass makers and monkeys make significantly different basses?
    eerbrev and josiah goldfish like this.
  12. Actually, Mr Schnitzer, you've changed my views a bit. I don't think you can look at any bass and tell who made it, because every bass is different, but I do believe that someone who's never made a bass or who rarely makes basses will produce something different to someone who only makes basses. Of course, I don't feel this is quite the same nowadays with the invention of the internet and all that, but I do believe that older, one-off basses made by violin makers look different to older, one-of-100 basses made by bass luthiers (which, if I've found the right website, I believe you are? If so, I must say, I really like your work!!).

    Obviously, this isn't always the case at all, and I'm sorry if I over-generalised in my opening post. I'm friends with a violin maker in Cambridge, and he's made double basses that look very 'standard', but he also has to teach making basses, so he's researched it a lot.

    Thanks for the interesting discussion,
  13. MikeCanada


    Aug 30, 2011
    Toronto, ON
    Sorry if it seemed a bit off the mark. Getting back on track, I was trying to point out that first/early basses tend to be different/quirky in ways that later instruments are not. If the maker is a bass maker then their early work likely shows some signs of it being so. The changes seen in later work often reflect their growth as a maker, and input from the players of the instruments as well. Maybe something that looks really great presents a playability concern as a vague example. After that period of early work, their instruments reflect those different decisions, and become the "bass maker" basses we are discussing.

    Violin makers who dabble in making basses often do a small number of them. I know a few makers who have stopped at just one. Even though they have sometimes made a lot of instruments, their first/early basses are still new territory and there is experimentation/learning happening. As such, "I would likely do a few things differently next time" happens, but there might not be a next time if they don't get another bass commission, or prefer to work in other instruments. If I may be so bold, I think this is what Joe might be seeing in the basses that he talks about. They have some of the differences/quirks of being early work, even though the maker has potentially made a significant number of other instruments.

    I am not trying to suggest that early instruments from any maker however they self identify are bad instruments, but they often do have some differences. As mentioned above, it might be things that didn't necessarily translate from the planning stages to the finished instrument the way the maker wanted them to, it might be cosmetic, it might be practical, it might be a playability/sound issue, it could be a lot of things. It is fascinating to talk to makers about their early work when playing those instruments and what they would have maybe done differently, and having an opportunity to play their later work and see how it has evolved and how they have addressed those concerns is interesting as well.

    So I wouldn't say that different types of makers make different types of basses, but I was trying to say early work often differs from later work, and that often presents itself in little quirks.
  14. Thank you Mike, that's exactly what I was trying to say! You worded things much better than me though :)
  15. drurb

    drurb Oracle, Ancient Order of Rass Hattur; Mem. #1, EPC

    Apr 17, 2004
    What Mike has pointed out-- that there are often differences across early and later creations within makers seems quite different than what you were highlighting in the original post. In that post you were suggesting that there are differences, per se, across makers as a result of whether the maker was a violin-maker first. You suggested that the designs would be different. So, I see your original post and Mike's as different aspects of a, perhaps, related topic. If I understand correctly, this is why Arnold suggested that Mike's earlier post, while very thoughtful (and, to me, quite interesting), didn't address the original question. Of course, we always seem to veer off the original topic. :) All good stuff!
    Last edited: Apr 24, 2014
    josiah goldfish likes this.
  16. What I was trying to say was that violin makers' basses quite often seem different because they quite often only make one or two and it's their first, for the reasons Mike pointed out. Mike explained it much better than me though.

    This is an interesting discussion, thanks guys,
  17. arnoldschnitzer

    arnoldschnitzer AES Fine Instruments

    Feb 16, 2002
    Brewster, NY, USA
    Wow, this thing has taken a serious turn into the realm of interesting! I agree with Mike that early basses by any maker can be unsettled and quirky. My first bass had too much top arch, and I built it in an awkward sequence. Fortunately for me, the high arch worked great for jazz, and I sold the bass to a fine player who still loves it. And I learned some important things in the process. Along the way to my most recent (#35) handmade bass, I have improved vastly in the areas of edgework, bass bar location/shape, prep and finish work, etc. And there is still room for improvement (always is). I love what the great cellist, Pablo Casals said when asked, "You are 92, why are you practicing so much?" He replied, "I feel like I am making progress".

    On the topic of violin makers' basses, I will say that on occasion I come across a bass that has such incredible attention to detail, for example in the corner shaping and purfling, that I wonder if it was a maker of smaller instruments who hatched it. The other thing I have noticed is that violin makers in general finish their instruments in a more rustic manner than most bass makers. Perhaps this is because most are graduates of violin-making school, and they are taught to use only scrapers in their prep work, and to leave their varnish un-rubbed. Anyway, I'm glad this thread turned in a positive direction.
    josiah goldfish likes this.
  18. drurb

    drurb Oracle, Ancient Order of Rass Hattur; Mem. #1, EPC

    Apr 17, 2004
    Okay, I'm really trying to understand what you mean to convey. If violin makers' basses look different because you're typically looking at an early attempt (because they don't make many), then those exemplars really wouldn't necessarily be distinguishable from the early attempts of bass luthiers.

    Yet, this was your observation:
    So, it seems what you're saying is that one can look at basses and likely determine if it's an early attempt. By the logic of the above, most violin makers' basses are early attempts but it would not necessarily be the case that most early attempts are from violin makers. After all, all those bass luthiers out there started somewhere. :) So, when all is said and done, do you think that one can look at a bass and tell if it's been made by a violin maker or a bass luthier?

    This has been interesting and I'm curious to know what you've concluded.
    Last edited: Apr 24, 2014
  19. Champagne

    Champagne Supporting Member

    Jan 22, 2012
    West Chester, PA
    LOL, drurb. You're cracking me up:D

    My question in all of this is:
    Why do violin makers make their basses so damn small that they fit under your chin?

  20. Tom Lane

    Tom Lane Gold Supporting Member

    Apr 28, 2011
    Torrance, CA
    At the heart of this original post, isn't the question: do experienced violin makers create odd basses? And, based on the convo, it doesn't seem as though you've been able to make a good guess. I think you need more evidence and what you're looking for is many violin makers who simply scale up their basses to be giant violins.
    I'm purely guessing that you won't be able to find such evidence because violin makers who decide to make a bass aren't stupid and don't simply scale up their violin plans but alter their plans for the physics and examples around them. Are their initial attempts odd? Yes, but not discernibly so from any other first time bass makers.
    If you can find an historic violin maker who made a dozen basses as if s/he were scaling up a violin then you'd have your hypothesis. Failing that, I think all you can conclude is that experienced bass makers make better basses. Not much surprise to me.
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