Talking with Master Fiddler Brandon Godman some months ago, he asked me if I’d ever made a five string fiddle. I never had but I was intrigued. There are five string cellos and five string violas which are popular with players wanting a level playing field when tackling early repertoire, not originally composed for modern style cello. Bach’s sixth cello suite, for example, has high passages that require virtuosic contortions when played on a modern four stringed instrument, but fall naturally under the hand on a five stringer. (For more on five string cellos see the excellent 2014, Japanese research project). The five string violas and cellos have an extra high E-string and, from a violin maker’s point of view, the essential problem with them is how to keep that E-string from sounding wiry while preserving a string length that is familiar to players. At the same time you want to preserve the fat C-string sound that cellists have come to expect. Five string violins, on the other hand, have a low C-string added and have more or less the opposite problem: how to get a fat C-string sound out of a short string mounted on a small body.
Why do it?
I like to work on extreme instruments because I find that pushing the edge of the envelope usually tells you a lot about what is in the middle of the envelope. As you move things away from “normal”, you isolate the elements that have been blended and balanced as the “best compromise solution ” by earlier makers and you begin to get a feeling for the role of say body volume or string length, in the overall functioning of an instrument. Later, armed with these insights, you are in a better position to come up with an instrument having the qualities that a player is looking for in a “normal” instrument. That was the appeal to me of making a five string fiddle: to take some of the knowledge that I had gained from making other extreme instruments, such as smaller cellos (or just about any viola) and to test those theories in another edge-of-the-envelope arena.
The other strong appeal of the project was having the chance to work with Brandon who, besides being an A-list professional fiddle player, also owns and runs The Fiddle Mercantile based in San Francisco. Brandon sees a lot of instruments and knows a good fiddle when he sees one. He has an active curiosity about what makes one fiddle succeed where another fails. He is what I call a “hands on dealer” who does his own setup work. Fiddlers tend to be looking for some different qualities in their instruments, particularly when it comes to an instrument that can be mic-ed well for concerts or recording. This is all new territory for me and I thought that I could learn some interesting things from him.
Five String Violin Design
When we started talking, it turned out that Brandon’s design brief was even tighter than I had anticipated. Tonal power, balance and responsiveness were taken for granted, here’s what he was looking for in addition:
- The C-string should be totally credible, not floppy or fuzzy, but should sound as though it belongs there.
- The higher end should be lively, rich and pure, not hollow sounding as can often happen with five string fiddles; you don’t want to add the C-string at the expense of the normal fiddle sound.
- A normal body size and string length so that fiddlers can make an easy change from their regular instrument.
- The neck not too wide and the string spaced to accommodate and promote the evolving five-sting repertoire that features a lot of double stops.
- The head as compact as possible so as not to add unnecessary weight and make prolonged playing less comfortable.
- A refined Classic Violin look with a delicious antiqued finish. “I want to be able to take it into a classic violin dealership and not have them scoff at the workmanship”
I decided to work off of the Korchanski Del Gesu model violin as that is the model of my violins that fiddlers have generally liked best. It has a darker, relaxed tone and very easy response. Starting with the string length, I bumped it up to 330mm, 3mm or so longer than the original but well within the range of “normal” for violins. I increased the body length to 360mm, longer than the original fiddle but still shorter than many of the Mittenwald fiddles that many fiddlers favor. I increased the body width in both the upper and lower bouts. I considered leaving the top bout narrow for better access to the neck high over the body, but it looked out of proportion to me and Brandon said that even the best fiddlers make only brief excursions to that region so it was unlikely to be an issue.
Looking to promote the darker sound for the C-string I used wood from the same maple and spruce trees that I had used on a previous instrument that had a darker tone. The top is actually a piece of cello top wood with a very wide (for a violin) grain width. I had used some of the same wood on a violin that had gone to a player who loved the dark, rich, almost viola tone.
The fiddle was done in late August. Brandon’s assessment: “It ticks all the boxes for a great fiddle, balance, power, projection, easy to play. Now it’s just a question of what tonal flavor a player prefers.” Brandon took the fiddle to the IBMA Festival in Raleigh NC, where it was very well received and within a month, he placed it with an experienced five-string player in San Francisco. See pictures of the Five here
We are working on the second Five at the moment. The first was a test of my ideas about what might work to get a short C-string to sound. On this next one, we are trying some of Brandon’s ideas about arching and what makes a good mic-able fiddle. This is an all new field to me!