January 2008

This band is amazing – hurdy-gurdies and fiddles with ATTITUDE! This band shows that folk need not be about gentle harmonies and fancy footwork – check them out!

The Switzerland-based band, formed in 2002 has been described as: “Celtic pagan folk metal with melodic death metal influences.”


I have long been interested in the concept of travel fiddles – they have a tradition dating back at least to the eighteenth century when ‘dancing master’ or ‘kit’ violins were popular. They were designed to enable itinerant dancing teachers to travel to the client’s home and be compact enough literally to fit in a pocket. Some were concealed in walking sticks, others were quite decent instruments with enough sound to fill a drawing room, but not enough to disturb the neighbours.

One of the best examples is Neil Gow’s instrument now contained in Scotland’s Burrell Collection in Glasgow. Copies of these are being made by Rickert and Ringholz instrument makers in the USA.

I photographed a couple of such instruments in the Victoria and Albert museum in London last year, and have often felt that most copies are actually too small to make a decent sound – the Rickert Neil Gow copy is an exception to this rule.

The pochette pictured below is one I photographed in the Victoria and Albert Museum in London

When considering making one myself, I thought that it should be at least as wide as the narrow part or ‘waist’ of a normal violin – about 4 inches or 100mm to have a reasonable sound-board area. I like the round-shouldered rectangle shape so I have begun the first stages of construction with this in mind.

I began by cutting some melamine MDF (medium density fibreboard) to the length of a normal violin, and 100mm wide (4 inches). This is to be the mould around which the instrument would be assembled – a traditional violin making technique.

I then planed some pine down to just under 2mm thickness for the ribs. This was done by cutting two thin slices and then attaching them to a larger board with double-sided tape and using the jointer to thin them to the correct thickness.

I also cut some blocks (they are yet to be fully shaped) which will provide support for the neck and button at each end of the fiddle. Again this is a traditional technique. The neck and fingerboard were supplied by my local luthier who had an irrepairable violin.

And that is the stage I’m at now. Not bad for an evenings’ work! The real challenge will be cutting the maple back and belly from a log I’ve had sitting around since the Canberra Bushfires five years ago – the tree was in our yard and was dangerously burnt, and some segments of the trunk remain in my garage.

Next weekend I’ll cut a couple of slabs and begin the real lengthy process of shaping them into arched plates for the fiddle.


Rickert and Ringholz have written a good rant about Chinese fiddles – with some interesting notes about their construction – but makes sense when you see the high gloss on those instruments. I guess the key thing in buying any instrument is what it sounds like – and the cheapies quickly show their lack of pedigree with often a woeful sound that would not encourage a beginner to go any further.

I will confess to owning a Chinese solid-body electric violin that I bought in Beijing when on tour there a couple of years back – and the electrics are not bad. But that is a solid-body instrument that I have since heavily modified to reduce its weight – it was solid MDF (Medium Density Fibreboard) and certainly not aimed at being a high quality acoustic instrument. [yes I routed out the main body, and used a bandsaw to remove much of the heavy skeleton shape in order to make it playable without it feeling like a millstone].

The key thing is whether or not it is fit for its purpose – and many are not. You can buy reasonable student-quality second-hand hand-finished instruments for about the price of a Chinese fiddle so there is no real reason to resort to playing a really bad acoustic instrument. Actually, let me qualify that. If you have bought a reasonable instrument but the case has fallen apart – the Chinese fiddles usually come with a reasonable case, and sometimes a tuner and shoulder rest that together would cost less than if you just bought the case!

Where I do buy cheap is bows – I can get a straight average bow for less than the cost of re-hairing a bow. Horsehair is horsehair and they do the job for me – but then I play in folk festivals in all weathers, play in pubs where the clientele are not too fussy about where they fall over or spill their drinks, and drive the bow hard enough to go through bow-hair at a prodigious rate. If you are just playing at home or in climate-controlled auditoriums then by all means buy a really decent bow and delight in its balance and spring.

So let me add my rant to those at Rickert and Ringholz Instruments – choose your instrument carefully and it will make even an average fiddler sound good – it will also make learning the instrument easier, because a good quality instrument will ring when you’ve hit the notes in tune – so it will help your intonation, whereas a bad instrument can make your practice sessions harder than they need to be.


Yes, it’s been the bane of my Hardanger fiddle (hardingfele) – the lack of fine tuners for the sympathetic strings. Today all that is changed! When I made the new bridge and reshaped the nut I did try hooking a one-quarter size tailpiece over the main tail-piece to get eight fine tuners – string adjusters – but that placed the adjusters right up against the bridge – even with the tail-gut shortened.

After some measurement, I figured that if I could push the under-tail-piece back by 1.5cm I could position the bridge in the correct place, and not have the string cotton windings sitting on the bridge.

The answer lay in a 3/16″ bolt. I lined up the two tail-pieces in the vice and drilled through them both to achieve the right overhang. I then threaded a bolt up through the quarter size tail-piece, then placed a nut between the two tail-pieces to provide clearance for the upper fine-tuners to work, and then finished the top with a washer and nut.


After re-assembly I can now state that the double-decker tail-pieces still clear the violin’s belly by a good margin and now allow for fine tuners on all eight strings!

hardanger fiddle fine tuners

If you have fitted fine tuners to a hardanger fiddle – please let me know and perhaps share a photo


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