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


Some time ago My daughter acquired a banjo mandolin – an eight-string plucked/strummed instrument with the size and tuning of a mandolin – but with a small banjo-like skin for the sounding board. Although the frets were (unusually) in tune, the instrument was in poor shape with the wooden soundbox collapsing at either end resulting in an unplayable high action.

The solution? To dismantle the instrument and relocate the neck and string courses at 90 degrees – where the body sides were still vertical. This entailed drilling some new holes for the neck attachment and relocation of the tail-piece, the addition of a button for a strap and a new set of strings. I also sanded down the frets a bit as they were sitting quite high off the fingerboard.

And here is the result – a playable if rather strange instrument!

mandolin banjo

Also known as a mandolin-banjo this hybrid instrument was invented around the mid 1890s and was popular in the 1920s in the heyday of mandolin orchestras. It has a big sound for a small instrument which made them popular in dance halls at a time when instruments were beginning to be amplified, and they would have been good for busking for that reason too.

The eight strings are tuned in four courses (same-pitch pairs) using standard mandolin or violin tuning G-D-A-E from lowest to highest.


It was a lovely day for a motorbike ride on Saturday – overcast, cool but not much rain – just a couple of drops – so I took off the topcase – knowing that I would be bringing a backpack, tent and mandolin back from Sydney as I was meeting my daughter there.

The ride was smooth and the bike behaved wonderfully well – a full tank at the Caltex Weston Creek then down Hindmarsh Drive and out past the airport. The clouds seemed to have kept the crowds away and road was quiet – in direct contrast to the bike. I filled up at Marulan and then onto the tollway into Sydney. As I was about to leave the last tunnel the engine faltered – I reached down for the fuel tap to switch over to reserve, but it died in the tunnel – a bare glimmer on the neutral light and no electric power. Bugger! I was in sight of the toll gate and pushed the bike off to the side and got the guy in the toll post to call for a tow.

Actually it was just a ute with flashing lights that turned up about 30 minutes later and two guys helped me push the bike out of the tunnel and up the hill to exit. With the battery rested, I found I had a brighter neutral light so I got the guys to help do a push start and the antique bike fired up again. So without an alternator I managed to limp the bike to within half a kilometre of the hostel and pushed it the rest of the way. By now the sun was out and it was hot. I actually had to ask someone to move out of the way as the young woman was waiting for a bus and wouldn’t move despite clearly seeing me push a heavy bike up the hill towards her. I guess I was definitely in Sydney!

After reaching the hostel and meeting up with my daughter Eve, I managed to get a lift from the desk guy and bought a battery from a bike shop and a charger from K-Mart and on returning to the hostel set up the old and the new battery and charged them in turn.

So then to the fun bit! We were in easy walking distance of Macquarie Street where Scottish celtic band Shooglenifty was to play – the place was crowded as Eve and I did a reccy for a good position.

The opening of the Sydney Festival began with a series of open air weddings which was a bit quirky, then they announced that they were putting away the chairs and clearing the barriers, so Eve and I bolted for an opening and with deft use of elbows – developed over the January Sales – we ended up front and centre in front of the stage.

The warm-up band was a celtic trio plus didgeridoo who performed… accurately. They didn’t once look at the audience and so the audience largely ignored them and shuffled around.

Then came the Shoogles!


Luke on mandolin, Angus on fiddle, Quee on bass, James on drums Malcolm on guitar and Gary on banjo. This is an awesome band – Luke’s playing is to be heard to be believed – he sure can make that mando sing. This progressive celtic band from Edinburgh is just amazing. Despite the very limited space most people were dancing (at least up and down) – and there were several thousand crammed into Macquarie Street for the show.





We met up with them after the show – Angus uses a Fishman pick-up on his fiddle – and we wished them well for Tasmania and then headed off for some food supplies to cook up back at the hostel – Phew I was exhausted!

The next morning, with the batteries charged, I put the old one back on the bike and the new one in the pannier, and we loaded up with Eve’s stuff form Woodford festival – where she had been performing in the Fire Event and fired up the bike to head home.

It was overcast as we left Sydney, but it quickly cleared and became very warm with the wet weather gear on, but I wasn’t going to stop unless we had to as we were just on battery power. But with a fuel stop at Marulan and then milkshakes and iced coffee at the Paragon Cafe in Goulburn, we had a flawless ride back to Canberra

Honda Bol d'Or