Archive for Monday, September 4, 2006

High-tech meets old-school in quest to build perfect violin

September 4, 2006



H. Brooks Herndon describes the violin he built. Enlarge video

Lawrence resident H. Brooks Herndon has been involved in designing coffee-processing plants, wind turbines, semiconductors, microprocessors and computer circuit boards.

But his next venture, which will happen in a rural shop south of Lawrence near Vinland, is a combination of high-tech and old-school: It involves an attempt to refine what happens when hair from a Siberian stallion is pulled across a string, causing the vibrations to travel through wood.

In short, he is trying to build the perfect violin. He's spent years studying the proportions of the great Stradivarius violins, using self-taught chemistry knowledge to develop his own proprietary varnish, and looking for any spot on the instrument where the wood can be carved or fit together differently to improve the sound.

"My intent is to make instruments for professionals - fine instruments, as fine as they can possibly be made," he said.

He plans to produce 25 violins in coming months, similar to a prototype he's already built, as well as two cellos and two violas. The price is yet to be set, but high-end violins can sell for five figures.

Lawrence luthiers

Herndon's shop is an addition to the strong community of luthiers already in the Lawrence area. Luthiers are people who build and repair stringed instruments. A handful of people who live in this area are known nationally for their work.

"I've had calls from Florida, Georgia, California. That's bizarre to me," said Leo Posch, who operates the Versatile Workbench repair shop in McLouth and recently started building his own banjos and guitars. "How can they not have someone to take it to? Why would they send it to someone in Kansas?"

The scene gets an occasional boost when someone relocates to Lawrence. Mandolin and guitar maker Jim Triggs, whose customers include country singer Alan Jackson and rocker Steve Miller, moved about a year ago from Johnson County to Lawrence.

"Down one here, up one there," said Jim Curley, owner of the Mountain Music Shoppe in Shawnee. "Jim is one of the finest in the country."

Another example is Dave Wendler, who makes "electroCoustic" hybrid acoustic and electric stringed instruments. He moved back to Lawrence in 2003 after a brief stint in Branson, Mo.


Jennifer Bryan, aka "Violinifer," plays the song "Liberty" on a violin built by H. Brooks Herndon. Herndon accompanies on guitar. Enlarge video

In 2001, violin maker Amos Hargrave moved here from Mission and now has a downtown shop on Massachusetts Street.

Try to list them all, and you'll leave out someone who either is starting to build the instruments or built them years ago.

"There's an uncanny number of luthiers in Lawrence, and nobody seems to be starving to death," said luthier Steve Mason, who, like many other string-music aficionados, is preparing to head to Winfield next week for the Walnut Valley Festival, where he has a merchant's booth. "The type of people that do lutherie are kind of college-town-type people."

He's no rookie

Even though his violin-making operation is not yet fully running, Herndon is far from a rookie in the world of musical instruments. Like Mason, he once worked building guitars at the legendary S.L. Mossman Guitars factory in Winfield.

Mason credits the 60-year-old Herndon with a handful of innovations in the world of stringed instruments. For example, the common method to take apart wood joints in instrument repair is by using a heater-blanket made of wires embedded in silicon.

"The technology was designed to warm barrels of oil in Alaska," Mason said. "Brooks was the one that translated that from oil-warming to lutherie."


Bryan plays the Preludio from Bach Partita No. 3. Enlarge video

About a year ago, Herndon finished his first violin. He said that in a world dominated by hype - with violin makers constantly saying they've unlocked the secret of the Stradivarius - he prefers to let his instruments speak for themselves.

"Every last little bit of that instrument, I spent time studying," he said. "I hadn't done it by hand before. I was making up the process."

Herndon's pursuits as a scientist range from public health research (he co-authored a 1973 article called "A Prospective Study of Cytomegalovirus Infection in a Volunteer Blood Donor Population") to telecommunications (he designed an emergency "load-management system" for AT&T; in the mid-'80s).

So why instruments?

"It's not working on nuclear weapons," he said.


lunacydetector 11 years, 9 months ago

i thought Stradivarius violin perfection came from the slow growing trees high in the alps during the little ice age. the reason for their greatness was in the density of the wood rings caused by their extra slow growth.

greyhawk 11 years, 9 months ago

Okay, I'll be the one to say what standard is the perfection of a violin measured?
(Yes, it's a rhetorical question.) What about the proportions of fine Guarneri or Amati violins (numerous makers from those distinguished families)? What about the instruments of Bergonzi, Carcassi, Villaume, Banks, Maggini, Tecchler, Cavani, Guadagnini, Pesarinius, or hundreds of other fine luthiers?

Violinmaker 11 years, 9 months ago

I think he has a long,long,long way to go.

hbherndon 11 years, 8 months ago

Marion Lynn : It sounds like you have a fine instrument! Good luck in your efforts to transfer your play from right to left hand. That is a considerable challenge considering that the strings would either stay in the same places but played completely differently or that the bass bar and sound post be repositioned and the instrument played as a mirror image. What is important is the pleasure and satisfaction of making music and the flexibility of mind that comes from making the effort.

hbherndon 11 years, 8 months ago

It is interesting that though my efforts have receive a very gratifying, encouraging and constructive evaluation by a significant number of very highly skilled professional and amateur classical violinists and fiddlers and have been inspected by a number of old and new friends who do violin repairs, at the time of the article, I knew of no actual violin makers among them. To make such a miraculous pronouncement "anonymous violinmaker", must have an enviable knowledge and experience with the fine "Golden Age" instruments and impressively must have seen and heard my instrument from a very long, long, long distance away! Perhaps we just didn't notice him (her?) among us, invisible under that cloak of anonymity.

hbherndon 11 years, 8 months ago

"Perfection" is of course a nebulous concept, especially so with objects as complex as musical instruments, where improving one factor may compromise another. However, to those truly interested in the violin, evaluation of quality is more than rhetorical. The Violin Society of America's bi-annual competition considers the following:

  1. An overall impression including originality, materials, elegance, style and artistry
  2. The construction, including outline (2D proportion), glue joints, the bending and fitting of ribs (sides) and purfling (decorative wood inlay), execution of neck, edges, corners, f-holes, scroll, and finish work
  3. The scroll including model, flowing lines, pegbox, finish work, and overall character
  4. The modeling (3D proportion) including arching, surface texture, f-holes, including positioning and shape relative to arching
  5. The varnish, including color, transparency, evenness of application, ground, texture and patina
  6. The setup. Including bridge, soundpost, pegs, tailpiece, fingerboard, nut, saddle and endpin (these components can seriously effect both sound and playability)

The instruments are then judged by a panel of players for quality and volume of sound.

This is a systematic, reasonable and rational method to evaluate a violin. In my estimation, by these criteria, many instruments of the "Golden Age" of violin building would win the competition hands down today. Instruments of that period, before and after may be viewed in the world class collection at the National Museum of Music in Vermillion, South Dakota.

hbherndon 11 years, 8 months ago

Why Stradivari?

In 2005 Cremona, Italy celebrated 500 years of violin building. Andrea Amati was building instruments at least from the 1560's. According to the book Antonio Stradivari His Life and Work (1644-1737) by the W.H., A.F. and A.E. Hill, London 1902 Stradivarius apprenticed in the shop of Nicoló Amati from age thirteen or so, made instruments with his own label from about 1666, while working in the Amati shop till about 1680. Other well-known makers, Andrea Guarneri, Giovanni Battista Rogeri, Francesco Ruger and Hieronymus Amati were said to have worked in the shop at the same time.

Stradivari came to inherit the position of the Amati family in Italian violin making. His instruments showed a consistency of work with contiued refinement of craftsmanship and sound. The Hills credit him with a production of over 1100 instruments of which more than 600 may still exist. He made instruments till age ninty-two. It was because of his prolific output, the high level of craftsmanship and the quality and volume of sound of his instruments, that Stradivari's fame overshadowed his peers. His instruments became the standard by which others were measured. They were copied and counterfitted widely, even during his lifetime.

The American virtuoso Joshua Bell, who played the for the film "The Red Violin" has said of the Stradivari violin he now plays, "it was the most amazing-sounding violin I'd ever heard": "You feel you can go anywhere on this violin, and it will speak". Though there is much hype in the world of violins, the opinion of players such as Bell, who have had the opportunity to play the best of instruments, cannot be dismissed.

Second now in fame to Stradivari was the grandson of Andrea Guarneri, Giuseppe Guarneri who became known as "del Gesu". He might be considered the upstart kid from across the street. He produced some wonderful instruments, played by Paganini, Jascha Heifetz, and Isaac Stern amongst others, but his life was short, his work inconsistent.

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