Please settle a soon to become violent topic where I live. What materials are used for the making of violin strings and violin bows? And also, why do Cremona violins sound that good; is it shellac, wood, or age?
-- The Fiddler, Ocean Beach
Hey, if you don't knock off the fighting, we'll have to turn the car around and go home. We're on our way to Classic Bows in Golden Hill to check out this question with owner Gregory Gohde. Can we assume that one of you insists that violin strings are made of cat intestines? Yeah, we thought so. Hold on while we pull over and boot that chucklehead to the curb. Violin strings are not now and have never been made from cat gut, whatever that is.
Violin strings used to be made from sheep guts. Makes sense, since the sound you get when you run a bow across a sheep has to be nicer than the sound you get when you try to play a cat. But today's hip fiddler uses steel strings or Perlon (a plastic) wrapped with aluminum or silver. It's cheaper, stronger, and stays in tune longer. The major animal part in a violin bow is horsehair. The wood is Pernambuco, named for the source tree and the place it grows in Brazil.
As for A-list violins, the classics from Cremona, Italy, are still considered the best, centuries later. Part of their mystique is that every element of the design and construction contributes to their greatness. The craftsmen crafted, the fiddle gods smiled. So is it the wood, the varnish, or the age? Yes. It's apparently impossible to dismember a Cremona and point to the magic element because its greatness is beyond the sum of its parts. (Or at least people who've invested hundreds of thousands in owning them want us to continue believing this.)
Not long ago, a university professor set out to analyze the varnish to prove it was the key to the Cremona sound, but his 15 minutes of notoriety are up, apparently. According to Gohde, one of the last unmeasurables for fiddleologists is the method the old violin makers used to apply the ground under the varnish, the coating that keeps the varnish from seeping into the wood. Objects can be measured and scoped and chemoanalyzed, but techniques are more elusive. Personally, this suits me fine. Once we reduce Cremonas to numbers, reproduce them at will, and give them away with Big Macs, every three-year-old Suzuki kid will be sawing away at one. And another cool mystery will have died, and we'll be reduced to arguing violently about Eminem's Grammy nomination.