You’re probably familiar with the name ‘Stradivarius’ and his famous, highly prized and priced violins. Every once in a while we hear about a violin out of his shop that broke all records at an auction. Or – just as often – we hear about scientists who now finally unravelled the infamous ‘Secret of Stradivari’, or might have found yet another fabulous solution to surpass the old master.
Many of the investigations after Stradivari tend to focus on the ‘Lost Varnish Recipe’, and regard this to the key to the whole magical mystery. Most reports and publications tell about an almost alchemistic potion that will transform a cheap, low-quality violin into a million-dollar instrument. It’s like a quest for the Holy Grail or Philosophers stone; many search for it, but it will never be found. But it keeps people off the street and makes for some entertaining newspaper articles and a nice amount of entertaining conspiracy books.
Let me first make this clear: There is NO lost secret of Stradivari. The big secret is that there is no secret, let alone a lost one.
He simply was a very good maker, who lived a long time and made a lot of instruments. His violins were very suitable for later changes to accommodate new musical fashions and a lot of the legends were magnified by later violin makers and dealers. Also it is a very natural human characteristic to explain things we don’t understand by substituting it with a myth of magic. That’s how a lot of religions started, and some violins makers defend the ‘lost secret’ theory with an almost religious fanaticism.
While most of the public attention focusses on the violins, it is less known that Stradivari also made other instruments; Viola da Gamba, Pochette, Viola d’Amore, Lute, Guitar, Mandolin and even a small Harp…
A relatively small amount of Stradivari guitars have survived:
- The ‘Sabionari’ (1679) – Private collection, Italy
- The ‘Giustiniani’ (1681) – Private collection, Italy
- The ‘Hill’ (1688) – Ashmolean Museum, GB
- The ‘Rawlings’ (1700) – Shrine to Music Museum, USA
- The ‘Vuillaume’ (1711?) – Cité de la Musique, France
There is also a guitar neck, dated 1675, on loan to the Museo Stradivariano in Cremona. Beside these instruments there is also a variety of guitar making forms and templates, kept in the Paris and Cremona museums.
I first came across the Stradivari guitars while in lutherie school. Some small b/w pictures in an old book, as a mere footnote. Later a little book about the ‘Giustiniani’ was published and I found an article by Stewart Pollens in “The Cambridge Companion to the Guitar”. But beside that there was little information available.
One of the most enigmatic features of most of the guitars (the first three) is the exceptionally long string length (741 mm, Hill). When I asked my teachers about this they said that Stradivarius was a violin making genius, but he didn’t have much knowledge about or interest in guitar making. So he was destined to make his guitars too long…
Over the years I discusses this phenomenon with both guitar and violin makers and their vision was the same. To me this answer appeared very simplistic and weak. The notion that Stradivari was simply unknowing when it came to guitars was rather unsatisfying. Would a violin maker just make guitars too long out of ignorance? Then why bother to make guitars in the first place? And would a guitar maker just make unplayable harpsichords or violins?
Another factor is the time span between the first and last guitar we know. I find it hard to believe that, in those thirty years, no guitarist came to the Stradivari shop to give some feedback like: “Hey Tony, nice guitar, but the strings are somewhat too long for me.” And Stradivari would answer that it didn’t bother him because after all, he was a violin maker? Or should we consider the possibility that the guitar players in 17th century Cremona simply had VERY large hands?
Most modern makers tackle this problem in the same way earlier restorers did to the originals. They make a copy of the ‘Hill’ and simply shorten the neck. Simple and effective. But what if we did the same thing to a member of the violin family? Take one of the rare Stradivari viola’s and cut the neck down to violin size? Simply attach a set of new strings and off you go…
The person responsible would probably be burned at the stake by readers of Strad magazine… And even I would like to donate some wood for the fire.
What if the guitars were intended to be this way? They clearly served a function, otherwise they wouldn’t have been made.
When we re-calculate the highest possible string for a 741 mm string length at 415 Hz we arrive at a ‘d’ or ‘d#’ tuning instead of the now familiar ‘e’. An e-string is possible, but is so close to breaking point that the player would spend more time changing strings than playing.
This bought up the next question: Were there perhaps different sizes of guitars in use at Stradivari’s time? There are some written sources by players that mention guitars in different sizes with various tunings. Also there is an inventory made after the death of the Parisian maker “Dumesnil” that lists guitars of various sizes. Beside these there are some historical guitars that illustrate this custom. Like the 1581 Belchior Dias (the oldest surviving guitar) and instruments by other makers as Joachim Tielke, Giovanni Smit and Alexandre “LeJeune” Voboam. We must also take in consideration that most instruments (violin, viola da gamba, viola d’amore, mandolin, cittern, vihuela, baryton, lute, harpsichord, various flutes and other wind instruments were made and played in various sizes. Some of these instrument families remain untill this day.
Another question: Did Stradivari only produce these five extant guitars? Well, probably not. When we look at his workshop materials (yes, a lot of his workshop inventory and tools survived the ages) we find a nice collection of wooden forms and paper templates that were used to make guitars. Little headstock profiles, templates for soundboards and wooden forms around which the guitars were constructed. All for guitars in different sizes, with scales varying from 324 mm up to 770 mm (!).
The forms and templates
When I looked further into the matter I found out that these forms and templates were completely ignored by modern guitar builders. Most Stradivari copies were even made in the ‘Spanish’ style, like a 19th century Torres guitar, rather than using an inner form, like with violins.
To make sense of the templates and their use I needed more information. Fortunately in recent years publications by Stewart Pollens and Roger Hargrave shed new light on the working methods of the Cremonese masters. They also provided me with an essential piece of the puzzle: Stradivari’s unit of measurement.
Why is this so important? Before the French revolution every region of Europe had its own unit of measurement. Even pitches from instruments varied from town to town. When you work on a car, it is very helpful to know wherether the manufacturer used metric or imperial bolts; otherwise you will probably hurt the car, your tools, hands and mood. The same goes for re-engineering instruments. The unit of measurement is the key that unlocks the design. A unit of 76.2 mm doesn’t make sense in the metric world, until you realise that it’s simply 3 inches.
With this information a big feast of measurement, calculation and geometry started. As with any puzzle, it starts very slow, more than once you think about putting off the whole thing. But soon more pieces start to fall into place and the basic shapes appear. It seems like this thing is going to work. Later you get much further in the matter and the more pieces come together, the more details you see, the more excited you get. At the last moment you don’t even have to think about where to put the pieces, they just fit together like clockwork and the whole picture becomes visible.
But this was only the first part of the journey, the next was finding out how Stradivari made his guitars and wondering why he worked that way. Along with detailed pictures of the instruments, the publications by Pollens and Hargrave were a big help. Reading them and looking at the pictures felt like being in the workshop of the master, watching him work and getting a chance to ask questions.
“Why is there a knife mark there and there?”
Oh, because you constructed it that way and not the other way around.
“How did you manage to glue paper strips to the back of a guitar with the box closed, as proposed by many modern builders?”
Oh, you didn’t…
“Why are there plugged holes in the sides of your guitars?”
Oh, that’s where you held the sides to the form with little wooden pegs.
Over the years I’ve heard many makers sigh that Stradivari should have left a notebook with step-by-step instructions on how to make his instruments. But in a way he did, only in another language than written on paper. When you ask the right questions and search, the answers are there. Only in a language of shapes, paper and wooden templates and instruments. Many of the answers got obscured by later additions, restorations and changes to the instruments, and it takes a lot of care to make sense out of them.
The most enlightening things were the marks Stradivari left. Sometimes written (quite recently the last will of Stradivari was found in an archive), but more often knife and scratch marks, both on his instruments and workshop materials. They give an insight in the character and working methods of the master. We see that he was very practical, making the best with the materials and tools he had at his service. But also a maker who pushed the boundaries, innovating, constantly exploring new shapes. Constantly making little changes to the instruments he made. Going down one path, but coming back when it proves to be a dead end. Later in his life settling for a model he used earlier, but even then ever renewing his work. Even in his nineties, the quality of his work is stunning.
To test the data and theories I decided to make a reconstruction of a Stradivari guitar based on pattern MS.no.750 from the museum in Cremona. This guitar has a string length that is close to modern guitars and is suitable for ‘e’ tuning. From the scraps and left overs I also made a reconstruction of the smallest Stradivari guitar, based on form E.901.6 in the Cité de la Musique in Paris.
Some of the key features of the guitars:
- Built extremely thin and light (the large guitar only weighs 500 grams)
- No bracing to the back
- No wooden linings, only paper reinforcements to secure the back to the sides.
- The top only hangs to 1,65 mm of animal glue. The little wooden cleats around the soundboard are used to position the board while gluing, not to secure it to the sides.
Studying Stradivari’s life and work is a great and inspiring trip into a world of music, instruments and craftsmanship, shrouded in an exciting mix of mystery and myths. But when you lift that veil it proves to be even more interesting. The work of one of the most prolific craftsmen that ever lived. His name has become an archetype of quality and perfection almost synonymous with his craft. Mention the name of Guarneri of Amati at a birthday party and people will look at you like you’re a green alien wearing only orange shoes. When you do the same with Stradivari they will still think you’re crazy, but at least it will ring some kind of bell.
The only conclusion I can draw is that the ‘greatest violin maker of all times’ was also a great guitar maker. His guitars were made on the edges of what is possible with wood. Built unusually thin and light, without any unnecessary frills, but extremely dynamic and resonant.
The complete article about the research and reconstruction of the Stradivari guitars, along with footnotes and a plan for the small guitar, was published by The Guild of American Luthiers in GAL #122, summer 2015.
Come over to try the guitars yourself, or to catch one of my lectures on the subject.