Sunday, January 1, 2017

If It's Not Baroque, Don't Fix It!

"If it's not Baroque, don't fix it!"  Those words were said by one of my high school orchestra teachers, Mrs. Huthmaker.  It was one of the few things she actually managed to teach me.  That thought came to my mind many years after it was first said to me.

For fun I was looking through the cello section on E-bay when I saw something that I didn't recognize.  That was good since I was searching for cellos that were not a typical Stradivarius or Guarneri.  However, what I was looking at was in the cello section, but it was not called a cello.  It was a Viola Da Gamba, a member of the Viol family.

I honestly had no clue what that was.  I started playing cello when I was 12, and no one ever said anything about it.  Wikipedia here I come.

It turns out all that Baroque era music that Mrs. Huthmaker loved was actually played on the precursor to Stradivarius and Guarneri instruments.

This will help:

Just to put this in perspective, the years from 1600 A.D. to 1750 A.D. are known as the Baroque period.  One of Stradivarius' earliest known violins is from 1666.  Some of his most "valued/sought after" violins are from 1680-1690. 

This is really helpful.

What I am trying to say, Baroque music had been in full swing for almost a century before Stradivarius became known for producing his violins.  So this leads to the question, what "violins" came before them?  It turns out this:

Again, this will help.... a lot.

So all those pictures I saw where the cello looked like it was melting and didn't have an endpin, well that was not so much "artistic license" was it was what a real viola da gamba looked like.  Here's some vintage paintings and sketches.

It actually makes a bit of sense now doesn't it?  The funny thing is that, I can't believe that I had to learn about this from E-bay off all places.  Of course now I want to buy one, but ... what does it sound like.  Let's pull up YouTube!

Okay, that's talent.  I mean.  That is talent.  I don't even play seven stringed guitars, I wonder what I would do with a seven string bowed instrument? 

Of course, the nice thing about the two Chinese instrument shops on E-bay is that they have what I would call a hybrid of a Strad style cello and a Viola Da Gamba.  Here's a picture of the Viola Da Gamba on the left and a Strad style cello on the right.

Now here's what they were selling.

The shape is more consistent with the Viola Da Gamba, but it has a modern tailpiece, fine tuners, and very noticeably an end pin.  Also, the angle of the fingerboard is a more modern shape.

One thing that can be changed for a truer, vintage sound is the strings.  They still make gut strings as well as synthetic strings that sound like gut strings.  Stringing those on this instrument would help towards a more Baroque sound. 

So now, I have a few options.  The two Chinese E-bay stores sell a variety of these Baroque era recreations.  Some are very close to the original makes, others like the one above are hybrids.  They also sell, "violins in the white," which means they are assembled but unfinished. 

I would like to buy an unfinished hybrid.  That way I could add the things I wanted.  I could also stain it, and French polish (shellac) it instead of it coming with a heavy varnish.  That's the one drawback to a lot of new instruments.  They put on a heavier coat of finish than necessary.  It ends up stifling the sound. 

Here's the name of the two E-bay sellers:

lankuishuang  Charming Song Violin Store

yitamusic  Yita Music

Since I would most likely want a four string hybrid, in the white Viol Da Gamba/Cello, I would consider almost making it a steampunk type instrument.  It would have vintage stylings with modern attachments. 

Let's start with the color.  I could stain it wine red like all those Gibson Les Paul Customs.  I would then finish it with shellac.  Okay, I would be a little more artsy than that and French polish it, but either way, it's still putting shellac on a wooden instrument.

Next up, metal gears.  That's right.  They've had them for cellos for about a hundred years.  Why not make use of them? 

When it comes to tailpieces there are so many options.  They make them in many types of wood, as well as a variety of styles.  I even considered a brass tailpiece, but that would affect the tone.  It might add a touch of brightness that I wouldn't want.  Maybe not so much brightness, as a tinny sound.  What I would really consider is a harp style tailpiece.

Another fun thing is that there are so many different pickup systems out there.  I'm not sure where I would start.  The costs are variable, but some of the nicer ones can get really pricey.  I still have a lot of research to do on this.

Something else that would be quite modern is the use of a bone nut instead of an ebony one.  Bone nuts have been used on guitars for a while, but not usually on orchestra instruments.  I built one for my electric cello, and I am completely happy with it. 

One thing they have now that they never had when I was a kid is a wolf whistle eliminator.  Basically, a orchestra instrument will have overtones which are just awful.  I mean the screechy howling sound that people hate when a kid first picks up the violin?  Yeah, that's a wolf whistle.  They now make a device to eliminate that sound.  Where was this when I started out.  It would have saved my parent's ears.

The one way to truly influence sound is find a good set of strings.  For the longest time I didn't have a clue that good strings could change not only my tone, but my volume.  Back when Mars Music was closing down I snagged a good deal on some D'Addario Helicores.  They blew my mind.  Before, all I knew was Red Label.  I didn't know what some decent strings could do.  The Helicores turned my tone up to 11, dang near doubled my volume, and bought out my bass notes.

I found out for electric orchestra instruments the Helicores tend to work the best for pickups and pickup systems.  That's one reason I also put them on my electric cello.  If I get a good deal on something else I may try them out.  Especially if they are darker and/or warmer.  But after having such good luck with the Helicores I will probably stick with them. 

So I have a lot to think about.  First up, finding a way to pay for it all.  Right now it's just a pipe dream.  But that's okay.  I'm a bit of a daydreamer, and this is a good thing to daydream about.  Let me think of what I would like to do, and keep a look out for new items being put up on E-bay.  You never know what might come up.   

And of course, the mandatory picture of me when I just received my cello.  I was 12 in this photo.

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