A Complete Violin Glossary
Adjust Moving the soundpost, using a tool called a soundpost setter, to balance the response and quality of the strings. (Also known as, “Can you get me more out of the lower end?”) As simple as the procedure looks, don’t try it yourself—you can do serious damage, resulting in an expensive repair and permanent devaluation to your instrument.
Arch The curve of the back and the top. Contrary to popular belief, the wood is carved, not bent, to achieve this effect. The raw blanks for the top and back are shaped like peaked rooftops. The arch is roughed out with a gouge, refined with specially designed small thumb planes, and finished with a steel scraper to make a perfect curve. The shape of the arch, its fullness and height, is one of the primary factors determining the sound of an instrument.
Back There are two plates, the back and the top. The back can be of one piece or two pieces joined in the middle; it makes no difference to the sound or the strength. Maple is used for violins and almost all violas. The back contributes to the richness and response of the instrument.
Bass bar As with the engine of your car, this important part is out of sight. You can see a little bit of it without opening your instrument if you look in the upper eye of the bass f-hole. The bass bar is that strip of spruce fitted and glued to the inside of the top, under the bass foot of the bridge. It serves a dual purpose: to support the top and to distribute the vibrations. Its shape and fit are critical to the response and power of your instrument. A violin maker relies entirely on intuition and experience to shape it correctly.
Bearclaw Also known as hazel, it’s the curlicue figure found in the wood of some tops (see also figure). It is not a knot or imperfection. Bearclaw might be caused by a virus that affected the growing tree, or it might be genetic, like curly hair—nobody really knows. But it’s pretty if properly varnished, and it doesn’t affect the sound adversely as long as there isn’t too much of it.
Bee sting The point where the purfling meets in the corners. The outside black strips are cut so that they extend to a fine point. A well-executed bee sting lends a corner an ineffable elegance. The Amatis were masters at cutting these.
Belly The top. An older term more commonly used in England than in the U.S.
Blocks There are six of them inside your instrument, one at each end and one in each corner. Made of willow or spruce, they reinforce the joints where the ribs meet and help distribute the stress on the neck and the saddle.
Book-matched Most backs and almost all tops are made of two pieces of wood, sawn or split from a single billet and then opened up like a book and joined in the middle. There is no appreciable difference in sound or strength between a one-piece or two-piece back.
Bout The big curves of the instrument’s outline. The c-bouts are the two that constitute the waist of the instrument, and the others are the upper and lower bouts. You can further distinguish the upper right from the upper left. An open bout is a seam that has come unglued between a rib and the top or back.
Bridge It holds the strings up. Carved from maple, every bridge has to be fitted to the individual instrument; it is held in place by the pressure of the strings. The shape of the crown of the bridge—the curve of its top—determines the ease of string crossing. Since the bridge is the primary conduit for transmitting the vibration of the strings to the instrument, the way that the bridge is carved can have a decided effect on the sound and response. The bridge is also the best guide to a craftsman’s taste and ability to use his tools.
Bushing The dowel used to fill a peg hole or endpin hole that has gotten too large from wear. The hole is filled, retouched, and then redrilled, and the peg orendpin refit. It’s a standard procedure that shouldn’t affect the value of the instrument if done properly.
Button The half moon, the size of the upper joint of your thumb, that extends from the top of the back and covers the neck heel. Its humble size belies its critical role in anchoring the neck. A detached button spells big trouble, because it indicates that the neck is no longer securely set. The proper repair, known as “doubling,” requires thinning the original button and grafting a whole new piece of wood on. If the button is worn and becomes too small, an ebony crown is often fitted to restore it to its proper size.
Champfer The 45-degree bevel that breaks the sharp edge on the scroll. The way it’s done is a signature of a maker’s style; the brothers Amati hardly used one, while Storioni whacked it out—each in keeping with the general feel of their instruments.
Channel The reverse curve over the purfling where the arch rises to meet the edge. The depth and extent of the channel play a critical role in determining the sound and response of the instrument. The deeper it is, the more flexible the plate is, yielding a faster response but not as much resistance. As the instrument evolved, the channel gradually became less and less deep as makers strove to create instruments with greater power.
Clean and polish A remarkable amount of dirt, rosin, and dried perspiration will build up on the instrument through routine use. Cleaning and polishing, if properly done, will remove all the accumulated grime and restore the luster to the varnish. Unfortunately, many shops undertake the job with an excess of zeal, resulting in a debasing of the varnish as it amalgamates with the polish. Commercial cleaners and polishes are best left on the shelf, for they are not effective in removing all of the dirt, and the polish gradually forms a second layer of finish. The best way to keep the instrument clean is to use a soft cloth (such as an old T-shirt) after each playing; perspiration spots can be removed before the salt damages the finish by wiping with a just-barely moistened tissue.
Collar The ebony or ivory ring between the shaft and head of the peg—and a great source of buzzes. If you hear something buzzing away, check those collars first; they may be loose.
Comb The hollowing, with a ridge in the middle, that runs from the back of the scroll to the front of the volute. Stradivari’s was distinctive and elegant, for it flattened in the middle, achieving a wonderfully sculptural effect. (Comb, by the way, is my own term; if you think of a better one, let me know.)
Corner The place where the bouts converge—four on the back, four on the top. They present a paradox, for the better they are aesthetically, the more of an irritant they are to the player. Long, graceful corners tend to fall victim to exuberant bowing, because the frog will catch them and pull them off. So why do makers go on making them? Because they are so beautiful.
Crack A new one needs repairing; old ones usually can be left alone, even if they look open. The instrument vibrates continually when played, so most cracks tend, over time, to reopen after they’ve been fixed.
Dovetail The joint by which the neck is attached to the body of the instrument.
Doubling The repair of a detached button, involving thinning the original button and grafting on new wood (see also button).
Dressing Planing the fingerboard, to remove the irregularities worn into it through use (see also fingerboard).
Ear The little circle that constitutes the outermost part on the volute of the scroll.
Ebony The tropical hardwood used for the fingerboard and some fittings, chosen because it is so dense and resistant to wear.
Edge The perimeter of the top or back—the part outside the purfling that overhangs the rib structure. The way it’s rounded is another signature of a maker.
Endbutton The little wooden knob fitted into a hole in the lower ribs, over which the tailgut passes.
F-hole The soundhole of the instrument; so called because of its shape. The placement and cut of the f-holes are crucial to the sound of the instrument, for they will determine the way the top flexes as the instrument is played. Cut entirely with a knife, they are a test of the maker’s eye and skill.
F-stop The distance from the top edge, next to the neck, to the notches of the f-hole. The instrument has been designed so that the notches point to the middle of the bridge foot. This is the most important measurement on the instrument, for it determines the total string length. The neck length is proportional to the f-stop, so that when you shift, you land in the right position. This is the idea, anyway, and it works with violins, but it’s not always the case with violas and cellos. When musicians feel that an instrument is too large, usually what they mean is that the f-stop (and thus the string length, and the stretch between notes) is too long.
Fiddle A violin, whether it’s used to play classical, bluegrass, jazz, or any other kind of music. Everybody, from musicians to fine-instrument dealers, uses the term at least occasionally.
Figure The pattern in the wood of the back, ribs, and scroll; usually it’s the tiger striping known as flame. Top figure is called hazel (also see bearclaw). Figure is not grain; it’s the patterns made by the undulation of the grain as the tree grows. You see it because the wood fibers, due to their changing direction, absorb differing amounts of varnish, which then reflects and diffracts the light hitting it.
Filler See ground.
Fine Tuner See tuner.
Fingerboard The ebony surface under the strings. Each fingerboard is individually fitted to the instrument. Its surface is arched to mimic the arch of the bridge, although a cello fingerboard has a flat table under the c-string, which provides a better surface for fingering the thicker string. It is also planed so that there is a slight hollowing, known as the scoop, from end to end that prevents the strings from buzzing as they vibrate. The fingerboard needs regular planing, known as dressing, to remove the ridges and hollows worn into it by fingers and strings.
Fittings The pegs, tailpiece, endbutton or endpin, and chin rest. Most commonly of ebony, but also frequently of rosewood, boxwood, or mountain mahogany. They might be, but usually aren’t, original to an older instrument.
Flame See figure.
Fleck See mirror.
French polish For some reason, the peculiarly American taste for high gloss has led repairmen to use this concoction—in truth, a varnish—that amalgamates with the original varnish, irreversibly debasing its patina and changing its acoustical effects. If your instrument is lucky enough to have any of the original varnish left, do not, under any circumstances, let it fall victim to this particular brand of vandalism.
Front The top.
Graduation The variations in thickness of the top and back. The top is left thicker around the f-holes and the upper and lower blocks; the back is thicker in the center, gradually thinning toward the flanks. The graduation of the plates is a determining factor in sound and response. Regraduating is another matter entirely (see below).
Grain The annular rings of the tree; two new ones, for winter and summer, accrue every year. When viewed on a violin, the grain must be as straight and true as possible.
Ground Also called the undercoat, sealer, or filler, it’s what goes on the wood first when applying the finish. The wood of a raw violin is tremendously absorbent, so what is applied first will soak in deeply and affect the way the wood vibrates, and thus the sound of the finished instrument. Not necessarily a varnish, the filler each maker uses is something he or she holds strong views on but will rarely, if ever, discuss, because the filler is (probably correctly) viewed as the single most important factor in the character of a maker’s work. Old Cremonese and Venetian instruments, celebrated for their tonal superiority, not so coincidentally also have an exceptionally beautiful ground, the composition of which is still largely unknown.
Hardwood The back, sides, and neck of an instrument are always of hardwood: maple, poplar, or sometimes willow. The top is softwood—spruce (what the English call pine).
Hazel See bearclaw, figure.
Head The scroll.
Hide glue What holds the instrument together, a gelatin glue made from cow hooves and hides. It’s used because it’s water soluble, which means that glue joints can be dissolved and taken apart for repair when necessary, and for the simple reason that after a thousand years or so of invention, it’s still the best and most versatile adhesive around.
Joint Each place where two pieces of wood meet and are glued. A clean joint is one that is holding well; an open joint is one that has failed. The center joint is where the two halves of the top or back are glued together.
Label The slip of paper glued inside the instrument’s back, identifying the maker (but don’t believe everything you read). Also called the sticker or ticket.
Lining The strips of wood glued to the inside of the rib structure to reinforce the joint where the plates meet the ribs. They can wear down after generations of regluing open bouts, or damaged by an impatient repairer with a dull gluing knife, at which point they have to be replaced. A bout that constantly opens might not have a lining adequate to hold the rib and plate together.
Maple The greatest of all woods in appearance, grain, resonance, and strength. The best comes from Bosnia.
Mirror Also called fleck, it’s the medulary rays in maple that, under a great varnish, sparkle and reflect the light.
Neck The part of the instrument with which you have most contact. The thickness, rounding, and finish must be exactly right. Like grammar or pitch, you only notice it when it’s bad, but then it’s as irritating as a stone in your shoe.
Neck graft The neck can break or wear out. Since it’s important for the value of the instrument that the scroll stay with the violin, the old neck is cut off and a new one grafted in.
Neck heel The vertical part of the neck where it is joined to the body, ending in the button. Also called the root.
Notches Also called nicks, these are the little knife cuts in the middle of the f-holes that indicate the location of the bridge.
Nut The ebony piece at the upper end of the fingerboard, which supports the strings. The angle of the grooves that holds the strings is very important: if too steep, the strings will break; if too flat, they will sound false.
Overhang The projection of the edge over the rib structure. It allows the plates to fit on the ribs yet still expand and shrink with changes in the weather.
Overstand The distance from the top to the fingerboard where the neck is joined to the instrument. It is a vitally important measurement, for two reasons. First, the overstand will make a huge difference in your ability to shift comfortably into the upper positions. Second, the amount of pressure exerted on the top by the strings—and thus a large part of the sound and response—is a function of the overstand and the projection of the neck.
Patch A repair that involves removing original wood and replacing it with new, necessary in places where so much pressure is exerted that a crack will not hold if only glued and reinforced with studs. The most common are soundpost patches.
Peg Shaped to have precisely the same taper as the peg hole, a peg should turn and hold without having to be pushed in. If your pegs slip, they might need peg dope, a compound to be applied very sparingly. Since you turn pegs frequently to tune the strings, however, they do wear over time. So if they still slip even with peg dope, don’t grumble and force them; you can crack the pegbox walls. Get them properly fit.
Peg holes The four holes in the scroll where the pegs go. They must be perfectly round for the pegs to turn smoothly. Since peg dope will accumulate and harden, the peg holes have to be cleaned now and then (see bushing).
Pegbox The lower, functional part of the scroll that holds the pegs and strings.
Pin In the classic method of construction, two small pins at the upper and lower ends of the plates were used to hold them in place while gluing. Made of wood, they are visible near the center joint by the purfling. Their precise location and size are characteristics that can be used to identify the work of a particular maker
Pine See spruce.
Plates The top and back of the instrument.
Polish See Clean and polish, French polish.
Projection The measurement of the height of the neck at the bridge. Combined with the overstand and arching height, it gives a rough calculation of the angle of the strings over the bridge, affects the pressure that is exerted on the top. A higher projection results in more pressure. The projection will vary with the weather; as humidity increases, the neck drops. A projection that is too low makes it difficult to bow without clobbering the c-bouts.
Purfling The three-piece strip that runs around the perimeter of the instrument. Almost always inlaid, purfling serves a dual purpose: aesthetically, it’s like a picture frame, and functionally, it acts as a binder, preventing cracks from developing and traveling along the grain. The purfling is occasionally scratched or painted on. Purfling that has come loose in the groove is the most common source of buzzes.
Regraduation What amounts to a retrofit, in which the graduations of a violin are redone by someone other than the maker. Currently considered vandalism of the worst sort, it’s actually not always a bad thing. Instruments often have too much or too little wood in certain places, and correcting the thicknesses can make a bad fiddle sound better. The question, of course, is who is doing the procedure, and how far he or she should go—once wood is taken out, you can’t put it back.
Ribs The sides of the instrument. Usually of the same wood as the back, they are very thin and are bent to shape on a hot iron. Stradivari and other classical makers often lined their cello ribs with linen to reinforce them.
Root See neck heel.
Saddle The small piece of ebony at the lower end of the instrument, over which the tailgut passes. The saddle is also the slight flattening of the arch of the top (seen when viewed from the side) that enhances its flexibility.
Scoop The slight hollowing on the fingerboard, which prevents strings from buzzing. The scoop must be perfectly even throughout its length. Too much scoop will result in the strings feeling too high in the middle positions, as well as problems with intonation and (for cellists) barring fifths.
Scroll The head of the instrument (and a good guide to the artistry of the maker).
Sealer See ground.
Setup Broadly speaking, this term refers to the way everything is put together to make the instrument sound the way it does. The bridge and the soundpostare known as the “setup” of the instrument. “The way it is set up” refers to the fourmeasurements important to repairers: f-stop, neck length, overstand, and projection.
Shaft The tapered shank of the peg.
Sides See rib.
Softwood See spruce.
Soundhole See f-hole.
Soundpost The dowel of spruce that is wedged in place inside the instrument just behind the treble foot of the bridge. It serves a dual role: it supports the top and transmits the soundwaves to the back. Moving the post (see adjust) will alter the balance, response, and focus of the sound. The post must fit the surface of the back and top as perfectly as possible to avoid damaging either. A crack that develops over the post is known as a soundpost crack.
Spike See endpin.
Spruce The softwood used for the top. Engelmann spruce, the most widely used species, grows all over the world. Spruce has the highest strength-to-weight ratio of any natural material.
Sticker See label.
String length The distance between the bridge and the nut, and the governing factor in the playability of an instrument. Too long, and the reach between notes becomes awkward; too short, and the strings lose the tension necessary for a good response.
Strings A bewildering variety is available. They fall into three basic categories: gut, perlon, and steel. The greater the weight of the material, the thinner the string can be to tune it up to pitch, which is why metal is used: thinner strings respond faster. The tradeoff is that thicker strings tend to give a more complex sound. All strings are wound, with the exception of most violin E strings, which are usually plain steel (or an alloy of some sort). The windings come in a variety of alloys that produce different types of sound and response. Typically, the gut-core strings produce the most complex sound but have a slower response and less definition. Perlon, a form of nylon used in place of gut to give more consistency to the string and to reduce its susceptibility to changes in humidity, also gives more of an edge to the sound. Metal strings, the thinnest, give the fastest response, the most definition, and the least warmth. Contrary to popular belief, metal strings do not necessarily exert more pressure on an instrument.
Stud A reinforcement glued over a crack on the inside of the instrument. It can be of either spruce or parchment, and if done properly, it is acoustically invisible. The studs act like sutures, holding the crack together as it vibrates and moves due to weather.
Table The top.
Tailgut The piece of line that is attached to the tailpiece and looped around the endbutton or endpin. Plastic cable is now used instead of gut. The tailgut can be adjusted so that the distance between the bridge and the tailpiece can be tuned for optimum resonance: the string length behind the bridge should be one-sixth of the playable string length.
Tailpiece What the strings are attached to at the lower end. Although usually of a wood that matches the pegs, tailpieces of metal or plastic are also commonly found on cellos and sometimes violas. The material and weight of the tailpiece affects the sound, although there is no correlation as to the effect: heavier tailpieces don’t always make a darker sound, for example.
Tenor extension The widening of the pegbox above the nut on cellos and some violas. Done for aesthetic as well as practical reasons, the width balances with the instrument and the length of the scroll, and it allows more room for the strings in the pegbox. This was particularly important when the instrument was developed and the strings, being of braided gut, were much thicker.
Thumb stop The distance from the top edge where the neck is set to the recurve where the neck turns into the neck root. It’s where your thumb rests as you shift into higher positions.
Ticket See label.
Top Just what you think it is, although some people call this plate the front, table, or belly. It is almost always made up of two pieces of wood.
Tuner The metal implement that is attached to the tailpiece and holds the lower end of the string, allowing for fine tuning without having to resort to the pegs. A great source of buzzing, especially on cellos.
Undercoat See ground.
Varnish The coating that protects the wood, gives the instrument much of its beauty, and affects the sound. The lore surrounding violin varnish is rich; its precise makeup and effect on an instrument are the “big mystery.” In truth, everybody uses pretty much the same thing: resins and a drying oil dissolved in turpentine. But every maker jealously guards his or her own recipe, which is usually the result of years of experimentation. Violin varnish has to be made rather than purchased off the shelf, because what works acoustically is, in the world of commercial varnish, an abject failure. Any surface coating has a dampening effect on vibration, and modern varnishes are simply too durable. It doesn’t always correlate, but usually the better the violin, the more fragile the varnish that was used on it. Aesthetically, a great varnish has a depth and texture that enhances the character of the wood without obscuring or staining it. (Also see ground.)
Volute On the scroll, the spiral that sits atop the pegbox.
Windings The alloys wrapped around the cores of the instrument’s strings (see also strings).