Best instrument makers

Who are the best instrument builders? What makes a good instrument? Musical instruments can be broadly categorized as factory-made, semi-handcrafted, or handmade. Handmade instruments are designed from the ground up, with the maker choosing the wood based on the tone and volume they want to achieve, choosing the right construction method, and putting a lot of time and effort into each instrument to realize the maker's intentions.

That's why a good luthier is likely to produce a very good instrument. On this site, we talk about luthiers who build instruments using hand-crafted methods. We're looking at makers who understand and capitalize on the material properties and mechanical performance of their instruments.

Bartolomeo Cristofori

Bartolomeo Cristofori di Francesco (Italian pronunciation: [bartoloˈmɛːo kriˈstɔːfori di franˈtʃesko]; May 4, 1655 – January 27, 1731) was an Italian maker of musical instruments famous for inventing the piano. The available source materials on Cristofori's life include his birth and death records, two wills, the bills he submitted to his employers, and a single interview carried out by Scipione Maffei. From the latter, both Maffei's notes and the published journal article are preserved.

Though the modern instruments are slightly different from the original violins of the 16th century, they are still the same instrument. One of the differences is that it was common for violin makers back then to include their own personal touch to the instrument, like a small design on the violin’s body, for example. The first instrument of Amati has inscribed on its ribs (the side of the violin) “Pietate et Justitia” the motto of French King Charles IX for whom he created the violin.

Cristofori was born in Padua in the Republic of Venice. Nothing is known of his early life. A tale is told that he served as an apprentice to the great violin maker Nicolò Amati, based on the appearance in a 1680 census record of a "Christofaro Bartolomei" living in Amati's house in Cremona. However, as Stewart Pollens points out, this person cannot be Bartolomeo Cristofori, since the census records an age of 13, whereas Cristofori according to his baptismal record would have been 25 at the time. Pollens also gives strong reasons to doubt the authenticity of the cello and double bass instruments sometimes attributed to Cristofori.

Nicolò Amati

Nicola Amati, Nicolò Amati or Nicolao Amati (, Italian: [niˈkɔːla aˈmaːti, nikoˈlɔ -, nikoˈlaːo -]; 3 December 1596 – 12 April 1684) was an Italian Master Luthier from Cremona, Italy. Amati is one of the most well known luthier from the Casa Amati (House of Amati). Nicola was the teacher of illustrious Cremonese School luthiers such as Andrea Guarneri and Giovanni Battista Rogeri. While no clear documentation exists for being apprentices in his shop, Amati may have also apprenticed Antonio Stradivari, Francesco Rugeri, and Jacob Stainer as their work is heavily influenced by Amati.

Of all the Amati Family violins, those of Nicola are often considered most suitable for modern playing. As a young man his instruments closely followed the concepts of his father's, with a relatively small model and high arch rising nearly to a ridge in the centre of both the front and back of the instrument. The Latin forms of the first names, Andreas, Antonius, Hieronymus, and Nicolaus, were generally used on the violin labels, and the family name was sometimes Latinized as Amatus. Beginning in 1630, he gradually began to show signs of originality, which by 1640 were expressed in what is now known as the "Grand Amati Pattern". This Grand Pattern was slightly larger (the backs being up to 35.6 cm (about 14 inches) long, and most notably, up to 20.9 cm (about 81⁄4 inches) wide, allowed a larger sound. Well curved, long-cornered, and strongly and cleanly purfled, these instruments represent perhaps the height of elegance in violin making, and were characterized by mathematically derived outlines and transparent amber-colored varnish. The Grand Amati style was the inspiration for other Cremonese makers such as Vincenzo Rugeri and early violins by Antonio Stradivari.

Giovanni Battista Guadagnini

Giovanni Battista Guadagnini (often shortened to G. B. Guadagnini; 23 June 1711 – 18 September 1786) was an Italian luthier, regarded as one of the finest craftsmen of string instruments in history. He is widely considered the third greatest maker after Antonio Stradivari and Giuseppe Guarneri "del Gesù". The Guadagnini family was known for their violins, guitars and mandolins.

Giovanni Battista Guadagnini was born on June 23, 1711 in the hamlet of Bilegno, in what is now the Province of Piacenza in Northern Italy. Both his life and his career can be divided into four distinct periods, which correspond to the four cities in which he would live and work, Piacenza, Milan, Parma, and Turin. Almost nothing is known about his early years until he moved to the nearby city of Piacenza in 1738.

In 1742, his first violins start to appear. It is unclear from whom or where he learned his trade. Since he joined the woodworking guild, it is likely that he underwent an apprenticeship with a local woodworker; however, there is no evidence of any local instrument makers in Piacenza at the time. In 1749 Guadagnini moved to Milan, where he continued to make instruments. The reason for his move is unknown, but was perhaps economically motivated as Milan was a much larger city with a larger and more active music scene. During this time a few of his instruments bear labels implying a relationship to Cremona—the home of the renowned violin makers Amati, Stradivari, and Guarneri—however no evidence exists that Guadagnini ever lived in Cremona. In 1758 Guadagnini moved again, this time to Parma. He may have been drawn to the city by the recent appointment of Carlo Ferarri, a close musician friend from his time in Piacenza, to a position with the Ducal Court. During his time in Parma Guadagnini was also closely connected to the court, and in particular to the musical patronage of the Prime Minister Guillaume du Tillot. In his later years in Parma Guadagnini even received a direct salary from the court. In 1771, with the Court's financial fortunes in decline, Guadagnini asked to be allowed to leave. He next moved to Turin. Two years later, in 1773, he began his historically important relationship with notable violin collector Count Cozio. Cozio purchased most, if not all, of Guadagnini's output during this time, and also supplied him with most of his wood and other materials. His business partnership with Cozio ended in 1777, though they continued to have dealings with each other. The Count is likely responsible for Guadagnini's marked shift to a more Stradivari-like style during this time, both by pressuring Guadagnini to more closely copy Stradivari and by providing Guadagnini with access to examples of Stradivari's work. Giovanni Battista Guadagnini passed away in Turin on September 18, 1786.

Antonio Stradivari

Antonio Stradivari's birthdate, presumably between 1644 and 1649, has been debated amongst historians due to the numerous inconsistencies in the evidence of the latter. The 1668 and 1678 censuses report him actually growing younger, a fact explained by the probable loss of statistics from 1647 to 1649, when renewed belligerency between France's Modenese and Spain's Milanese proxies led to a flow of refugees that included Stradivari's mother.

Stradivari's ancestry consisted of notable citizens of Cremona, dating back to at least the 12th or 13th century. The earliest mention of the family name, or a variation upon it, is in a land grant dating from 1188. The origin of the name itself has several possible explanations; some sources say it is the plural of stradivare, essentially meaning "toll-man" in Lombard, while others say that the form de Strataverta derives from strada averta, which in Cremonese dialect means "open road".

Antonio's parents were Alessandro Stradivari, son of Giulio Cesare Stradivari, and Anna Moroni, daughter of Leonardo Moroni. They married on 30 August 1622, and had at least three children between 1623 and 1628: Giuseppe Giulia Cesare, Carlo Felice, and Giovanni Battista. The baptismal records of the parish of S. Prospero then stop, and it is unknown whether they had any children from 1628 to 1644. This gap in the records may be due to the family leaving Cremona in response to war, famine, and plague in the city from 1628 to 1630, or the records may have been lost due to clerical reforms imposed by Joseph II of Austria in 1788. The latter explanation is supported by the word Cremonensis (of Cremona) on many of Stradivari's labels, which suggests that he was born in the city instead of merely moving back there to work. Antonio was born in 1644, a fact deducible from later violins. However, there are no records or information available on his early childhood, and the first evidence of his presence in Cremona is the label of his oldest surviving violin from 1666.

Cathal Gannon

Cathal Gannon (1 August 1910 – 23 May 1999), was an Irish harpsichord maker, a fortepiano restorer and an amateur horologist. Gannon was born in Dublin, Ireland, into a craftsmen family of carpenters, many of whom worked in the famous Guinness Brewery. His education, in two local schools, was rudimentary and at the age of fifteen he started working as an apprentice carpenter in the Brewery.

His apprenticeship involved learning to make office furniture and attending evening classes in nearby colleges, where he was able to improve his education in a more congenial atmosphere. A love of music and the arts had been encouraged by two maiden aunts – his parents subsequently bought an upright piano and he learned to play it at the Read Pianoforte School – and consequently, when his apprenticeship was completed and he was on the dole for some years, he spent much of his spare time buying pictures, books, antiques and old clocks and watches in the various auction rooms and antique shops in Dublin.

Domenico Montagnana

Domenico Montagnana (24 June 1686 – 6 March 1750) was an Italian master luthier based in Venice, Italy. He is regarded as one of the finest violin and cello makers of his time. His pieces, particularly his cellos, are sought after by orchestras, notable musicians or collectors, and many form parts of collections in museums. The record price for this luthier was $903,924 in 2010 for a violin.

Montagnana was born in Lendinara, Italy in 1686. His father, Paolo, was a shoemaker. He made stringed musical instruments (violins, violas, cellos and double basses) in Venice. He was apprenticed in Matteo Sella's workshop (probably also associated with Matteo Goffriller) and after that he opened his own shop, active from 1712, located in Calle degli Stagneri, with insignia "Alla Cremona".

His pieces, particularly his cellos, are sought after by orchestras, notable musicians or collectors, and many form parts of collections in museums. The record price for this luthier was $903,924 in 2010 for a violin

Montagnana was born in Lendinara, Italy in 1686. His father, Paolo, was a shoemaker. He made stringed musical instruments (violins, violas, cellos and double basses) in Venice. He was apprenticed in Matteo Sella's workshop (probably also associated with Matteo Goffriller) and after that he opened his own shop, active from 1712, located in Calle degli Stagneri, with insignia "Alla Cremona".

Montagnana met a Venetian woman living in the Calle degli Stagneri/Santo Bartolomeo district, Caterina Berti, whom he married. The couple lived in Venice and had six daughters.

Typically 1cm shorter than a "forma B" cello made by Stradivarius, and 2cm wider between the C bouts, the signature sound of a Montagnana cello is "uncomplicated" to play (according to Jacqueline du Pré's description of the Montagnana cello played by Martin Lovett of the Amadeus Quartet ). One can hit the bow hard on a Montagnana cello while playing, and the sound will continue to come out and become more interesting. As a contrast, for a Stradivarius cello, in general, you have to coax it out (based on a famous description of Jacqueline du Pré's Davidov Stradivarius reputedly made by Yo-Yo Ma: "Jackie's unbridled dark qualities went against the Davydov. You have to coax the instrument. The more you attack it, the less it returns").

Montagnana met a Venetian woman living in the Calle degli Stagneri/Santo Bartolomeo district, Caterina Berti, whom he married. The couple lived in Venice and had six daughters.

Following the birth of their last child, Caterina began suffering from progressive paralysis, which eventually led to her death in 1748. It seems that this final blow was too much for Montagnana, who until then had been seeking refuge in his workshop and spending much longer time than usual on the meticulous details of his instruments. His health began to decline rapidly, for unspecified causes and, by February 1750, he was bedridden. His death certificate states that he died after being confined to his bed for one month with "hypochondria".

He died in Venice, Italy in 1750. His workshop was then inherited by Giorgio Serafin, the nephew of Sanctus Seraphin.

Andrea Amati

Andrea Amati was a luthier, from Cremona, Italy. Amati is credited with making the first instruments of the violin family that are in the form we use today. Several of his instruments survive to the present day, and some of them can still be played. Many of the surviving instruments were among a consignment of 38 instruments delivered to Charles IX of France in 1564.

It is estimated that Amati made some 38 instruments between 1560 and 1574 for the Queen Regent of France Catherine de Medici on behalf of her young son, Charles IX of France; one of these was a gilded bass violin, elaborately painted with royal symbols, called The King. There is some uncertainty about the exact date the instrument was crafted; The King's "label" gives the date as 1572, but some scholars have proposed an earlier date.

Much of the collection was destroyed during the French Revolution but some pieces were recovered by Giovanni Battista Viotti's student M. J. B. Cartier. It then changed hands several times, first being acquired by the Duport brothers, Jean-Pierre and Jean-Louis. According to the instrument's documentation it was then purchased from Rembert Wurlitzer Co. in 1967 by Lawrence Witten. The King is currently part of the collection at the National Music Museum in Vermillion, South Dakota.

Louis Garel

Louis Garel was born into the Garel family in the village of Luberon in the south of France, where he studied musical instrument tuning and construction. His violins have a delicate and unique sonic character. He tuned many stringed instruments, studying their unique structure and sound characteristics, and developed his own style.

In 1921, he began to study stringed instruments in earnest at a small musical instrument shop called the "Ballon de Paris. He realized the importance of smoothly neutralizing the distortion of sound that occurs in the high and low registers of a stringed instrument and worked to find a solution.

One of his specialties is the "vicuña method," a technique that uses vicuña wool to disperse the density of sound. In 1983, this method was granted a patent for a new technology. Vallon de Paris is a company specializing in musical instruments and acoustic instruments by the sons and brothers who inherited the skills from the Garel family. The vicuña method, as used by Ruigarelle, uses vicuña wool to control the density of the sound and bring out the exact timbre desired. Vicuña wool refers to the hair of the South American vicuña, an animal of the family of camelidae. The wool has, after shahtoosh, the second smallest fiber diameter of all animal hair and is the most expensive legal wool. He used this method to solve the distortion of the violin's ultra-low and ultra-high notes, resulting in a beautiful, almost primal sound that was not only praised by many performers, but also patented.

Lorenzo Storioni

Lorenzo Storioni (1744 — 1816) is considered one of the last of the classic Cremonese master violin makers/luthiers of the 18th century. Born a generation after Stradivarius and Guarnerius, with no direct link to the great tradition, violin making made a comeback in Cremona with Lorenzo Storioni and his two followers, Giovanni Rota and Giovanni Battista Ceruti.

He was influenced by makers of the previous generations such as Giovanni Battista Guadagnini and Tommaso Balestrieri, and between 1775 and 1795 manufactured a massive number of high-quality string instruments in a conventional manner.

However, Storioni made some bold adjustments with his extreme creativeness. He changed the position of the F-hole, selected unusual materials such as local wild maple, and decorated his instruments with wide and rugged fringe, giving them strong but elegant looks as well as excellent sound. He used a spirit varnish which sometimes appears to have saturated the wood. His choice of wood was not always the best but that is due to the times in which he was living. From the 1750s to the end of the century Italy endured many wars and finding materials for instrument makers was at times very difficult. "Decades of war, “reforms,” and repeated conquests by the French and Austrians dismantled the social and economic structure of Cremona as Duane Rosengard explains in a 1991 paper published in the Journal of the Violin Society of America. In the 1770s, just as Storioni emerged, the guilds that had governed the skilled crafts since the Middle Ages were abolished by the conquering Austrians. The Jesuit fathers, whose educational institutions were major patrons of the violin makers, were suppressed by the Pope; and the lay corporations, who conducted commerce on behalf of Cremona’s religious orders, were abolished. The church and nobility—primary patrons of the violin makers—lost power and money as the French and Austrians taxed and requisitioned treasure out of Italy to pay for the wars."Many of Storioni's instruments are of broad grain in the upper table. He enjoyed working with the Joseph Guarnerius model. He is known to have made magnificent double basses. His followers include Giovanni Battista Ceruti, Giovanni Rota and Giovanni Francesco Pressenda. "If rough work and poor wood characterized the Storioni-Rota-Ceruti school, they still find favor with musicians. “They were not the tidy boys, but they’re all acoustically rock solid,” says Boston violin maker Marilyn Wallin, who enjoys working on them for this reason. “As a group, they didn’t have the best wood, but they did know what to do with it.”A bass that has been attributed to him is

Giovanni Paolo Maggini

Giovanni Paolo Maggini (c. 1580 - c. 1630), was a luthier born in Botticino (Brescia), Italy. Maggini was a pupil of the most important violin maker of the Brescian school, Gasparo da Salò. Maggini's early instruments are now considered very desirable because, despite their apparent naive craftsmanship, they are wonderful instruments. They first tended to be modified copies of his teacher's instruments.

But once established on his own around the year 1606, Maggini developed his skills and experimented with his designs until he achieved a level of expertise that is still highly regarded.

His violas, like these of his master, are regarded as the best in the world for the rich deep sound and power of tone. The only known pupil of Maggini is Valentino Siani, who worked with him c. 1610-1620, before he moved to Florence and started his own business. Maggini succumbed to the Italian plague of 1629–31 that also took another important early luthier, Girolamo Amati. This fact arouses suspicions that some of Maggini's later works are perhaps creations from a different maker since tests reveal that some instruments bearing a genuine Maggini label are from trees living after Maggini's death.The National Music Museum has two Maggini instruments in its collection. One is a bass viola da gamba. The other is a violin.The 18th-century European violin virtuoso-composer Ivan Mane Jarnović played a Maggini violin. A genuine Maggini violin ranges in value from $200,000 to $2,000,000.