Make even the slightest adjustment to a violin design—add a string, use a different scroll shape—and you can turn heads, which is true of the work of Phil Elsworthy, an instrument maker from Waterloo, Ontario. Extra strings, fingerboard inlay, a square scroll—in the staid world of violin design, Elsworthy’s fiddles aren’t for the faint of heart.
“Most people say ‘I haven’t seen anything like this before!’” notes Elsworthy. “And certainly they wouldn’t have. I call them Hardanger fiddles’ after the Norwegian ones, and that’s kind of where I got the idea.”
The most obvious aspect of Elsworthy’s work is the ornamentation, which on some instruments can include inlay extending the length of a fingerboard bound with maple binding. Different, yes, but he’s quick to note that it’s nevertheless a much older and perhaps more traditional idea than we might think. “Certainly if you go back to the baroque era with viols, they varied enormously, and the same was true for violins. Stradivarius made a set of instruments for the King of Spain that were elaborately inlaid.”
Elsworthy’s instruments can be ornate in a way that anyone but a banjo player might find a bit on the enthusiastic side, but in the end it’s the sound of these fiddles that make them so striking. The reason is the sympathetic strings, four strings that run from the scroll to the tailpiece beneath the fingerboard rather than above it. They are out of reach of the bow because they aren’t intended to be played directly, but rather to be tuned to vibrate in sympathy with what is being played. The sound is very delicate, and the effect is a bit like reverb. It’s a familiar sound but, then again, entirely unique and if most people have never seen anything like this, it’s also true that they haven’t heard anything quite like this before either. At least not these days.
“In the baroque era, especially with the viol, they were more likely to have sympathetic strings than not,” says Elsworthy. “The ones that I build are essentially like baroque violins.”
Ok, but … why? Elsworthy isn’t Norwegian, and doesn’t play Norwegian folk music or baroque music. “Someone gave me some plans for a Hardanger fiddle years ago,” he explains. “I had them sitting around and I had a flash of inspiration that the idea of sympathetic strings would be good for Celtic music. I play Irish music, and that’s what motivated me to build the first one, because I realized it would work well for Irish music.”
And it really does. “With Irish music you are pretty well working in the key of D and related keys to D. So you can get your sympathetic strings tuned to that key and they will work pretty well with anything that you play.”
Elsworthy admits that his fiddles are a bit outside the mainstream, though he makes them for the very best reason of all: because he likes to. And there’s certainly nothing wrong with that.