Unlike many instruments, whose origins are lost to the mists of time, the birthplace of the modern violin is comparatively easy to pinpoint. The fiddler’s Garden of Eden was Cremona, Italy, where, in the middle of the 16th century, a stringed-instrument maker named Andrea Amati made Cremona the center of violin making in Europe. In the 17th century, Amati’s grandson Nicolo ran the atelier, where Giuseppe Guarneri was an apprentice, as well as Antonio Stradivari, although the evidence for that claim is inconclusive.
Whether Stradivari, who made about 1,000 violins in his lifetime (about half of which still exist), actually learned his craft from an Amati or not is almost beside the point, since his earliest violins are in the Amati style. By the 1680s, though, Stradivari was making the instrument his own, changing its shape, the size of the blocks that reinforced the body from the inside, and even the color and composition of the varnish.
In fact, today some people believe the varnish used on Stradivari violins may have been the secret sauce that made their sound so exquisite and their construction so enduring. Stradivari mixed silica and potash into his varnish, and soaked the instrument’s maple body with the shimmering, hard-drying liquid. Today, his 18th-century violins are the most highly-sought instruments in the world, routinely selling for hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of dollars at auction.
What is not known about Cremona is why violin-making there faded away after around 1750. By that time, though, the instrument had arrived in the United States, where founding fathers such as Thomas Jefferson performed Mozart for his guests. Reportedly, Jefferson also taught his slaves to play violins (doing so was a standard practice among slave owners), which means African Americans were probably playing violins before guitars.
By the end of the 19th century, violins were inexpensive and widely used instruments in America, second only to pianos. Sears and Montgomery Wards sold them for as little as $2 each, importing the instruments from Bohemia (the present-day Czech Republic), where they had been produced since the 1600s. That tradition would be essentially halted during World War II, as would the resurgent violin industry in Cremona, which started up again in the 1960s and has become a draw for tourists visiting the northern Italian city.
Meanwhile, in the United States, bluegrass and Western swing musicians turned their violins into fiddles, not so much due to the modifications they would make to their instruments (often there were none) but for the style of music they played. Famous fiddlers of these down-home genres included the late Vassar Clements, who played a 300-year-old French-made Duiffoprugcar with everyone from bluegrass legend Bill Monroe, who formed the Blue Grass Boys in 1939, to Jerry Garcia, who played banjo with Old and In the Way when he wasn’t working his day job as the lead guitarist of the Grateful Dead. One of the most versatile violinists on the scene today is Andy Stein, who played saxophone and violin with Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen before performing for 22 years with the Prairie Home Companion radio show’s house band (for the record, Stein usually plays a “no-name Chinese fiddle," which, he says, "works pretty well for most of my purposes”).
Not surprisingly, the violin has also been embraced by jazz musicians. Parisian Stephane Grappelli played an 18th-century Montagnana, as well as a Gioffredo Cappa, which may have been even older. Other musicians have chosen to go electric, including Jean-Luc Ponty, who favors a six-string Violectra, among numerous other instruments. In recent years, violin makers such as Christophe Landon have kept the traditions of the glory days of Cremona alive, while makers such as Guy Rabut and especially Roger Lanne have pushed the design of violins in radical new directions.