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.

Best of the Web (“Hall of Fame”)

National Music Museum

National Music Museum

The National Music Museum, which is located at the University of South Dakota in Vermillion, features 15,000 instru… [read review or visit site]

Most watched eBay auctions    

Antique 1903 A.b.c. Brooks High Grade Handmade Violin No 101 W/2 Tourte Bows YqzGorgeous Early Probably Italian-american Violin Circa 1840-1870Nice Old Antique Vintage 1902 "oscar Hemmig - Stainer" Violin - No ReserveAntique Mop Inlaid 4/4 Figured Maple Violin, No Reserve!Antique, Possibly 16th Century, 4/4 Violin Giovanni Paolo MagginiAntique French Jtl Geronimo Barnabetti Violin Paris France W/parts & CaseOld Violin With Label Hannibal Fagnola Fecit Taurini Anno Domini 1930Fantastic Old Violin With Label Francesco Ruggieri Viola Geige BratscheAntique Vintage Old Violin Italian Labeled Giuseppe Pedrazzini, Milano 1952Special, Rare, Antique 4/4 Old Italian ViolinMangeno 4/4 Violin Old Geige Violon Don't Miss It! Amazing Wood! FranceAn Antique, 18th Century Violin - Probably Italian, Labeled Gaetano PazziniOld Violin- BrokenOld, Antique, Vintage Fullsize "henri Farni" Violin. Nice!Vtg 1880 Old Antique Full Size Violin German 4/4 Markneukirchen Maggini ModelVtg 1910 Antique Full Size Violin German 4/4 Markneukirchen Restoration MagginiVintage Strad. Type Violin Antique 18th Century Violin Antique Violin, Labeled Joh. Bapt. Schweitzer, 1813, For Restoration***Old Violin, French Ch.j-b Collin Mezin 1928 Label, With Bows And Original CaseBeautiful Italian Labeled Violin Giov. Cannia Circa 1926 - Soloist QualityUnsigned Violin With Maple Back & Bow Stamped E. Herrmann Vintage Old Antique 2 Pc Back Full Size Violin - No ReserveOld German Violin, Bow, Case, Hohner Trutone Pitch Pipe, Strings, Rosin, GermanyTwo Old, Antique,vintage Fullsize Violins For Parts, Repair Or RestorationFantastic Old Violin With Label Carlo Ferdinando Landolfi Viola Geige BratscheVintage Antonius Staduarius Cremona Facibat Anno 1716 Stradivarius 4/4 ViolinSweet Old 4/4 Violin Labelled G.pedrazzini 1914 In A Great Condition!Great Very Old Probably French Violin, Luthier Project For RestorationEstate Fresh! 4/4 Violin Italian Model Violin - Rich Tone 1 Piece BackFine, Antique Giuseppe Fiorini Italian Very Old 4/4 Master ViolinAntique Vintage Old Violin 18th Century 1700's No Reserve!Fantastic Old Violin With Label D. Nicolaus Amati Viola Geige BratscheLot Of Old Violin Related Parts, Luthier Estate, Shipping All Over The WorldLot Of Old Violin Related Parts, Luthier Estate, Shipping All Over The World Violin Emilio Celani 1896 4/4 Vintage W/caseViolin Gasparo Da Salo Brescia 1530 Violin W/ Alligator Embossed CaseLot Of Old Violin Related Parts,mixed Junks, Luthier Estate, Shipping All OverRare Erba Paolo Labeled Antique 4/4 Old Master ViolinCecilio Cvn-200 Solid Wood Violin Size 3/4 $288 - Read18th Century, Labeled Stradivarius, 4/4 Antique Violin, Grafted Neck, 1741Antique Violin Nicolaus Amatus 1627 No Reserve !!!Antique Violin 4/4 Old Violin Geige Viola Label Jakobus Stainer For RepairNice Old Antique Vintage "jan Kriml" German Full Size Viola - No ReserveGaetano Gadda Old Violin Viola Geige BratscheLivorno 1847 4/4 Violin Old Geige Violon Don't Miss It! Antique From ItalyAlessandro Gambarin Cremona 2003 Violin 4/4Old Violin 4/4 Geige Viola Cello Fiddle Label Antonio RuggieriAntique Full Size Violin For Restoration Antique Old Vintage "stainer" 1 Pc. Back Full Size Violin - No ReserveJisheng Electric Violin With Bow & Gig BagOld Violin 4/4 Geige Viola Cello Fiddle Label Vincenzo SanninoFranzesko Ruggeri Old Violin Viola Geige Bratsche Interesting Early 1800s Old Vintage Antique 2 Pc Back Full Size Violin - NrOld Violin Bow Stamped W.e. Hill& SonsTransparent Varnish !guarnieri 'del Gesu' "the Cannon" 1743copy! A T19+ ViolinOld Violin 4/4 Alte Geige Stradivari Labeled Antonius Stradiuvarius 1726Old Violin 4/4 Geige Viola Cello Fiddle Fullsize Label Giuseppe PedrazziniAntoine Veron Old Violin Viola Geige BratscheVerry Old Violin Bow - Makers Name - Bausch - Rare - L@@k