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    

300 Years Old Antique 4/4 Violin P.guarnerius 1730 Geige Violon200 Years Old Italian 4/4 Violin Labeled J.f.pressenda 1832 Violon Geige Gorgeous Antique19th Century Violin-wonderful Dark, Powerful Tone!Fine 18th Century Violin, Tyrol/alpine Italy (old, Antique Violin)Interesting 18th Century Violin, (old, Antique Violin)Fine 18th Century Violin Labeled Gaetano Pazzini (old, Antique Violin)Interesting 19th Century English Violin, Guarnerius Model (old, Antique Violin)Rare 18thc 1739 Antique Italian Guaneri 44 Violin, Joseph Guarnerius NrAntique Czech Violin By Willy Kostler, Graslitz. Nice, Mature Sound. No Reserve!Antique 19thc Hand Painted Folk Art Violin Case, Gold Gilt & Salmon Paint, NrGorgeous Antique19th Century Violin-powerful, Brilliant Tone! Ready! No Reserve!300 Years Old 4/4 Violin Labelled J.b.guadagnini 1703 Violon GeigeAntique Czech Violin By L.f.prokop, Chrudim, 1912. Wonderful Tone; No Reserve!Old 4/4 Violin F.guadagnini 1927 Label Great Sound! Violon Geige===== Nice Old Antique Giuseppe Bossi Italian Labeled Violin =====Awesome American J A Leland 1930 Miller Falls Massachusetts Violin Antique Nr1928 Ernst Heinrich Roth Violin. Strad RemakeFine Antique French Violin, Jacques Bocquay, Paris, Ready To Play, No Reserve!!Antique Carletti Carlo Anno 1918 Labeled Italian 4/4 Old Master ViolinOld Violin Bow Mcel FetiqueFantastic Old Violin With Label Joaef Klotz Viola Geige BratscheFrench H.c Silvestre Violin Fire Stamped/branded H.c Silvestre A Paris***** Very Nice Old Antique Carolus Badarello Italian Labeled Violin *****Old Fine Rare Violin Lab V.postiglione Geige Violon Violino Violine Viola Fiddle200 Years Old Italian 4/4 Violin Labeled J.dall'aglio 1816 Violon Geige Superb Antique "modified Violin-shape" Powder Flask Of British ManufactureOld Interesting Violin Made Around 1820 - 1850Vintage John Juzek 4/4 Full Size Violin W/ Case, Bow, & Extras - Czechoslovakia Old German Violin Wilhelm Durrschmidt Markneukirchen 1924flameyFine, Antique Italian Very Old 4/4 Master ViolinOld Fine Violin Lab. E. Soffritti 1924 Geige Violon Violino Violine Viola FiddleItalian Antique Giuseppe Bertolli Labeled Old 4/4 ViolinOld Antique 19th Century Violin With Antique Bows And CaseOld Violin Bow Jas TubbsNew Concert 4/4 German Violin Fiddle-with Case And Bow Old Italian,italian Master Violin,amati....Old Fine Violin Labeled Camilli 1740 Geige Violon Violine Violino Viola ItalianMint Old Antique French Violin Mirecourt By Marc Laberte, 1926 - No Reserve.Fiddle Violin Nice Old German Strad Model. Very Nice Quality Markneukirchen WorkOld Masterpiece Italian Violin P.guarneri 1735 Geige Violon Violine ViolinoOld Fine Violin Labeled L.storioni Geige Violon Violine Violino Viola Mint Cond.Antonio Stradivari 1720 'red Mendelssohn' Copy! A M20+ Violin Professional Tone!Joseph Guarnerius Fecit Cremonae Anno 1727 Ihs Full Size 4/4 Violin W/ Case Fine Old Antique Italian Violin By Luigi Corzoglio Circa 1934 Pristine ConditionSlightly Used Yamaha Rbx170 4-string Electric Bass Guitar Old Violin SunburstFantastic Old Violin With Label Georges Chanot Viola Geige BratscheVintage 1920 Italian Violin By Tullio Giulietti , No ReserveRare Antique 1926 Hand Made In Usa John Knapp 4/4 Violin200 Years Old Duke London - Great Very 4/4 Violin Geige Violon Ready To PlayOld Violin 4/4 Geige Viola Cello Fiddle Fullsize Label Bernardel Old Interesting Violin Made Around 1800 - 1850Very Old Carved Head Violin-guadagnini LabelBeatiful Old Violin Needs RepairsAntique 4/4 Violin T.balestrieri1759 Label Old Geige ViolonVintage Stainer 4/4 Violin From The Late 1800s Vintage Tiger Maple? Germany Violin Lifton Case W/ Key, Leeds Rosin, Pitch PipeEdward Preston Violin Plane***beautiful Antique Violin For Restoration***Antonio Stradivari 1715 "the Titian" Copy A T20 Violin,aubert&dominant StringsVery Nice Violin Bow