Bobby O’Neal Talton is a 90-year-old award-winning violin maker with a lifetime of experience in the art of creation.  As a boy he built wooden airplanes to fly around the hills of southwest Virginia; as a young married man, he built a house because his family needed a place to live in Springfield. Virginia; as a middle-aged man he moved to banjos, dulcimers. violins, violas and cellos.  Join us as we explore the imagination and creativity of an award-winning nonagenarian artisan.

Transcript:

so welcome to narratives this is will’s dad and we’re here today in on the crystal coast of north carolina and beaufort north carolina and today we have a nonagenarian luthier who makes violins and his name is bobby talton and i have a special connection to bobby talton he is my mother’s brother my mother had six brothers and no sisters so there were seven of them this is her next oldest brother and so today i should we’ll unpack a little bit i shouldn’t uh describe what a nonagenarian is and that means you’re between 90 and 100 years old so that’s that part and then um what about the luthier part you’re a luthier uncle bobby well violin makers cello and not everything but concentrated on violins cellos and i built uh oh yeah

uh other instruments too but these were just here and there there was the banjo guitars and a few dulcimers so violin makers probably prefer the term violin maker over luthier which means string instrument right yes that’s that’s correct okay good a great start um so what we’re going to talk about will faith and glenn had an episode a few weeks ago and they talked about education in depth and i thought it would be enlightening if we talk to an artist about education and where the artist got his education and you didn’t go to harvard to learn violin making is that right uncle bobby uh no basically i went to the basement in my woodworking shop and uh started butchering up some wood that’s a that’s a great way to look at it and and and speaking to you it really a lot of what where you started in your artistry of instrument making violin making specifically today uh was by building a house yeah betty jane and i were chasing the prices of houses and our savings could match the increase in the price of houses from one year to the next so we went out and bought a piece of woods some a lot of pine trees the dirt road and we started building our house now that i would have a very difficult time except i have been around you and some people that have built houses knowing how to build a house so how did you start to build a house uh i’ve started many things you just buy a piece of land and talk to people they tell you it can’t be done but you go out and buy the land and then you go down and cut some trees and when the trees are cut down you go talk to a man with a bulldozer and get him to come out pile the stumps up you burn them then then they pilot stumps and he also had a blade on his dozer and he scraped out a huge shallow hole not it was uh it he had to do it with a bulldozer because we had a pretty deep basement and uh then after that he came out and left the bulldozer there and they burned all the stumps and then we that was it so what i’m hearing is what sort of spurred this creative artistic endeavor you have is first of all necessity you needed a place to live for the family to live and walked and walked once when you’re young and you think you can do anything you’re invincible and a lot and a lot of that’s probably true when you’re 20 or maybe late 20s and start these things yeah and the other thing you kind of like the lady you’re living with you’ve been hanging around with a long time and she she thinks you can do anything and you’re not not quite sure but you’re going to do it anyway so you have to show her that you you have to kind of get a little help from her in fact you have to get a lot of help from her so you got you had great motivation in addition to that you didn’t we’ve talked about this you couldn’t go google how to build a house you had to network you had to ask around talk to people meet people find out what people’s skills and talents were to figure out how to help you also uh at that time they had drawing boards and i spent a lot of time on the drawing board and so if you own a drawing board you call a blueprint we call it drawings so you get a drawing on a house and then it doesn’t tell you how to build it but it shows how it goes together so when you know how it goes together if you keep working that you can figure out how to put it together so a lot of that had to do with the kind of work you did were you uh yes absolutely so that gave you a a good background to sort of leap off from and one of the things that you’ve told me is that your father-in-law mr crossman he cut every single piece of wood in the house with a hand saw two hand saws one was for a cross cut and the other one is a rip saw sharp as razors we had two saw horses and i would mark and he would cut and while he was cutting i would nail and that’s there was no plywood at that time we just used prop mostly one by six pine boards for sheathing and for uh uh yeah sheathing and the subflooring so and you and mr crossman were both working regular jobs during the day is that correct yeah but he got off i got off a half hour earlier than he did and he was working then and his office is where the vietnam memorial is now it was a kind of a temporary building and been there for about 50 75 years and uh so i would pick him up jump in the car shop get fast food go out start sawing nailing because we always when we finished and i think this is pretty important and to me has been uh not recommending anybody else to it but when we left every night we put out the materials that we will be working on the next day so we didn’t have to waste a lot of time standing around saying what are we going to do so you got to maximize your time and and distance whatever so mr crossman was what age was he then was he in his 40s 50s oh no no he was probably uh very close to retirement he’s close to 60. but he was wiry small active and also he was a shipwright went through apprentice school so he knew knew how and lived in a family that they all worked at the shipyard and up north they were yankees boston but anyway he knew how things went together how door locks worked windows went in and everything he was a great help and he never questioned me he just let me take the lead and then sometimes i would ask him because i found that after a while it was smart to ask him and then he would tell me very very bostonian how old were you when you started building the house i would have been

about 26. okay so and so 26 27 like that you and mr crossman there were there were parts where special uh skills might like you had an electrician come in not to pull the wiring but to connect the wiring some of the wiring up you had some things like that where you had some specialized help is that right the way we uh i got it some help because these were office workers but with respect to the electrical system uh there was a fella who had been submariner on world war one and he you know submarines he was electrician so he said i’m not pulling wires but if you’ll pull the wires i’ll come out and tie them in for you so good old herm shuit is that okay sure uh herm came out and brought his dikes he called them the heavy pliers and he wired up my house and then he complained because i used number 12 wire which was very heavy wiring the house was wired up like a naval ship so you had an electrician someone that had electrical background to help you had a mason come and you learned some from him and he did how did that work well at that time you could get a handbook and wiring was fairly simple we used fuses so i put in the fuse epoxy and i’d work to remember i’d worked at western electric for a year doing semi-complex electrical work so i was used to drawings you call them blueprints but drawings schematics and wiring was pretty simple so it took you about a year to build this house is that correct yeah pretty close to a year pretty close to a year so you build a house and then then you had an interest and mr crossman was a big one for sailing as well is that right mr crossman was you and mr crossman had interest in sailing oh absolutely and the house wasn’t finished completely they were we kept working on the house uh grading the grading was done but there were things to build but since it was a home-built house we moved in and we still had a couple of months of work and yeah back to the sailing that was he was the epitome of a true sailor and that and he was from boston which would be yeah he grew up on the water and he knew fish and his new sailboats and he had never i don’t think read a book anything but when he got on a boat you didn’t have to worry about it people automatically ask him would you like to take the wheel and i’m talking about a good sized sailboat that happened a number of times and i was always amazed that people would look at him and not at me and say well you take the wheel and so pretty soon the house is finished and then the next project is a sailboat you build a sailboat is that correct yeah we uh we we had some leftover stuff and he and i used to take his lovely daughter my wife and her mother and we would take them into town to spend some money and we would stay in the car and we would head to annapolis and go to the uh i forgot what the boatyard was at but that was uh trumpy i think the famous wood boats and we’d go out and see what the leftovers were for the uh from the week’s work and they would he and i were to pick up some of that beautiful mahogany the cutoffs stick them in the trunk stop by and get a bushel of steamed crabs and head back and pick up his wife and my wife and we’d go eat crabs and talk sailboats did you did mr crossman help you with the sailboat as well did he work on the sailboat did mr crossman work on help you build the sailboat absolutely um uh because he and his i think it was tim and his family and he had the uh uh boat built by the duponts and the bar owner for the races of 1912 and when they went out all the boys worked in the shipyard but the two of them that had the highest crafts in the apprentice school was the uh pattern maker and and the shipwright which was uh frank my father-in-law and so he’s when they would go out everybody would pull off a hatch or a piece of the rail and they would scrape sand while they were sailing they would and then when they got back they would varnish it so the reason they had the boat was the i think the duponts and the bar owner wanted somebody to have the boat they would take care of it so it was a fine sailboat 50 some feet overall on about 26 feet on the water line she was gaff rigged and i was the second sailboat that ever had the wine glass killed it was built for the races of 1912 by the way wow so um the the sailboat that you built that i remember and i was on was a cat boat is that correct uh cape cod cat yes by charlie woodholtz i worked with him what is a cat boat uh i don’t know but the cat boat is a single mass and it was more or less like the sharpies are in north carolina but it was a north northeastern boat a big around boston harbor and originally it it was you could take the beam and double it and get the length you know to put it another way if the boat was eight feet wide the length of the hull would be 16 feet so it was like a as frank used to say you can hold a dance in the cockpit of a category and what’s a sharpie of they’re they’re sort of native to north carolina sharpies yeah they’re very shallow draft boat and they were new england boats but also in north carolina they had their here in around beaufort they they use the sharpies are very shallow draft and shallow draft and when i say shallow draft i mean the rudders were like very long and narrow they had to go in very shallow water okay so now you’ve built a a house and you’ve built a sailboat and i don’t know where the interest came unless it was from your son my cousin michael uh started playing bluegrass music and played the banjo is that right yeah the the guy across the street from us at that time had a badge and he could sing good and so michael went over and sat on the stoop with a little while and next thing i knew mike came to me said he’d like to have a banjo and so things developed from there and yeah he eventually um michael maybe his second banjo was the kyle creed is that right concrete we bought him a cheap badger and that didn’t last about a month and a half because uh he could uh he could pick very well and he also fell in with a bunch of nice people at that time who worked during the day but they all loved music and washington that time was a hotbed of bluegrass and so michael um we were fortunate enough to find a fellow who picked the best banjo i’ve ever heard and bar none and he was really good but he never got the credit that he was due but we were lucky enough to get michael to him and he listened to mike and so he took michael as a student for a couple of years he didn’t keep students very long and he didn’t keep anyone that didn’t show promise could pick he couldn’t stand anybody they were that was trying and didn’t make it you either did it and stayed with him or he went someplace else and that and that led to the call creed banjo which that was michael’s second banjo is that correct actually it was a third we had the first one which we bought was just a reasonable price and then we bought a second banjo which somebody had that couldn’t play but they heard michael and we call that the bill wallace banjo and when michael had that i wanted to get him the better one i heard that the best uh danger maker up around galax at that time was kyle creed so we drove to galax it’s fun times for better jane and i we drove up to galax and walked down the street and there was a music store we walked in we said who’s the best banjo-picker in the county since we were in galax they said kyle creed and we said how do we get there so we went to his house

and he invited us in and we contracted for kyle creed manager which we have now and and outside of knowing you and michael i know of kyle creed banjo so they have made penetrance um so that was the kyle creed banjo and then that led it was the next banjo the one that you built yes yes and we still have that too and so that was the was that the first instrument that you really that you have memory of putting together a building yeah because uh we had contacts and uh we were sailing we we always hung out at the washington salem arena on weekends and holidays and we’re always hanging around people with sailboats and we call them sail bumps people that were unhappy with marriage and love and whatever and then go down and hang around on the washington salem arena on sunday mornings and and they were going to give us an award for being the only family who was around there but um so i decided that after the kyle creed that i would get a piece of wood and make my own well make michael’s own banjo which i did and uh which he has now and how long did that project take

uh that went on for a few years he played the kyle creed for a long time and then uh found you know i walked down to the basement which is where i had my wood shop and i needed to build something so i talked to the guy at the smithsonian i was like god but at any rate i talked to good friend at the smithsonian and he had a let’s put it this way he had access to get into the smithsonian and he had moved the big locomotive down in the natural museum so he was always interested in michael picking the kyle creed and i told him it would be nice for this and that and i would like to since i the boat was in the water then the cat boat was in the water and he said uh well he said we have some fine instruments in the smithsonian and he says the guys i work with also keep the those instruments in repair and they have access to a lot of good wood and he says we’re hauling in some beams from an old house and a couple of pieces of cherry you need to look at it so i looked at the cherry and one thing led to another and that’s where the uh i started out with the neck of the banjo because on the neck of that banjo which is a little different it has some tuners not my idea but i had seen some and these were not tuners that you twist these were tunas with levers on them and you could buy store-bought we call them store-bought tuners but we made our tunas out of brass we cut them and put levers on them and i think michael is one of few people that could play the banjo with the tuners because it did some pretty interesting things good sounds so they’re they’re that was one of the first instruments if not the first instrument you built and then you retire from for the first time i should say you retire and you move to north carolina yeah i came down hung around with the boats my brothers were all fishermen and all my friends down here were fishermen so and so and and very shortly thereafter you wind up in beaufort you were over atlantic beach for a short period of time and then yeah it was my i had two brothers we had three cottages along there one two three and so better jane was although she was a hampton virginia girl and used to the water and her daddy had a hampton one sailboat which was first class in virginia built by syrio i met him by the way the hampton one class had running backstage on it so uh at any rate she was not fond of beach life she liked town life snug houses so we came to beaufort quite often and uh this house we’re sitting in now we bought 40 about 43 years ago and somewhere along in there you um started building dulcimers yeah that was yeah well actually i built some skiffs and then one thing led to another then i built a bunch of dulcimers so the and then the adult the adult smurfs uh you want to tell the story about how you transitioned from dulcimers to violins okay well i don’t know whether you want to hear this or not because your wonderful wife and my niece by marriage and benny and i told her that my brothers were very competitive family all boys and that’s the way things were if you grew up during the depression you competed for everything but anyway my one brother did they had big boats and they were fishing offshore in fact they uh there’s a plaque two plaques three plaques on the pavilion in morehead city with their boat names and theirs because they basically were instrumental in developing offshore charter fission in moorhead cities and so uh but at any rate they found i was building this gift and that that was good so my second brother jimmy came over and borrowed the mold that i made for this gift because he had a wonderful shop in a boat shop built a 50-foot boat in there but at any rate a little 40 plus so he built a few gifts and i decided i wasn’t going to build skits anymore so they just thought dulcimers and since we were hanging around with music and i was picking with michael and dennis the oldest boy played he still plays bass i think he’s he’s he’s been retired and his his band is funny by the way the and um michael was picking bandages so i built boys were away and better jammer by ourselves so i just started building dulcers and that’s when james my brothers decided they would build ulcers and so they never could cut a scroll though i’m just saying this is where it was and so uh i decided i was in fact i was in the car with you one time i complained about my brother stealing my dulcimer design and everything and they were doing all kinds of research at the library and everything and benny your wife said why don’t you build a violin and see if you can do that if he can steal that so i built the violin and nobody ever

tried to build a violin but they did get me to repair some that uh that reminds me or as it is as if your brothers saw bobby driving to raleigh and said you know i think i’d like to go to raleigh so they start driving to raleigh and benny goes well why don’t you build a spaceship and go to the moon and and that’s kind of what happened with the violins and we now arrive at where we were going and that is violins and um so one of the things i want to ask you about is like okay you decide to build a violin and you’ve developed a lot of skills and um so where did you get the materials for a violin did you go to the hardware store did you go to where they sell lumber in town and get some nice what did you do to get file in parts and how did you know what to get well first of all i made a wonderful friend and the people um were living in beaufort and some folks drove up the house next door to us sails right next to town hall and um we thought it would be good neighbors who went over and suggested that uh there was a wonderful place that we liked it and they had a the house was bigger than ours but it turned out that

they were in the textile business and um one thing led to another they put a contract on the house they were third contract and they got the house and so we kind of became friends because we were doing our house then and they provided the textiles for the old furniture which we haven’t i say oh that’s about 100 some odd years old that came with the house and so all the textiles in there are one-off design because the company that his family

on more or less more i think uh did all the uh tapestry of the in the country i think but anyway they had two i think two plans one up north and one uh thinking in valdez north carolina that was long ago we’re talking 40 years ago so any rate uh it turns out he was a violin player uh but he he never got a chance to go on stage anything but he had a fantastic year and he knew that i played guitar messed around i never played very good in fact the kids wouldn’t let me um do anything except stand in the background play rhythm that was okay because i could build stuff but anyway uh he said when he was looking at adults from he said bob why don’t you build a violin and at that time that was before i was riding with you and then he said why don’t you since it was uh brotherly competition then he said why don’t you build the violin and see if they can build the violin so anyway i mentioned to don out on the sidewalk in front of the house his house next door to me he he took a credit card out and said bob please build the violin and take the credit card and don’t buy any cheap wood buy a good wood so i did i drove to baltimore i found out where the supply house was it was the only one i ever i found was one in alabama i drove down there then i drove to baltimore and baltimore ran into the manager there was only four people working there the owner the manager a packer and the lady that kept the books and since he was a mandolin picker uh we were in the back and i got a real good dissertation on woods to buy for violins because they provided it all over the country and so he took a cardboard box and he took all the stuff that i needed to uh build a violin so i built a violin now do you know where that initial wood came from because early on you got some from germany but well where they got the reason first of all baltimore’s obvious was port and the woods that they bought i think most of it came from bosnia and in bosnia the family the father the head of the house we would go out and cut the spruce bring it in make it into splits and

put it back to season then they would take it to market and the buyer was generally from germany the buyer that i got my wood from he went into bosnia got the wood and um they put it on the ship and it came into baltimore and that’s where the little warehouse was it wasn’t small but i mean it had four people running it so the spruce from bosnia is what i’m guessing what good violins are made often made from is that that’s what all mana made from and uh it was all graded and that’s another story you can buy cheap wood and price doesn’t always determine the best wood when you’re buying wood for violence so how do you determine what might be good wood for a for a violin and what might not be uh i relied on the young fella that ran the warehouse because he picked mandolin and uh that’s where i learned i didn’t get that from a book and first of all um i don’t want to tell too much because people be flocking into the place and but i’m not building any stuff now but first of all he had a wet sponge not wet but damp and he would pull out the splits and we’d check the grain and uh there’s some other things that we would do not really

i don’t think it’s really necessary to talk about that how you pick the wood and the price is not what determines the quality of wood and it’s a calculated guess on your part to part with your money and how it’s going to turn out because you never know until you finish it and you scrape a bow across it and it seasons for a little while then you’ll find out whether or not you made a good choice yeah that’s the first thing is you can do a really good job of picking nice wood and nice parts and do a really good job of putting them together but it doesn’t ensure that you’re going to have something that sounds wonderful is that right well yeah and you need somebody that can has a good ear may not be on the stage but you need somebody that has really a good ear and i was fortunate to uh run into two people one is the young fellow that helped me with the wood and number in parts remember violin mostly they’re put together by hand but you don’t cut all the parts but you do fit all the parts like the pegs that go in it’s you buy the picks but you got to shape them and do some other things and the fingerboards

and the bridge bridge those things so uh you can buy expensive you can buy cheap and the tuners but the main thing is uh the the wood you don’t know what’s going to happen to put the heart of the violin the heart of the violin is that little sound post that goes up in there and the old way i feel about it is you can build the violin and we’re talking about a lot of time i’m talking about a lot of time sitting there cutting trimming and the difference on the violin the guitar is on a violin you’ve got to tune the back to the belly uh you might talk about what that means to tune the back to the belly the the belly is the top of the violin yeah yeah and the back is the back and it’s more like a a body has got the shoulders and it’s got the chin and it’s got the head and uh you know the ears got ears so it’s comparable to the body so how do you tune the belly to the back well i don’t tell everything because it’s like finding a fishing hole you’re not going to tell everybody where it is or how you find it and it’s not it’s just that um some things i have a closet in my mind not being selfish about it but i think if a person is going to go that far you need to go out and find the fishing hole by yourself or you need to find out about tuning the back to the belly and the number of different ways there are electronic devices now and different people have different things and i have some secrets that deal with salt water uh let’s see i’ll give you some clues the salt water and i’ll just give you a clue uh one of the things with violins is they dry out over a period of time that’s the reason the old violins sound good they dry out but if they get too dry they break let’s just suppose let’s just suppose that you uh

somehow or another figured out how to get permeate the violin would certain parts with salt when you put it together it’s going to pick up some moisture and there are those people that think that you can’t build the violin on the coast i have a different idea and that is you build it in this uh high humidity salt air and some other ways to get the wood to uh yeah you get my secrets here and so uh any rate i’m just telling you some things that you got to figure out how to do it yourself because i spent a lot of time doing that so when you apply these these techniques many i’m guessing you developed yourself then you what you’re trying to do is get the back and the belly to sing together is that is that kind of what they’re doing no i i don’t i have to be very blunt you can’t get the back to sing with the belly because if you do you got a problem because then when you hit c if the back is it resonates at c and the belly resonates at c you get a heart you get a big c you go along a b c d and then it goes it comes down so you’ve got to have a certain amount of difference between the back and belly and what makes what separates boys you can’t use that expression anymore but what separates some people from other people is that okay i think you can say that okay what separates some people from other people is um figuring out how to get those two voices to be okay but not be the same you’ve got to have a a base and you’ve got to have a a tenor okay so instead of singing everybody’s the back and the belly singing a melody are they singing a harmony is that closer to what’s going on yes then you aren’t going to get two tenors singing together you’re going to have a tenor and a bass or an alto or whatever so you’ve got to have a certain amount of difference and that’s that’s pretty interesting and you get that with chisels and some other things and anyone that’s really interested can go out and get two pieces of wood and a pocketknife and they can find out how to do that and that’s not like a guitar or a dulcimer although some of the guitar makers are now saying that they are cheering the back no i don’t think so the violin is a notch above guitar makers i believe but that’s just a prejudice and biased opinion well as a longtime guitar player i would agree with you and and but what’s interesting here to me is that uh i know that you would tune these instruments uh the back and the belly or you might say the top and the back that might be easier for people to relate to you do this by removing wood by hand is that right yes with finger plans uh chisels uh scrapers and the other thing that i had an advantage on for what 20 or 30 years that my next door neighbor a good neighbor and friend who gave me his credit card to start all this business has a fantastic year and so he would he spent a lot of time with me during the winter time in particular we’d have a fire in the fireplace he’d come over and uh i knew he was busy but it’s when i was tuning the back to the belly the top to the back his ear was much better than mine but i had some other ways that i used but i liked his ear better and uh he uh i don’t think there’s such a thing as perfect pitch but he was be able he could come down one day and i would tune say the top because i was tuning to a specific uh let’s say to a specific point and he could say it’s out a little bit you better take off a little bit more wood and you got to be careful when you take off the wood because if you take off too much you’ve destroyed and that’s when some of the more expensive violins and i ran in to a couple of people and they said the violins don’t sound rich and what it is they they shaved their back or the belly as the case they didn’t stop in time so the hard thing to do is is to if you’re going around a curve to know when to stop but you’re in a race and you’ve got to get around fast so the main thing is is a stop before you turn over but beat the other guy around the curve does that make sense it does you don’t want to over prepare if you if you take too much off you can’t put it back on it’s about if you don’t take off enough it doesn’t resonate correctly so it’s a judgment decision that you don’t use on other instruments i think i think that’s exactly right and and the person you i think you’re referring to is don silver and that’s one of the things that strikes me about this journey that you’ve had with musical instruments and art in your life is that you have run across some of the most wonderful people and i i know quite a few of them and they’re just they’re just they’re just really wonderful so and don’s one of them don silver is one of them the other thing about don is he has a violin that uh some universities would like to have it’s very old probably it’s english and that kind of is since it’s not italian then it can’t be good because it’s english however it uh he had a choice like don i think is 89 now yeah he’s a year year two younger than me and we’re both we still talk and he still plays the violin but he’s reached a point where he has to have hearing aid for one ear but his his he can feel the vibrations he’s one of the two people i know that i really have good ears and can tell you where to go and i was very fortunate to have him and so we’ve been friends for a long time now you might want to mention you sort of brushed against this but we glossed it over so we’ll go back and talk about sound posts yeah oh okay this is this is interesting because you never hear people talk about this much but i’ve mentioned this a couple of times i used to talk to kids in fact i talked to some people that duke and about violin making and whatever but you you build a violin you put the wood together back in the belly you put the neck on it carve the scroll put some wires on there so you can tune it up and then at the back and the belly we talked about the tuning the what you’ve done is you’ve got a body then okay we’re going back to the the body thing so you’ve got a body it’s got shoulders it’s got a back it’s got a belly it’s got a chin it’s got ears and you use that nomenclature on the violin so you’ve got a body you’ve built it you spent maybe three months it takes a lot of time because i’m very slow meticulous some people said i don’t believe that i think i’m pretty fast however it has no heart so when you put that one little peg in there the sound post it’s the key to the whole thing so you’ve got your name on the inside the date it was built you’ve got the wood and the violin makers put his heart and soul into that he’s really uh and he’s it’s some boring times too and then there’s exciting times but you put the sound post in there to me that’s the heart so then you’ve got the complete body and so then you get somebody like don silver and you tune that thing up he tunes it because he tunes it to his ear and he takes a bow and he runs does a scale because he’s a classical violin he’s not a federal player he’s a violinist he just doesn’t know it they never got on the stage but he’s got the ear and he’s he gets the sound out of the violin it’ll get right into your heart and your brain the hair on the back of your neck and he takes a it is worth the three months of sitting in a a snug shop with fireplace going and tuning woods and putting things together and he runs a bow across that uh the strings on that violin he does a g he goes from g and d a and he gets to the e and say do that again don’t try to try that g string let’s see what’s happening there and you sit there and it’s a very i’m going to use a word it’s a delicious time it’s like getting to the bottom of a ice cream cone when you get the cone and you know so that’s what i’m talking about the sound post and he says bob the the c string i mean that g string is a little uh is overpowering the uh

i’m not going to name the strings but that string is overpowering that string because maybe we can you move that a little bit so that’s my job and so i would move that and then we would get the soul of the violin would come right out into the air and it’s the heart of the violin is that sound pig and it you don’t the player gets the soul out that’s what don does that’s the way i feel about it don’s been playing since he was a child is that right yes one of the things that i’m familiar with is it takes 10 000 hours just the average person if they took 10 000 hours you could become a virtuoso at something and don’s probably one of those people that has spent 10 000 hours with a violin in his hands he sounds like that to me um but i will ask you this about the sound post so you have the body together the back on the top you’ve got a box you’ve got a body and you place the sound post that’s when the sound post goes into the violin is that right yes so um do you want to talk about that or how you do that much about the sound post because it’s uh it goes under the leg see you’ve got a lot of tension on the bridge and the one of the legs of the bridge is uh sits on the sound post not on it but a certain distance which we don’t talk about too much because that that comes from judgment you know good judgment bad judgment and sometimes you can change that a little bit and so uh it the the sound pose sits under the uh the tenor part the high part the e string and the a string and that sound posts that say and the g strings so what it does it keeps this it transmits the the a string and the e string into the back and that’s from the belly to the back and so that basically the sound post if it’s done right will not let the g strings the lower strings overpower the higher or the tenor strings if you’re just talking so you must get this in there by drilling a hole in the violin and shoving it in there is that how that works not exactly there’s no way in the world and everybody has a different way it’s a special little tool it’s just a piece of steel it’s got looks like a uh s that’s been flattened out and it’s got a blade on either end and the standard way is to to impale that little dowel looks like a piece of a sucker stick if anybody ever had penny suckers only it’s bigger a little dowel and you take that but it has to be fitted to the back and the belly and that fitting is pretty important too and there’s some things and ways to get that done and some tricks and these are things that you work out over a period of time i could tell someone how to do it but it wouldn’t be any fun for them it’s best if they find the fishing hole themselves and they can figure out how to shape the foot that be the foot and the head of that that little heart soul not well the heart of the violin that sound po sound post so anyway so you have you have this tool that you can attach well now there’s some different ways and uh you can

but the standard way is if you take it to violin shop they’re going to impale the sound post on one of these things turn it and slip it into the um f hole twist it and get it up and then uh they each person has its own way of getting it in to the right position and you got to move it back and forth and sometimes you want to move it back and forth but if it’s not set just right then you aren’t going to get a balanced sound and sometimes you can never set one and then the violin doesn’t work good so it’s not as good as the other violins on the shelf next to it so now you just mentioned f holes can you tell the listeners what the f holes are yeah well the uh the back and the belly of the uh the violin is like an air pump more or less and they vibrated different resonances and so the sound post does its job of not only carrying the sound from the back to the belly but also keeping the thing from collapsing and so where it sits has a lot to do with how good a voice the violin has so does that make sense yeah and the f holes you they’re in the belly or the top of the violin you have two holes they’re morally more like slots than holes aren’t they yeah and um there’s a lot of mystique attached to the f holes you got strand holes and you’ve got the mates you make your own and um the other thing is you’re pumping air or sound i’m not sure but when that back vibrates with the belly and the air comes out the f holes it must but it’s a very minut amount but the sound comes out too i’ve never taped up the f holes i’ll do that sometimes to see what happens but in the meantime f holes are very important and they have a lot of mystique attached to where and how if you look at those f holes they have notches they’ll be two little notches it’s like an f with a curl at the end and it has two notches on it and i’ve seen so many violin players and people don’t know what those little notches are for those notches should line up with the feet of the bridge and so it’s a good way to know where to set the bridge the bridge is what holds the strings up like a suspension bridge you got the i’ll call them the wires that go over and those feet go to the belly of the violin and under the foot of the i’m going to say the tenor string so people understand it is the uh is a sound pose but it’s not under the foot and the distance from the sound post to the foot of the bridge is very important and i’m talking about the thor [ __ ] or four and a half if you hang around boats up and down sideways whatever so do you tune violins with position of the sound post as well do you move it to change the sound of the violin it does and it changes the balance of the sound by uh not having one the base over power of the soprano and break her neck so that that must be pretty easy to uh to measure the distance from the back to the to the belly by reaching through the to the f holes the sound holes and trying to figure out how long this sound post is going to be is that easy or is that not so easy no it’s a very simple post but fitting it and moving it and uh setting it where you think it’ll do the best is very difficult time consuming because every time you change it you don’t know whether you’ve moved it to benefit the violin or not and not only that you move it four and a half and you move the top of the sound post four aft and sideways and the bottom post and i don’t know how it’s an infinite number of of uh positions for the sound post and that’s where my good friend don came in so when you sort of uh uh completed construction let’s just say it that way then you and don would get together and you would start tuning these violins is that what you would do well well no yeah they weren’t turmeric you played them then when you get the sound post in and sometimes we spend a couple of days moving that sound post around because don could remember i never could but don could remember whether we improved it or we made it were you know whether it was good or bad and so uh his ear was essential for me to uh to move the sound post so you would move it and he would make a suggestion and you would try that and you he played it again you’d listen to it and and the bridge now you’re moving the foot of the bridge and the sound post and the strings and where i you’re talking about boring and you just give i just give up and walk out but what we would do is um don would have to detune each time because we had to take the tension off the string so we could move the sound post and the bridge and then he could detune that is loosen up those strings and then i would move the sound post then he would tighten them up the strings and retune the violin i think he could retune a violin in eight hours i think he could do it uh probably uh i i’m just guessing here i’m saying 60 minutes so he could do all this in five minutes it takes me an hour so he would loose the strings we’d move the bridge or move the foot or the sound post or the other and we move the bridge forward and f but remember all of it so you know you know if you could have a journey you got to know where you start you got to know where you’re going to and if you stop along the way you got to know where you stopped and if you don’t you’re in trouble so moving that sound post and moving the bridge you had to know when you were going ahead or whether you’re moving back or whether you’re right where you were when you started and so don was essential to me and i i just don’t know how i could ever thank him for uh helping me set the sound post and the bridge the feet of the bridge and we’re talking about a very very small amount of movement very very small those were the two primary ingredients are variables you had to control was position of the sound post and the position of the bridge is that i like that word you just used is an infinite number of variables on a violin that separates set from some other instruments and uh it takes somebody with a good ear to do it otherwise uh if you’re just setting the student vial in on a standard music shop you just put it in a certain spot but if you can really get somebody that’s critical you you need a good ear so don would you would start and he you i’m guessing in the beginning you could make bigger adjustments as you until you started getting close is that how that would work is that when you made a move don would tell me whether it was good or bad and that’s how you sort of figured it out and would don play like a tune a few bars would he play for five minutes and say oh this is really beginning to sound how how did that work i never could control john he had his own mind

i would move the sound post or maybe the bridge you don’t move both at the same time if you do both at the same time you don’t know what so you’d move the foot of the bridge the top the bottom you got one two three four different positions so you would move only one position and then but he would start playing and he wasn’t quite sure and i couldn’t stop him so i had to sit and wait for him to to go through a whole i wouldn’t call it a melody but he wasn’t going to just uh do a scale and all of a sudden he’d start enjoying that thing and he’d sit there and i he thought he was on a stage in carnegie hall somewhere and he wouldn’t stop playing and i wasn’t sure so i had to be patient but he was patient with me too so i’m guessing that once it started sounding good to don then he really would play it for a while for one thing you really do have to have a lot of feedback from the instrument you know what’s it really what is it really saying oh yeah it was he it was talking to him when it was talking to him good and being nice then he wasn’t he was going to let it stop talking because then he started enjoying it yeah and so i had to sit while but i enjoyed it too because i i could uh i got to the point that i could tell when the violin was speaking well you know speaking i mean talking to me uh and i don’t know how but it’s if you hang around and just keep listening pretty soon you develop a certain sense like fishermen know when a fish is on the line other people don’t that’s that experience of well it is experience once you’ve done something repeatedly for a long period of time you know what to expect yeah and we when we have no experience we can’t be very good at that but as the time begins to add up even if we’re a novice we we pretty quickly begin to know what to expect and i think that’s probably part of being a virtuoso is developing those things you just took what i said and said it very well so it can be understood yes well tell me this then tell me about scrolls well scrolls

first off

scrolls are uh there’s no two scrolls that are hand cut that are alike and a scroll is not a piece of parchment that’s what not a piece of parchment it’s not a roll of paper oh no it’s this we should tell people what the scribe is it’s a little curly cue thing on the top of a violin and i forgot what that curve is but the way you get that curve for the scroll if you take a pencil you drive a nail on a board take a pencil and put a string around it and wind it up and as you as you take the pencil and drag it around on the board you’ll get the shape of a scroll and each time you you go around it unwinds and it goes out that’s how you get the scroll the shape of it but then it’s uh

you’ve got depth let’s say we got depth and you’ve got shape and the you got two parts to it and if you take a scroll look at the neck of a violin hold it up to the light and see if the ears that’s those little things at the end of the scroll see if they match each other perfectly if they do it’s probably machine cut if it isn’t it’s probably hand cut and it’s hand cut it’s nearly impossible the best way to cut a scroll is to get another scroll and take a pocket knife some chisels or whatever you want to make in the shop and start carving and so uh and you cut you cut away everything that doesn’t look like a scroll is that right yeah and it’s it’s kind of tricky and particularly on a violin the viola is a little bit easier and i like cellos they’re really fun i like to cut a scroll because after doing a violin a cello is so big and you know it’s okay so we should say and i’m going to put some pictures there’ll be links to pictures uh on the site or there’ll be pictures on the site of some of uncle bobby’s at least one of his violins and some of his instruments so that you can identify some things we’re talking about but the neck comes out of the body and then do you do you carve the neck first and the scroll last how does that how you know i you do the body first the back and the belly and you tune them and you glue them together and then you uh you you do the neck and the scroll and you fit it into the body that’s tricky then you put on the fingerboard make the bridge and put on the chin rest and the pegs now um i might mention to you sometimes if you want to kind of check your violin first thing i do is when i pick up a violin i look over on the back and i look for two little pegs so look generally it’s a half a half a little black dot or white dot but there’s a little peg in there and when you hand make a violin you have to keep taking the back or the the belly and you have to keep putting it on the body the core the course you have to keep putting it on and off so therefore i generally use and this guy some kind of name of stradivari uh used this black ebony wood and mine around but he used half one and set it into the purpling there that little black stuff that goes around the edge and so you’ll find a black dot and then i also take a little bit of pride at the neck you’ll find a piece of uh ebony wood back there and that guy by the name of stretch stradivari somebody he did that too and that that is not easy to do without messing up the whole back so if you’re going into shops sometimes and you’re looking at violins look for those two little dots in the back which are pegs that you can put it on and off does that make sense to you yeah and for the listeners where what uncle bobby was indicating is that on the back if you if you turned the violin upside down what we normally think upside down at the bottom and at the top is where these two places are is that correct yeah yeah and then they’re the position pegs so that you keep if you might have to keep carving off some and putting some on you’re always taking on and not taking off too much better to leave a little bit heavy but my thought is if you leave it a little bit heavy and don’t go around the curve too fast and turn over that over a period of time maybe 50 or 75 years that wood’s going to dry out and then you will have a good sounding violin but if you make it to sound perfect now and you thin the wood too much then it doesn’t the you you’ve gone too far you’ve turned the car over and there’s blood all over the road and people laying on the street so you don’t want to go too fast and turn off the people and everything so that’s how you got into violins and then did you make violas after violence i know you made some violases yeah while i was building violins my friend don

asked me to build a feel of

the music director of some i’m trying to think the place in greensboro i can’t remember it but it was pretty well alone um and and and the the violin director or teacher or head of the uh instructor was a big man so i built a big villa and don donated it to the school there with a scholarship and i got a call for a couple of years from kids that inherited that and they i don’t i think the scholarship probably ran out but that’s that’s another thing about things that we’ve done over our time do you have do you have an estimate of how many violins you’ve built not many not many uh i haven’t and also i didn’t have apprentice boys to do my cutting i did it all i’ve never been in a hurry i’d stop and take a trip down the intercoastal and come back and do it again and summertime was not a good time to build best time was the fall of the year and when it was cold and i could have a fire and a fireplace and violas you made less less violas than violins yes that’s true and the same way cellos mostly i built violins a couple of two cars and a couple of badges that’s about all i’ve ever built and cellos you you mentioned cellos and you built a few of those and um tell me about your association with duke and cellos well um the guy brought me a cello from it was an antique shop and he brought me a cello he says can you do anything with this and it was the worst looking mess you’ve ever seen it was black solid black and so uh you have to use water i use a damp sponge but you have to use it sparingly there’s nothing wrong with using one if you’re careful and don’t let the water at any rate so i got a damp sponge and rubbed on a little bit and i found a beautiful piece of wood under there and the strings oh by the way this was not a standard cello i found out later it was called a church base and you want me to go tell you about the story of that sure okay because it’s pretty interesting let me start over again and say prior to the revolutionary war the english was selling us violins that came over on the ship but they were not sending over cellos they took up too much space and they didn’t make enough money those english were very clever so it was a guy up in connecticut who was even more clever and he was a cabinet maker and he needed a cello but all he had was a thing in his memory they didn’t have drawings and things in so he made a cello and i forgot what his name is i got around here somewhere but at any rate he uh made that and then later on they started bringing in cellos so so far as i know i think the six in the world now he made six of them but one of them ended up in west virginia and it was probably virginia that time before it came west virginia and as you know they had a lot of coal and this uh they thought it was a base and they put it up in the attic time went by people died whatever it came out of the attic and ended up in an antique shop the dealer brought it to me one time and he said uh he knew i’d done a little bit of work and anyway i don’t repair violins i build them i don’t but i can but i don’t do it so he said can you help me out i said i don’t know a pretty interesting instrument but it was all cracked and it was solid it wasn’t it was just solid black and it turned out to bend up the attic next to where all the soot from the uh coal dust was so i cleaned it up and it was made out of cherry and cherry over a couple hundred years was as hard as steel and you couldn’t bend it you couldn’t do anything so i made a mold and got a with the hardware store and got a bunch of screws and you know threaded the wood and so i was able to put some pressure on this cello

both down and from the sides and from the back and he had a friend had a waterfront place down on the creek it was very damp so they put it down on the creek in high humidity and every day not every day but every once in a while i’d go by and put a little pressure on each screw and i was able to put it back together without tearing up the wood after i put it together he got interested in it and did a research and uh at that time i was messing around with uh brenda niece she’s she’s marrying her in fact she’s 15 of us right many years ago she’s been coming in in a couple of three days she comes out every year and plays a cello we’d eat some soup and stuff anyway i i got that thing together and

brendo at that time was a curator of the musical instruments at duke university i think it was whatever it’s on the internet so she came down and saw it and called some guy up and some lady up in new york had a pickle no i shouldn’t say too much there but they had a benefactor i think you were benefactors who uh put up the money and they bought it and it’s a duke now and it turned out this story was there were six of them built that they know of and one of them was at duke and their museum it was a couple or three years ago and it’s got my name on it it says restore it i told them i don’t restore our repair but she put it on there anyway and she plays cello by the way and she she comes to see me every year and she sits and plays that cello and i’ve got a violin she likes called a squirrel violin so enter that’s the story of that church base and uh that’s the reason i used cherry on the cellos you know it’s interesting um not only have you built a lot of instruments it seems like a lot of instruments and really i should say that you’ve created a lot of art but you’ve interested a lot of people in music i know my family plays i know your sons play um there’s no it’s hard to say how much that’s flowered it would be impossible to track it all down but a lot of people have picked up music in their life from you doing this and from you being interested so thank you for that and i’m going to loop back around and go from the beginning and say we’ve spent a couple episodes on will faith and glenn talked about education a couple of weeks ago and uh this is a different way to be educated and educated the point where it becomes art and you become an artist instead of just educated so thanks for the time we appreciate we’d like to come back and speak to you again about some other things if we might here at the crystal coast in beaufort north carolina um uh and we’d like to try to get you to talk about you and aunt betty maybe the next time we get together you think you’d be willing to do that yeah well it uh we’re close up both of us are close of 91 so if you’re coming back don’t wait too late and uh because that’s a much more interesting story i love stories and this was not much of a story but i think i’m sure you got this cut off but the better jane and i have lived a destroyer you’ve lived a fairy tale i think and we should just mention as a teaser because we’ll come back and do this how long have you uh been married aunt betty i’ve been married 70 some years nearly going on nearly 71. and how long have you known that betty um uh about 76 76 but she put a note in my we figured it out this morning because you had mentioned you might come down with something and we think she stuck that note in my history book uh about 75 76 years ago so and and and the last thing we’ll mention as we wrap this up is uh you will actually be 91 in october is that right yeah next month yeah next month betty will be 91 in april is that right no no in january january i’m three months older she is she loves right after my birth after october where she loves october she loves november december because at that time i’m older than she is and that’s very important to her i can understand why uncle bobby thanks for sitting down with us and we look forward to seeing you again here on the the podcast and uh and see you soon and uh and and glad to hear from you always good to talk to you.

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