Instrument making is an endangered craft in the UK. In part due to the trend for instruments to be mass made abroad. But perhaps also because of the unique set of skills required. A craftsperson’s knowledge of woodwork combined with the specific techniques and musical knowledge necessary to produce an instrument. Which will be an aesthetic and acoustic thing of beauty.
Stringed instrument maker Jonathan Hill works from his studio in London where he specialises in making stringed instruments (in particular those from the Viol and Violin family) and also teaches part time at the West Dean College where he learnt this heritage craft himself. Jonathan considers communication between craftsperson and musician to be essential.
“A musical instrument is a musician’s tool, and it can be said that we work within a triad comprising: the instrument makers, the composers & the musicians. Some people occupy two or even all three of these roles but in any case, some understanding of each is necessary for music to be made!”
Creating For Clients
“In my role as an instrument maker, I typically first listen to what the musician wants from their instrument. This might involve tuning, size, types of strings and desired sound, etc. Understanding this is crucial because it is my job to translate this into the finished piece.
The repertoire of music to be played on the instrument is also then considered (the work of the composer) and it helps if both the musician and the maker has an understanding of this. This affects the ergonomics and design of the instrument because it needs to be able to do what the piece of music requires of it and be as easy to play as possible.
From my experience I do not think it’s essential for a maker to be a highly skilled musician or composer, but I do think the communication and collaboration is important to allow improvements to happen and to develop ideas further. This can allow for new inventions in musical instruments as well as new playing styles to evolve, as instruments develop to be able to do different things.”
Combining Music with Craft
For Jonathan, it was his love of music that came first. As a child he showed an early talent for rhythm, fascinated by drumming and dancing to music.
“When I first saw a Violin at primary school I remember being fascinated by the complexity of it and I even did a talk at my primary school about the different parts of a Violin at aged 8 (little did I know then!)
The music continued throughout my teenage years as I played first Violin, and then drums and percussion in various groups.”
It was then on a trip to New Zealand after leaving school that Jonathan stumbled across a furniture makers workshop, sparking his curiosity for craft.
“That was my epiphany moment when something just clicked and felt right - I can remember feeling good in that environment and the technical aspect of making physical, functional objects with my hands really appealed to me. Rather than build furniture however, it was immediately clear that I was most excited about making musical instruments and upon returning to the U.K., aged 20, I decided to study at West Dean College which specialises in historical instrument making.”
“Initially I wasn’t set on making a specific type of instrument, I really just wanted to learn the skills and I imagined that I would be able to use my creativity to develop or invent new instruments. I was then, and still am now, drawn to the more unusual and non-standardised instruments which are capable of producing alluring sounds for musicians to utilise.”
With a high level of precision involved, you might think that creativity would be restricted in the instrument making process, but Jonathan has made choices along the way which have allowed him to retain a freedom of creativity in his art.
“Learning about historical instruments really opened my mind to a world of invention and non-standardization- some of the inventions from the baroque period are truly amazing and the level of craft expertise is un-paralleled.”
“Many instruments today are mass-produced and the abundance of makers building instruments to standardized measurements led me to realize that my energies are best spent producing individual bespoke instruments, which would also allow for a creative freedom.”
“I don’t know whether I would have arrived on this path. Had I not been exposed to historical instrument making. But I started to see that, rather than inventing something from scratch, my route to creativity lies in taking inspiration from the past and presenting it in a new context.”
Made For Modern Day Musicians
Born from a wealth of knowledge and research of historical techniques, and with their immaculate accuracy and elegance, each of Jonathan’s instruments would seem perfectly at home in a museum. Yet simultaneously they are uniquely imbued with Jonathan's own design flare and musical sensitivity, bringing them to life for modern musicians today.
“I now make instruments for players of early music as well as for musicians who play modern. Contemporary styles such as folk, jazz, experimental. When making an instrument for historical repertoire. I design and build it based on examples that I have measured in museums in order to accurately produce the sound and playability that the musician wants.”
“If I am making an instrument intended for contemporary music. I still take inspiration and ideas from historical instruments, such as the technology of sympathetic resonant strings. Bent soundboards and historical methods of construction, all which contribute to give my instruments a different sound to what a player might find elsewhere. Providing timbres and textures otherwise unheard in a contemporary context.”
“I try to measure as many old instruments as possible and I like to see unusual work by lesser known makers as well as fine masterpieces because there is always something to be learnt, even if it is to see what does not work. The more one has seen, the wider their scope of reference is and ultimately. It is this body of knowledge that informs the making.”
“I build each instrument to fit the size of the player making each one unique, and I am continually trying out new things. See the process as a lifelong creative journey where I push it a little further each time.”
Curious Carved Heads
Jonathan’s various handcrafted stringed instruments are beautiful to look at with richly varnished wood. Intricate painted motifs and some elaborate, carved wooden heads in place of the scroll, just above the tuning pegs. Jonathan explains their meaning to us:
“Traditionally, many early instruments have a carved head in place of a scroll. And this is intended to give the instrument a symbolic meaning, as with the figure heads. On the front of ships or heads above the doors on old buildings. These heads can be characters from Greek or Roman mythology. Animals, as well as important contemporary, historical, as well as abstract figures.
So much in the same way, I choose heads in order to give the instrument symbolic meaning. Character or it might be a head that has a particular significance to the player of the instrument.
I take inspiration from a wide range of sources. I am constantly on the lookout for ideas, taking photos when I see heads wherever I go."
Jonathan sometimes copy heads he has seen on old instruments, on sides of buildings. In engravings and cameo’s, other times he designs his own.
“I find that they work best when they are stylized. And they prompt the added decoration on the rest of the instrument.”
The Future of Instrument Making
Despite being included by organizations such as Heritage Crafts on their ‘endangered crafts’ list. Jonathan is optimistic about the future of instrument making. And is keen to see these skills passed on to future generations.
“I think there will always be a need for music and therefore our job will not become obsolete any time soon. We do think that access to high quality education is critical for keeping the standard of the craft high into the future. I was lucky to be taught by some great makers. I know I wouldn’t be where I am now without their input.".
The number of college’s teaching instrument making seems to be on the decline. So I hope that can be reversed or that apprenticeships become more commonplace.
I do currently teach part time now and that is something. I feel driven to do more of in the future to pass the skills on.”
The Creative Process and Reward
As you can imagine, making an instrument is a long but exciting process, often starting with Jonathan’s characterful carved heads.
“It takes me between 4-12 weeks to make one instrument, depending on the design and level of decoration. I really enjoy designing the instrument and drawing out all of the different parts on paper. First as this where I get to exercise my creativity the most.
Choosing the woods and starting to prepare each part is also exciting. As I love the feeling of starting a new instrument. I typically begin by designing and carving the head first, letting the rest of the decoration follow on from there."
"I actually enjoy every step of the process because many different varied techniques go into the making of an instrument. So it never gets boring or repetitive.
A pure technician produces boring instruments and a pure artist might lack the technical aspects to make a functional instrument. I really like that Instrument making is both technical and artistic. And, in my opinion, a good maker has a healthy balance of both.”
Whilst it must be rewarding to see and handle the finished pieces. Hearing the instrument you made must be an incredible experience.
“Of course, it feels great to hear my instruments being played. Both live and on recordings, and it is sometimes quite emotional.
It can also sometimes be a little nerve wracking because I can start to think, “what if something goes wrong!?”
It is always a delight to see a player enjoying playing on something that I have made.”
Feeling inspired and want to find out more? Visit Jonathan’s website here to see more about his process and work.