Northern Renaissance Instruments

6 Needham Avenue, Chorlton-cum-Hardy, Manchester M21 8AA, U.K.

Phone & Fax. +44 (0) 161 881 8134 ; proprietor: Dr. Ephraim Segerman [USA]

e-mail: ; on internet:


At the beginning of the 16th century, sets of viols evolved from the Spanish 15th century vihuela, at about the original string length of about 50cm, double it, and sizes in-between, and sets of fiddles evolved at about the original size, half it, and sizes in-between. The original vihuela had a shallow flat body that was distinguished from previous fiddles by having a waist cut-out and by being made from separate pieces of wood glued together.

Sets of fiddles in these above sizes persisted in Italy and Germany throughout the century. An alternative round-backed pear-shaped carved body design was particularly popular in Germany during the first half of the century: That design would be identified as 'rebec' by most people nowadays, but in the 16th century, these were only called 'fiddles'.. There is no early evidence of families of rebecs. Rebecs were always soloistic fiddles, not set fiddles, and in all countries, they was mostly replaced by soloistic violins soon after violins appeared. Before the 16th century, according to Tinctoris, the rebec was smaller than other fiddles. After the 16th century, according to Praetorius, the rebec was of the smallest fiddle size, with the tuning of the earlier Italian and German treble fiddles. During the century, Italian pictures also show larger rebecs, appropriate for the tuning of the alto fiddle. The stringing of rebecs are thus covered in the Italian and German stringing tables here.

Apparently, in the 1520's, the French fiddlers adopted larger fiddles, covering a larger pitch range, making the fiddles more like the more respected viols. They called these larger fiddles 'violons'. To become violons from the original pitches, the treble and alto/tenor members of the set dropped a fourth, and the bass dropped an octave.

We can estimate the range of string lengths from the pitches of Renaissance fiddles by calculation from the ranges and string lengths of fiddles discussed and depicted on scaled drawings by Praetorius. The ranges are different for different types of lowest gut string. At the original pitch standards, for the three tunings of Italian fiddles, the ranges were 22-27, 30-41 and 57-62 cm with high-twist lowest strings, which were used for most of the 16th century. For the Gerle German bass, the range was 52-55 cm. With catline lowest strings, which started to be used at the end of the century, the smallest string stop dropped to 17, 24 and 45 cm, with 42 cm for the Gerle bass. For the three tunings of French fiddles, the ranges were 37 (one size only), 51-56 and 101-126 cm for high-twist lowest strings, which were used up to about 1575. After that, catline lowest strings were used, especially for the lower two tunings, to make more manageable smaller sizes. Then the minimum string stops dropped to 30, 42 and 80 cm. The minimum can be reduced somewhat with thinner lowest strings, but with some loss of projection. This would be least noticed on treble and alto sizes.

The following tables are calculated according to the popular modern pitch standard of a' = 415 Hz. In the first two, for a range of string stops (L) and string tensions (T), appropriate string diameters (D) are listed. At a' = 440 Hz, the appropriate tensions would be one column to the right. At the usual original pitch, they should be read one column to the left. An important innovation in these tables is the listing of the proportion (L/T) between the string stop and the tension. This allows choosing equal-tension string sets that will create a balance between the different members of a set by trying to keep that proportion as constant as one can. If one chooses non-equal-tension string sets, the constant proportion applies to corresponding string numbers.

The final table gives the prices of the strings of the diameters in the other tables, with some choices between the type of gut string (if more modern metal-wound strings are desired, we can quote prices). It is assumed that a total length of 60 cm is adequate for the Italian and German treble, 75 cm for the Italian and German alto and tenor and French treble, 100 cm for the Italian and German bass and French alto and tenor, and 150 cm for the French bass. If the French bass is of the earlier larger size, longer (and thus more expensive) strings may be necessary.




Prices 2009