James Wimmer is a master violin maker who resides in Sacramento California. As a young adult James established a jug band and started to perform locally. After a few lineup changes, their repertoire changed to string band music and blues. They wound up taking their act to Germany and finding plenty of work. As a result, Jim wound up staying there for a prolonged period of time and decided to take work as an apprentice violin maker with master craftsman Wolfgang Uebel. James paid his dues and absorbed valuable information from this well established craftsman. He also spent some time in the shop of another master craftsman Herbert Rainer Knobel. After returning to the Unites States, James opened his shop in 1986 and started producing fine concert quality violins. Today he has an established studio and continues to make violins and repair them as well. James travels to India Periodically to teach local craftsman how to properly repair and manufacture violin's for its thriving classical music community. I recently spoke to James in his shop.
R.V.B. - Hey James, Rob von Bernewitz calling from New York...how are you?
J.W. - Hello, hello... I'm good, how are you?
R.V.B. - I'm doing pretty good. Are you having another beautiful day over there again?
J.W. - Yep, record heat coming right up.
R.V.B. - So what's with the drought? Are you guys getting any relief with that?
J.W. - Oh no, none at all. No rain in sight and they're pumping the aquifers dry.
R.V.B. - That's not good.
J.W. - No, not at all.
R.V.B. - Does that have any effect on your business? With the wood?
J.W. - Not at all. My wood has been purchased long ago and it's all stacked up in the garage where it's nice and dry.
R.V.B. - That's the ideal conditions for it, right?
J.W. - Yeah, I brought that wood in from Europe and I've had most of it for 15 or 20 years at least.
R.V.B. - So did you start out as a musician? Was there woodworking in your family history before you got involved with it?
J.W. - Nothing on a professional level. I started out as a musician. We had music in the family. My mother was quite musical. She played the piano and the organ in the church. She played in a swing band when she was younger.
R.V.B. - What did you tackle first? What instrument did you start with?
J.W. - Well in school, we had a saxophone that all the kids played in elementary school (Hahaha) I was the youngest so when I left school, I couldn't afford a saxophone anymore. Unfortunately my sister took our family sax to the pawn shop and that was the end of that saxophone career.
R.V.B. - That was very nice of her.
J.W. - (Hahaha) Well she needed the money I guess, more than I needed a saxophone.
R.V.B. - So how did you get involved with stringed instruments?
J.W. - I was playing in a band halfway between California and then more and more in Germany.
R.V.B. - What type of music were you playing?
J.W. - Well we sort of started out as a jug band and morphed into being more of a straight head string band. So I started learning mandolin... just seconding our fiddler.
R.V.B. - Were you doing bluegrass?
J.W. - No, we were doing what you call old time string band music. Banjo, fiddle dance tunes.
R.V.B. - What would a string band consist of?
J.W. - Well my optimal string band would be: guitar, frailing banjo and two fiddlers.
R.V.B. - Oh, I see. It's a small quartet.
J.W. - That's just the basic core of the concept for me. You can have a string band trio or a duo... it's pretty broad categorization. Old time American string band music can be anything from mid-western fiddlers to - I would include Cajun music under that umbrella. All you're northeastern contra dance type culture... but it's pre-bluegrass. That's where I kind of draw an imaginary line. To me Bill Monroe started out with his old time duo brother. The old Monroe Brothers were guitar and mandolin and vocals. Vocal duets, much like the old brothers duets in old time music. The Delmor's or The Blue Sky Boys, those kind of groups.
R.V.B. - What about the Stanley Brothers?
J.W. - They're more bluegrass... they came later. Bill Monroe is credited with being the originator of bluegrass. It was a style that then caught on... largely, I think because of its association with radio. The radio shows and that spread quickly.
R.V.B. - So you grew up in California?
J.W. - Yeah, I'm a native Californian... southern California in Riverside.
R.V.B. - How did you wind up going to Germany so often.
J.W. - Well, I went there as an abroad student through Marian College and that's kind of how I got going there. At the time, I had a pretty good success with a buddy just playing blues. He played guitar and I played harmonica. He sang and we ended up playing all these clubs. We were getting on TV and all the rest of it.
R.V.B. - They like their American music over there.
J.W. - Yeah, American popular music is popular just about everywhere. In England and Ireland, it's just incredibly popular. Everybody I know from Ireland knows all the Hank Williams and Johnny Cash songs by heart.
R.V.B. - Probably more than Americans do.
J.W. - Yeah, being moved from a culture there's a certain fascination with it.
R.V.B. - The German people really took care of our blues players with the festivals they put on for them in the 60's. Did you get the same treatment in a way?
J.W. - Well yeah, reasonably so. I joke with my buddies that I was making better money in Germany playing clubs in the 70's than I can make here in California now.
R.V.B. - So how did get involved in making and repairing instruments?
J.W. - Well, I lived in Germany for fourteen years. For ten of those years we were musicians on tour. I ended up playing in a duo and sooner or later he wanted to move back to New York... they bought a house. I wanted to come back to the US as well but I thought I would learn a trade that was uniquely European and would hopefully keep me in the music business. I had the good luck to find a position with a master violin maker in northern Germany. It was quite difficult to find any openings at all as an apprentice.
R.V.B. - Did you find him just as a go getter or did you stumble across him?
J.W. - He was the go to guy in the region. One day he took a look at us when I took my violin in for repair... we dressed like we were straight from the western plains and had been herding cows or something, because of our act. He looked at us and said "You guys probably don't play Mozart. Why don't you play a little bit for me." He was very charmed by the good ole' string band dance tunes.
R.V.B. - Was that Wolfgang Uebel?
J.W. - Yeah,
R.V.B. - What kind of shop did he have?
J.W. - He ran a quite high level shop in those days. He did of dealing in classic period Italian instruments. When I was learning from him, I was working on quite old classics.
R.V.B. - Did you start off primarily doing repairs?
J.W. - No, he was also a maker. We all fancied ourselves makers in that shop because that's what we did a lot of. We were supplying the baroque stringed instruments to Georg Walther. They call it GEWA in the US. It was a brokerage house of violin supplies, throughout entire Europe. You can see them in the U.S. now. We were making early instruments. There was a big market for that. By the time I had got there, he had actually scaled down from being a high production shop. Then we were more involved where each one of us would make a single made instrument.
R.V.B. - What is the primary wood that a violin is made out of?
J.W. - The back, the sides and the neck will all be of maple. The top or belly as we call it is of spruce. Your fittings will be of various materials... most commonly ebony. The fingerboard is always ebony but the pegs and other fittings could be rosewood or boxwood.
R.V.B. - Now with all the political correctness going on in the world today... is it a problem getting wood at all today? Like mature trees?
J.W. - No... and recently I've been quite lucky. I just purchased enough good old European maple right here in town, not a mile from me. I purchased it from a friend in 1990, who was getting on in years. He won't be building anymore, so he sold me his wood. It's wood that I selected personally in Germany in 1990, and brought it all back here. By and large maple and spruce has not been a problem. I think we're starting to see shortages of good European maple, that's big enough for bass but for violin, but we're still seeing wood dealers supplying to the trade.
R.V.B. - Is there that much of a difference in the sound quality of European maple as opposed to American maple.
J.W. - Not necessarily. I know makers who get good tone from North American woods... or they work with mixed woods. I like a certain consistency, and since I learned with European wood... basically what I gives me is a more classic image of a European violin. A lot of the North American woods that I have seen have visual aspects of them that make them look North American. What I strive for is to work in the European classical vein.
R.V.B. - How long does it take of a time period to build a violin?
J.W. - With or without all the distractions of running a shop? (Hahaha)
R.V.B. - (Hahaha) You mean from phone calls like mine? (Hahaha)
J.W. - That's rarer... people are coming and going all the time for repairs and what not. You just kind of have to deal with it?
R.V.B. - Do you do work for school systems?
J.W. - No, most of my work is for private individuals. There's a large shop here in town that deals with everything for schools. The owner is a good friend of mine. I wouldn't want to start up a rental program and go up against him.
R.V.B. - Does he feed you any higher end repairs?
J.W. - Oh yeah, he sends people to me with good instruments for whatever they need. I'm basically a sole proprietor so I have to manage my time very carefully. What I did learn in Germany is how to make a stringed instrument in a pretty reasonable amount of time, so back to your question, I tend to make six or seven violins in a year and a cello which is good for three or four violins a year in terms of labor.
R.V.B. - Huh, I would think that you could do more but I guess you have to let things set when you clamp things together... you have to let the glue dry.
J.W. - There's all that aspect to a carefully made violin, For instance, since you're carving the maple from solid planks of wood... it's all hand sculpted, so often times, I'll just rough out a piece and then let it sit, because the maple will move. It's the same with the neck... you release tension in the wood it will twist and warp. You have to allow it time to do that. So I often make three or four instruments at a time, just so I can be moving forward with some project.
R.V.B. - Well it makes for a more rare violin instead of a bigger shop pumping them out.
J.W. - Well most bigger shops don't really pump them out. They might have a maker in house who's output is not any greater than mine... possibly even less. Importantly, a lot of big shops represent the work of workers like myself. I personally don't go to other shops but I think that those that do, offer a good service to makers who sometimes have trouble getting their instruments sold. It's hard to get your name out there.
R.V.B. - Right... I was looking at your website and I saw that you recently completed two violins, a viola, and a cello for a quartet.
J.W. - Oh the Hubert Schwyzer quartet... for the Westmont College here. Yeah, that's been several years back now.
R.V.B. - That must have been a nice set of instruments for these guys.
J.W. - It's a very wonderful thing to do as a violin maker. It's quite an honor to have an institution commission a quartet and then give it a home in perpetuity. A lot of makers will make a quartet, but they have no taker for the entire set, so they end up selling off the instruments piecemeal. Since these are all together... I specially bought wood with my dealer in Germany. This is fairly rare, and his wood lot is about the size of a city block, stacked up like the grand canyon with cello wood, and still only had two sets for a quartet. it's all cut from the same stem of wood, so they're like matched "dueling pistols" for a metaphor that you like to use.
R.V.B. - So you learned from these German guys. Was it more than one because I see Rainer Knobel's name there.
J.W. - Yeah, I worked in his shop where I learned to specialize more in repairs but I did build a few there. Then I went on to work in a shop in Hamburg for a while with a master violin maker there.
R.V.B. - So getting on to your India work. You originally went to India just to sightsee"
J.W. - Yeah, I had a year to kill. Well I presented an instrument for people to inspect that I had done on an amateur level. He suggested that I would make a good apprentice. At the time he had no bench free as we call it. He said it would be about a year before he had a bench come up free in his shop, so I just took that time off and went traveling. I figured I'd go see what the hippies said was so cool about India, Nepal and all of those places.
R.V.B. - Did you meditate?
J.W. - (Hahaha) Not much (Hahaha) So I had a lot of time to kill, and I'm sort of a hippie tool... education abroad - student type fellow, because I enjoy learning languages. So just to sort of get cultural insight. To make a long story short, I wound up living in this town called Varanasi for close to six months. I took lessons on this sarod. I had only intended to purchase one but my friend found me a nice old... now it's about a hundred years old and they wanted me to commit to some lessons... several months worth before selling me the instrument. It's a beautiful instrument and the whole experience that came with it was just wonderful. I feel like a family member to this day.
R.V.B. - Have you ever recorded with the sarod?
J.W. - Oh no. The guys that play that are so much better than me, so there's not much of a point. It's kind of my private fun instrument. I play it still in the evening at home. It creates a special mood, but I'll never be a virtuoso on it like the true Indian players like my teacher is?
R.V.B. - Have you ever recorded your own music?
J.W. - The last commercial recording I did was in 1978 on vinyl. (Hahaha)
J.W. - It was funny, one day a friend of mine asked if I ever googled my band name and I said "Heavens no" and that was a long time ago and who would ever put that on line. When I had him on the phone I did that very thing and it pulled up all these LP collector sites and gosh my LP is going for as much as 100 euro's these days. Although I'm sure you can still find one for less.
R.V.B. - What was the name of the act?
J.W. - Bo Lipari and Jim Wimmer.
R.V.B. - Have you found any other unique instruments in your travels?
J.W. - Well I know about them. I inspected a lot of instruments. I'm pretty familiar with most of the Indian instruments. By and large I sort of pursued the violin. Being a fiddler, I've come across a lot of different ways of playing the violin. That's what really led me to the south Indian thing... the south Indian classical music cultures. Aside from being a vocal culture, the primary instrument is the violin, and has been such for two hundred years now. It was brought in by the Brits and immediately gained such popularity, that it spread and it's unthinkable to have a south Indian classical concert without the violin now.
R.V.B. - When I was doing my research for this I read that there was a lack of repair personnel there?
J.W. - Most violin makers I know are not going to move their shop to India. It's a uniquely western art... this making restorations of violins. The repair aspect was sort of overlooked in India. I first noticed it when I went back to India after learning violin making. I immediately saw my friends instruments with different eyes and I was horrified. They all confirmed that they're all terrified to go to the repair guy and only do so if they have absolutely no other recourse. Many people would repair their instruments themselves. The violin is an instrument that requires a special approach to it, just because of the nature of the instrument.
R.V.B. - It's a pretty delicate instrument I would think.
J.W. - Well you know, you can drop a violin, and if you're lucky it won't break too bad. It will mostly pop apart at the seams, but they're made to be taken apart for repair. The first thing that the Indian repair guys do is go and get a big tub of the glue that guarantees that the wood joint will never come apart again. I liken that to going to get your spark plugs changed and the guy welds your hood down on your car. (Hahaha)
R.V.B. - So how would you tackle getting that glue off? Is it a special art to do that or you don't even go there.
J.W. - Well you can take it apart but it can cause a lot of damage because the glue is stronger than the wood. It can cause a lot of damage that then, has to be repaired. That's quite time consuming and costly. So we were looking at a lot of violins in India that had been glued up with this stuff. The first battle we had was with the tradesmen that were in our class. They were absolutely at first, going to refuse to work with this hide glue that we used. We had quite a little battle about that until I remembered that right there in the very house where we were holding it... my friend had a violin that I had made fifteen years pervious, and I asked him to go get it. These guys said that "Animal glue" as they called it, would not do anything except fall apart immediately. So when he brought the violin up, it was just as solid as the day it came out of my workshop. We had a great change of minds over there. They excepted that immediately, and really enjoyed what they learned about hide glue... that it's kind of a miracle substance for violin makers.
R.V.B. - Do other luthiers use the same glue?
J.W. - Oh, it will depend on the maker. Physically you might find like this type bond, what you would call white woodworkers glue... Aliphatic resin glue in guitar making. Typically they can do a lot of repairs just by reaching in through the sound hole. My friend in Germany who made my guitar does it all in hide glue. That's all he uses.
R.V.B. - So are you very, very happy that you went through that training. Are you really enjoying this craft?
J.W. - Oh yes, I get to work with some of the most beautiful woods that the forest provides us. I have gotten to meet and interact very closely with people who what you would call "My fiddle Gods", like Richard Green. I would probably have never met a fiddler or violinist of Richards caliber if I hadn't been a violin maker.
R.V.B. - Now just on a personal level... my wife is from Germany and she got a hand me down violin from Germany which I'm guessing is over a hundred years old now. Probably from the late 1800's. It says Stradivarius inside, and I know it's not a Stradivarius... were they common?
J.W. - Yeah, that's a period of mass production in Germany and what is now Czechoslovakia, Bohemia... that whole little corner there where they come together in the former Eastern Germany. A lot of those types of instruments were mass produced and exported to the United States. For instance for sale through early Sears catalogs... mail order type sale. So they basically put the label in there and it might even say made in Germany in there.
R.V.B. - This one came over from Germany because they came over in the mid 60's. I've had a few people tell me it's worth maybe $700 bucks or something.
J.W. - Something like that. If they're in really good shape, possibly more, because quite simply a lot of that type of instrument was purchased here in California at least, by dealers who would come from China. They would strip my shop clean of everything like that, that I had. They'd take it back to China and sell it for a lot more.
R.V.B. - Now speaking about China. The cheapo violins that come from China... is everything compromised, like the glue and the varnish, and the wood?
J.W. - Well, the wood seems to be ok. I have run in to, like you say, very odd gluing habits and some very curious varnished but they're getting that all together. It's basically a mass production type idea... the Chinese violin. I've seen some that are really very beautiful. Of course in any mass production region, you're going to have makers that pop up as "masterful". Their problem is going to be, how to separate themselves from the great body of inexpensive instruments.
R.V.B. - So are you open 5 days a week?
J.W. - Oh, I work six days a week. I work by appointment. If I don't feel like working, I don't. (Hahaha) My wife is retired now and she's at home so she's very enticing if I want to just go to lunch instead of working.
J.W. - Well, right now we're getting our visa's and all of that together to go back for the next phase teaching in India.
R.V.B. - I see you have an assistant in the shop.
J.M. - That's correct. She's here right now putting on her final touches of her very first violin.
R.V.B. - How is it coming out?
J.W. - Oh it's beautiful. It's like one of mine. Maybe I should take it away from her and sell it. (Hahaha)
R.V.B. - Well Jim, it sounds like you hooked yourself up with a nice career that you enjoy doing.
J.W. - Yeah, it's a good viable trade.
R.V.B. - Now are you in a village over there?
J.W. - Santa Barbara is a coastal resort town. Real estate is high and the weather is always beautiful. We are squashed between the beautiful mountains and the Pacific ocean. The whole town is basically built in a Spanish fashion.
R.V.B. - Do you ever have any shake, rattle, and roll under your feet?
J.W. - Oh that? We hardly think about it, but yeah occasionally. Not that of often really but we had one recently that the epicenter was off the University here out in the ocean. It was only about twelve miles away. That one felt like wrecker ball hit the house. "Bang!"... then it wobbled for quite some time. That's one of the more impressive ones that I have experienced. I suppose we're ready for it. We've had them in the past where we literally ran out of the house in the middle of the night.
R.V.B. - That's got to be a little scary.
J.W. - (Hahaha) Well let's put it that it's a moment of very intense focus. I saw one as a kid where the waves of the earthquake just rolled down the road like waves of the ocean.
R.V.B. - Thank you very much for spending this time me... I appreciate it and I enjoyed it.
J.W. - Thanks for inquiring.
Interview conducted by Robert von Bernewitz
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