For many of us, instruments are merely objects that make some sort of sound, and are pretty to look at. For Alvin Fry of Dallas, building instruments has been a 30-year obsession.
Fry brought a few of his violins and violas to the Fiddlers Reunion Friday, to do a little market research for his newest creation, the five-string violin.
His instruments have been played by acts such as Vince Gill, Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson and Chet Atkins. According to Fry, Gill once said that Fry’s instruments are incomparable. “[Vince Gill] once said that if someone brought me a guitar as good as yours, I’d be in shock because no one’s remotely close.”
It’s an impressive list of credentials for a man who started building instruments after his guitar was stolen.
“I was not a very good guitar player, but I was a guitar player,” he said. “Lo and behold, one day, some guy broke into my house and stole my guitar. I just had this really simplistic, stupid idea that if I learned to build instruments, and somebody stole my guitar, I’d just build another one. It pushed me out of being a performer, something I was never going to get, and I started building instruments. It’s been natural to me.”
One of Fry’s biggest accomplishments has been adding a fifth string to violins and violas.
“I thought that classical musicians would really get angry at me for sacrilege,” he said. “And they look at it, and say ‘My word.’ They thought it was the most creative thing they had ever seen. I figured they’d yell at me.”
For Fry, it’s all about the sound that emanates from the instrument.
“The real problem has been learning to understand [the qualities of sound],” he said. “Not to do it and create the perfect sound, but to knowing a way of verbally explaining it and recognizing it.”
Fry has five key ingredients of what makes a perfect instrument, which can be found on his Web site, alvinfryviolins.com.
The most important thing about his instruments, especially the violins, to Fry is that they can be played to any style of music.
“Instruments get categorized on what they won’t do,” he said. “The properly designed instrument should have the maximum volume, but the easiest playability. So, that you can play any musical style on one instrument. You can play very easy and get that jazz sound, or you can push it a little harder and get all that punch that a bluegrass musician gets. It’s really nice when they can go from one style to another and work.”
Not only are the instruments sonically beautiful, they are visually lovely as well. Fry uses spruce and other types of wood for building the instruments. “As you can see, I like red,” he says, laughing and pointing to the instruments laid across the table. “I saw the movie ‘The Red Violin’ and I just got into it.”
One of the violins features a dragon pearl inlay along the neck. “I don’t do that very often,” he said. “But, it’s kind of fun and it dresses them up.”
However, Fry doesn’t let the visual aspect overtake the sound of the instrument.
“My thing is it doesn’t what matter what the instrument looks like,” he said. “I like a nice, clean, straightforward instrument. I like an instrument that produces such sound that the musician playing it sounds unique playing it. A lot of people want to see an instrument that looks 300 years old, but I don’t think that’s right. I want to see a violin that when you see it and you play it, you feel like you walked into Stradivarius’ shop 300 years ago, and you saw it when it was new.”
Over his 30 year career of building instruments, Fry has never marketed any product. That is about to change.
“I spent 30 years building 125 to 130 instruments,” he said, “just learning how to do it. I’m now going into the market. Most of the instruments I’ve sold have been for research. I’d go to them and say, ‘What do you think about this, what do I need to fix?’ and they’d say, ‘Nothing.’
“I believe if a man buys an instrument, he should get something that works perfectly the rest of his life,” he said, with a smile. “I think I can make a contribution making instruments. I just wanted to be as good as I could possibly be and make some sort of contribution to society based on my product being really good.”
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