Exploring Instruments: Instrument Makers cover

Exploring Instruments: Instrument Makers


Instrument makers have ranged from the individual who occasionally makes instruments through to the mass production of factories. The most highly prized instruments have generally come from small businesses, typically with a proprietor (who would give his name to the firm), a small number of skilled employees and one or two apprentices.
MIMO began life as a consortium of some of Europe’s most important musical instruments museums, which came together for a European Commission funded project that aimed to create a single online access point to their collections. The aim of the consortium is now to become the single access point for information on public collections of musical instruments for the entire world.

NoteStream NoteStream

NoteStreams are readable online but they’re even better in the free App!

The NoteStream™ app is for learning about things that interest you: from music to history, to classic literature or cocktails. NoteStreams are truly easy to read on your smartphone—so you can learn more about the world around you and start a fresh conversation.

For a list of all authors on NoteStream, click here.

Read the NoteStream below, or download the app and read it on the go!

Exploring Instruments: Instrument Makers


Instruments can be made in unusual shapes, with precious materials or with beautiful decoration, making them unique and collectable items.

This exhibition, drawn from the collections of nine of Europe’s major musical instrument museums, offers a selection of instruments that illustrates a range of styles and cultural uses.

Instrument makers have ranged from the individual who occasionally makes instruments through to the mass production of factories. The most highly prized instruments have generally come from small businesses, typically with a proprietor (who would give his name to the firm), a small number of skilled employees and one or two apprentices. In such a business the proprietor would handle the commercial transactions and might oversee or carry out the design of the instruments and the finishing.

16th Century Clavichord

16th Century Clavichord

Large and Small

Larger firms have more opportunity for division of labour, with more experienced staff concentrating on the most skilled tasks.

Larger firms can therefore be more efficient than small businesses, but are less well adapted to responding to the needs of individual musicians. Some larger firms contracted out the manufacture of component parts.

The term "luthier" is used for individual skilled instrument makers and the heads of small workshops, in particular for makers of stringed instruments. Some makers have become famous for the musical excellence of their instruments and their craftsmanship, others are best known for their inventions and advances in instrument design.

Trompettes Droites

Trompettes Droites

These trumpets come from the brass band of the Paris Opera which was directed by the inventor and maker Adolphe Sax from 1847 to 1892. They were specially made for the first French performances of Verdi's opera Aïda in 1876 at the Theatre des Italiens and in 1880 and the Opéra de Paris. These trumpets were designed to comply with the wishes of Verdi, who wanted the instruments on stage to be look like ancient natural trumpets, with the valves hidden as far as possible.

Listen here

Place of Production: France, Paris

Antonio Stradivari

Antonio Stradivari (1644 - 1737) is perhaps the most famous of all luthiers, and the maker whose instruments (many still in use)

command the highest prices. He is best known for violin family instruments, but he also made viols, guitars, mandolins and harps. Little is known about how he managed his business and how many staff he employed, but even with his long life the number of instruments bearing his name is too high to have been produced by a solitary craftsman.

Stradivari was born and worked throughout his life in Cremona, Italy. He may have been apprenticed to Nicolò Amati. Stradivari's success, both in his own lifetime and subsequently, can be attributed to sound judgement in the design of instruments to meet needs of musicians, and strict implementation of the highest standards of quality control.

Violino Piccolo

Creator: Antonio Stradivari

The body of the beautiful instrument bears typical characteristics of Stradivari's master hand, e. g. the form of the f-holes. Bottom and ribs are made of sycamore, the table is made of spruce. The neck, which is too long in comparison to the body, the fingerboard and the lower part of the pegbox are renewed, however, the scroll is probably original.

Place of Production: Cremona/Italien/Europa


Creator: Antonio Stradivari

This guitar came from the workshop of the great violin maker Stradivari in Cremona in 1711. It is similar in form to other Cremonese guitars, and follows the surviving paper patterns used in Stradivari’s workshop. It is a significant example of the aesthetic developed by Stradivari in the field of plucked string instruments. It is lightly built of cypress wood, with a deep sound particularly suitable for accompaniment.

Place of Production: Italie, Cremona



(CC BY 3.0)

Creator: Antonio Stradivari

Antonio Stradivari adopted several models and sizes for his cellos during his activity. This instrument is one of the only three that survive with the original very large proportions that he adopted in his early production.

Place of Production: Cremona

Early Comments

The large size of the soundbox (shown on the last note) allowed a deeper tone in the bass,

and was later abandoned probably due to innovations in the making of strings. It was made in 1690 as a gift to Grand Prince Ferdinando de’ Medici (1663-1713), and was part of quintet formed by two violins (one surviving in Rome, Accademia di S. Cecilia), an alto viola (now in Washington, Library of Congress) and a tenor viola (Florence, Collezione Cherubini).

A rare early document survives about the sound of this instrument: it is a letter written as soon as the instruments were delivered stating that "all the virtuosi [of the gran-ducal court] […] are of the same mind in approving them as perfect, but above all speaking of the violoncello they frankly confess they have never heard a more pleasing or more sonorous one".


The Ruckers family were builders in Antwerp (present-day Belgium) of stringed keyboard instruments which enjoyed a wide and lasting reputation.

The first prominent member of the family involved in instrument making was Hans Ruckers (1540s - 1598) who built both harpsichords and organs. His son, Joannes Ruckers (1578 - 1642) also became a harpsichord and organ maker, and with brother Andreas Ruckers I (1579 - after 1645) became partners in their father's business upon his death, Joannes becoming sole owner in 1608.

His nephew Joannes Couchet joined his workshop around 1627, taking it over after Joannes's death. Andreas Ruckers II (1607 - before 1667) was the son of Andreas Ruckers I.



Ruckers family members operated their businesses internationally and offered models for the French and British markets.

Their instruments have continued to be valued for their acoustic and decorative design, and high standards of workmanship. Such was their reputation that their designs were not only copied but copies were also passed off as genuine Ruckers instruments. As musical demands changed in 18th century, many Ruckers harpsichords were rebuilt with extended range.

Harpsichord with Virginal

Harpsichord with Virginal

One of the most curious instruments to have come out of the Ruckers workshop is undoubtedly this harpsichord with virginal. The rectangular sound-box houses both a two-manual harpsichord and a small virginal that is set on the curved side of the larger instrument. In accordance with Ruckers family tradition, the sides of the box are decorated with printed strips of paper and with depictions of sea horses, as well as stylized motifs.

Place of Production: Anvers

Adolphe Sax

Adolphe Sax (1814-1894) is best known as the inventor of the saxophone.

The successful invention of a completely new instrument is a rare occurrence. Antoine-Joseph Sax was born in Dinant (Belgium) and later took the name Adolphe. His father, Charles-Joseph Sax, was an important instrument maker. He studied clarinet and flute in Brussels. His first influential invention was an improved bass clarinet which he patented at the age of twenty-four; his work on the saxophone family soon followed and his saxophone patent was taken out in 1846.

In 1842 Sax moved to Paris and set up a factory to produce wind instruments. He continued to invent and take out patents: many of these were for brass instruments.

Highs and Lows

His saxhorns were widely adopted by brass and military bands in France and Britain.

The established instrument makers in France were hostile to the ambitious Sax, and a series of court cases were brought against him. The main issue was whether his brass instruments were sufficiently original to be protected by patents.

Sax was more successful as an inventor than as a manufacturer: his business flourished in the periods when he held government contracts for military band instruments, but suffered through litigation: he was bankrupt three times and died poor.

Saxophone Alto

The characteristic shape of the saxophone is a symbol of the inventive genius of Adolphe Sax,

one of the first instrument makers to adopt industrial practices. Although it was well received by composers, not least Berlioz, the saxophone was at first used in military bands rather than in the orchestra. It the jazz era it came into its own. This instrument is of Sax's later design, with a smaller bell than his first model, and closely approached the modern saxophone.

Place of Production: Paris, France


Although Adolphe Sax is best known for his patent for the Saxophone in 1846 the instrument's importance


for the lower voices of military music, he conceived the saxophone family in sizes from sub-contrabass up to soprano. Today, with the sopranino saxophone and the "Soprillo", there are two even smaller sizes. The instrument shown here represents the smallest size conceived by Sax himself. While Sax attributed to the saxophones a sound close to bowed string instruments, but much louder, Belioz characterised the sound as penetrating, but without the shrill timbre of small clarinets.

Place of Production: Paris, France


(CC 0 1.0