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April 2007 · Bimonthly

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("Strike of the Sword" by Dan Syracuse, Big Bang Graphics)

Be a Rock 'n' Roll Rebel: Paint your Fiddle! - Part Two

by Geoffrey Fitzhugh Perry

Fiddle Painting particulars:

What you can expect: Will it change the sound of my instrument?
Short answer: yes, but EVERYTHING matters to some extent of course (even changing a chin rest or shoulder rest will effect the sound a little too). "How much" is the real question. You can expect that the overall sound of your instrument will become a little more muted and not so bright (on some student instruments I've encountered, this is not necessarily a bad thing!). The amount of this effect depends largely on how much and what kind of paint you pile on the top. For instruments with a pick-up this matters less: just plug in and turn up the treble a little more! If you still want to play your painted instrument acoustically on occasion, I've developed a few techniques over the years that can help minimize any severe acoustical changes. See below.

  1. After removing all the strings, tuning pegs, bridge, tailpiece, and end button, you'll need to prep-sand the finish for painting. DON'T sand the original finish all the way off your instrument. This will result in a nightmare of wood fibers sticking up through your cool paint job. Best to just lightly rough-up the existing finish with about 220 grit sandpaper to give it enough "tooth" for the paint to grab a hold of. Another trick of the trade is to use a medium to fine grade steel wool to get in the corners around the neck and inner bouts.
  2. Once prep-sanded, cover any parts you might not want painted with masking tape (I usually do not paint the fingerboard or back of the neck, one tradition that I surprisingly stick with). When ready, apply a "light as possible" primer coat. Remember the less thick the paint, the less it will effect the volume & tone of the instrument. I currently use a spray can-type primer to do this and hang the fiddle with a bent-up piece of coat hanger from a hook in my shop, the fiddle-end carefully looped through a, now empty, tuning peg hole. Note: spray paint and kids may NOT be a good idea, health-wise. Use your own judgment (&/or a good respirator mask). Lightly hand-brushing a primer coat is also okay. Artistically speaking, sometimes I actually prefer seeing the brush strokes under the final product. I usually start with a nice white blank "canvas" (gray, brown, or black can work too if your over-all design will be on the darker side). No actual "primer" paint? That's okay too. Use whatever you have. There is no right and wrong here. Just keep it light.
  3. I usually do the decorative part by hand with a variety of small to medium sized brushes. Craft acrylics are non-toxic, cheap, and readily available (about $.79 per color at your local super store). They dry in minutes and cure in about 24 hours. Clean up with water. You don't need an art degree. Think "Karate Kid": close eyes, imagine, open eyes, paint. I sometimes hedge on my inner muses and try a design out on paper first. You can use a pencil on your primer coat to sketch out your basic ideas too. Another good tip is: try painting on the back of your instrument first, by the time you come around to the top (the part that will be seen the most), you'll be experienced in the painting style you're working with and get better results (I learned that one the hard way). I also like doing final detail work with white and black acrylic "paint pens."
  4. If you like what you see when viewing it from the distance an audience might look at it from, and can't imagine that one more brush stroke would improve it, you can stop right there, and put it all back together (note: you may need to carefully clear any paint drips out of the peg holes before re-inserting the tuning pegs). If you are doing the spray paint thing, a clear coat is a nice touch and will give your creation a measure of protection, though again, remember, the more layers, the less vibration.

So why not just buy a custom-made electric instrument and get it over with? If you got the bucks, go for it! There are many talented makers that would LOVE your business! But, that said, there is an inner satisfaction that comes with the DIY experience too (especially with kids). The fancy electrics are usually better at not feeding back in really loud situations (like rock bands with very loud drummers), but I find that my old $100 hand-painted zydeco fiddle fitted with a standard and readily available Fishman pick-up has worked just fine for years now. I'm not endorsing Fishman or any other pick-up of which there are many. FYI, there's a way to make your own pick-up using a Radio Shack doorbell buzzer part for under 5 bucks too! Find out more about that by downloading the ASTA (American String Teacher Assoc.) "hand-out" on my site: There's pics of instruments I've painted in my "Art Fitzhugh" gallery there too.

Overall, as far as "rock star eye-candy" goes, I personally think that a hand painted fiddle is visually and even aesthetically more appealing than most commercially available instruments. Audiences seem to dig it too. You be your own judge.

The bottom line is that painting your fiddle has great "bang for the buck." Economically, Educationally, and Entertaining-ly.

Happy creating!

Geoffrey Fitzhugh Perry

PS: Feel free to contact me with questions, comments, or pics of your painted fiddles through my web sites: and and, if interested, check out my latest band "Babik" at

"Maize Maze" and "Mardi Gras" fiddles, painted by Geoffrey Fitzhugh Perry

About the Author
Multi-instrumentalist Geoffrey Fitzhugh Perry currently plays violin in gypsy-jazz group "Babik" (bah-beek, see ). Geoff does Fiddle Jam Clinics in schools nation-wide and is a frequent "alternative string" guest speaker at events and conferences. He also spent 8 years with the instrumental jazz-rock group "Gamalon" who's history includes a #8 Billboard Jazz Chart showing, recording and performied at the Newport Jazz Festival.

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