The neck of your instrument is the most intimate contact point you have with your violin. And it can make enormous differences in the way you experience it.
Today I'd like to talk about the various shapes and dimensions of necks, and the effects they have on your playing. The differences that will either have you playing unaware of even having anything in your hands, or the nagging feeling that something's never quite right.
When you pick your instrument up, your hand curls around the neck and molds to it. Now the neck can either fit the natural contours of your hand or fight them. For instance, if you pick it up and it feel like you have a hand full, the neck is almost certainly to full. The trick is to figure out which shape and/or dimension(s) is off.
To start with, there are 3 basic shapes of necks (when I'm talking about neck shape, imagine the cross section you would see if you sawed the neck off at 3rd position). When I was in violin making school they were explained to me as: English, German, and French. The English shape is the fullest of them all. When you have the neck in your hands in playing position, the English shape will be bulbous, like you're grabbing a log. The German shape is full, but doesn't flare out any wider than the fingerboard. And the French shape has a V feel to it.
You don't find the English neck very often anymore, but the German neck is still common. Personally, I prefer the French shape.
If you look at your hand when it's in playing position, its natural shape has a V contour to it. The neck will feel the most natural if it accommodates that shape.
You can sensitize yourself to the shapes by pulling your thumb around the curve of the neck of every instrument you pick up. After a while you won't even think about it, you'll just automatically feel that it's the right shape or not.
On top of that, there are 2 other dimensions that come into play when feeling the shape of a neck:
The first is the width of the neck where it joins the fingerboard (side to side dimension). Now this dimension can get a bit tricky. If it's too wide, the entire neck will feel fat regardless of its actual shape. That's because it will spread your thumb too wide from your fingers. Impossible to ignore. If on the other hand (so to speak) the width is too narrow, it will feel like you're playing a smaller size violin. Also, if it's to narrow it will affect how wide apart the strings are set in the upper nut (see Thursday's Word). Your strings will either need to be set too close to each other, cramping your fingers - or the 2 outside strings will be so close to the edges of the fingerboard your fingers will feel they're going to fall off those edges … and sometimes might. This is why you want to stay reasonably close to standard neck and fingerboard widths.
The second dimension to augment neck shape is the overall thickness of the neck (from the middle of the fingerboard between the 2 center strings to the back of the neck that fits into the crook of your hand). If this is too thick it will add weight that needs to be supported both by your left hand, and in the case of violin and viola, supported by clamping your neck onto your instrument a little harder. However, if this dimension is too thin it can feel like you have nothing to hang on to. Here again, you want it to be reasonably close to standard dimensions.
At this point I'm a little afraid of information overload on this subject. So I'm going to break this down into 2 articles, the completing one in the next issue of Inside the Shop.
But for now, try to evaluate the basic shape of your neck, and any others you might be able to examine.