Mystery Violin Identified

by Matthew Raley

I've been writing about my evaluation this summer of a violin loaned to me by a friend (here, here, and here). My original low expectations were surpassed as I played it, especially after I put on better strings. But I have been bothered by two things. Who was the maker, Lee Nelms? And could the sound of the violin be significantly improved?

My googling of Nelms, you'll recall, turned up zero. So I drove the violin up to John Harrison, noted luthier in Redding, on the chance that he had at least heard of Nelms. He had indeed.

Harrison told me that Nelms was a maker in Klamath Falls, OR, mainly known among fiddlers (like my friend's uncle, the violin's original owner). Nelms died, Harrison thought, sometime around 1988. Harrison stepped past a dozen violins and violas to a bookshelf, covered with a layer of sawdust, and pulled out a reference work on American makers. Nelms was listed, the bio reporting that he started in 1978 and had made 16 violins by 1986, the date of publication. Two instruments a year. Harrison himself had met Nelms numerous times at conventions and had seen several of his violins.

This particular violin, made in 1979, was one of the better Nelms instruments Harrison had seen. But "it has issues." As a point of workmanship, Harrison noted that the scroll was commercial, not hand-carved. Worse, the tail-piece was too long for the size of the violin, which plays havoc with the main issue: the sound post. Harrison agreed that a more powerful tone could be coaxed out of this violin with a better-fitting post. But proper placement depended on getting a well-proportioned tailpiece.

It would take some investment to improve the violin, but it could be done.

I left pondering the fact that a man I never knew reached across 30 years, down several hundred miles from Klamath Falls, and gained my respect by making a violin. The internet can't find him, but the members of his guild can. As Harrison said to me with satisfaction, "His violins are still being played." Nelms won't be a legend, but his craft has staying power. Not bad at all.