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When Is A Violin A Fiddle? Ask Jim Brager
Montana Senior News, February/March 2014
We all possess things we treasure because of their beauty, links to our past, or for any number of logical reasons. Sometimes, though, we feel an inexplicable kinship with a stranger’s battered artifacts that appear ready for the trash heap but that we feel compelled to save.

Such was the case for Lolo’s Jim Brager the moment he saw on eBay the well-worn pieces of a roughly made fiddle that looks like it could have been hand-carved a century ago in an Appalachian woodshed. Common sense asked, “Who would bother to salvage this mess?” The lover of vintage fiddles replied, “me.”
           
“I think it was probably made by someone who wanted a fiddle and couldn’t afford to buy one. I fell in love with it because of the crooked stock, the scroll that is cocked off to the side, and the tailpiece that holds the strings. It looked so cool,” says Jim, who spends his days repairing old fiddles and building new ones. “Aside from that, the body had a rattlesnake tail in it. You know, there’s a superstition that rattlesnake tails make a fiddle sound better.”

No sooner had Jim begun working on the relic with its bad glue joints and off-kilter ribs, than he found additional reasons to be drawn to this challenging project.
           
“The more I looked at the pieces, the more I saw how much it had been played. Fingerboards wear down as fiddles get played and have to be scraped to even them out. It takes years of a lot of playing for a fingerboard to be as smoothed down as this one,” says Jim, who is delighted to have resurrected someone else’s former pride and joy. “Now that I’ve restored it, I don’t think I can turn loose of it. I love this fiddle.”
           
While you might expect Jim to have accrued years of practice and training in this time-honored craft, that’s not the case. He does have a long association with fiddles dating back 40 years when his father brought one home to Montana from Minnesota, and which Jim taught himself to play. However, he did not enter the craftsmanship arena until just two years ago despite fiddles having been so much a part of his world.
           
“Someone told me I would have to go to fiddle repair school to learn how to restore a fiddle. I didn’t agree. All through my life when I wanted to fix or build something I figured it out on my own,” states Jim, whose musical repertoire consists mostly of dance tunes. “You don’t have to go to school. You can read books and teach yourself. That’s what I did.”
           
Beyond mastering the construction basics on his own, Jim took his mission one step further. He chose to do the restoration work using old-fashioned tools. To make fiddles by relying on historic methods, he trolls eBay for antique tools such as hand-held planes that can be sharpened and readjusted. When he can’t find what he is looking for, he simply creates his own.
           
After talking with Jim for just a few minutes and seeing all the hammers, files, drills and lumber piles scattered around his workshop, you begin to learn a few things yourself about fiddles. One of the first is that each instrument represents a mini arboretum.
           
“Fingerboards are traditionally made from ebony or from rosewood. As far back as 400 and 500 years ago, ebony was imported from Africa to the British Isles. For the best sound quality, the top is almost always done in spruce, preferably one that is tight-grained like Sitka spruce from Alaska. The back is nearly always made from maple. It’s beautiful and easy to work with,” remarks Jim, who has cured maple wood from his own land anywhere from 18 to 24 months until it was stable.
           
If you have ever wondered what the difference is between a fiddle and a violin, you will also learn from visiting with him the answer to that question: “nothing.” As Jim explains, “the name the instrument goes by is determined by the music played on it.” Violins are associated with classical scores, fiddles lay claim to the folk genre. Some bluegrass players affectionately refer to their fiddles as violins while Itzhak Perlman has been known to call his Stradivarius his fiddle.
           
Since Jim definitely falls into the bluegrass-Celtic camp, he calls the instruments he restores and builds fiddles and looks forward to the times he jams with friends as much as the hours he spends in his workshop. Although he has been developing a reputation among Montana musicians as a trusted repairman, Jim hopes that someday more fiddlers will feel as passionately as he does about the orphans he rescues.
           
“People are showing an increased interest in my fiddles and enjoy playing them,” he says. “I’d like nothing more than for someone to fall in love with one of these old fiddles or with one that I’ve built and take it home with them.”
           
Coupled with his salvage efforts, that would indeed make him a very happy man.
 
Jim can be reached at 406-207-0902.