By Greg Cahill | From the March-April 2021 issue of Strings magazine
Eric Aceto of Ithaca Stringed Instruments (ISI) grew up in a family of musicians and artisans, but it took a while for the violin to enter his life. At seven, he started playing the guitar and would accompany his grandfather on Italian folk tunes and Neopolitan songs. He later joined two brothers to form Quarteto Aceto, playing those same Italian songs.
The strings trade is a field of great variety—there are so many roles, passions, and stories. Tales Of The Trade shines a spotlight on the trade and the people involved in the art of the instrument.
At 16, an uncle gave him a violin—he became fascinated with the instrument. Soon, while attending Nova Scotia College of Art and Design and Nazareth College, Aceto developed an affinity for wood and began building instruments. “Much of my woodworking education was from while I was working building wooden boats on the Chesapeake Bay in my 20s,” he says. “I also owned a musical-instrument store, from 1978 to 1993, where I did most of the repair and restorations of stringed instruments.”
These days, Aceto is an in-demand luthier, accomplished session player, and performer—he studied under concert violinist Rolfe Sokol, but plays everything from acoustic folk and blues to jazz and electric rock. He has a workshop in Trumansburg, New York, near Ithaca, and is known for experimentation and for building a wide range of instruments, from guitars and mandolins to violins, violas, and cellos.
His acoustic bowed stringed instruments include the Baroque-era violoncello da spalla—a small cello braced against the shoulder. “I have been studying instrument design and the violoncello da spalla with maestro Dmitry Badiarov. I am currently working on my third of these,” he says of the da spallas. “I absolutely love this instrument—it’s right up my alley.”
Concert violist, composer, and recording artist Lev “Ljova” Zhurbin owns two of Aceto’s more esoteric instruments: a fadolín and a famiola. “Both are six-string instruments, just different sizes,” Ljova explains. “A fadolín is a violin-sized instrument with a ‘fa’ and a ‘do’—hence FA-DO-(vio)-LÍN—and a famiola is a viola-sized instrument with a ‘fa’ and ‘mi’—hence FA-MI-(vi)-OLA.”
And the sound?
“Entirely original—closer to a Baroque viol than a traditional violin or viola,” says Zhurbin, “but with a tone gritty enough to be a bass or a guitarrón. Full of the soul of their maker, yet flexible enough to sound like the whim of their player. Eric is a boundless inventor and explorer—he never stops learning, tweaking. He is always discovering and making new things, refining every part of his craft and our instruments. He is like a father to all of us fadolín kids, a true mensch, and his shop is a home we can always come back to, always a place of inspiration.”
But Aceto is perhaps best known for his four-, five-, six-, and seven-string acoustic-electric violins, which have attracted such top-tier artists as Jean-Luc Ponty, Darol Anger, and Zach Brock. “I got my first five-string violin in 1978 and played five-strings until I took an order for a six-string in 2002,” Aceto explains. “Building that instrument was a revelation and now is my personal choice in a violin. Since that time, I have been working to produce an instrument with a huge sonic range, satisfying to play. I love not only the sheer beauty of the lower strings, but also being able to get ‘underneath’ and be more in a supportive role in the music rather than always ‘on top’ of the music. I don’t consider it an odd instrument and take inspiration from the many Baroque instruments with extended ranges.”
His NV violins, developed in collaboration with fellow luthier Daniel Hoffman, differ from traditional acoustic-electric violins in that the NV has no f-hole, bass bar, or sound post—elements of volume and projection typically deemed essential to the acoustic bowed instrument. Rather, this innovative design focuses on tone production through the use of plate graduation, voiced tone bars, and air-chamber tuning, so the sound is transmitted throughout the entire instrument directly into the pickup.
“My current studies are building extended-range violins using a system of proportion based on the string length of the instrument,” Aceto says. “The goal is to create an instrument that has full and even response across the range, that speaks easily without great effort, and is responsive to the player with a sound they find inspirational.”
On Aceto’s website, jazz violinist Brock notes: “When I got my first NV, a process began that allowed me to reach sounds I had been trying to express for years.”
In 1998, fiddler Darol Anger was no less effusive when he wrote in Strings, “[The NV] is capable of tonal colors and a dynamic range much closer to an acoustic violin than any other electric I’ve ever tried. I believe it constitutes a quantum leap forward in electric-violin tone.”
For Aceto, the development of the NV violin was an evolutionary process. “I was building ‘chambered’ instruments and having some success—many of these are still in use by various artists,” he says. “I also was working on pickup design. When I eventually came to a pickup design that I felt was representative of the instrument it was on, I decided that the next step was to make the instrument itself sound better. I was looking for a responsive and full-bodied tone that delivered the visceral feel of a quality violin. I like a powerful but sweet top end and a gritty low end.”
While developing his acoustic-electric models, Aceto began researching the various types of pickups and mics. “I obtained every type of piezo material I could and began experimenting,” he says. “I placed pickups all over the instrument and eventually decided on a bridge-based system. I auditioned the different types and sizes of material by building a pickup and playing it on a live gig. After I felt I had taken the bridge pickup as far as I could, I began using that same technique of auditioning all the electret mic elements available to find what I felt worked best in a live situation. I dislike a tangle of wires and having to assemble an instrument before playing, so a single cable solution was paramount.”
The result is his plug-and-play ISI dual mic/pickup system that combines a piezo bridge pickup and a tiny goose-neck mic. “My aim was a simple, reliable, and great-sounding amplification system that could deliver the character of the violin without the usual annoyance of a blended system,” he says.
Does that mean Aceto has created a perfect sound? “I don’t feel there is one perfect sound,” he says. “Do you prefer the sparkle and sweetness of a Strad or the drive and power of a Guarneri? I feel that any builder’s instruments have a certain style, an individual character. I like a sweet top end that is powerful, but does not aggressively hurt the ears. I like a lot of clarity and grit in the low end. I don’t like a tubby sounding low end.”
The complete edition of the Care & Repair of Violin or Viola series from Strings magazine gives you a library of video and written instruction that will provide you with extensive knowledge that will help you understand your instrument and, in turn, be a more informed owner and user of stringed instruments and bows.