6 Top String Players Share Their Instrument Setup & Favorite Gear

We spoke with six top violin, viola and fiddle players about their instrument setup, most trusted gear, and the little things they can’t live without.

Compiled by Stephanie Powell

Instrument setup is a common source of fascination among string players of any discipline. A simple change to the strings, tailpiece, bridge, or any number of adjustments can take a Strad’s sound from dark and warm to potentially ear-piercing. We spoke with six top players—violinist Rachel Podger, violist Drew Alexander Forde, violinist Augustin Hadelich, violinist Tessa Lark, violinist Chloë Hanslip, and fiddler Brittany Haas—about their instrument setup, most trusted gear, and the little things they can’t live without.

Here’s a quick guide with links to each section in this article.

Violinist Rachel Podger

Rachel Podger, violin

Baroque violinist, recording artist, and educator Rachel Podger is a leading interpreter of the music of the Baroque and Classical periods. She has performed as a soloist and guest director with many of the world’s top ensembles, and in 2007 founded her own group, Brecon Baroque.

Instrument: The violin I play is by a maker with the name Pezarini and it was made in 1739, as far as we know! Not much is known about this maker—just that he existed, that’s all. I’ve never come across another instrument by him. Well, not so far. In a way, the name of the maker of my violin is not as important to me as my relationship with it and the sound it makes. I do think it’s rather special, with its rich, full sound, and I absolutely love playing it. I’ve had it now for about 22 years and am still discovering different sounds in it.

Strings: I use a mixture of La Folia, Toro, and Pirastro. I’ve experimented a fair bit with different gauges and types of strings, and actually still do! Every string sounds quite different when first strung up, and takes awhile to settle in and resonate with the whole body of the instrument.

Bow(s): I have four different bows by the late maker Rene-William Groppe: an early Baroque bow (sometimes nicknamed a “twig”), great for playing early 16th-century music; a copy of a French bow from 1720, which I use for Bach and Vivaldi, etc.; an early-Classical bow; and a late-Classical bow. My latest acquisition is a beautiful Classical bow by Pieter Affourtit—it has such elegance and finesse, and therefore is just perfect for Mozart.

Case: I have a German violin case by Jakob Winter called “Greenline,” which is made of all natural materials and fibres, is not too heavy, and has a sleeve for music. It’s not bombastic looking, even though it’s an oblong case, and fits in any overhead bin in a plane or coach  (extremely important). It also has straps so you can wear it as a rucksack, which I find really practical. Someone asked me the other day as I was carrying it this way whether my violin was glued to me it looked so comfortable!

Rosin: I have a really old sample of the Liebenzeller rosin, which I have used since I was a student and has been great.

Shoulder Rest: None! And no chin rest either!

Other Gear: My copy of the facsimile of Bach’s Sonatas and Partitas by Insel-Verlag, which was given to me after my final recital at the Guildhall by my esteemed and wonderful teacher David Takeno. Nail clippers! I always have a pair in the inside pouch of my violin case, but also on my keyring and in my handbag, as I can’t stand my nails being longer than extremely short.

An excellent pencil with one of those erasers, both by Faber-Castell. I buy those in bulk, as they’re the best! A few sheets of manuscript paper, as you never know when you might need it. A supply of bananas, a bottle of water, and my reusable coffee cup.

Violist Drew Alexander Forde

Drew Alexander Forde, viola

Juilliard-trained violist and teacher Drew Alexander Forde has performed as a soloist around the world after studying with Lawrence Dutton of the Emerson String Quartet. He is also one of the most-followed classical musicians on Instagram, using the handle ThatViolaKid.

Instrument: My viola is a Tertis model made by the incredible luthier Kile Hill. He’s based just outside Portland, Oregon. I chose to play the viola when I was in sixth grade. I didn’t know much about it, but I knew that it was an instrument that was vastly underestimated. What makes it incredibly special is that its sound has a uniquely warm glow that is all its own. When a great viola is being played, you know it’s a viola.

Strings: I use Kaplan Vivos from D’Addario Orchestral. I’m a very in-your-face player, so I look for strings that have incredible cutting power when you need it. The tone is crisp and versatile. They are also fully capable of producing sweet, intimate sounds as well.

Bow(s): My bow is a Daniel Delcourt, and it’s actually the same bow I’ve used since high school. It’s a balanced, $300 bow, and it hasn’t steered me wrong yet. I’m definitely in the market for a more advanced bow, and will be shopping when I finally get my finances in order.

Case: I use a carbon-fiber BAM case and it’s definitely one of the best investments I’ve made as a young, traveling professional. It is much smaller than its boxy, wooden counterparts, and therefore it makes flying with my viola (an absolute necessity) much easier. I used to have flight attendants eyeing my bigger wooden case nervously as I would board the plane, and I even had them suggest I check it under the plane a couple of times. What a nightmare. Since I bought my BAM case in 2015, I haven’t had a single issue.

Rosin: A few years back, I asked my friend Jennifer Stumm what rosin she uses. She told me to give Bernardel a try, and it’s incredibly reliable! I still have the same cake of rosin and it’s still going strong. Couldn’t be happier!


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Shoulder Rest: When I was in Tokyo last summer, my old shoulder rest gave out on me. I rushed to the nearest music store and they suggested a Mach One viola shoulder rest. It’s super lightweight and small, which is ideal for stowing it away in my case. I’m not incredibly passionate about it, but it definitely gets the job done. Finding shoulder rests is probably one of the hardest things after finding the bow and the instrument. Everyone’s body is slightly different, so it’s really hard to find something that fits you just right.

Other Gear: I can’t live without a couple of things. One: my mute. I use WMutes and I must say, they’re incredible. They are small, but spectacularly efficient. The second piece of gear I can’t live without is, of course, my camera. I use a Sony A6500 with a Sigma 16 mm F 1.4 lens and this beautiful piece of technology allows me to share my life story with the world. I never leave the house without it, and it is my constant companion.

Violinist Augustin Hadelich

Augustin Hadelich, violin

Grammy Award–winning violin soloist and recording artist Augustin Hadelich has performed with every major American orchestra, and many others throughout the world. He was the winner of the 2006 International Violin Competition of Indianapolis and a 2009 Avery Fisher Career Grant recipient.

Instrument: I’ve been lucky to play on the 1723 “ex-Kiesewetter” Stradivari since 2010, on loan from Clement and Karen Arrison through the Stradivari Society of Chicago. The violin was once played by Christoph Gottfried Kiesewetter (1777–1827), which is how it got its name. It was first brought to the United States in the early 20th century, and was actually seized in 1910 and held for years by customs authorities! The owner, Horace Havemeyer, was accused of smuggling it into the country without paying customs tariffs, but he eventually petitioned successfully for it to be returned to him, after pleading the statute of limitations. 

Some famous old violins were treated rather roughly in the 19th and first half of the 20th century, because there was not yet this awareness of how precious they are, and because of the much more difficult travel conditions in those times. The ex-Kiesewetter, however, is in fantastic shape because it started touring all over the world only in the last few decades, but of course in a modern, sturdy case and in the safety of a modern airplane—not on ships or on horseback!

It is inspiring to think about the fact that the violin is almost 300 years older than me and will still be around once I’m gone. Sometimes, I hear recordings that others have made on this violin and while I instantly recognize the sound of the violin, I also notice how we sound like ourselves, as different as we all are from each other. When you really get to know an instrument, you gradually discover your personal sound on that instrument and grow to sound more and more like yourself, as the relationship deepens. The greatest strength of this violin is not only that the sound is beautiful and strong, but how versatile it is—I’ve played everything from solo violin to concertos with large orchestrations, from Baroque to contemporary music on it. The range of colors and nuances is enormous, and I still discover more after years of playing on it!

Strings: I use Pirastro Evah Pirazzi for the A, D, and G strings, and a Pirastro Gold Wondertone E string (in strong gauge to balance how strong the Pirazzis are). My violin is already quite sweet-sounding, so I was looking for strings that project the sound in big halls. I find that the choice of the E string is the most important because it affects very much how the lower strings sound as well—in my setup, the Pirastro Gold string makes the Pirazzi sound a bit rounder and sweeter.

Bow(s): I play on a Paul Simon bow, which is on the heavy side. I find that it draws out the sound of the Strad without any effort or force, and I love that it is balanced in such a way that the whole stick is strong and the frog isn’t that much heavier than the tip. (Many heavy bows have the issue that they feel unwieldy at the frog.) The Simon gives a slightly darker hue to the sound of my violin, and having used it for over nine years, I’m very comfortable with it.

Case: I want a light case, because I’m constantly carrying my violin around, and don’t want to strain my body. Of course I also want to protect my violin, so my solution is to use a very light case, and put one of those cushy outer cases around it, giving it some added protection, for example if an airplane has a hard landing, or if I have to walk outside in the cold. For the light, inner case (inside the cushy case) I have been alternating between an oblong BAM case or a GEWA Idea case, and haven’t quite decided yet which one I prefer.

Rosin: I use Motrya Gold rosin—I can’t say that I’ve experimented with a lot of rosins actually, but I find that it works well and gets a nice, clean sound. I think with a good rosin you should feel the friction of the bow hair
on the string, giving a nice grip and drawing out the sound without effort, and without the sound getting hoarse or rough. Once the bow hair is very old or a lot of it is missing, even the best rosin won’t help you, so rehairing your bow regularly is the most important thing!

Shoulder Rest: I never used a shoulder rest, since I first started playing the violin without one. The main advantage is that the violin is somewhat mobile, which makes reaching high places easier, as I can move the violin closer so the left hand doesn’t have to stretch as far.

When I was 21, my neck had grown a lot, and my posture had become terrible, so I started using a cushion under my shirt, making the violin higher and enabling me to relax my shoulder (like a shoulder rest would) yet still with the mobility of playing without a shoulder rest. It’s a similar setup to that of violinists like Stern, Zukerman, and Cho-Liang Lin. 

The Zaret shoulder-rest cushion/sponge works perfectly for me and is easy to find (and they cost only about $4 each). When I place one under my shirt, it sticks to the fabric and doesn’t slip during playing. They are large and inflexible when I first get them, so I put them under some heavy books for a few weeks to break them in before I start using them! Eventually, they become flexible and just the right height.

Other Gear: I always carry a small bag in my case with all kinds of useful accessories, including nail clippers, cufflinks, a shoe horn, sharpies and a CD opener for CD signings, peg compound, alcohol wipes to clean my strings, pencils, and a bunch of different mutes—anything I might need on a concert day!

Violinist Tessa Lark

Tessa Lark, violin

Violin soloist, chamber musician, and educator Tessa Lark was a recipient of a 2018 Borletti-Buitoni Trust Fellowship, a 2016 Avery Fisher Career Grant, and won the silver medal at the 2014 International Violin Competition of Indianapolis. She is well-versed in both classical and non-classical styles.

Instrument: I play a Maggini, ca. 1600, on loan from a generous sponsor through the Stradivari Society. I adore this violin—it has a sweet but very dark, bassey, warm sound. It’s an ideal temperament for many styles of music and otherwise a singular, captivating voice. And its huge and quirky f-holes make me laugh every day!


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Strings: I use [Thomastik-Infeld] Peter Infeld for now, and very recently am trying the whole set instead of using a Jargar E as I did before. This violin is newer to me so I am exploring and may change strings, but PIs are powerful, consistent, have a short break-in period, and last a long time.

Bow(s): I use a 2006 Benoît Rolland and another modern bow from an unknown maker. The Rolland has a stunning flexibility that pulls a lot of tonal variety and brilliance from the instrument. My other bow is a simple, solid article that gets “tougher” jobs done well.

Case: I have a Musafia for now (thanks, Tarisio NYC!). It’s very protective and pretty air-tight, qualities that keep my anxieties at bay while I’m constantly traveling with a valuable instrument. It’s a nice neutral color and beautiful design, too, which does make a difference when you have to look at the thing every day, but its great functionality is most important to me.

Rosin: Bella Rosin. I use it because I was sent a sample . . . I’d never been a “rosin person,” but after trying a couple swipes of the Bella sample I haven’t looked back! It gets a great immediate response from the string but never sounds gritty. It’s like a non-rosin rosin, which is why I love it.

Shoulder Rest: I just started using a Pirastro KorfkerRest. It’s expensive, but in my opinion well worth the investment. It’s adjustable in almost every way, it’s lightweight, and what really sold me is that you can feel the vibration of the instrument as if you weren’t using a shoulder rest at all, which really enhances the whole experience of playing for me.

Other Gear: I have a Boveda humidifier gel pack in my case that is amazing—it perfectly regulates the humidity in your case for up to six months without any maintenance! I’m obsessed with it.

violinist Chloe Hanslip

Chloë Hanslip, violin

Violinist and recording artist Chloë Hanslip made her BBC Proms debut at age 15, and has since performed around the world with top orchestras. She is the recipient of an Echo Klassik Award and her recordings for Hyperion have received critical acclaim. Hanslip is also a devoted chamber musician. 

Instrument: I play on a Guarneri del Gesù from 1737, which has a table made by Peter Beare. I have had it for just under ten years and absolutely adore it—it gives me the opportunity to really explore all of the different sound worlds that an instrument can create. I also love the fact that I can really play around with dynamics—it has an incredibly powerful sound when required, but also still speaks if I want to play a passage really pianissimo.

Strings: I have been using the Thomastik-Infeld Vision and Vision Titanium Solo for years. I love the depth, roundness of sound, and clarity that they give me, and also the fact that they play in quickly—a must if one has to change strings unexpectedly on a concert day!

Bow(s): I have a Francois Lupot II, which I have been using for many years. It is hard to describe why it feels like a good match because I have been working with it for so long! I changed the tip from ivory to silver a few years ago, which made it ever-so-slightly weightier, and I found that I enjoyed playing with it even more after that change.

Case: I am currently using a BAM High-Tech slim violin case—I have found it to be strong but light, and the shape is practical for traveling and flying.


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Rosin: This is another product that I have been using for more years than I can remember! I use the Kaplan Artcraft Rosin, dark. It is very dependable and, for me, works well with the Thomastik strings to create all of the different sound worlds that I aim to achieve.

Shoulder Rest: I use the Kun Bravo, but with collapsible legs in order to be able to carry it in my violin case. I find it very comfortable and reliable in the sense that it doesn’t slip whilst playing!

Other Gear: A good mute for those times when you have to practice late at night or early in the morning in a hotel and don’t want to disturb anyone! I also have a foam cover on my chin rest, which gives me greater comfort and stability when playing.

Fiddler Brittany Haas

Brittany Haas, fiddle

Fiddler, recording artist, quartet leader, and instructor Brittany Haas started touring with Darol Anger’s Republic of Strings at age 14, and has since toured the world and remained a sought-after collaborator
and session musician. Hawktail, her quartet, released its second album in 2018.

Instrument: I play a John Silakowski five-string fiddle. Part of what makes it special is just how great an instrument it is! In my opinion, it’s the perfect five-string—well-balanced and warm, and it sounds good on all the strings. A five-string like that is not easy to make. Also, I’ve had it so long now that it has developed along with me. My techniques and sound are entwined with what I can produce on it. 


Strings: I use D’Addario Helicore strings—the five-string set! I also use the Kaplan Non-Whistling E. I’ve used Helicores for a very long time. They were first recommended to me by Bruce Molsky, one of my greatest fiddle heroes. He said that they’re good for cross-tuning because they keep their tuning well. I’ve found this to be true, and I like the tone they make on my instrument.  


Bow(s): My bow is nothing special, just the wood bow that I’ve had for a very long time. I think I’ve adapted to it, so now it just feels right in terms of weight and balance and maneuverability. I find that I hit the sweet spot of the bow after I’ve lost some bow hairs. There’s a cycle from a fresh rehair to when about 5/8 of the hairs are left, and shifting back to a fully haired bow feels decadent! I haven’t experimented with synthetic bow hair yet. I don’t think very often about the horses, but ethically it is probably worth doing some research on the industry.

Case: I have been using a BAM case for the last several years, the contoured model. I used to travel with a double case with two five-string fiddles in it—one with geared pegs. At that time I was touring in bands
in which I did a lot of cross-tuning, so it was handy to have two fiddles with me. It was always a bit scary when boarding airplanes though, because the double case is much harder to fit into an overhead bin, and looks much more conspicuous to your average gate agent. I don’t cross-tune as much these days, so having a good, lightweight, single case is perfect for me. I’ve done some pretty crazy travel with a fiddle, such as carrying one up Mount Kilimanjaro and strapping one to a bicycle and riding 800 miles. Also I try to take public transit whenever possible, so lightweight is very important to me!

Rosin: I use Bernardel violin rosin. My friends at the Violin Shop here in Nashville recommended it. The bassist in my band (Hawktail) also uses it, which is handy when we’re onstage and one of us needs to borrow the other’s rosin.

Shoulder Rest: I have been messing around with different shoulder rests lately, trying to get more height to make things easy on my neck. Currently using a Kun, screwed out so it’s taller. 

Other Gear: I like writing music out by hand, so manuscript paper is great. I always carry my Bartlett clip-on microphone in my case for gigs where I want to use a clip-on as opposed to a mic on a stand. I also love the mic stand fiddle hanger by String Swing—very handy for gigs where you’re plugged into a clip-on and need to step offstage sometimes, or if you’re switching instruments during a show and don’t want to set the violin down on the ground. 


This article originally appeared in the March-April 2019 issue of Strings magazine.