Kate Rickenbacker was born and raised in Lexington, Kentucky. She was introduced to music at an early age, beginning Suzuki violin lessons at the age of two. Growing up she played in youth orchestras, eventually enrolling at the University of Kentucky, where she was a member of its symphony orchestra. Kate’s dual interest in music and woodworking drew her to the Chicago School of Violin Making, where she studied for three and a half years under the tutelage of Tsh Ho Lee, Rebecca Eliot, and Fred Thompson in the art of violin making.
After graduation, Kate plied her trade at Seman Violins in Skokie, Illinois. Kate refined her skills in repair and restoration of violins, violas, and cellos under the watchful eye of owner Peter Seman. While in Chicago, Kate continued to perform in a variety of genres, ranging from the Evanston Symphony to the indy-pop group Shoes For Mabel. After seven years at Seman Violins, Kate has relocated to the mountains of western North Carolina to open her own shop.
Averaging four or five instruments a year, her violins are based on an instrument made by Stradivarius in 1703, currently owned by the Chicago Symphony, and a Guarneri Del Gesu pattern. She has been making two viola patterns, a 16 1/4” Guarneri and a 15 1/2” of her own design. Kate has just started on her first cello, based on Stradivarius’ “Gore-Booth” of 1710. While there is sometimes a short wait for her instruments, customers have found them well worth waiting for.
On any given day you will find Kate adjusting, repairing, or restoring an old instrument or making a new instrument using the same time-tested techniques and traditional tools craftsmen of 200 years ago would have employed. Totally handmade, her instruments are a bit more expensive than those from shops where they have automated some of their procedures. All of her work is done the old time way, with hand tools. This fine hand work shines through and is apparent in the tonal characteristics, look, and feel of her work.
Bob Buckingham: You’ve been playing violin for a long time.
Rickenbacker: Yes, I started playing when I was two.
How do you do that at two years old?
I was taking Suzuki method so you don’t really play an actual violin for a little while. You are basically learning posture, bow grip and rhythms and stuff like that. I had three older siblings that were playing and I was begging to play as well.
So this was classically-oriented music? You grew up in Lexington, Kentucky. Everyone thinks of bluegrass when you say Kentucky.
Yeah. I have seen and heard a lot more bluegrass since I left Kentucky.
So are you still playing?
What I prefer to play is the improv stuff with singer-songwriters. When I was in Chicago, a buddy of mine played old time and I played a bunch with him. The first year I was in Chicago I played down in the subway. For the first year I was there that was my job. It would revolve around my schedule at school so I would play with lots of random folks. I played with a hip-hop guy. I met folks and played whatever they were playing. It was fun.
What is it that made you decide to build?
I always loved to work with wood. My dad is a carpenter so I kind of come from that background, too. I liked messing around with random stuff. I enjoy the instrument and wanted to be around music. Music has been a big part of my whole life. I wasn’t really prepared to be a classical musician and I didn’t want to get into that realm.
You studied at the Chicago School of Violin Making. Can you tell us about it?
It’s basically a trade school. The program is three and one half years. It is pretty much all bench work. You make seven instruments while you are in school. There is a drawing class where you draw the violin. The idea is to look at outlines and get a feel for the scale of the instrument. Our graduation test was to make a violin in the white and draw that exact violin to scale. We had to varnish another instrument that we had previously made. We did all of that in six weeks.
So at the school you learned about the various builders and the differences in their work?
Yeah, it’s all based on the traditional styles of Amati, Guarnerius, Stradivarius, and the founder of the school, Tsh Ho Lee.
How do you determine what you will build for someone who comes to you for a violin? Do you refer to these makers’ patterns?
I will show them a picture and ask them what kind of sound they want. My Stradivarius is only loosely based on the classic pattern. It’s not like a bench copy. My arch is a little bit different. The arches are little higher. The outline, the scroll pattern, and F-holes are like a Strad pattern. There are differences of widths and where the F-holes are placed.
What do you do to make your fiddles distinctive from other builders’?
Thicknessing of the instrument. I tap the top and back, and the flexibility of the wood.
Are there any secrets in making violins that some people know and others don’t?
I wouldn’t say everyone knows how to build a violin. I would not say there are any secrets; no, I would say there are different ways of going about things. I think a lot of what makes an instrument sound good comes from experience. Having formal training, I was able to get right to the point instead of a lot of trial and error. Basically, with every instrument I make, I am still learning. And other makers have said that as well, that at eighty years old they are still learning and changing.
Have you ever thought that you would like an instrument back?
I have thought that next time I will do this instead of that.
[For the rest of this interview, purchase the Summer 2012 issue.]
[Bob Buckingham fiddles, teaches, and writes in the Upstate of South Carolina.]