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Head fiddles: Violins with character

If you thought expert wood carving and inlay work was only typical of fine furnishings, Steve Evans feature about head fiddles – with their elaborate design and whimsical character – will have you seeing things in a different light.
head fiddle

This head fiddle example features a carving of Gaspard Duiffoprugcar in intricate detail. (Photo courtesy Steve Evans)

Gaspard Duiffoprugcar (1514-1571) has been credited with modernizing the medieval viol into what is known as the violin. In other words, he invented the violin. Recent historians have doubted this claim because no examples of violins made by Duiffoprugcar seem to exist today.

An original Duiffoprugcar violin made 450 years ago had several reasons to not survive. It could have been worn down to nothing from hundreds of years of playing, destroyed by accident or fire or just disintegrated with the passage of time.

There has been some confusion as to whether head fiddles (such as the two examples shown at the right) were actually made by Duiffoprugcar. Duiffoprugcar did in fact use elaborate inlays and carvings on his instruments, but these head fiddles were made 300 years later (circa 1860). They were plentifully produced and several people do currently own and play these “head fiddles.”

Example 1’s carved head looks awesome in beauty and detail, and example 2’s head,

head fiddle close up

A close up view of an authentic head fiddle, featuring the image Gaspard Duiffoprugcar. (Photo courtesy Steve Evans)

although not as refined, looks good, too. This is typical for head fiddles. They vary by the talent of the carver and also as to how the carver interpreted what Duiffoprugcar looked like.

Head fiddles were not all made to pay tribute to Duiffoprugcar. More commonly found are carvings such as a lion’s head and sometimes a woman’s head.

The violins honoring Duiffoprugcar have the old man’s head and usually have a village scene inlayed on the back of the violin. The artistry was formed by inlaying several pieces of different colored woods including maple, walnut, rosewood and ebony, and depicts Bologna, Italy, in the 1500s, where Duiffoprugcar’s violin shop was located. Head Fiddle 1 appears to have a daytime scene and Head Fiddle 2 a nighttime scene.

Head Fiddle 2 has an intriguing detail not found on Head Fiddle 1: Latin words covering the sides of the violin read “VIVA FVI - IVI SYLVIS DEO VI MORT VA - DVL CE.” This translates to: “I used to be alive - I came from the woods - by the power of God I died sweetly.” This wording must be referring to how the violin once was a living tree, but was cut down to make sweet music.

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Head Fiddle 2 has no markings or label inside the violin, but Head Fiddle 1 does have an interior label displaying the following information hand-written in old-world script: “Gaspard Duiffo Prucard in Milano anno 1680.”

Several different spellings of Duiffoprugcar’s name have been found on the labels of similar violins and may vary as to which region or country the instrument came from (France, Italy or Germany).

Duiffoprugcar’s name inside these head fiddles does not mean they were made by Gaspard Duiffoprugcar. They were made to honor him as the world’s first violin maker.

To see a video demonstration of these two head fiddles or to see Head Fiddle 2 featured in a humorous bluegrass music video, go to and search for “Antique Trader Head Fiddles.

Elaborate head fiddles can sell for as much as $10,000, but the values of the two shown in this article are $2,200 for Head Fiddle 1 and around $1,500 for Head Fiddle 2.

These head fiddles are not for sale, but can be viewed at the Jacksonville Guitar Museum in Jacksonville, Arkansas.

About our contributor: Steve Evans entered the retailing business in 1975 at the age of 18 by opening the Jacksonville Guitar Center in Jacksonville, Ark. He has been collecting vintage guitars since then, and has co-authored “Cowboy Guitars” (Centerstream Publishing, 2002; available online through and Evans has dedicated one end of his retail building to the Jacksonville Guitar Museum, displaying his vintage guitar collection, which, in addition to vintage Fender, Martin and Gibson guitars, includes more than 150 circa 1930s-1950s Cowboy Guitars with Western artwork and a few hundred plastic toy guitars.
Evans can be reached at the Jacksonville Guitar Center, 1105 Burman Dr., Jacksonville, AR 72076; 501-982-4933;. Shop/museum hours are Mon.-Sat., 10 a.m.-6 p.m.
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