Howard Greene’s fiddles can make musicians forget Stradivarius

Howard Greene works on one of his violins at his Louisville workshop.

Photo by Leslie Karnowski

Howard Greene works on one of his violins at his Louisville workshop.

When Dr. Mack Snoderly won four fiddle competitions this past year, he didn’t use a Stradivarius made in Italy. When he made the cover of Encore magazine, the fiddle he was playing didn’t have foreign roots.

The veteran fiddler used two Greenfield violins made in the Louisville basement of Howard Greene.

While the locale where the violins were made wasn’t exotic, Snoderly swears to the quality of the violins. A good violin has to really be soft, yet it has to be powerful and vibrant and Greene’s violins have all three qualities, Snoderly said.

“That’s hard to find all those three things,” he said. “You can find one or two but to find three? Yes, they’re really nice, definitely.”

Greene, a 77-year-old retired field representative for a Knoxville architectural firm, has been a wood worker for many years. A friend challenged him four years ago to make a violin. Not wanting to say “yes” without knowing what he was getting into, Greene spent six months studying books about Stradivarius and other violin makers. At the end of that time, he took up the challenge and said he’d make one.

His friend brought over the mold that the violin is shaped on. Greene got to work. That first violin took him 93 hours to make. Now, they usually take 60-65 hours. When his first violin was complete, his friend, Clifton Stubblefield played it and, when Greene heard the beautiful sound coming out of something he’d made, Greene said, “I was hooked.” To date, he’s made about 20 violins, one viola and one cello.

Greene said he has been taken aback by how well his violins sound. “Every one surprises me, but I’ve got my ear adjusted now, and I can tell when I really have a good one. That’s when it’s exciting,” he said.

Greene said the violin Snoderly is playing at competitions now sounded good when he first heard it. “When I first made it and put a string to it and pulled a bow across the string, I knew it was a good violin,” said Greene.

Greene said he didn’t tell Snoderly his opinion about the sound, but instead simply asked him to come try out another new violin he had just finished. “He played it, stopped and looked at me and said, ‘Don’t sell this to anyone,’” Greene said.

Music has been in Greene’s blood all of his life. In the 1950s, he was part of the gospel group Dixie Knights Quartet. They played on television in Knoxville and were on the Tennessee Barn Dance show that aired Saturday nights on WNOX. Greene said he has always enjoyed all kinds of music from country and bluegrass to the symphony and he has “always loved the sound of the violin, cello and viola.”

Making violins is a hobby for Greene but sometimes he spends a lot of time on his hobby, he said. “Whenever I get excited about finding a good piece of wood,” Greene said, “I’ll usually start one, and I’ll usually stay right on it. Sometimes I’ll work a little bit everyday for a couple or three weeks, then maybe take a couple of weeks off.”

Not a fiddle player himself, Greene has others play his violins so that he can hear the sound. He met Snoderly, a well-known fiddler, through his violins and now Snoderly plays each one to check out the tone for Greene. He’s already bought two “Greenfield” violins so he likes what he hears. The name is a combination of Greene and Stubblefield in honor of the man who first challenged him to create a violin.

Greene builds violins in different woods. He says that normally violins are made in a figured maple, but he’s found that bubinga, also known as African rosewood, gives a louder tone. Greene likes to experiment. When he repaired an old violin that had mother-of-pearl inlay, he decided to make one with that detail. It took him about 40 hours just to do the inlay. He gave this violin to his wife, and it hangs on their wall.

The work on a violin starts with power tools such as a table saw and a band saw then eventually moves on to hand tools. The construction is delicate work. A violin has to have an exact measurement on the thickness of the wood to have the right tone. The outer edges are 2mm and a strip down the center is 4 and half millimeters.

“In my opinion, how you do this is what makes a good tone in a violin,” Greene said. Getting the tone exactly right on the first try has been part of his learning curve, he added.

The experience of completing a new violin never gets old for Greene. “I get excited when I get close to the finished product. You never know how good they’re going to be,” he said. “I’ve been lucky. I’ve never had a dud -- some just have a little different sound.”

Buying and selling a violin like this is a one-on-one experience. Greene said he likes to know about the person buying one, and they have to believe in the quality of the violin. “Before I will sell one to somebody, they have to play it for a series of days to make sure they like it,” he said.

Snoderly, who lives in Waynesville, Tenn., said he has won four competitions this year with Greene’s violins: the Tennessee state championship for seniors in Clarksville, a fiddler’s competition in Ringgold, Ga., The Smoky Mountain Fiddler’s Championship in Loudon and the Georgia state championship in Hiwassee, Ga.

All Greene’s violins are numbered, and Snoderly, who is 70, won playing violin number 14 at Clarksville and has used number 16 for the other competitions. “I got to liking it a little better,” he said of number 16.

The quality of Greene’s violins has only improved throughout the years, said the championship fiddler. “I was really impressed when I first heard them, but, boy, number 14 was the first one that completely knocked me out,” he said. “I was impressed all along but that was a fabulous fiddle.”

Number 15 also was a better-than-average violin, he said. “It was really good and since then he’s just been turning out great instruments,” Snoderly said. “He’s done amazing things. Not to insinuate the first ones were lacking, but he has improved all along greatly in his workmanship and the tone he’s putting in them.”

The fiddle champion said he didn’t know how much luck had to do with Greene’s success. “I’ve never thought it was luck. You might luck up and possibly make one pretty good fiddle, but there’s not a chance you could luck up and make several good fiddles anymore than I could luck up and pitch like Sandy Kofax,” Snoderly said.

Greene said Greenfield violins are being played by seasoned professionals and younger players, both male and female. The violin maker said he hopes his violins will be a legacy beyond his lifetime. He says he wants a Greenfield violin to be enjoyed 100 years from now.

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