Fiddle Maker Has The World On A String

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Every year, without fail, Arvid Thompson of Strawberry can be found at Payson's Annual State Championship Old Time Fiddlers' Contest, showing folks the art of fiddle making.

Every year. Without fail. Except this year.

"I've participated every year since I moved to Arizona in 1970," Thompson said. "But this year is my 50th class reunion, which happens on exactly the same day, so I'm not going to be able to go. I'll be back in Long Beach, Calif."

That's the bad news. The good news is that, following the upcoming 31st edition of the fiddlers' contest, he'll be back on the scene.

Every year. Without fail.

So mark your calendars and remember that fact, because the chance to watch a true master craftsman at work and learn the secrets is not the kind of opportunity which presents itself on a regular basis.

Until then, however, you can sample Thompson's playing by catching the Old Time Fiddlers' Jam Session that's held at 1 p.m., the third Wednesday of every month at the Pine Cultural Center.

Just don't be surprised by the sweet tones Thompson pulls out of that catgut, since he's been practicing for nearly all of his 68 years although not by choice, in the beginning.

"My father walked into the room one day and said, 'You don't have an option in whether or not you will play a musical instrument, but you can choose the instrument you will play,'" Thompson said. "Why I answered, 'The violin,' I don't know."

Still, Thompson started taking violin lessons and stuck with them for 14 years "Until I discovered girls, and they ruined me for a few years," he said. "That, plus going into the Air Force during the Korean conflict, kept me away from the violin for quite a long time."

The fact is, Thompson wasn't fully reunited with the instrument until 1973, when his home in Scottsdale was ravaged by a flood that also destroyed the same violin he'd practiced on as a child.

"My wife, Claudia, bought me a new violin for a whopping $180," Thompson said. "I traded it in about three weeks later ... and kept trading it over the years until I found myself in a price category I wasn't too thrilled with."

Eventually, however, he found a way around that problem.

"There was an old German fellow who had a violin shop near ASU. He told me, 'You tightwad, if you're too cheap to buy one of mine, why don't you make one of your own? I'll teach you how to make violins.' Well, I like to work in wood, so I went to work for him at nights.

"That was 1983, and I've been making violins ever since."

Born in San Pedro, Calif., Thompson remained in his hometown for the next 40 years, working as a district manager for Orowheat-Entenmanns Baking Company. When he finally made a break, it was to Seattle for a year. And then, in 1970, his employers relocated him to Phoenix to become general manager for the state.

Ten years later, Thompson found himself driving through the Rim country.

"I thought, 'What a gorgeous place to live!' I had recently been given a raise, and you know how you spend all that money before you actually get it. Well, we decided to invest in some property. So we bought some land here in Strawberry in 1981, and built on it in 1991."

He's been making violins there ever since. And teaching area youngsters how to play which Thompson loves almost as much as fiddle-making, despite certain built-in difficulties.

"A violin is not an instrument you grow to love quickly," he said. "Oh, yes, some people do, but for the average player it's nothing but doldrums for the first two years. I mean, you can only play 'Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star' so many times.

"But it becomes a lot more fun when you can begin to play music that you really enjoy. What I enjoyed, the music that really got me hooked, was the semi-classical tunes, like 'Stormy Weather.'"

The hook went much deeper, he said, in the late 1970s, when Claudia bought him that replacement violin and Thompson discovered fiddle music.

Asked to explain the difference between violin music and fiddle music, Thompson proffers an easy-to-grasp answer: "The only difference is the guy who's playing it. One eats at Christopher's at 24th and Camelback, and the other eats at McDonald's.

"Actually, there is virtually no difference," he said. "Some fiddle players will maybe flatten the bridge a little, or put a harsher string on the instrument than an orchestra player would have. But that's the only difference. The better fiddle players all play great violins, too."

Which leads to one of those impossible-to-answer questions only asked by newspaper reporters: Which does Thompson enjoy more, playing fiddles or building them?

"Well, it takes 250 to 300 hours to make a violin, and there's no secret way to get around that fact," he said. "So it's hard to become totally enthused every day of the week when you're just working on a violin. When you get close to having one finished, and getting close to playing it, the excitement seems to grow. But a lot of it is boring work, whereas playing is something that gives you instant gratification.

"Let me just put it this way. I've made many violins I'm proud of, but I take a lot of pride in the play, too."

To see Arvid Thompson play one of his fiddles, attend the Old Time Fiddlers' Jam Session held at 1 p.m. on the third Wednesday of every month in the gymnasium of the Pine Cultural Center, where old-time fiddlers and other musicians gather for a jam session of old time music and singing. For more information, call 476-3547.

The 31st Annual State Championship Old Time Fiddlers' Contest will unfold this year in Rumsey Park from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., Sept. 29 and 30. This year's program will feature the best fiddling in Arizona by contestants aged 6-86, cowboy poets, storytellers, food, country & bluegrass music, Irish step-dancers, a 21 Fiddle Salute at high noon both days, children's music workshop, crafts, fiddle makers and leather workers. For more information, call 474-3398.

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