Bringing the Love of Music to Life – Luthier Clay Levit

For luthier Clay Levit, his passion for music dates back to his early teenage years, when he began learning to play guitar. He took a basic folk (music) approach in those early years, but later (around 2000) he became interested in playing the mandolin. “I started to learn Americana but soon got turned on to Irish music,” Clay explained. “I was intimidated by the thought of playing the fiddle so I played fiddle tunes on the mandolin (they have the same tunings and fingerings).”

Clay Levit in his workshop
Clay Levit in his workshop

Clay grew up in Houston, TX, and later moved to Austin where he attended college and afterwards, began a career as a high school teacher. During those years in Austin, he helped start The Griffin School, an alternative college preparatory school with a strong focus on academics and fine and performing arts, which is still thriving to this day. In addition, its where he met his wife, Katy, who was also a teacher and ceramic artist.

When he and Katy married, they relocated to Memphis, TN where Katy’s family lived, and Clay embarked on a new career path as an organic vegetable farmer. After five years of farming, Clay decided to focus on his love of music and opened his own business, Fiddler’s Green Music Shop in 2005. Fiddler’s offered acoustic guitars, mandolins, banjos, ukuleles, harps, and bouzoukis for sale and rent, as well as offering lessons and instrument repair. When the Levits were ready to head back to Texas in 2008, Clay took Fiddler’s Green with him and reopened the shop in Austin, where he would eventually learn how to repair and build violins.

“When I started my business Fiddler’s Green Music Shop, I was still very focused on the mandolin. After years of being surrounded by fiddles every day in my shop I eventually had the courage to learn to play Irish fiddle,” Clay said. “After playing the fiddle for a while it was a natural progression for me to want to see if I could build them, so I started learning.”

Clay took a few summer classes at the Violin Craftsmanship Institute at the University of New Hampshire and a class at Learning Trade Secrets in Ohio, and while they were informative and gave him a good base of knowledge, he realized it wasn’t enough. He began to teach himself during his down time, using “every book and YouTube video I could get my hands on, and I met with some other helpful luthiers in Austin who really shoved me in the right direction.”

Fiddler’s Green employed two repair specialists, one who worked on violins only, and another who repaired all the other acoustic instruments. During the time that Clay was building his first violin, his violin repair specialist decided to move on, and since the classes Clay took also covered a lot of set up and minor repair techniques, he felt confident enough to take over those customer repairs.

Clay Levit at Celtic Crossroads Northwest 2
Clay Levit at Celtic Crossroads Northwest

In the spring of 2018, Clay’s best friend, Stephen and his wife Emmy, moved to Bainbridge Island. The Levits were attending an event in Seattle that summer, and popped over to see Stephen and Emmy while they were in the area. “Stephen was driving us around the island and got lost. He pulled into a driveway to get his bearings and a realtor popped his head out the front door and asked if we wanted to come in for the open house,” Clay’s wife Katy recalled in a previous article*. “We hadn’t realized the house was for sale, but we all like looking at houses so we went in.” Like most people, they’d already fallen in love with the island, and after a month of hand-wringing and negotiating they bought the house with the intention of coming to Bainbridge to escape the Texas summers and rent it out the rest of the year.

In February 2020, Clay sold Fiddler’s Green to his manager, who still runs it today. With more free time, the Levits decided to spend their daughter Saoirse’s spring break on Bainbridge that year, but before they could head back to Austin, the pandemic travel restrictions went into effect and they couldn’t leave. They enrolled Saoirse at BHS and she finished her senior year online, and they’ve been here ever since.

When making his violins, Clay typically mimics the violin models made by Guarneri and Stradivarius, which are the most common models to emulate. “In general, Stradivari’s are brighter and better for projection and solo playing. Guarneri’s have a darker, thicker sound and since I was more of a fiddler than a violinist, I preferred the tone of a Guarneri,” he explained. “By the way, to clear up common confusion, fiddles and violins are the same thing. Fiddles may have a different set up and string preference than violins, but really the difference is the style of music you play on it.  It’s been said that ‘the violin sings and the fiddle dances’.”

Clay Levit "Dripsy" and "The Rose"Clay’s first violin was a copy of the Stradivarius Messiah, and as he notes on is website, “I learned a ton on this one and the build went very well. The varnish? Not so much! Some drips formed and although I could have stripped it all off and tried to re-varnish, I decided to leave it as it is. I named it ‘Dripsy’ after one of my favorite Irish polkas.”

When creating his violins, Clay mainly uses spruce and maple and occasionally boxwood for the pegs, and experiments with different finishes and designs, such as “The Whale” with its sea green finish. The Whale was Clay’s own design, “influenced by the Orcas and Humpback whales that migrate through Puget Sound. The corners and f-holes have shapes which call to mind dorsal fins, and a whale tail curls up from the peg box.”

The Whale by Clay LevitMusic is a family affair! Clay and his daughters love Irish music, and play weekly with others in Seattle. His daughter Rose plays on a fiddle he built for her in 2020, which he named “The Rose”, it has beautiful fingerboard inlay, done in the workshop of Ellis Mandolins in Austin. His daughter Saoirse plays the bodhrán (pronounced bow-ron) which is a skin frame drum used in Irish music. “It’s a dream come true to be able to play music with my family!”

“Irish sessions are a blast!  In an Irish session everyone plays traditional fiddle tunes, typically in sets of three tunes. Everyone plays in unison. There is no improvisation or soloing,” Clay explained. “If you know the tune, you join in, and there are thousands of tunes. Fiddles are king (in my humble opinion) but you also see flutes, penny whistles, banjos, concertinas, bagpipes, mandolins, and guitars.  It’s a fun way to have a community to be a part of.  If you know some Irish tunes you can walk into any pub session anywhere in the world and play along.”

Clay Levit logoIn addition to playing Irish music in Seattle, Clay plays occasionally here on Bainbridge at Celtic Crossroads Northwest* on Winslow Way, but would love to get a regular session going on the island. Clay also teaches violin making and repair at the Woodworking Studio at Bainbridge Artisan Resource Network (BARN), if you’d like to learn more about that, visit their website here.

As Clay notes, he builds for fiddlers “who value something made from start to finish by hand by one person, not a factory. My fiddles are unique creations and no two are alike.”

His fiddles are available for sale in his workshop (visit his website here to make an appointment to view his inventory), and at Celtic Crossroads.

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* “Creating Something That Wasn’t There Before” – Ceramics Artist Katy Levit | THE ISLAND WANDERER

* Celtic Crossroads NW – Bringing the love of the Celtic world to Bainbridge Island | THE ISLAND WANDERER

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