Anyone who knows anything about violins has seen hundreds of violins advertised as "Stradivarius." Just look on e-bay and there are probably 50 tere right now. Of course they aren't. The real thing is very rare and very expensive. There may be as many as 700 of his instruments surviving today and values run as high as $3.5 dollars.
I heard the real thing on Saturday evening. We saw Martin Chalifour as soloist with the Santa Barbara Symphony playing the "Milstein" Stradivarius, built in 1716 (courtesy of Mr. Jerry Kohl, i.e. Kohl owns the instrument and allows Chalifour to play it).
It was an interesting and informative experience. The violin sounded wonderful... it was rich and carried well in a large room over an orchestra. But it didn't sound that different to me than any number of other wonderful violins that I've heard, especially when playing with the orchestra. Indeed, in that context, I thought a violin that was a little brighter might have worked better. He also played a solo piece by Bach and the instrument shown more there. I have no idea what it felt like in Mr. Chalifour's hands.
It made me think about Guitar Acquisition Syndrome, instruments in context, and how instruments feel and sound to the player vs. how they sound to an audience.
Audiences can't usually tell the difference between an extraordinary instrument and an excellent one, especially in a mix with other instruments. We don't know how the violin responds to the player. Does it fight back or is it very easy to control? Is it forgiving or does it expose every little issue with one's technique? Again, we don't know the answers and while an audience may not hear these differences, they certainly affect the performance. And does the audience hear what the performer does? Most likely not but the differences may or may not be what one would expect. And probably most important of all is the law of diminishing returns. Somehow, I can't imagine that there is nearly as much difference between a $1 million violin and a $3 million one as there is between a $300 violin and a $1000 one. Heck, I'll be there is more difference between those last two violins than between the Strad and the violins worth in the 10's of thousands played by the rest of the orchestra.
So what does that say to me as a guitar player? I've got a few wonderful instruments... enjoy them. Nobody in an audience can tell and 99% don't care what it is or what it is worth. If it sounds good and fits in the mix... that is enough.