Shopping for a Violin

Shopping for a violin can be both frustrating and fun at the same time. It’s sort of like buying a car – don’t buy the first cheap violin that comes along. If you do, you may find that you have purchased a lemon. As a result, I don’t recommend buying a violin on eBay (or any other online site). You might get a super great deal, or you may get a piece of junk referred to by other violinists as a VSO (violin shaped object).

Buying a cheap violin might seem like a great idea to save money, but how much money have you saved if you get it home only to discover that it has cheap strings that have to be replaced in a few months, the bridge doesn’t fit properly, the fingerboard is made of inferior material and warps in six months, or the pegs break while trying to tune it? Decent strings can easily cost $60 or more and having a fingerboard fixed or replaced isn’t cheap. It would be very disheartening to have to spend hundreds of dollars to fix a cheap violin and when you are finished, you still have a cheap violin. Wouldn’t it be better to put that same money into an instrument that is a little better quality? I’m not talking about shelling out thousands for a professional grade instrument; just consider a decent student model. Also, most shops will apply the original price (or comparable price if you don’t go back to the same shop) of a beginner’s violin toward the purchase of an upgrade, assuming you have taken good care of it. With all due respect to the old story called “The Touch of the Master’s Hand,” where a violin is up for sale at an auction and no one wants it until a master violinist tunes it up and plays a beautiful piece of music whereupon everyone wants to bid on it, even a master violinist can’t get rid of vibrations or other unpleasant sounds from an instrument with a warped fingerboard.

Choosing a violin.

So how do you shop for a violin?

  • Talk to an Expert. I recommend going to a violin shop that has a decent luthier that knows his business.
  • Ask Questions. Prepare a list of questions you want to ask before you head to the shop. Your list should include the following, plus any specifics you want to know about:
    • What makes a good violin?
    • What are some good violin makers? Even the low end instruments from a company like Shar are better than the same priced instrument from Cremona. I won’t go into all the details of what makes an inferior instrument, but if you are interested, I have included a link at the end of this article dealing with this issue.
  • Try Several. The biggest recommendation I can make is to try several violins. If you can’t play, take someone with you who does and listen to the sound while they play. Most people would never buy a car without a test drive. Treat the purchase of a violin the same way. Ask the shop to show you violins in your price range and play them all. Then choose the one that has the sound you like. Remember, two violins from the same maker can have very different sounds.
  • Don’t Overlook the Old-Timers. Don’t limit yourself to shiny, new violins. Old violins that have been taken care of (no cracks and have been properly maintained) can have a very pleasant sound. Scratches don’t hurt it, but add to the character of it. The violin I have is very old and looks it, but it has a very pleasant, mellow sound that I like. Every time I look at it, I wonder what kind of “life” it has had. What made certain scratches. What kind of music did its owner play?

Choosing a Bow.

After deciding which violin you like (and can afford) don’t forget the bow. Like violins, bows come in all sorts of quality and price ranges.

  • Try Several. Many shops may include a bow with the violin and may let you try 3 or 4 bows in the included price range. These may be low end bows, and for a beginner will be good enough. Try each one on your violin.
    • How does it feel?
    • How does it make the instrument sound? Does it sing, or sound like you are playing inside a jar?
    • Does it have good bounce?
    • Does it have good volume?
  • Ask for Help. Again, if you are a beginner, bring a violinist with you for an opinion.
  • Match the Quality of the Bow to the Violin. If you are buying the bow separate from the violin, consider the instrument you will be using. It doesn’t make much sense to purchase a $2,000 bow to use on a $200 violin. On the other hand, if you have invested in a high quality instrument, don’t stifle it by using a $50 bow. It will never produce the sound you want.

 

Once you have the violin that makes you happy, take it home and enjoy it. You have taken the first step toward many happy hours playing an instrument that is, in my opinion, one of the most beautiful sounding instruments ever invented.

More information:

Cheap Violins for Sale Are Not a Good Deal.”by Laurie Niles

What makes a good bow?” by Jim Clinton

Violin Shops I have dealt with:

Casa del Sol, Indianapolis, Indiana – I was very impressed with this one. They really know their business. When I was first starting out, and still had my cheap violin, the bow had an terrible warp in it and needed to be replaced. I was ashamed to show them my violin, so I just took in the bow. He took one look at it and told me everything there was to know about my violin – make and model number, what part of China it was made in, what type of wood they used, etc. I bought a decent, German-made bow there and never forgot the experience.

Ronald Sachs Violins, Lilburn, Georgia – This is the shop that restored the violin I am currently using. After he did his work, it was a joy to play. The best comparison I can make of my fingers on the fingerboard is an ice skater on a rink that has just been smoothed by a Zamboni. He also has a line of violins he makes himself. If you are ever in the area, I highly recommend you check it out.

Bernhardt House of Violins, Greenville, SC – I purchased my last bow here. The people here are very knowledgeable and have great customer service.

Jim Clinton Violins, Taylors, SC – I had my bow rehaired here and it is where I go for all my violin maintenance now. I like the atmosphere here. The staff is very friendly and knowledgeable.

About Richard Tracy

I have been playing the violin for about 20 years - in spite of missing the index finger of my left hand.
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3 Responses to Shopping for a Violin

  1. Have you ever thought about including a little bit more than just your articles? I mean, what you say is important and everything. Nevertheless think about if you added some great photos or video clips to give your posts more, “pop”! Your content is excellent but with images and video clips, this site could certainly be one of the best in its niche. Awesome blog!

    • I do have plans to try to expand. I just started the blog a few weeks ago so it isn’t quite the way I want it yet. As far as video, I hope to do that soon, but I don’t have a way to record yet. Thanks for the comment.

  2. Pingback: Shopping for a Violin | Tampa Bay Music Academy Blog

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