How to Buy a Violin: Common Myths and Misperceptions

The process of buying a violin can be a confusing experience. What do I look for? What do I watch out for? What makes a violin “good?” What is a good price? What do I need to know? While these are all common questions, some basic information can provide some much needed clarity.

Addressing some violin myths and misconceptions is an important first step before shopping, so your search is not misguided by misinformation. Knowing general expectations within a price range then provides a starting point for your search. Then, narrowing your search options based on tone and feel will help provide a good instrument-player match. Finally, finding warning signs and red flags are important to step to avoid buyer’s remorse.

Common Myths and Misconceptions

More expensive is better.

Not necessarily. Within a given price range, “better” is in the eye of the beholder. Just as art is subjective, so is the violin you like. Tone and feel are the two factors that most heavily influence preference for which violin is “better.”

Auguste Sébastien Philippe Bernardel Pére Violin, 1832
Photo by The Violin Shop

Wow, your violin is old. It must be really expensive!

Yes, all the most expensive violins are old instruments. That doesn’t make an old instrument expensive or a new instrument cheap. Violins have a larger price range than most things on earth. In 2013, a 1721 Stradivarius sold for $15.9 million, but you can also buy a violin outfit online for $149. There are numerous factors that go into a violin’s value, not just age or even how to the instrument sounds or looks.

I’m left-handed. I should get a left-handed violin.

No. Left-handed individuals may actually be at an advantage with a right-handed instrument, as violin playing requires the most dexterity in the left hand. Right-handed, left-handed alike, the violin is hard and awkward initially. Just get adjusted to a “normal” violin, or you risk not being able to play in an orchestra. Bows need to go all the same way and look uniform when playing with others. Can you imagine seeing the Chicago Symphony having left-handed violinists with bows going the opposite way of everyone else?

There are no strings and no bridge on this thing. It must be a piece of crap that’s not worth buying.

Not necessarily. Strings break and bridges fall down, especially when in the instrument is in the case for a while without use and under changing temperatures. Strings and bridges can be relatively cheap and easy fixes.

There are different sizes of violins, so I don’t know what size to get.

You are probably a 4/4 or full size. Violins come in sizes 4/4, ¾, ½, ¼, ⅛. Anything smaller than full size is used by children who can’t yet reach down the fingerboard. The arm test is used to size a child a violin. To do this test, put a violin up to the child’s chin and have them put their left arm out horizontally. If the scroll of the violin reaches past the child’s wrist, it is too big.

My violin says stradivarius in the inside, so it must be a stradivarius.

Probably not. There are only around 600 remaining stradivarius instruments in the world. Antonio Stradivari’s time was known as the golden age of violin-making. For debated reasons, no one is able to replicate the amazing violin creations that were made during that time. So since then, most violins are made as copies of those instruments. Even copies can get extremely expensive, though. There is a tag inside the F hole of a violin that will usually say the maker, year, and may say “Stradivari” or “copy of a Stradivari”. That does not make it a Stradivari.

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Price Ranges

Since more expensive does not equal “better,” it is best to first figure out the top of your budget. Once you have that number, try violins within the whole price range. You may try an $800 violin and a $2,000 violin and like the $800 much violin better.

Under $500 - The beginner

These are starter violins that are constructed on an assembly-line rather than hand-made. The bow may be made of fiberglass, and plastic fittings are commonplace in this price range. While you can buy everything separately, the best value is usually an all-in-one bundle of violin, bow, and case, also known as a violin “outfit.” Spending less than $150 is not recommended, as anything below would have been made so cheaply that problems would be likely.

$1,100 Revelle Model 500QXE

$500-$2,000 - Intermediate Player

Most of these instruments will be new, better factory-made instruments, but you will start noticing more variation between each violin. If the outfit includes a bow, you should expect an upgrade from fiberglass wood. It also would not be uncommon to buy the bow separately. Older instruments in this category should be checked extra carefully for bad repairs or damage, such as cracks.

$2,000 to $10,000 - Advanced/Professional

For older instruments, violins will be of a lesser-known maker and will vary significantly from one another. There are also new or newer contemporary instruments in this category of makers of today. The bows in this category will have more variety, having different weights, weight distribution. Try several and buy one that meets your individual preferences.

$50,000 and above - Professional

These will be fine older instruments from more well-known makers. It can be important to purchase from a reputable dealer, as counterfeits are not uncommon. These instruments should come with titles, and prices should be based on a current appraisal by a reputable string appraiser. The bow alone can cost more than your dream house.

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Select Based on Tone and Feel

Once you know your price range and what to expect within that range, play on the violins you are considering. Use your senses to gather information and make your decision based on your preferences for tone and feel.

Feel

Violins are created to specific size specifications, down to the millimeter, on nearly every small part. Even though there is careful precision, there are still tiny differences between instruments. The neck can vary in the feel of thickness or depth. The chin rest can be higher, longer or differently shaped than others. To add to the variety, there are difference between each player’s fingers, hands, arms, necks and shoulders. For this reason, finding a good match is like fitting two puzzle pieces together. For example, my hands are small, so I prefer a thinner-feeling neck. Older instruments’ necks tend to feel smaller, so I usually try those first. So, as you play, try to find the puzzle piece that fits the best.

Tone

Being made of wood means that every violin will sound slightly different. Some violins sound bright, while others sound dark. Some will have sound that varies across the four strings. Some are naturally louder than others. Play enough on each instrument you are considering and you can and will hear these sound differences. Choose the one you prefer.

Trial periods

It can be difficult to get a good impression of a violin by playing it in the violin shop or buying it online. That's why many shops and sellers will allow you to take it home to try or have a return policy. Ask about the seller’s policy before you buy and don’t be afraid to take advantage of it. When you play in different room with different repertoire, it is pretty amazing how your opinion of an instrument can change.

Warning signs and Red Flags

There are certain problems on a violin that may make the purchase a bad idea. Make a careful inspection of each instrument you are considering. If you encounter one of these issues, ask the seller about it. If you get a shifty response, get a second opinion or go with another seller.

Cracks

These can be expensive to fix and can negatively influence the sound. Cracks along the seams are not uncommon and can be reglued without having permanent damage. Cracks along the body, on the other hand, are a warning. They can be a preview of more problems and expensive fixes in the future. With a bow, cracks are always bad and will eventually make the bow non-functional.

Claude Fougerolle Personal Model Violin, 1983
Photo by The Violin Shop

Uneven Fingerboard

Fingerboards have a slight curve to them. If it is flat, too curved, or is curved to the side, the instrument will not play correctly. Especially common with cheaper instruments, the fingerboard can curve so much that the strings are not evenly distributed across it.

Soundpost

Take a look inside the F hole. There should be a small wooden post around the bridge called the sound post that helps create the sound. If there is not one, it has fallen, or is in the wrong place and will need to be fixed.

Bridge

The bridge is the small piece of wood between the fingerboard and tailpiece that holds up the strings. It is normal to get these replaced every once in awhile, as warping and bending are common. Each bridge has to be cut for your specific instrument. Especially on cheaper instruments, the bridge may be put on the instrument without being fitted for that instrument, which can make playing very difficult.

Repaired Damage

Old repairs are sometimes done well, but not always. The seller should be able to tell you about old damage. Ask about where it was fixed. If it was not done at a reputable violin shop or by a reputable luthier, consider it a risk.

Taking all this information into account, finding a violin that falls in your price range with the right feel and tone without red flags can seem like an overwhelming or intimidating process. Be patient, shop around, and hold out until you find “the one.” You will, hopefully, spent many hours with this instrument and share the journey together on the way to your musical goals.

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