How To Buy A Violin And What To Look For
The first thing you must know about purchasing a violin is that not all violins are created equal. Prices for instruments and bows range from $20 to well over $3,000,000. Take a deep breath. You don’t need to spend that kind of cash.
This article is about helping you find a good violin regardless of your level, but generally aimed at the beginner. I don’t believe you need to break the bank in your acquisition and it’s important to remember this. However, neither do you want to have the “spend as little money as I can” mindset.
You want to get the most bang for your buck and the best quality that will last you as long as you desire. To that end, let’s take a look at the characteristics of good violins so we can make the best choices for us.
What To Look For In A Violin
What Is The Violin Made Of
Most violins of decent quality will be made of maple back and sides with a spruce top. They will also be covered in a thin varnish as opposed to a thick “lacquer” that has a plastic feel to it. Varnish allows the violin to “breathe” and the vibrations to better resonate.
A quality violin has a real ebony fingerboard. It’s important to know that many violins under $100 individually and under $150 in an outfit, will not have real ebony fingerboards as they can be other woods that are painted black. This may or may not be a deal breaker for you. Personally, I don’t care for a violin without a real ebony board.
Another example of a quality violin is that the button generally won’t slip out of place the first time you try to tune it. I’ve had more instances of this happening to my beginner student’s violins than I can count. If possible, try to avoid an instrument who’s button isn’t secure.
Many high-end violins will come with a rosewood, boxwood, or ebony tailpiece without fine tuners built in. This is generally my preference as one can always add finer tuners. However, I’ve seen violins commanding thousand dollar price tags that had tailpieces with built-in fine tuners.
If you’re buying an instrument in the $100-$500 price range, I wouldn’t bother upgrading the tailpiece. However, if you’re buying an instrument that costs more, I would personally ask for a real wood tailpiece of the materials listed here that does not have built in fine tuners.
How Is The Violin Constructed
Violins generally have maple bridges and I prefer a thinner bridge with smaller feet. Be sure that the feet sit flat against the top of the violin. If they have any space between them and the arch of the top wood, the bridge hasn’t been properly fitted.
At the top of the violin you will find the scroll, the peg box, and the nut. The nut should not be excessively taller than the fingerboard. However, you will routinely find this on a lower quality instrument.
Strings that are not straight down the fingerboard usually accompany a violin of lower quality. My students regularly buy instruments with this characteristic. If you’ve already purchased an instrument like this and are unable to return it, the next best thing is to try and center the strings via moving the bridge.
Also, purfling can be a consideration. Purfling is the line that runs around the edge of the front, or top, of the violin. On a quality violin, purfling is part of the construction method that keeps the edges from cracking. On lower quality violins, this construct is often simply a paint job or an inlay. Again, this is not a deal breaker, but the more information you have the better.
When Was it Constructed
The older a violin is, generally the more desirable the tone. It’s said that the wood of an old violin has “matured” and therefore the resonance, sound, and sustain is better. For this reason, you will find older violins carrying higher price tags. Some people feel that a violin really hasn’t expressed it’s true sound before at least 5 years.
However, don’t exclude instruments because they haven’t reached “maturity.” Keep an open mind and open ear because finding a new instrument that already sounds wonderful means that you could potentially have a future gem on your hands.
Where Is The Violin Made
If you look on the inside of a violin, it usually has a sticker of some kind that has this information. The sticker may include other information such as when it was made and by whom. Many good violins come from Germany and Romania these days. There’s also been some good work performed in Bulgaria.
The elephant in the room is China. What I mean is, in the past, Chinese instruments were taboo. You simply didn’t play one. However, the luthiers in China have substantially upped their game and have begun producing high quality instruments.
To be clear, there are still some very low quality instruments that come from China, but do not write off a Chinese made instrument simply because of it’s origins. Conversely, don’t sell yourself on a German instrument simply because it’s made in Germany. As we suggest later in this guide, make sure you play it to find out if you love it.
Size of the violin
This seems like a no brainer, but make sure your violin is the right size for you. Adults will generally always use a 4/4 size violin. Children and other students may require something between 1/32 and 4/4. For more info on this, check out this size chart here.
A violin outfit is probably the most effective use of your money as a beginner. A violin outfit comes with a violin, a bow, a hard case, and normally rosin. Buying each of these pieces individually would increase your total cost by roughly 20-40%.
In our article on how to get started on the violin, we outline this and more. In this article, we are focusing more on what makes a good violin, and how to acquire that violin once you’ve found it.
A violin bow
In violin outfits, you’re often stuck with what you get. However, if you’re buying a violin separately, you will need to purchase a bow. For information on that, check out our article on bows and what to look for when choosing one.
Now that we’ve discussed some things to look for in a violin, let’s talk about the best plan for finding a good one!
Consider Your Violin Budget
How much money do you have to spend? Don’t break the bank here as this range is between $100-$500. It’s important that you have the wiggle room to purchase the violin and then not regret it when this month’s rent is due. If budget is a main issue, save your money until you can have between $200-$300 available to you for an outfit (and accessories, as the outfit may cost less, but you will need to purchase violin related tools like a shoulder rest). This will by no means buy you a Stradivarius, but it will certainly find you a starter violin.
If you’re not sure if you’ll stick with the instrument for at least a year, spend only within this price range. If you’re not sure you will stick with it for 6 months, renting a violin may be a good option. However, for the rate you will spend on renting a violin from most locations, 6 months is the max I suggest. If you think you will stick with it for even 7 months, purchase an instrument and you will end up saving money.
A violin outfit that I routinely suggeest to my students is the Fiddlerman OB1 Violin Outfit. This violin comes standard with a case, quality carbon fiber bow, Fiddlershop Rosin, polishing cloth, a shoulder rest, and a practice mute. It's hard to find anything better when it comes to price versus value. This outfit has it all, and a great tone. Finally, Fiddlerman is renowned for his customer service.
This instrument is actually a B stock of the Bunnel G2. This means that these instruments may have cosmetic imperfections, but they are otherwise fully functioning instruments. What you get is a high quality beginner violin outfit for a fraction of the cost. This outfit is stacked with value and the best part? The finish is a true varnish that projects a quality sound, unlike many other lacquered violins at this price point. Bunnel really hit this one out of the park.
If you already have an instrument or you’re willing to spend a bit more for your purchase, consider something in the $500 to $2000 price range. For an outfit, you’ll usually end up getting a good intermediate violin and bow. If you purchase a violin individually in this price range, you could very well end up with an advanced instrument that can serve any hobbyist or aspiring musician.
One of my students purchased this outfit and when she pulled the bow across the string for the first time, I was sold. It has a rich, deep tone that projects well for an intermediate violin on the lower end of our designated price range. This outfit is a major bang-for-the-buck purchase. If you're looking for an upgrade from your beginner instrument that will give you goosebumps, this is will do it.
Just a quick search for this instrument will turn up a wonderful rendition of "You Raise Me Up" performed by the Fiddlerman himself. He is indeed playing the Soloist violin and it is a beautiful recording. Aside from the exquisite tone this instrument has to offer and the many accessories that come with the outfit, the instrument comes strung with a very good set of strings and a great bow. These two qualities caught my eye. It means Fiddlerman isn't skimping on the quality of the extras. Rest assured, everything that comes in your shipping box will be held to a high standard with the Fiddlerman Soloist violin.
Advanced Or Professional Violins
Once past the intermediate price point, we start seeing fewer violin outfits. This is because violinists looking for instruments, bows and accessories in this range already have preferences and usually buy a la carte style. For advanced violins, we start around $2000 and usually go up to about $10,000. This is where we start seeing violins made in Germany, Romania, and high quality Chinese instruments as well.
Professional instrument prices can be difficult to pin down here. Instrument quality can be generally high post $2000 and it becomes very much opinion based. Generally, anything above $5,000 will be of very high quality and the types of instruments used by professional solo artists and orchestral artists.
It's important to remember that not all professionals use violins that cost this much. There are many professionals using violins that would be in the "advanced" violin price range. Finally, as we have already discussed, special violins can cost 10’s of thousands of dollars and unique violins can sell for millions.
This particular outfit is a real gold mine. It comes with a fantastic hand made, hand oil-varnished violin with a rich, articulate sound. But it also comes with two, count 'em, two bows. One is a genuine pernambuco bow and the other is a carbon fiber bow. The back is a gorgeous flamed maple that you almost do not want to put back into the case (which comes with the outfit). Don't forget that we're in the advanced/professional price range, but for the money, there is an incredible amount of gorgeous tone and wonderful value in the D Z Strad N615 outfit.
This instrument is a real treat. Here we have a violin that is sold on it's own. Sometimes you'll find it in an outfit, but most vendors don't bundle it. The luthiers that make these exquisite instruments choose the most beautiful woods not only in looks, but in sound production. This is a violin that projects powerfully but isn't harsh. It has a well-balanced EQ that allows all frequencies to be heard. There's no forcing a good sound from this violin because it willingly relinquishes it's gorgeous sonic spirit.
Where Should I Buy My Violin
There are a blindingly large number of merchants from which to purchase a violin these days. You can purchase online, from a “big box” store, a small local shop, or from a famous luthier. All of these are fine options, but I want to stress that you MUST play your instrument for a short period of time to see if you like it.
Famous luthiers tend to have high quality instruments, as they tend to be more specialized in their offerings. High quality also means high dollar. However, I have been to shops of famous luthiers who also carry some beginner through intermediate offerings as well, so it's important not to dismiss these highly reputable establishments as only for the advanced player.
Online, big box stores, and local shops will all give you at least up to advanced level violins. Many of them are assembly line style production models. This doesn't mean they're bad. In fact, some great violins have come out of factories. However, this brings us back to my original statement: you need to play an instrument for a short period before you purchase it.
Play it to see if you love it
To that point, most stores, whether they be “big box”, small local, or famous luthiers, will allow you to play an instrument you are seriously considering for purchase. If you already know how to play, put it through it’s paces. Maybe you don’t know how to play. In that case, try asking a store employee who does so that you can hear it in action.
If you have a violin teacher, either bring them to the instrument or take the instrument to them so that they can give it a full review. If these options are not available, the next best thing is to try and find the best reviews of the instrument that you can online so you can make the most informed decisions.
Online stores used to be the least desired way to purchase an instrument, but that has all changed. With the advent of online retailers and brick and mortar stores allowing you to take the instrument home and try it, you are generally going to find out whether or not you like the instrument.
Some online retailers require you to first make your purchase before they ship it. My advice: before you put up money, be positive that you can return the instrument and find out what the time period for returns is. If you are satisfied with their return policies, go ahead and make your purchase.
Luckily, we live in a day and age where most online retailers give you plenty of time to return a product if you do not like it. For example, Amazon gives you a 30 day return policy on most items from the day it was received. This generally includes musical instruments. However, I would suggest keeping the instrument in mint or near mint condition to ensure that the seller will allow the return.
Some independent sellers on Amazon and other sites may have different return policies varying in time allowed for returns. Even if you are on Amazon, be sure to confirm the return time limit. I recommend a return time limit of 10 days or more. Some sellers have 7 days, but I find that an inadequate amount of time to allow a violin to settle into it’s new environment and properly test it.
Try, try, try as many violins as you can. If you’re a beginner and you don’t know how to play yet, have a store employee play for you. Also, consider having your teacher play the instrument.
If you don’t have access to any of these options and you are purchasing online, read as many reviews as you can on the violin you are buying.
If you need help on everything you will need getting started on the violin, check out our guide on how to get started on the violin. We hope this helps you out and as always, keep practicing and music is magic!