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Choosing the Right Violin

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Tips on Buying a Violin
by Leif Luscombe

With the age of the Internet, where there seems to be an inexhaustible selection of goods for sale, the task of choosing the right product can be a daunting task. With musical instruments, as with most art, the choice can be further complicated by the fact that no two instruments are alike. Even commercial instruments from the same production can sound somewhat different because of the nature of wood - each piece has unique acoustical characteristics.

Many musicians look for a bargain when purchasing a musical instrument. There have been times when good quality instruments have been purchased at very low prices from pawn shops, auctions, or private owners. However, in the real world this occasion is rare - the majority of instruments purchased in this way require repairs and parts, which can easily cost as much or more than the instrument is worth. In this case, should one pursue the restoration of the instrument, it is a loss. The instrument, when finished, is worth less than it has cost.

Below are some answers to some commonly asked questions on this topic.

How Much Should I Pay for a Good Violin?

The value of musical instruments is based on several factors:

  • Tone (sound quality)
  • Performance (ability to respond to the demands of a musician, such as tonal range, expression and dynamics)
  • Appearance (combination of workmanship, wood and varnish)
  • Health (will it be a high maintenance instrument? Has it had many repairs in the past? Does its present condition indicate that it will need much service in the future?)
  • Collector's value

We urge students to avoid purchasing a very cheap instrument. As it will not satisfy, more than likely they will be eager to upgrade in the near future, and the money spent on the first instrument is wasted. There are music shops and online sources selling very cheap violin outfits. The cost to put it into satisfactory playing order would cost more than the instrument, and would still fall short of being a good student instrument due to its inherent construction quality.

We will outline some basic guidelines below, based on our experience and knowledge of what is available on the market. Bear in mind that not all dealers will offer the same quality at a certain price.

Violins: (fully set up, but without case and bow)

  • Entry level student, US$300-$600
  • Intermediate student, US$600-$1500
  • Advanced student, US$1500-3500

Above this level are semi-professional and professional instruments. Once instruments reach and exceed about US$10,000 or $15,000 and more, the value is largely influenced by collector value, which are often a good investment for the musician, as they do appreciate with time. In other words, from that level and above, the increments of performance are very small considering the large increases in price. A musician may choose a more expensive instrument than what we have recommended above; a beginning student is not limited to a violin in the lower end. On the contrary, a serious student is encouraged to purchase the finest instrument that they can comfortably afford, as it will give them a lot of room to grow.

Should I Purchase from a Violin Dealer?

This is usually the best route for serious musicians of all levels. Dealers have a reputation to uphold each time they offer an instrument for sale. There is usually a trial period offered, and the dealer will do his best to make sure that you are satisfied. As well, a long term relationship can be established between the dealer and customer. Should you need advice, or have an unfortunate experience with your instrument, knowing that you can ask a knowledgeable person about your problem can be a great relief. As a valued customer, the dealer will be willing to spend time with you, give some education or advice and also recommend any repairs that may be necessary, and you will have the peace of mind that the instrument is in the care of a competent repair shop.

A dealer will be knowledgeable about musical instruments and be able to make recommendations regarding the purchase of a violin based on the needs of the musician (level of performance, budget, commitment of the student, etc.) They are also aware of what instruments are on the market at the time, and which instrument will give the best value in each price range. The ability to trade in may also be important, either to move to a larger size (for young students), or to a higher quality level.

Also, a good dealer will be able to set an instrument to perform at its optimum level. A good set up is the result of much experience and knowledge of bridge selection, fitting, soundpost setting, correct fittings, the right strings and proper action (the distance of the strings from the fingerboard). A private seller or auction can not usually offer this. A poor set up will impair the instrument in both tone and performance.

Sold to the Highest Bidder!
Should I Buy a Violin at an Auction?

Online auctions, such as eBay, have become common places to buy and sell musical instruments. At any time there are several pages of violins available. While most auction sellers are honest, few of them are knowledgeable in violins, and therefore can neither evaluate its value, nor give an accurate description of its condition and the work that may be needed to bring it to a proper state for playing.

A customer once asked me for my opinion of a violin she was bidding on, which looked quite good for the bid she had placed. However, upon closer examination of the pictures, a soundpost crack could be seen. Many people don't realize that a soundpost crack usually renders a violin almost completely useless if not fixed, and when fixed the resale value is far lower than if there was no crack. The cost of doing a proper sound post patch is quite high, so such repairs are usually left for valuable instruments. (Please don't contact us for our opinion of eBay instruments - we are not able to answer the bulk of such emails).

We have seen some auction instruments, and often the repairs that are necessary make the overall cost of the violin no longer the bargain that it was thought to be.

This is our advice to those wishing to purchase violins from an Internet auction:

  • Ask the seller any questions you may have - and make sure you get informative answers.
  • Examine the pictures closely.
  • Be cautious of "as-is" and "no-return" auctions.

Decent instruments can be purchased from auctions, but the risks are higher than it is usually worth.

Choosing the Right Size of Violin

Recommended sizes for choosing a small size violin, measured from the students neck to palm of their extended left hand.

Adults use 4/4 size.

3/4 size: 56 cm/22 inches

1/2 size: 50 cm/20 inches

1/4 size: 47 cm/18 1/2"

1/8 size: 42 cm/16 1/2 inches

1/16 size: 35.5 cm/14 inches


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