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Our Newsletter

January 2005

How to Buy a Violin

by Julie Tebbs

This month we are responding to a request by a subscriber who is the mother of a 12 year old violinist. She wanted to know how to go about choosing a violin for her daughter. To help us write accurately about this subject, we asked for help from several violin shops. One of the questions we asked was "Are the answers to these questions the same for violin, viola and cello?" The answer to that question was a resounding, "YES." So for readability we have used the word "violin," but you can substitute "viola" or "cello" throughout the article if that is your instrument.

The first task when buying a violin is to choose a reputable shop. In my opinion, this is the most important step in the process. R. Kim Tipper from in Victoria B.C., Canada, recommends asking around. "Meet the owner, ask if he/she plays. How they answer may tell you a lot," says Kim. Scott Marckx, a violinmaker from Port Townsend, WA, recommends finding a shop that will take back their instruments in trade. Ask teachers and other players for their recommendation. Make sure you feel comfortable with the people running the shop. "You shouldn't be made to feel bad because you don't know something. It is in the shop's best interest to help you learn about how to care for your violin," states Scott. Hammond Ashley Violins in Seattle and San Diego, recommends that you look also for a shop where the sales staff are string players and teachers whenever possible. Also, look for a shop that will stand behind the condition of their instruments and offer a trade in guarantee.

Many students will naturally want to have their teachers’ recommendations when choosing an instrument. Most of the time this is a very good idea. Kim cautions however, "You can't assume that your teacher knows anything about the value or condition of an instrument. That's not their training, playing is." This is the reason we quizzed violinmakers when researching for this article and not violin teachers. Several of the shops also mentioned a practice where the violin teacher receives a commission from a violin shop when an instrument is sold on their recommendation. Ask your teacher if he/she works with a shop and receives a commission. If so it should be out in the open. Hammond Ashley recommends however, that if your teacher is not receiving a commission and gives their time to go with you to help choose an instrument, it is a good idea to offer compensation for their time.

The hardest question when searching for a violin is, "What should I look for in a violin?" This question of course has many answers. Scott Marckx recommends that you play as many violins as you can and get opinions from teachers, shops and other players. Many of the shops mentioned the importance of buying a violin that is properly "set up." This is a term that basically refers to all the finishing touches on the violin, such as fitting the bridge, shaping the fingerboard, pegs, and many other small but important details. The set up of a violin can have a major effect on the sound quality of the instrument. Because of this, buying the violin from a reputable shop instead of a general music store is extremely important. Peter Zaret from Peter Zaret and Sons Violins in Cleveland, Ohio recommends looking for tone and power: "There are hundreds of adjectives that describe the tone of a violin: warm, lyrical, rich, clear, deep, smooth, brilliant, and on and on. The most important one though, is power. A good violin will be loud." Peter Zaret has written several articles on their website that answer this question more completely than we can here. You can read them here:

There is a general unnamed feeling among violinists that the old violins are better than the new violins. This probably stems from the legendary Stradivari violins of the 17th and 18th centuries that now sell for millions. However, old isn't necessarily better. Scott states, "Old violins can acquire historic value on top of their inherent value as a tool to be played. Sometimes this can be confused with thinking an old violin automatically sounds better than a new violin."

On the flip side Kim remarks, "An old authentic instrument in mint condition with great sound is hard to beat. A new violin will only show you what it really has to offer over time." And related to this, Hammond Ashley states, "A new violin will become a more responsive, resonant version of itself. The critical break in is usually only several months to a few years. Do not assume it will become a more fabulous instrument in the future. If you like it now and it is new, the likelihood of it opening with playing is good. However, and old instrument is not always better. Look for clarity, projection, response, and dynamic range."

Another consideration with older instruments is the condition. Peter Zaret states, "With an older violin condition becomes very important. A violin with a lot of cracks and repairs may sound well when it is purchased, but changes in the weather, bumps, lack of humidity or too much humidity can cause structural or tonal problems. Cracks can open or form, the neck can drop, buzzes can occur and endless problems can result from many repairs."

The next question we all ask is, "What price range should I look for?" Most of the shops agreed that it is very difficult answer this question since there are so many factors involved in choosing the instrument. Hammond Ashley states, "[Price range] is completely subjective, and the main reason it is best to solicit the advice of a teacher you respect. To one person, $500 is a good enough instrument for their development. To others, they need to spend a few thousand dollars to reach a violin that meets their demands. Again, trade in guarantee can ensure you are getting the best instrument for your current ability with the potential to move up in the future."

Peter Zaret says for a reasonably serious student to professional violin, the range is likely to be between approximately $1200 - $20,000. However, he says, "Violin making is a very inexact science. There are many fine expensive violins that don't sound well and there are many inexpensive violins that do sound well. You need to pick up as many as you can and play them."

Scott recommends, "Try instruments in various price ranges. You will begin to find the range that works for you. It is always good to have a sense of what you might want to aspire toward in the future. It is also good to know that you truly prefer your chosen instrument to one that is less expensive." Kim says, "There is only a passing relationship between price and sound. You can't shop by price if you want the player to love their instrument. Is that how you picked your spouse?" There's a thought, pick your spouse by price range . . . I'm sure it's been done!

Recently I've received many questions about buying violins from eBay. I admit I have bought one violin from eBay. My intentions were to get a 1/2-size violin that my students could "try on" for size. I had no expectations about quality and only spent about $30 on the violin. It predictably sounds worse than a tin can, but it is the correct size and has been helpful in helping students decide if it is time to move into a half size violin. Playing that violin has also occasionally been a student's punishment if they forget to bring their instrument to their lesson!

If, however, you are looking for a serious instrument that will help you progress in your studies, eBay is not the place to look according to all the shops we questioned. Hammond Ashley states, "There is considerable risk of loss in buying from eBay. You often find an instrument that is more money to repair and set up than it would cost to get one from a reputable shop. The setup and adjustment is critical, as well as the ability for the shop to make adjustments for you."

Peter Zaret states, "The main problem [with buying a violin from eBay] is that you can't try the violin before you buy it. The violin might be a bargain but unplayable. The violin might be 'worth' the money but have an inferior tone. Once again a high price doesn't guarantee a good tone and visa versa. I have seen at least three instances where a violin purchased on eBay -- supposedly from abroad with a high price and purportedly made by such and such a maker -- turned out to be a fake for which the customer grossly overpaid. Buyer Beware!"

With so much to think about, what is a non-musically-inclined parent to do? Hammond Ashley advises, "Align yourself with good players and private teachers. This is the best way to give your student the best chance of success." Scott suggests, "Visit your local violin shop(s) and talk to the people there. It is in their best interest to help you learn about music and enjoy it and they will probably know about local teachers and concerts and events. Music is not something you have to be an expert to enjoy. Have fun exploring it."

I believe if you give your child the private lessons they need and they are progressing to the point where they need a new instrument, feel free to trust your student to choose the sound and the instrument they most enjoy. Of course, take all of the above advice and carefully choose a reputable shop with a trade in option. Kim advises parents to "learn to play. I mean it." I very much agree. Enjoy!

Many thanks to the violin shops who took the time to answer all our questions. Go check them out if you live in their area.
  1. R. Kim Tipper, Tipper Violins, Victoria BC, Canada
  2. Scott Marckx, violin maker, Port Townsend, WA
    I worked for a violin shop for about seven years before going out on my own as a maker. I now make violins next to my home in Port Townsend and sell through several shops across the country.
  3. Hammond Ashley Violins, Seattle, WA or San Diego, CA
    Full service violin family dealer. Repair, Rental, Sales
  4. Peter Zaret and Sons Violins, Cleveland, OH
  5. Also recommended: Your Dream Instrument, a new book from the editors at Strings magazine.