Cheap Violins – Should I Buy a Violin From China?

March 31, 2016, 5:40 PM ·

In a previous blog article that I wrote on violinist.com, it seemed that understanding the process of acquiring a violin from China was of interest to many of you. The first article that I wrote on this topic talked about how purchasing a violin from China can be a very good thing, but what I didn’t mention is details about how the really cheap stuff out there can actually be a disaster. This article is going to explain how staying away from violins under $500 from China is probably a good idea, and how staying away from a Chinese violin under $100 is a great idea.

Furthermore, you’ll learn about the process of how a violin as cheap as $100 is acquired from China (from a dealer perspective), and how I’ve had to learn the hard way how trying to find an improved process is a deep black hole. If you are looking to buy, I think you’ll appreciate this article—as it could help you prevent some of the headaches that might have come if you would have decided to buy a violin for super cheap.

Does quality really matter?

Having a bad instrument is definitely related to the chance of someone sticking to the violin or deciding to quit (or not be dedicated). It’s also directly related to the sound production that you are going to be able or not be able to produce. Since teaching over 500 private students over the years, I’ve seen many violins come through my studio that were cheaply purchased Chinese instruments (usually online). I’ve also tried to figure out the process of purchasing them for myself as a dealer, with the optimistic thought that they could be better elsewhere (I’m talking mostly about the violins under $100 at the moment). It was definitely a waste of time for me to do that, as almost every time the violins had major issues. It’s definitely cost me precious time and lost money to try to find the perfect violin under $100—ultimately it’s led me to focus my attention in other areas.

Issues with a Cheap Violin Under $100

  1. The violin is almost always a badly crafted instrument.
  2. The fittings are normally made of plastic and don’t fit half the time (chin rest, pegs, tail piece etc.).
  3. You’ll pay a lot of money to fix problems—you’ll probably end up just getting a new one.
  4. The sound quality is incredibly bad. Sort of how you would sound if you held your nose and sang a song.
  5. The bow is almost always worthless (painted, warped, missing hairs, etc.).
  6. The case is a disgrace – If you didn’t get one that is ripped somewhere I’d be surprised.
  7. The accessories that come with are frequently broken or don’t work.

You know what the owners of these violins have in common? They either upgrade after 3 months (realizing how bad they were) or end up getting so discouraged with the violin that they quit. I feel sorry for someone trying to self-teach themselves how to play a violin in this price range. That is recipe for major discouragement (I don’t care how much of a music background you have).

Who normally buys them?

You’d be surprised how many people own really cheap instruments. The mindset of the student (or parent) would be that they wanted to start on something cheap to make sure they would like the violin. I mean who wants to pay a ton of money to ultimately decide that you don’t like playing the violin in general? Unfortunately, I would say half of the students that have had this mindset end up quitting because of the quality of their violin, as they normally give the reason for quitting that “I couldn’t get a good enough sound.” The story is much different when someone considers something better right off the bat.

The other reason I see a lot of students purchase violins in this price range is that they don’t have a lot of money (which is understandable), and the online graphic showing everything they would get for $99 seemed like an awesome deal. Unfortunately the online photo on any violin website will not tell you the whole story. A picture is worth a thousand words, but the photo won’t tell you everything that you could potentially deal with post-purchase.

How a Cheap Violin is Made and Potential Issues

Here are a few of the potential issues. Every violin you will find in the under $500 price range is cheaply made in almost every circumstance. Why? It really comes down to the simple economics that there isn’t enough money to be made by every part of the process. Keep in mind a violin that is $100 is much worse than $500, but similar issues can arise. Here is the process.

  1. The violin that will cost $100-$500 retail is made in China (I would say 99% of the time in China). The work is done by people that aren’t the expert luthiers of the shop. The closer you get to paying $500 the better the labor, but it really can be hit or miss.
  2. The violin is normally required to be purchased in quantities of 50 or 100 to justify profit for the Chinese manufacturer. They aren’t paying attention to the quality of one individual violin in this price range most likely under $500, and definitely not under $100.
  3. The dealer who buys the violin usually doesn’t get to see the violins first before they are made. They basically get a grab bag of violins that they hope will be good.
  4. To justify making a profit, the Chinese manufacturers have to allow their people even less time to produce the cheap bows and cases. The quality is very bad most the time. The dealer in the U.S. has no justification to return the bad violins. It would cost more to ship them back than to just sell them at a less cost.
  5. A good dealer will throw the bad ones away or sell them to the consumer on discount. It’s important to work with a company that can screen the violins and will not send you something that is “B Grade” for “A Grade” price. Trying out a violin before buying is always a good idea first.
  6. China can get its bad name—unfortunately.

More Potential Issues

So back to talking about the cheapo violins (my Chinese friend/wholesaler calls it the “cheap stuff”). There are tens of thousands of cheapo violins floating around, but ultimately they end up in the trash (or storage) because trying to learn on a violin in a cheap price range has many potential problems.

Here are a few more of the things that I’ve seen over the years that made me stop buying violins directly from China in the under $100 price range.

  1. Under stained sometimes even flimsy fingerboards
  2. Wood chips
  3. Ugly glue spots
  4. The bridges are not carved at all
  5. Violins show up in two pieces
  6. Discouraging tone (even when in one piece)

Here are the people I would recommend a violin under $100 to.

  1. Someone who truly can’t afford it
  2. I’m not sure who else…

Many shops have programs where you can rent a violin for as cheap as $10-$15/month. It would be better to go that route for a little bit better violin than to pay $99 for a cheap one online, as it will encourage you to learn, and most importantly give you the ability to not have so many headaches through the process of learning.

A week in the life…

Here are some things you would say to yourself if you purchased a cheap violin most likely online.

  1. Before getting it – Wow, this is a great deal! It even comes with a metronome, case and bow. No way…rosin too! I’m going to buy it. Add to cart.
  2. Before getting it – Wow, it’s taking a lot longer than I thought to get here, I hope everything is ok?
  3. The day you get it – Why is the violin packaged this way? It smells horrible…Oh man, the rosin broke. Oh my gosh the violin looks like it was beaten up. I’m really disappointed that the violin is not even setup!
  4. The day after you get it – I guess I’ll have to bring the violin into the shop for setup. Man I wish I wouldn’t have gotten this violin. Should I return it?
  5. A week after you got it – I sound absolutely terrible. Maybe it’s just me.

    Are there some good Chinese violins?

    If you are interested in learning more about Chinese violins vs. European violins, read my other violinist.com article that I wrote a while back that gives you a very different tone regarding Chinese violins that are more expensive. You can really hit a home run at the higher price points, but for under $100 (and sometimes even under $500) you’ll have a hard time finding something of good quality. I don't sell any violins under $100 at
    Superior Violins, but the inexpensive Chinese-made instruments I do sell are of the highest quality.

    So what should you buy?

    There is a lot that I can say about various price ranges and normally the higher up you go the better the violin you will get—but not always. I’ll leave more of that for another day but for now, I hope I have convinced you that buying a violin under $100 is not the best idea in the world. In fact it’s a recipe for disaster.

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    Replies

    April 1, 2016 at 01:57 AM · That's a great article, Michael. You seem to really know your stuff. Thank you!

    April 1, 2016 at 11:11 AM · Buy cheap, pay twice!

    April 1, 2016 at 03:37 PM · thank you for leting me know Michael

    April 1, 2016 at 04:07 PM · As a studio teacher I have to say this stuff to new people all the time. I'll post this link on my website, and email to new inquiries. Maybe I can save a little of my own breath and 'typing' after decades of explaining the same. Thank you! :)

    April 1, 2016 at 04:16 PM · I bought three violins from China ; all were under $500. One was quite good and the other two were fantastic. Not just my opinion but also that of a professional luthier and violin teacher. You can get lucky but I do agree that buying anything from China is very hit and miss.

    Just look at my lathe...definitely a big miss ! There is a trick to buying violins online from China but I will keep it to myself :)

    April 1, 2016 at 05:27 PM · I have a Xuechange Sun VN-100, and my violin disagrees with this article. It was recommended to me by a local Luther (who has won high international honors for his work) (so has the workshop of Xuechang Sun as well) as being an absolute winner for the price. There are some differences though, it's not just shipped out to any store, and it was hand set up by the Luther himself. But she is JUST under that price (with no case and bow) and its MAGNIFICENT and I get many compliments on the sound and shocked faces by the price I paid. My instructor now recommends them to others. They are thoroughly inspected in China,and are set up with great quality bridges, chin rests etc, and really nice quality strings. -So on average I get what you are saying, but there are exceptions to the rule, and that should be mentioned. Just because it is made in the country of China does not mean it wasn't made with care... it just means WOAH be careful which source you shop from.

    April 1, 2016 at 07:07 PM · Considering the number of violins now coming from China - quite a pertinent article. Thanks Michael! Over last 8 years, I've bought over 40 violins from several Chinese suppliers ranging from $100 to $500. Forget about buying these under $100 violin kits from ebay or Amazon. They really are junk. In the last four years, I have narrowed my purchases to from two of the smaller suppliers/workshops directly from China. I've become quite satisfied with the quality of the materials, workmanship, and consistency from these two. With that being said, I invariably have to rework the bridges, primarily by resetting the feet to the top plate, and usually reposition the sound post. Also I discard the factory strings and replace with higher quality strings, the brand predicated upon what I'm trying to achieve with the instrument. Rarely have I had to rework pegs or peg boxes - seems like the luthiers at these small workshops have learned welled.

    It's hard to separate fact from fiction regarding the various tone woods now being used. Many of these suppliers talk about using woods aged for 20, 50, and even 200 year old spruce. The only comment I can make in regard to this is to know your supplier or trust your local dealer, but don't automatically discount Chinese violin. Some of them can present real value for the money!

    April 1, 2016 at 07:29 PM · I have had instruments from Yitamusic that were excellent well made student violins and violas, although I agree with you that generally anything bought online sight unseen can be risky.

    April 1, 2016 at 08:33 PM · America is going to get a president that it deserves. A violin buyer is going to get a violin he deserves.

    April 1, 2016 at 08:36 PM · My perspective is colored by the fact that I acquired a Shanghai-made violin for about $350 that is just shockingly good. It is a "Cannone" pattern violin made by one of the workshops that sells through Yitamusic on Ebay.

    I have been playing about 30 years on a beautifully made violin by a well known American East Coast American luthier. I bought the Chinese violin to use in outdoor jobs and rehearsals where I was traveling by bike -- i.e. something I didn't need to insure or worry about.

    The Shanghai violin is nicely made, done in good taste (no excessive antiquing or garish trim), Italian-style oil varnish, clearly made by a workshop that knows what it is doing. The workshop master is (according to the label) Liu Xi.

    I added a set of Vision Solos and a Westminster stark E, set the bridge that the violin shipped with, and .... wow. I fell in love immediately, and in about a week I decided it would be my primary instrument.

    The violin is powerful in a sweet way, just like elite instruments are, and super responsive. I can play with lighter bow pressure. Performance is solid up the fingerboard, the sound is even across all four strings, middle strings are particularly good. But the best indication the makers knew what they were doing is is the resonance tones. It can produce sustained rings at all kinds of frequencies that I didn't even know about.

    I will probably sell my (formerly) primary violin, which is appraised at quite a lot of money. The Chinese violin is, at least for my playing preference, clearly superior.

    I'd like to say it's a fluke, that I just got lucky, that usually you get what you pay for, that this is 1 in 100. But I don't think so.

    I liked the violin so much, I bought a viola from the same same people for the same price, and it's also excellent. (The viola needed a better bridge and a fix to the nut plus, of course, high quality strings.) It's a plate-tuned viola -- the make is quite sophisticated. It's not at all an accident that it has lovely power and good dark viola overtones.

    I think we must admit that Shanghai is producing some great fiddles. Sure, most of what is produced is student grade or worse -- but the same was true of the German and French and American workshops of the early to mid-20th century.

    We are in an age where the secrets of great violinmaking are no longer secret. Heck, anybody can look up plate tuning techniques on the internet! Aged spruce and maple is not particularly rare.

    And good carving skills are in plentiful supply -- these workshops are making thousands of instruments so the collective skill level, from the sheer repetitions, becomes very high.

    When they set their minds to it -- and this was true of the German workshops as well -- when they really want to make a fine violin, they know how to do it.

    I just think the generalizations about Chinese violins such as this post are outdated.

    Not that I would recommend that inexperienced players or students would do what I did. I would strongly recommend that people buy from a good luthier for service and support. And I doubt that a $100 violin is going to be much good. But $300, $500, $1,000 -- if you buy from the right people, it is amazing what you can get.

    April 2, 2016 at 04:48 PM · I agree with Thomas Boyer. Being an adult beginner that started with a $100 violin, eventually I started investigating and purchased a Yitamusic violin. Two different local luthiers and three different violin teachers have been so impressed that I've purchased a few more over the last couple of years and sold them to conservatory students. I don't even make much of a profit, but it's clear that all of them are now happier with their new Chinese instrument.

    To be honest, it seems to me that Michael is just taking advantage of the overall tone of the article and the reaction he knew he was going to get to silently slip a link to his own shop, where he sells "inexpensive Chinese-made instruments of the highest quality".

    That makes me think that if they can sell a $420 violin and make a profit, it really means it was way cheaper to the shop, so in particular the violin was in the $100-$500 range. This contradicts most of the warnings and apocalyptic scenarios described.

    In my experience, the only change I've ever needed for Yitamusic violins is the strings. The bridges and soundpost have had a perfect fit every single time, and the pegs have been smooth except for a single one that was kind of stuck that I repaired (1 out of 8 violins, that is, 1 out of 32 pegs). The packaging is very delicate with proper padding, and even the smell of wood virtually transports you to a workshop where people know what they're doing, and plastic plays no role whatsoever.

    April 2, 2016 at 09:09 PM · I ordered one cheap violin from KK music and it's fine just Chang the tail piece and the strings to higher quality one's and you will be set for at least a year.Good luck and God bless

    April 3, 2016 at 09:51 PM · @Alejandro Mallea... you hit the nail on the head with everything you said!

    April 3, 2016 at 10:44 PM · To be honest, the comment from Alejandro seems self-promoting (he mentioned he makes money from it in some way). Not once did I say anything about my violins specifically in this article, and my intent is to educate anyone that wants to learn more about Chinese violins, and not specifically sell my violins. I also bring a violin teacher perspective to this article, as I have taught over 500 students in 5 years--all of which had instruments they started on. The statistics of what I have seen regarding the overall trend of what happens when students start on cheaper violins is intended to be useful information. I believe I presented an overall trend that shows that a student has a lot higher chance of quitting the violin if he starts on a cheap Chinese instrument, compared to a higher quality instrument. I know I would want to know that if I was a parent trying to find a violin for my child.

    I am happy to tell you that I think there are many shops out there that provide excellent quality instruments including Shar, Johnson Strings and others (I won't even mention my shop name here). In summary, this article gives detailed reasons why I think it is best to stay away from a violin under $500 from any shop (even mine).

    Furthermore, I don't see much value in working with any shops that don't deal specifically in violin. When I read from Thomas that the violin he likes was a violin purchased on Ebay, it sort of makes me skeptical--do they really know violins and have people specifically that play and improve the process of selling violins? I much rather purchase a Chinese violin from someone that has worked on mastering the trade specifically in stringed instruments, than someone who makes a living selling violins and jewelry on Ebay. The key to this entire process of finding a good Chinese instrument is the process of the shop (as Thomas implied), not the Chinese shop itself. If that was the case, then everyone would buy directly from China.

    I see the best chance in getting a good violin in any price range is by dealing with a shop that has a good reputation and works on mastering the trade. I've seen the Yitamusic blasted all over this site and honestly I don't know how a violin under $500 could be that good consistently from one to the next (I've also never heard of Yitamusic until now--I've been around violins all my life). Sure you can get one great Chinese violin under $500 (maybe even from them) but many people also get shipped the "duds" and many times don't know any better how if it isn't as good as another (or what they are missing). I rather work with a shop that has good instruments in the upper price ranges and start on one of their $500 instruments so that I can trade in the future when the time is right. I'm sorry, but I don't see anybody progressing significantly on the violin with any $500 violin from ANY shop. Under 5 years experience? Maybe. Over that, there is just too much good stuff out there from China that sticking to a $500 violin would definitely be holding you back.

    Honestly, I've seen many students be "happy" with a violin under $500, but the truth of how happy they really were doesn't come out until they explore a higher price range even as a beginner (many don't even reach that point as they end up quitting). I do trust Thomas that violins from Yitamusic are decent, but I bring caution to anyone that is looking for a violin to not rely on any one instrument being good ALL THE TIME under $500. The process of how violins are produced in China just doesn't allow for a magical situation--I would be all over it if there was one.

    By the way Thomas, I didn't understand your comment how my facts and article was outdated. I do violin everyday and never sleep.

    The $300-$500 range honestly does have some good stuff (hit or miss), but I would highly recommend that anybody that is looking in this price range to try out multiple options to make sure they get the best quality possible. That is my honest advice from someone that is truly trying to help.

    April 3, 2016 at 10:59 PM · You're right. I purchased a cheap instrument because that is all I can afford. But down the road, I will upgrade, maybe through rental, because I found I enjoy the instrument and want a better sounding one. Thank you, Michael!

    April 4, 2016 at 03:55 PM · I'm a beginner myself and I have a violin under $400. Don't know it's origin and for now I'm really happy with it. But I do realize I will want something better some day. Thanks for all the good advice in this article!! Will keep it in mind when I'm ready for an upgrade. :-)

    April 5, 2016 at 01:48 PM · Michael, I respect your expertise, but the fact remains, I paid $350 on Ebay for a violin that is absolutely no-question superior to instruments I've played on that cost many thousands of dollars.

    I understand your disbelief. I wouldn't have believed it either. And it may be a total fluke. But it is what it is. I'm an experienced player; I've played on many beautifully made and antique instruments over almost 50 years, and this would hold its own with the very best.

    The only way to settle the argument would be a double-blind audition setup like the ones in Indianapolis and Paris that demolished the the myth of the Stradivarius sound. I suspect if we selected some nice sounding Chinese factory instruments, outfitted and set them up propertly, and blind-auditioned them against instruments by "name" makers -- I wonder if the results would be as surprising and controversial as the Indianapolis and Paris findings were?

    In the meantime, I will get back to Bach sonatas on my delightful and superb violin-shaped object.

    April 5, 2016 at 02:54 PM · Hey Thomas,

    I mentioned above that I think it could be possible, but was speaking to the audience that it isn't something that I think others should rely on. I get told often by other dealers (and experience it myself) that 1/10 violins from China are in the "Gem" category (this is positive). That means they have experienced the perfect storm of setup, craftmanship, wood quality etc. It sounds like that is what you found which is great! If you think about it though (and nothing against that violin), there is also a "Gem" for other price ranges as well. So technically a violin in the $1,000 range that is a "Gem" would probably sound more like a violin in the $3,000-$4,000 range. "Gem" violins are fun to play when they come around--and if anyone out there really wants to put the time in--you could also potentially find one for yourself. Here are some tips to find one of these.

    1. Ask the dealer how many violins he has left in stock of that model. If he says only a few left, most likely it doesn't contain a "Gem." I even shy away from buying violins from wholesalers that are low in stock--it normally means the bottom of the barrel quality (not always).

    2. Ask the dealer to play 5 of the instruments he has left and to pick the top 2 for you to try. Normally a dealer will get the hint that you are very selective with this request and they will be more apt to send you the best that they have (even if he doesn't spend a lot of time testing).

    3. Do an in-home trial with 2-3 instruments and decide which one you like the best. If it doesn't stand out to you and blows you away, it probably isn't a "Gem." When you play it you'll know.

    Hope that helps!

    April 6, 2016 at 01:13 PM · I don't disagree with any of this -- the optimal way to choose a violin is to find a dealer with a lot of violins in various price ranges and play them.

    The only part I disagree with, Michael -- and why I posted on this thread to begin with -- was the blanket negative characterization of violins from China, which I think is outdated.

    Undoubtedly a $100 violin (and I have actually seen outfits for $49) is probably more trouble than it's worth - it will be hard to keep in tune and will need repairs that make it not a good deal.

    And I'm not celebrating Chinese dominance of violin manufacturing -- because we should support luthiers in all corners of the world.

    But just as a matter of factual accuracy I think it must be acknowledged that a lot of the Shanghai workshops are staffed by very competent people who have skills, knowledge and tools every bit as good as workshops in America and Europe. And good quality aged spruce and maple is not rare - it can be acquired by anyone who is committed to finding good quality wood.

    I would guess that violinmaking is a lot like violin playing -- mastery comes to people who invest the magic 10,000 hours that Malcolm Gladwell refers to in "Outliers."

    When you have as many people carving violins as there are in greater Shanghai -- literally thousands of people involved in the industry -- what that means is that the best of them, after a decade or two of experience, are going to be world class makers. And their work won't necessarily be expensive -- it will be priced at, well, whatever it sells for on Ebay.

    April 6, 2016 at 10:17 PM · Hey Thomas,

    Last year, I wrote an article on Violinist (which is linked at the top of this article) about how I prefer violins from China in the $500-$3,000 range over similarly priced European instruments. It got a lot of attention, and still is my true feelings towards Chinese instruments in general (very positive). So honestly I totally agree with you how Chinese makers are getting better and better.

    One thing I'll mention is that some of those Chinese people that are continuing to gain expertise in the industry will start demanding more money (maybe move to Beijing)--thus their violins will demand a higher price. That scenario would explain how a violin in the $2,000 range from China can be so good, as it's being made by a person that has now been mastering the art of Chinese violin making for many years. There is no way that same maker would be able to continue to make violins after 20 years and only get a few bucks for his work. Basic supply and demand right?

    Honestly nobody that I know in the violin world (friends and other dealers) are as Pro-Chinese violins as me. When someone shys away from even trying out one of my Chinese violins in the $2,000 range (just because it is made in China), you can imagine how it can make me cringe. If only they knew how good they really were, and how I'm just trying to recommend the best sounding violins for the best prices to them.

    This frustration might be similar to how you are feeling Thomas, wanting to get your point across about how your violin is so good for the price.

    If I wrote this entire article without mentioning the word China, it would still get the same point across regarding violins under $500 in general. You won't find a lot of violins in that range made in anywhere else other than China, so my finger point at China was based on just the percentages of how many violins are made there compared to other countries. I read somewhere that 95% of violins that are under $200 dealer cost are made in China--pretty incredible.

    So if you want to stay away from violins made in China under the $500 range, you'll find it very challenging (doesn't necessarily mean they would be better anyways). Also, I'd be skeptical if a shop says that they have a violin for under $500 made in Europe. Honestly I'd want to stock that right now as some people live chat me and decide not to even hear one more word from me if I tell them the violin that I recommend in the $400-$500 range is made in China. They probably have had some bad experiences which is unfortunate. By the way, since this is my 3rd comment, I'll finally mention that I do stock violins under $500 made in China that are very good--some are probably just like yours Thomas.

    Good discussion! I'll definitely continue to come back to post articles here and help out in whatever way I can. Great people and awesome conversation!

    Michael Sanchez

    April 7, 2016 at 08:51 PM · I think this is a very useful article! I do believe that Chinese violins can provide excellent value to students with a limited budget. They may not be the best investment, but on a budget of $500-$3000, they are often hard to beat for their playing qualities. I had a student purchase a Chinese violin in the range Michael speaks about, and it compared well in a blind playing test that featured violins up to $14,000. In fact most of my students have ended up with good Chinese violins, and I continue to be impressed with the sound/price ratio. I feel that the violins coming from China will only get better and cheaper, but as many people have said here, it can be hit or miss as well. It's best to always get an objective second opinion when considering buying any violin, and to try it for a week or so. Above all, make sure that you enjoy playing it! There are an infinite amount of Chinese violins in that range to try, so by all means, try several and make sure that you buy from a reputable dealer that will be willing to take yours in on trade when it comes time to upgrade. A Chinese violin will likely not appreciate the same way a Italian violin will, but if the dealer will be willing to take it in on trade, at least you won't risk losing money.

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