A funny thing happened on my way to try a violin

June 5, 2017, 6:27 AM · As a rank beginner, I've been renting a cheap VSO from a nearby violin shop. My teacher has deemed it "nice enough" and "set up well", but eventually I'll probably want to buy my own instrument. So, I had my first attempt to try out violins yesterday.

There's a local guy who lists two or three older European violins on craigslist every month for pretty cheap. Recently he listed a violin made by Etienne Vatelot from the mid 1950s for a very good price. So I arranged to meet him Sunday afternoon. I brought along my extensive repertoire of recent works, including not only "Twinkle Twinkle" but "Baa Baa Black Sheep" and "the ABC song" as well.

I arrive at his modest workshop and meet him. He's a very nice man. We chat for a bit - seems he's an ex-guitar player who now plays bluegrass fiddle. He pulls out his two least expensive violins, the Vatelot and a 1969 German instrument he just got in trade at a fiddlers convention the past weekend.

I pick up the French instrument, and look it over carefully, applying my full 6 weeks' worth of expertise. Yes, it seems all the parts are there. No cracks or splits or screws or duct tape. It looks like it's been played a bit over its life, but otherwise it looks pretty good.

So now it's time to hear how it sounds. I pluck the strings and - it's horribly out of tune. I turn to the seller, who looks back at me and asks "Is it out of tune? Let me get my tuner." He tells me he just put a new set of strings on it. He says he has a terrible ear for pitch, so when he plays he just tunes the strings with the tuner and goes from there. But this isn't even close. The A string is lower than the D. Then again, at least the A string is tuned to an A, even if it's the wrong octave - nothing else is within a half tone of where it's supposed to be.

He pulls out a clip-on tuner and asks me to "tune it like I want". I get the G, D, and E strings reasonably in tune, but the A string is really, REALLY tight - every time I get it to about f-sharp it slips back. I tell him something is wrong - perhaps it's the wrong string - and hand it back to him.

He gets a pair of calipers to measure the strings. The "A" string (N.B. my use of quotes) was .02 mm thinner than the D string, so he thought it was probably okay. Maybe they mislabeled the string in the pack he used. He put some drops on the peg so it would hold better and told me to try to tighten it anyway. He tells me, "The worst that can happen is the string breaks".

Well, he was wrong. I turn the peg to a little bit above G when I hear a loud crunch. Instead of the string breaking, the bridge snapped. Not just fell, but cracked in half. Whoops. Once again, I hand him the violin.

"Oh, this is embarrassing. I'm really sorry about this", he tells me. He lets me try to cheap German fiddle. It's heavier than the French one. It plays well to my novice specs, but I notice it's a bit bright and I'm having trouble bowing cleanly on one string. I thought this was due to me not knowing how to bow properly, but he tells me it has cheap strings, and bluegrass fiddlers like to shave the bridge flatter to make double stops easier. He'd "fix it" for me if I was interested. He then pulls out an 1870s German fiddle that he has for sale for over $2000. More than I plan on spending at the moment, but I can tell it sounds better and plays much easier than my cheap rental. It looked and sounded like a very good instrument - not sure which of the instruments was the outlier.

He told me on parting that he'd let me know when he cut a new bridge and restrung the Vatelot, but I don't know if I'll be back. He did seem like a very nice, honest guy who just made a mistake. He did have a small selection of very reasonably priced instruments, sells them on approval (I can take the instrument home/to my lesson/etc.), and accepts trade in/trade up. But I wonder about a luthier who's tone deaf and can't tell an A string from a D string. It might be safer to go to one of the violin shops in town, even if they're a bit more expensive...

Replies (26)

June 5, 2017, 6:36 AM · Was he going to cut the new bridge himself? If he can't put the strings in the right place i would not trust him to be able to do a good job of cutting bridges.....
June 5, 2017, 7:45 AM · There seems to be two, possibly three people here out of their element: you, the "luthier" and maybe your teacher. I'd never have a 6-week student go select a violin themselves in that price range. On what basis can they judge violins? I would have them bring back 2 or 3 so that I could inspect them.

Also, I'm not sure why he needed calipers to that it was a A- string. Any experienced luthier should see immediately from the windings on the string which one it is.

June 5, 2017, 7:57 AM · Wow...You did good for six weeks in!!!
June 5, 2017, 8:01 AM · A very entertaining story and no doubt a very educational experience for you! Welcome to the wonderful world of strings and wood!
June 5, 2017, 8:04 AM · I agree with Scott. It is too early to buy a violin on your own. Rent first until you see if your interest in violin is temporary or permanent.
June 5, 2017, 9:35 AM · Scott and Rocky,

I am currently renting a violin. This was just a spur of the moment curiosity-fulfilling expedition. Even at my level, I could tell the difference between the Scott Cao I'm renting and the 1870s German violin; and I agree I'm not ready to purchase such an instrument yet.

But no experience is a bad experience if you learn something from it, correct?

June 5, 2017, 1:19 PM · Yes, experience is good. But when you're talking $1-2K, it's really in YOUR best interest to have someone with more experience take a look.
June 5, 2017, 1:54 PM · Scott Cao makes "VSOs"?
June 5, 2017, 3:07 PM · Craig: from what i have read and heard, their lowest priced are.
June 5, 2017, 3:15 PM · You've got a nice song list under your belt..!
June 5, 2017, 8:29 PM · Madeye, you can accumulate a lot of experience by trying violins, as long as the dealers allow you to. Nothing wrong with it. We just want you to save enough money for your first Strad!

R

June 6, 2017, 12:22 AM · Oh my! That's pretty funny!
Well, maybe not, since there may be people who actually purchase violins from this guy.
June 6, 2017, 12:30 AM · I was done and trying to turn off the alarm siren after reading this bit:

'He says he has a terrible ear for pitch, so when he plays he just tunes the strings with the tuner and goes from there.'

I'm not sure if I'd want to hear his fiddling! Probably a nice enough chap with honest intentions, but that scares me a little. After playing for just a few days on a properly tuned instrument you should be able to realize something is majorly out of whack when it's that de-tuned. I worry mostly about how far he will advance if he is that tone-deaf.

June 6, 2017, 12:30 AM · I was done and trying to turn off the alarm siren after reading this bit:

'He says he has a terrible ear for pitch, so when he plays he just tunes the strings with the tuner and goes from there.'

I'm not sure if I'd want to hear his fiddling! Probably a nice enough chap with honest intentions, but that scares me a little. After playing for just a few days on a properly tuned instrument you should be able to realize something is majorly out of whack when it's that de-tuned. I worry mostly about how far he will advance if he is that tone-deaf.

June 6, 2017, 6:02 AM · @Michael: Most players I have seen with less than about 3 years of playing experience will tune slightly out of tune to the piano/tuner pitches.

A few days, I would think myself blessed to have a mini Heifetz in the room! ;D

Edited: June 6, 2017, 6:48 AM · Forget the broken bridge...what about the damage to the top caused by the fine tuner(s) when it snapped? Also, many luthiers like the one you describe wear glasses with super thick lenses, and even so still have a hard time fitting a new bridge with precision. Any chance you can share with us his web site so that some here can recommend something from his inventory for you?
Edited: June 6, 2017, 6:55 AM · I was laughing all the way through. You could be a writer.

It is true that fiddlers use a flatter bridge. Never liked it, but once I used a fiddle bridge a I got used to it eventually. Bowing using a "normal" bridge was somewhat easier afterwards, though it was harder to do double stops after getting used to the flatter bridge.

I guess there are some reasons to not come back, but I'd say you may as well try one of his violins. He says he allows you to try out the violin before you buy, so you could take them to your lesson and ask your teacher if it seems like a good deal.

June 6, 2017, 6:20 PM · @ A.O but a full octave off, and a semi-tone at least for the rest? I could understand a range of anything between 0-15 cents out of tune, but that's a bit of more of a jump.

The A string can be accounted for by using the tuner - it likely just says 'A' and not 'A3/4/5'. The way it sounds is that the poor gentlemen had no idea. The 'tune it like I want' comment as well - wouldn't like he want be the same?

Anyway I'm not really trying to cast aspersion or judgment, just commenting on something that made me uncomfortable. The man very well could have made an honest mistake - they are new strings as well - and the retelling of the story will by it's nature of being second hand have slightly skewed perceptions. Memory is a fickle thing.

Really I just hope Madeye gets the instrument he desires :)

June 6, 2017, 6:43 PM · I just listened to Bah Bah Blacksheep for the first time. Isn't that basically the same melody as Twinkle Twinkle?
June 6, 2017, 6:45 PM · Hey Dexter,

I have a real surprise for you. Try singing the ABC's too!

June 6, 2017, 6:51 PM · Michael, wow, they are all the same melody! I am always late at catching humor.
July 1, 2017, 12:47 PM · Madeye Hobbit:
Have you seen the violin refurbisher & seller on ebay under the name of old-violin-international? The are JB Violin on youtube (in Portugal).

I am an adult just now learning to play the violin and am looking for an older Guarneri model violin that I'll likely be getting from this seller because they really seem to care about giving new life to older violins. I'm in the U.S. and they ship for free even to here.

For every single violin they sell, they attach a video of the violin describing everything they repaired, replaced, etc, and a musician playing that exact violin (and he's very good!). They have over 2,400 100% positive feedback.

https://www.ebay.com/sch/old-violin-international/m.html?item=311904992509&ssPageName=STRK%3AMEBIDX%3AIT&rt=nc&_trksid=p2047675.l2562

https://www.youtube.com/channel/UChv7_fsqehzwpD0ylrww6Uw

July 1, 2017, 1:00 PM · Their prices are pretty much full retail, and some of the labels look photocopied, brand new. Judging from how they fit their bridges they're not highly qualified luthiers, either. But they probably are consistent. I see they list the same violins week after week, and they hardly ever sell???
July 1, 2017, 1:02 PM · If you're going to buy from a big ebay dealer, I think Corilion would be better luthiers, although their prices are pretty close to full retail, also, and the detail of their pictures sucks.
July 1, 2017, 1:36 PM · I think Corilions appraisals are much more reliable than old violin international's.
July 1, 2017, 2:23 PM · Corilon is cheaper at their website (at least comparing German ebay). They make the violin more expensive to get the ebay fees out. If you buy at corilons, dont use ebay.

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