You might be trying to find a violin for the very first time as a beginner, or you may be upgrading to a finer instrument after playing for a long time. Here are some tips:
For the beginner
The beginner has two options, either to rent an instrument or make a purchase. While violin rental may be viewed by some as an opportunity to grow acclimated to the instrument, be aware that these are generally lesser-quality instruments that can be extremely frustrating to play upon. The law of diminishing returns applies to rentals, as you begin paying more for a lesser-quality violin that you never will be the owner of; if you rent for more than a year, you may have already paid through the value of the instrument. Some shops will let you apply part of your rental fees towards the purchase of an instrument, but you should always ask about this ahead of time and not count on this being the case.
One good reason for the rental of an instrument would be if you are looking for a child's (undersized) instrument. In this case, it is generally not worth the risk of physical injury to buy an instrument which is too large, thinking that the child will "grow into" it. On the other hand, it is quite expensive to buy a series of increasingly larger instruments (there are 8 basic sizes, and children grow out of their violin sizes at a surprisingly rapid rate.) Besides rental, another option for acquiring a small violin is to find a reputable luthier or music store nearby and ask about their "trade-in policy". Assuming you take care of the instrument, many shops will give you a generous discount on the purchase of the next size up if you bring back your current instrument as a "trade". (Take note that they do this because they want you to be a return customer. For this reason, most places will not give you a trade-in discount for an instrument you did not buy from them).
That said, if you decide to buy a full-size violin, you may well want to go to a violin dealer or a "luthier," which is a person who makes or repairs stringed instruments. In fact, we have a directory of luthiers right here on Violinist.com, as well as a directory of the merchants who support Violinist.com.
When purchasing an instrument from a store, it is always an excellent idea to go in the company of an experienced violinist or luthier. In general, however, the instrument must be solid to the touch with no creaks when you press down (but not too heavily!) anywhere on the violin. If it is possible to test the instrument in-store, all of the open strings should sound full, resonant, and pleasing to the ear.
It is possible to buy a good violin online, but be wary of extremely cheap violins. Here is a link to our article about why an extremely cheap violin may not be a bargain for you. It is best if you can test a violin before making the commitment to buy it.
For buying a higher-quality instrument
If you buy an instrument from a luthier, you will probably be buying the violin, bow and case separately.
It is appropriate to test violins and bows, to play on them, before buying them. If a luthier lives in another city, he or she can send you violins or bows to try out for a time, after which you can decide on one, or send them all back and buy none, or ask for some others to try. It is also appropriate to negotiate the purchase price of the instrument.
If you are going to a violin shop, most have a room or a place where you can test out an instrument that interests you.
Do not come straight out and tell the dealer your price range. They may have an intent to mark-up violin's prices on the spot if the instruments do not have a price tag. Only if the instruments have tags on them with clear pricing should you tell them your price range. Try to test only instruments you can afford. If none are to your liking, keep looking elsewhere.
Modern instruments, made by a luthier who is still living, tend to be less expensive than older instruments. An older instrument is valuable not only because of the sound it makes and the beauty of its construction, but because of its antique value, and because it is necessarily a "limited edition" if its maker is dead and no longer creating violins!
An older instrument can be an excellent investment. But there are many modern makers whose instruments sound as good, and if you are on a budget, this may be the way to go. A new instrument, if played well (in tune, for maximum resonance), can "open up," and it is quite exciting to be the person that helps shape the fiddle's voice.
As far as bows are concerned, a bow needs to have good weight, flexibility and balance between frog and tip. This is not always easy to gauge, and requires spending some time with the bow. If it is too heavy, it can strain your hand and even cause injury over time. If it is too light, it can make it difficult to produce a big sound.
If it is either too flexible or too stiff, it will be less nimble in your hands. If it is not balanced, it will be difficult to execute advanced bow stroke such as spiccato (bouncing bow), sautille (really fast bouncing bow), ricochet (bouncing several times on a down bow or up bow) or other strokes.
Do not forget to use one of your best resources: your teacher. Bring the violins and bows to your teacher, or ask your teacher to come with you to help pick something out. If you don't have a teacher any more, don't forget to use the ears of your musician friends. Realize, however, that neither your teacher or your violinist friends are likely to be experts in the actual construction of the instrument and can only offer an experienced opinion on the sound of the violin and point out any glaring problems.
Therefore, it's a good idea to have the violin "vetted out" by a trusted luthier. A good luthier will likely be able to verify the maker and/or approximate age of the violin. More importantly, he or she will be able to tell if the instrument is well or poorly made or if it has any structural problems.
Go to a big hall and play for someone, or let the other person play so you can hear what the violin sounds like from across the room, what impression it gives. Try to play the violin in as many rooms as possible - from large halls to your practice room - to assess fully the capabilities of the instrument.
But, most importantly, do not ever buy a violin that you either don't like or have doubts about.
Luthiers and friends do have influence on your opinion, therefore do not forget that you should be the one to pick the instrument after all. Believe in your thoughts. There is nothing worse than playing on an instrument that you bought for a lot of money and don't really like!
After playing for a while, you may decide it's time to upgrade your violin. If your teacher tells you that you are working too hard to get the sound from the instrument--this is sometimes one indicator that it might be time to upgrade. If you feel that you are ready to upgrade; make sure that you know how to test an instrument for tone, response, projection, etc. Use skilled friends and teachers to help you with this.
Before getting an upgrade, explore the question of whether a refitting by a qualified luthier could make your old instrument come to life. This is sometimes the case, and often adjustments such as gluing seams (which routinely come unglued and can radically diminish the violin's sound) or moving the soundpost slightly can make a radical difference.
Expectations of value
A common expectation is that a violin is an investment and will rise in value over time. This is possibly true for very expensive violins but certainly no one should expect dramatic appreciation on a violin purchased for less than $100,000. The economics of dealing in violins makes this very implausible and the market for the private sale of violins is not well developed.
Most violins will hold their value as long as you trade the violin for another more expensive violin from the dealer who sold you the instrument. Dealers may also offer you trades at similar value for instruments you purchased elsewhere. If you quit playing the violin and decide to sell it altogether you could see a significant decline in its value. You may decide to save it for a child or grandchild or to donate it to a school and take a tax deduction.