There is endless discussion in the media about the price and value of violins at the top end of the market. In recent years the Guadagnini that belonged to renowned Juilliard violin teacher Dorothy DeLay sold for $1.4 million and the ‘Lady Blunt’ Stradivarius violin was auctioned for a staggering $16 million. Experts tell us that attribution, condition and sound of an old violin are the key factors in determining its value.
But where do we go for advice about buying a second hand violin for a child? Centuries of violin making means that there is a large selection of pre-owned instruments on the market. The quality of these instruments varies widely, however, so although we faithfully drive our kids to music lessons each week and put our best efforts into finding quality, good value instruments for them, we still come up short when it comes to finding good information on buying second hand children’s violins. When the time comes for our child to start lessons or change to a bigger size and we hear of a used instrument for sale it’s tempting to think: Well that’s easier than going shopping, it also sounds pretty cheap – just tell me where to pick it up!
So how do we know if an instrument is worth the price being asked? Are old violins better than new ones? Should I expect to pay more or less for a second hand violin than a new instrument? Is a second hand student violin a good investment? What should I look out for when buying a second hand violin? To help those in the market for a change in instrument, I’ve written down some thoughts.
How do I know whether buying a second hand violin is the right choice?
Generally speaking, violins (or violas or cellos) are like almost any other purchase you make: except for certain professional instruments, they are most valuable when they are new and will not increase in value over time. This is especially true for beginner instruments. With good care, however, they can last for many years. This means it’s entirely possible for buyers to find a good deal in a second hand violin. To help you get started in your search, here is my checklist of 12 things to look out for when buying a second hand violin:
1. If you are buying a pre-used instrument privately, then you’ll want assurance that it has been well cared for. Is the body in good condition? Minor scratches or chips on the varnish are not serious but cracks or chunks out of the wood will need to be repaired or they tend to get worse.
2. How does it look overall? Looks will matter more for those making more expensive purchases, but even beginner instruments should be attractive, and look sturdy and well-made. It’s also much nicer to play a violin that you like to look at!
3. The fingerboard should be straight, smooth and even, or it may need to be re-planed or replaced.
4. Set-up: good fittings mean the instrument is easier tuned, maintained and played. Is the bridge correctly placed and shaped? Look at it from the side – is it straight up and down or bending towards the fingerboard? If starting to lean forwards it may be possible just to straighten it up but if it’s bending heavily it will need to be replaced. If the bridge is too tall, the strings will sit too high above the fingerboard making it difficult to place the fingers. Also look inside the violin to check the sound post is fitted upright. It definitely should not be missing or rolling around inside the violin!
5. Are the pegs in good shape? Are the holes for the strings running directly through the pegs and consistently placed throughout all four pegs? The pegs should turn smoothly but still stay in place. Stiff pegs will probably be fine with some peg paste, easily found in a music store.
6. Old rosin on the violin and bow can most likely be removed with violin/bow cleaner.
7. How does the instrument sound? Think about this: everyone in the house is going to hear this violin being played. You want an instrument that sounds pleasant, and that you will be happy to hear in practice!
8. Are the strings fairly new and of good quality? Very thin, old, steel strings will sound poor. So replacing these with a high quality set could make a world of difference to the violin. You’ll most likely want to replace the strings on any instrument you buy second hand. Someone who doesn’t need the violin and is therefore selling probably won’t have changed the strings on it for a while.
9. The bow hair should be loose and the screw easily turned. Do also check that the hair is not too long: Let the bow down as far as it can go. If the hair is like a hammock, it is too long. Over tightening and age make the hair stretch.
10. Hold the bow out in front of you and look down the stick. Is it perfectly straight? If it bends to one side, or the wood is warped, then it’s no good any more. This can happen when the bow has not been well maintained.
11. The condition of the case: Does the zip go all the way round without getting stuck? Does the buckle work? Are the handle and straps still properly attached? Are the bow clips (inside) in place and turning easily (these are cheap so easy to replace, but they are needed for the security of the bow when it’s packed away). Is it light enough for your child to carry comfortably?
12. Keep in mind you can easily find a new bow and case so if you really like the violin, then it’s not too important if the outfit isn’t perfect.
Are these points deal breakers?
While some of the above issues may be easily fixed, too many things needing changed could add up to more hassle and cost than the instrument is worth. It might also be a sign that the owners haven’t really understood how to care for the instrument, so it may not be a great prospect to start with. Of course you may well find a great second-hand violin, with no work needed, the above is provided so you know what to look for. If you have already bought a second hand violin and it looks to be in good condition but doesn’t sound great, try fitting it with a quality set of strings. This is one quick and relatively cheap way of making an instant improvement to its sound and playability.
When buying a second hand violin, it is wise to think through the above points. Know what you are prepared to take on and how much work you are happy to do to bring the instrument up to a good playing standard. Good luck and happy shopping!
What's your experience in buying a second hand violin? Would love to hear your thoughts on the subject - please leave a comment below, thank you! ~ Rhoda
Rhoda Barfoot is a violinist and experienced strings teacher and is Director of The Strings Family. If you have a question about stringed instruments or music study Just Ask Rhoda at thestringsfamily.eu/ask-rhoda The more qu's I receive the better the resource will be so please don't be shy!Tweet
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