If you are new to the violin, you might be tempted to buy one of the low-priced violins advertised all over the Internet – by low-priced I mean anything under about $300.
Don't do it.
Having a cheap violin will make an already-difficult skill even more difficult to learn and will cause persistent frustration in your practice. Your violin will refuse to be in tune, the angle and placement of the strings will be off, the tone of the instrument will be squeaky and unappealing, and the tuners will likely bend and break.
The Internet if flooded with cheap, factory-made violins from China, priced impossibly low. This low price point makes a $400 violin seem like a bad deal, but this is actually a reasonable price for a student violin made from good-quality wood with a fitted bridge, fitted pegs, etc.
How can you tell the difference between a quality fractional-sized or full-sized violin and a substandard "violin-shaped object," or "VSO"?
One fairly reliable indicator is the fingerboard. Is it made from ebony? Ebony is the best wood for violin fingerboards, and it is naturally black. A VSO typically has a fingerboard made from a light wood that has been painted black, said Tom Metzler of Metzler Violin Shop in Glendale, Calif. If you turn the instrument at an angle, you can check for brown patches on the underside of the fingerboard, close to where it has been attached to the fiddle. If you find brown patches, that is one indication that the fingerboard has been painted, and that it is not ebony.
If you look underneath this violin fingerboard, you will see the "unpainted" patch. That fingerboard is definitely not made of ebony!
When the fingerboard has been made from cheaper wood that isn't ebony, it is more susceptible to warping, which causes the fingerboard either to be curved upward, or to have a counter-curve, making it more difficult to play. It can also cause rattling and squeaking, if the string vibrates against the fingerboard.
The cheap VSOs generally come with one-size-fits-all bridges that are rather thick and squarish. A quality violin has a bridge with feet that are individually fitted to stand properly on that specific violin. If you look at the feet of the bridge and there are gaps underneath, the bridge probably was not fitted to the fiddle. This can cause instability, making the bridge fall down more easily and also making it lean instead of stand upright.
The top of the bridge should be arched and sloped down to the E-string, to create the proper angle for the bow to touch each string. In a VSO, this often is not the case, the strings may be on a simple, non-sloping arch or possibly almost like a row. If all the strings site straight in a row, it's very difficult to play on one string without hitting another. This business with the angle of the bridge is more important than you might think; you feel it constantly when you play. If the angles are well-calibrated you will feel an ease in crossing strings; if not, there will be persistent frustration.
A poorly-made VSO bridge, on the left, and a properly fitted bridge that slopes down the E string, on the right.
Having the feet of the bridge sit "just so" on top of the violin makes a significant difference in the sound of the violin, the way it transfers into the belly of the fiddle. Another sound issue can involve the sound post, which is rather hidden from view. The sound post sits underneath the right side of the bridge, inside the violin, and is critical in transferring the sound from the vibrating strings into the violin. It is important that it fits just right and that it stays standing. Unfortunately, in a VSO, "usually they are cut far from the mark, fall over easily and don't transfer the sound properly," Metzler said.
If the bridge is too high, it raises the strings too high. When you are pressing your fingers down on the strings, high strings can feel very uncomfortable and also hinder the speed of your fingers. If the strings are too low, they can vibrate against the fingerboard, causing undesirable squeaking and rattling.
Another question to ask: Is the purfling simply painted onto the violin? The "purfling" is that little double line that traces the shape of the violin. It's supposed to be a thin layer of inlaid wood, which protects the body of the violin. If a maker has "cut corners" here, it's likely that other details have been short-changed.
Also, the neck may not be carved – someone with more violin experience would be able to tell if a neck is not carved from simply feeling it. The un-carved neck on a cheap violin might work all right in the beginning, but as soon as the student starts using higher positions, it can cause awkwardness and hinder a student's ability to work well in higher positions.
You can also look at the label. Generally, a good-quality instrument has a label inside that says who made it, where it was made, and in what year it was made. You can find the label by peeking inside the left "f" hole. VSOs often have no label at all. To be fair, some finer violins also have no label, but it's another thing to check.
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