Laurie's Violin School: What Violin Should You Buy?

October 20, 2014, 12:25 PM · Why get a nice violin for your student, if you aren't sure that he or she is "serious" about the violin?

If you enroll your child (or yourself!) in violin lessons, you should be serious enough about the endeavor to try to ensure success, and having a decent instrument is one part of that equation (along with adequate practice time and space, and a good teacher).

All violins are NOT created equal. One can see that just from the price range: about $20 for the cheapest Internet imports vs. tens of millions of dollars for an old Italian Stradivarius. There is a lot in between! Price does not always correlate with the "best" violin for you, particularly when one gets into the $10,000+ range. But below a certain point, a lower price does point to a certain amount of corner-cutting. Anything below about $1,000 for a full-size, and you need to watch what you are buying. Actually, no matter what, you need to watch what you are buying!

First, what's the problem with a cheap violin? If you'd like the long answer, here is the article I wrote about it. In short, if the violin is of bad quality, it's not very fun to play. It's nearly impossible to use the pegs and fine tuners. So it's out-of-tune most of the time. You put your fingers in the right places, and it's still out of tune. You try to use the bow the way your teacher says, and the sound is still squeaky, thin, tinny. The pitch bends. It's not pretty to look at. It smells funny. It feels funny. You try really, really hard to make it sound nice, and it never does, because it's impossible to make it sound nice.

What makes for a "good" violin?

1. Sound. Does it have a pleasing tone; does it respond to vibrato; does it resonate?

2. Fit. For a child, make sure you are getting the right size violin. (Here is more information on determining that.) More advanced students will want to consider: Does it fit your hand? How thick is the neck; can you get around the fingerboard easily? Does it feel particularly heavy or unwieldy? Not all violins are exactly the same shape, so it's important to get the right one for you.

3. Ease of tuning. Do the pegs work? Are they made of plastic or wood? Do they turn easily, or do they stick and slip? Are the fine-tuners metal or plastic? Do they work? Do they appear like they'll hold up under hundreds of tunings?

3. Set-up. Is the bridge set up properly? Is the bridge well-crafted or does it look thick and cheap? Is the soundpost in the right place? This greatly affects how the sound functions. You may need the help of your teacher or of a trusted violin maker to determine this.

4. Composition of the violin. Is the bottom made of maple, the top made of spruce? Is the fingerboard made of ebony or something similar? Those are the basics, and there are variations. But a violin made of cheap, improperly seasoned wood will not sound as good or hold up in the same way.

5. Craftsmanship. Is it made well? Are the seams glued properly? Is the purfling inlaid or just painted on? Is the finish and varnish attractive? Does it smell weird? Sure, some of this is cosmetic. But year-over-year, the sturdiness and beauty of good craftsmanship makes a difference.

How about a cheap violin that is old? Or one that you found in the attic? Keep in mind, when it comes to violins, old is very often (but not always) better than new. Time helps weed out really bad violins -- if it is a truly horrible instrument, people tend not to bother keeping it. You may be able to fix up an old violin and have it sound very nice. You may be able to buy an old violin for cheap, but still wind up having a nice violin. But watch out: you also may have to spend a lot of money to fix it. If the violin has cracks or open seams, you'll need to have a violin maker repair them. You'll need new strings, possibly a new bridge, have the soundpost checked, get new tuners or pegs, etc. So be prepared to pay something for repairs if you want to use the fiddle in the attic, and have a violin teacher or maker look it over and tell you if this will really be worthwhile before you commit.

I hope this helps, and I invite you to add any more considerations to the above list!

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October 21, 2014 at 11:51 AM · Nice!

You might like to add a comment that all violins need some maintenance at some point.

I know people who NEVER change their strings. I know of people who change their strings more often than needed.

Same with rehairing...

Since the need for maintenance varies greatly, just a general rule of thumb would be handy. For example, for the 'average student', I'd suggest yearly string changes, and perhaps rehairing yearly as well...or when x amount of hair is lost...whichever comes first?

October 21, 2014 at 03:41 PM · NA Mohr has identified a really vexing problem for non-professionals buying violins, and not just at the lowest levels: Violins are usually purchased "as is" but we often can't tell which of the various weaknesses can be corrected by minor adjustments, new strings, or other tweaks that might add up to no more than 10% of the cost of a violin. If you go to a shop to look at $10,000 violins, it's pretty rare that the shop is going to let you try that violin with a different set of strings, or a freshly cut bridge, or that they'll let you move the sound post around or shim up the nut. On the other hand there are some things that are remedied so trivially that they're hardly worth mentioning such as pegs that don't work (get PegHeds) or poorly functioning fine-tuners (get a Wittner tail piece).

October 21, 2014 at 04:50 PM · It seems to me that once you're looking at 10 grand and up, it should be quite well setup to start with. While shimmying nuts and swapping bridges or tailpieces is probably out of the question, usually you can take home the instrument on a trial basis. Nothing stopping you from trying any strings you want as long as you return it with the original set if you're not buying it.

If you're seriously considering the purchase, I can't imagine the luthier wouldn't move a sound post around for you to insure it gives the result you went if possible.

October 21, 2014 at 08:33 PM · Paul, getting a new tailpiece or geared pegs is no trivial fix, and it isn't certainly isn't worth installing on a substandard instrument, particularly the pegs.

October 22, 2014 at 12:54 AM · I recommend renting for beginners, especially for children using fractional sized violins.

October 22, 2014 at 06:28 AM · Perhaps even more important is that as you grow as a player, you most likely will outgrow the potential of the (cheaper, or not so well chosen) first violin.

Think of acquiring instruments as a process not an endpoint.

It may seem tempting to just "get it over with" and get a really really good one. But you don't really know what you want until you've played--and you are not likely to know what the true market value of your fiddle is until you've been round the block (and lost some dough) before.

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