V.com weekend vote: Have you ever made a bad violin purchase?

July 27, 2019, 2:25 PM · I have to confess: even with all my preaching about staying away from really awful violins, I have been the fool that has bought such a violin. Perhaps it is that experience that has made me so vigilant about finding good violins for my student and recommending good violins to all of you.

cheap violin

My first bad violin was not extremely cheap, it was simply a student violin that sounded absolutely terrible. As a nine-year-old with non-musical parents, I just didn't know the difference when we went to the violin shop. I wanted that violin because it had a pretty case -- lesson learned! Thankfully my grandmother had a nice-quality violin that I got to use for most of my childhood. Strangely my awful violin actually increased in value because it was a Roth, but it was a Roth that was not made in the prime years of Roth violins.

My second incident of bad judgment was worse. This was when I was teaching a program at a public school, where funding was insufficient to cover the cost of the high number of violins that we needed for the children, who were first-graders. The school had some money, and thank goodness I insisted that we get good-quality violins for the school-owned violins. But a mother came to me with a plan for all the other kids, she had found a bargain from a shop that imported violins, we could get them for $29 apiece! I acquiesced to this and regretted it for the duration of the time I taught there. Unsurprisingly, these were VSOs, "violin-shaped objects." They sounded horrible, and many could barely be tuned. I also got to see a little experiment in action: the kids with the nice violins practiced noticeably more than those with the cheap squeakboxes. They had better attitudes and liked violin class more. They also tended to stick with the violin after the program was over.

Another lesson learned. I became very adamant after that, about young students having decent-quality instruments.

So there it is, I've confessed to you some of my personal mistakes, when it comes to buying violins. It happens even when we have the best intentions! Have you ever made a similar mistake? For the vote, I've made several categories, which I've described below. Please choose the one that describes your most regrettable violin purchase, and then share your experiences in the comments below.

Here are the categories of bad violin purchases:

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July 27, 2019 at 07:51 PM · When I was a kid, moving up from a half-size to a three-quarter, one of my teachers sold me a violin that she claimed was awesome. It was basically a VSO at a non-VSO price that my parents had to really stretch to afford, and it was much worse than my rather good old Mittenwald half-size. She outright cheated us, pretty much.

July 27, 2019 at 08:37 PM · I cannot blame the more expensive violin, my teacher could make it sing, I, on the other hand, struggled for the occasional note and even more rare passage where it sang for me. I had purchased it at the suggestion of my teacher but it was at a time in my life when time to practice was, thanks to my high-travel job, rare. So, I sold it for what I paid for it and went back to my original violin which qualifies as cheap with a good sound.

After a few years of not playing much at all, I changed jobs and got back to playing (my teacher died in that non-playing period). Retired, no pressure and just playing for myself and my own enjoyment, I got better intonation and performance. Perhaps I could get the Schnable to sing for me now, but somebody else is its guardian now.

July 27, 2019 at 08:47 PM · Nothing awful so far. I haven't made any purchases recently -- the last being in summer 2005. This was after a 2-week in-home comparison tryout of several fiddles. It really helps to take your time and get plenty of comparison. Ditto for playing the instrument with different bows and trying it out in different acoustics.

July 27, 2019 at 09:06 PM · I rolled the dice, so to speak, on one unlabeled, literally homemade US fiddle just because it was really cheap and intriguingly weird. Its actual dimensions are closer to baroque than modern, and I have no idea whether the unknown maker (in Maine, reportedly) even used a pattern or just eyeballed it. By nature it's obnoxiously bright bordering on shrill, but I still have it mainly for the "whaaat?" factor. Besides, I've played in one old-time-ish setting where the other people involved actually preferred the sound of this one to a decent midrange modern violin. So it's an oddball, but I don't know if I could honestly call it bad. Generally unappealing, maybe?

I did have one objectively bad fiddle, bought used for something like $225 from a private party I trusted and shouldn't have. I wound up giving it away, along with a healthy serving of caveats.

July 27, 2019 at 09:13 PM · How do i check all the boxes? ive made several purchases on ebay. the first was a VSO but it didnt sound all that bad. i bought that one because I didnt know how long id stick to it. i was good enough for tje first year. being an adult i knew i could do better. i purchased a few older fixer uppers that weren't much better. i found a good workshop violin that i added fitting to (well a luthier did) i still use it after 6 years. it has served me well. Now i want a legit violin that will sound great and make me happy. ill get that one at a real shop so I can hear it and be choosy.

July 27, 2019 at 11:16 PM · I didn't ever purchase a really bad fiddle. Just some with "issues"...

* The very first violin I had was a free loan from a friend's friendly relative. Probably it really was the 18th century French it claimed to be, maybe it was just a late 19th century trade violin. Who cares, it sounded decent enough for a beginner, and was of decent craftsmanship, but was basically unplayable with its sunken neck that pointed to the left for at least 10°. My luthier meant that the necessary repair cost might exceed it's value. Still I'm not sure about that, maybe he just didn't want to work on it.

* My "Nr.2"-viola has a faked label, a varnish that can only be regarded as ugly, suffers from an antiquing job done so ridiculously that one might believe it was done by a frustrated toddler, and although it smelled strange, it definitely isn't of Chinese origin, since nothing from a Chinese factory would look that weird. But it's a usable instrument with an even decent sound, definitely more useful than an 8k-instrument I was offered before purchasing my "Nr.1", it cost me next to nothing, and it's perfect for locations where I cannot keep an eye on it. Originally I bought it to leave it in my office. Now it's on free loan to a professional violinist friend who's occasionally in need of a viola. I don't think that I will ever be able to sell it, but I really don't care about an investment of €350 (including the geared pegs and a new set of strings I installed, and a new sound post). After all, this got me an instrument that plays really well, even if it's hard to fall in love with it...

* There were times when I really didn't like the E on my Nr.1-violin. No matter the strings I used, no matter the sound post position, it sounded shrill. This was when I learned do draw a big sound. I thought about a trade in, but this would have exceeded my budget. Now I know that it was mainly myself, and a bow that didn't match. I've at least two good bows now that are a good match now, learned how to tame it, and couldn't be happier.

July 28, 2019 at 12:49 AM · I had a 3/4 violin that was absolutely awful sound-wise.

When I moved to full size, we bought a hand-made violin from someone my dad knew. I hated the sound of that violin from the start and waited at least 2 years for it to improve before insisting on something that sounded better.

My next 4/4 was a beautiful instrument with a lovely rich sound that others always commented on. Unfortunately I didn't realize that the fact it had to be squeezed into my fitted case, was because it was a little thicker and broader than most 4/4 violins. I already had short, stiff thumb easily strained wrist, and miniscule pinky, and this violin proved the death knell for my possible violining career.

In recent years I bought a very expensive instrument by AE Smith, which is conventional Guerneri sized and has a truly professional tone. My left wrist is happier and I can reach higher notes than with the bigger violin.

It took me decades to realize what really worked for me. Such a pity that my teachers and mentors back in the day did not realize what my challenges were and perhaps how to address them. On the other hand, my 2nd career as a violin teacher is all the more awesome because I spent a couple of decades working in Allied Health, which I was very glad to escape at last :-)

July 28, 2019 at 12:52 AM · I had an experience similar to Lydia's. My teacher showed me two violins that he was recommending, and which his friend was selling. I got to choose between them. They sounded the same to me. They were both made by the same maker. Logically, I picked the pretty one -- the one made of bird's eye. This was my first full-size violin and I used it through to the end of high school. The price was $400 in 1976. I don't have any reason to think that he cheated me (for example by taking a kickback) but I think he was more interested in helping his friend sell a violin than finding a good one for me.

Fast forward to being reborn as a returner, 25 years later. My teacher told me my violin sounded "stuffed." I showed it to Dalton Potter who declared it hopeless. He said it was way too heavy, built like a tank, etc. To top it off, he told me it's not even a full size violin ... it's a 7/8. I took it to a luthier in Richmond who offered to regrade the top for a very low price so I let him do it. It helped a little .. but only a little. So I bought a new violin and I'm very happy with it. It's a 2006 Topa.

July 28, 2019 at 01:14 AM · Not a bad violin, but for most of my student years I had a 19th cent. french violin that had a nice tone, but was never loud enough to get noticed. I was told that I had a "small sound". One conductor said I was the master of the pianissimo.

July 28, 2019 at 02:03 AM · When I was first interested in learning violin I bought a random violin for $60 on craigslist. It was legit unplayable and a piece of junk. To be honest, shopping on craigslist if fine if you know what to look for and can solidly try the instrument, but back then I was very naive so I knew nothing.

July 28, 2019 at 02:13 PM · I enrolled in the school's Strings program in 5th grade and my first violin was provided by the school. Students who continued on (like myself) into the next year needed to purchase their own: either imported by the school from Suzuki into Saudi Arabia (where I was at the time), or purchased individually from wherever.

That spring break, my family and I were gonna go to Dusseldorf for a few weeks, so we thought, vainly, "Well, since we are going to Europe, the mother of classical music culture, we should purchase the violin there...."

Well, we took a train an hour or so from Dusseldorf for a town renowned for its violin ateliers... Btw, This was back in 1990...So no previous internet searches or comparisons etc...

Anyway, we found an atelier...and were contemplating between two alternatives. And despite my mom's comments that the "cheaper one sounded better," my ten-year-old self nagged them into purchasing the more expensive one, which the luthier also seemed to like more. 1200 marks, instead of the 800 marks for the other one.

Well, I don't know know remember how that cheaper one sounded, but my fancy German-violin had me suffer throughout the entire four years I played with it. The craftmanship is fine, and stings are fine, it all seems fine, but somehow the sound just doesn't come out.

..... Oh, and the Suzuki's we had snobbed against, well, they had all turned out well after all! I remember playing with the Suzukis of a few friends of mine, and the notes had flowed so much easier...

July 28, 2019 at 03:22 PM · When I was a young student I had a nice old German violin with a soundpost crack in the back that a repairman told me was threatening to come open any second. Rather than try to sell it myself, I took it back to the dealer who sold it to me, and who had a trade-in policy. For another hundred dollars, I got a modern Italian violin with a big name (this was quite a while ago, before modern Italians got super expensive) that sounded absolutely hideous. I figured it would be easier to sell. I was correct! Sold it a few months later for an actual profit. Those three months of playing though were pure torture!

July 28, 2019 at 04:22 PM · I believe I mentioned before that my violin was a gift of sorts from one of my old teachers. I still had to pay for it, but the price I did pay is a bargain compared to what it's worth. It's certainly no old Italian masterpiece, but it's definitely a good violin for $3'500 and the wide range of tones I can get out of it with small mods to the setup is impressive.

July 28, 2019 at 08:01 PM · You don't have an option for my experience: expensive violin that sounded good, but which turned out not to be what I thought it was (and paid for). Was sold an "Italian" violin with what I thought were papers. Upon starting the process to sell it, discovered that my papers were not good, and I was unable to get papers certifying it as anything other than old and "probably Scottish" in origin. I lost $10K on that violin once you include the cost of the new papers and the work necessary to make it saleable.

July 28, 2019 at 09:13 PM · Leaving aside an embarrassing misstep or two at auction---

When I was about 11 and moving into a full size, it was thought for some reason that I needed a bow different from what my grandfather left with his instrument. Somehow, there were two produced for me to try and I played them, as did my teacher. He really preferred one of them, and I insisted on the other. Which was complete garbage. I couldn't draw a downbow without having the stick have a seizure halfway down.

My first effort at trying to work with a maker (who made a fantastic-sounding cello) led me to convince myself that his violin was also pretty good. This was over 30 years ago, so no throwing mud at forum participants. It was a more-complex sound than stereotypical modern instruments, but somehow the overtones never really meshed. Playing in tune was an exercise, and I don't know that it ever spoke well at a distance. Sold it some 15 or 20 years later through a shop to an amateur, and I can't remember if I got my full price back or not.

There is also one purchased for me before college as a very nice old Italian, with Hill papers and at least one famous owner. Turns out the top is almost certainly a replacement-- perhaps because somebody looted the original to make two Italian violins. On a good day, sounds like a million, but it is fussy in bad weather. I was told recently that it needs the neck re-set, and that doing so might solve that problem.

Live and learn.

July 29, 2019 at 02:22 AM · My brother had violin put together for him at considerable expense but gave up playing it due to the sound however! I had been putting some damaged violins back together and made a sound post tool that my brother used to experiment with different settings of the sound post in his instrument and now his expensive fiddle is in the band. The final position of his sound post is slightly in front of the bridge and not too tight.

My sound post tool is so simple to use and does everything including picking up twisting when in place or just moving slightly without loosing grip. Having a tool that enabled the musician to quickly and safely experiment with settings saved the day.

I now have a tool for cello and bass and is now under patent application and looking for a manufacturer.

The sweet spot for the sound post can only be found if the musician can easily experiment with his/her style of play.

Geoff Tomlin

July 29, 2019 at 02:58 AM · I have no access to live instruction so I've been on my own since the beginning. My first instrument, a VSO, sounded so bad it made my left eye twitch when hitting certain notes......not kidding. I've gone on to better instruments, and I'm enjoying playing.

July 30, 2019 at 02:17 AM · I don't think I've ever bought a really terrible violin. When I was 12 and getting my first full size violin, my teacher sold my parents one that cost $900. It was over 100 years old and was a copy of an Amati. It was a little more petite than some others but not enough to be considered a 7/8 size. It had a lovely one-piece flamed back.

I thought it was beautiful and it was my "good violin" throughout high school. I also had a cheap student instrument that I used in school orchestra and left at school. I don't consider that one "horrible" either because it accomplished its purpose, which was to allow me to not have the schlep the good one back and forth every day. I practiced on the good one, took the good one to Youth Orchestra, and brought the good one to school for concerts.

I was able to tune the cheap one just fine, and the orchestra teacher was aware that I had another violin. I think he was mainly happy that I practiced; having those two violins definitely helped me practice more than I would have if I'd had only one.

Many years later, though, after quitting and restarting, I became dissatisfied with my "good" violin. I started playing the viola and I thought the G-string on my violin sounded like a cardboard box in comparison. In preparation for selling it, I took my violin to be appraised, thinking that it must have appreciated from long ago and might be worth closer to $2000 than $1000 now. The folks who appraised it said it wasn't even worth $500. They asked me in a condescending way where I wanted to play this instrument and when I told them what orchestra I was trying out for, they said "oh, that's a really good orchestra, you'll need a much better instrument than this to play in that group!" They also implied that I was probably not a good enough player to even make the group, if I only had a violin like this. Then they ended the whole thing by saying that if I traded it in for a new one, they'd give me $500 for it and "find a decent case" for the new one. I had my Musafia case by then (the one I still have, which has held up wonderfully for >20 years). I was a bit shocked. Okay, they didn't like my violin, that was clear, but now they were insulting my case too? I left.

A little while later I bought a Carlo Lamberti from Shar, which I still play on. It lives in the Musafia case. My teacher at the time heard the instrument and said it was a great value for the money (~$1700). It's been 11 years and I'm still happy with my purchase. Most people are surprised to find out that it is a Carlo Lamberti from Shar (if I tell them at all--I often keep quiet about where my instrument came from, remembering how I felt when that shop insulted my previous violin. I never know what people will say about what is essentially a Chinese factory violin from a mail order place). It has a robust sound and the D and G are rich and satisfying, like a viola. It's a little loud under my ear, and I've taken to wearing an earplug in my left ear when I practice because of that.

I still have the old one. I didn't love the way the D and G sounded, but it has sentimental value. My daughter used it for a while, and now it has become the violin that I leave in school when I help out the string players in my spare time.

I understand the points made in the OP about really terrible violins, but I think the snootiness of the shop that I went to when I had my childhood violin appraised was also damaging. Being overly negative to someone about their instrument can carry over to being insulting and condescending to them as a player, even if that is not what is intended.

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