What 'Brand' of Violin Should I Buy?

September 18, 2019, 5:55 PM · What brand of violin should I buy?

A parent grew rather frustrated with me when I did not have a straightforward answer to this question. He'd come up with three "brands" and wanted me to tell him which was the best one, to expedite the process of getting a violin for his child. Also, if you know the good brands, can't you just find them for a little cheaper online?

violins

It's not an unreasonable line of questioning, in a general sense. But, it's just not the way it works when buying a decent violin. Here is why:

First, let's correct the terminology: when it comes to violins, violas, cellos and basses, there are "makers" and manufacturers - we don't really use the term "brands." And within that, there are "bench-made" violins, which are made by an identifiable person; and "factory violins," which are made by a team and can be a little closer to having a "brand" name attached.

"Bench-made" violins are made by individual craftspeople. The labels inside such violins (which you can see by looking through the left f-hole) show the name of the maker, the year when he or she made the violin, and usually the place where it was made. On the very high end of that spectrum would be a 300-year-old violin made by Antonio Stradivari or Giuseppe Guarneri del Gesù, worth $ millions. And then there are a great many makers from every era since, including living makers who are making instruments today. In general, the authenticated "bench-made" violins are the most valuable kinds. Very often they sound the best - but not always!

Then there are "factory" violins, but this name is a little deceptive. These are still made by craftspeople, but in a process that is a little more like an assembly line, with some of the steps mechanized. There is a huge range in quality here, depending on the design used for the violin, the skills of the people employed, the quality of wood and materials used and also on the process itself. There are a zillion steps in making a violin, and so any skipping or skimping can greatly affect the outcome of the instrument.

The names in "factory" violins can almost be like "brand" names. They might carry the name of their manufacturer, or of a real maker who designed the pattern for the violin, or of a famous maker who inspired the design. For example, there are hundreds of thousands of violins out in the world carrying the "Stradivari" label that are really just factory violins. Those violins can be perfectly good, but they aren't really made by Stradivari, nor are they worth $ millions. Another example: the excellent modern violin maker Scott Cao creates "bench-made" violins, but he also has a line of much less-expensive factory violins that are produced by a team on a larger scale. The "bench-made" violins sell for $ thousands; the "factory violins" sell for $ hundreds. And another example: Shar, like many big violin shops that carry both high-end and beginner instruments, has a line of inexpensive violin outfits with names that are more like "brands," such as their "Franz Hoffmann" line, which includes Amadeus, Prelude and Danube models. So "factory violins" have a lot of different naming schemes, and they can range greatly in price and quality.

To complicate matters, some stringed instruments bear no label whatsoever. Your only clue to the origin will be the violin shop owner saying something like, "We picked this up in the Czech Republic," but you won't be able to prove that, should you wish to re-sell the violin at a later date. Unlabeled violins can prove to be quite good violins; the key is to get violin from a reputable shop, where someone was doing quality-control. Just be aware: the fact that it has no label can be an issue when re-selling the violin; because it's harder to prove its origin and worth.

Beyond all the issues with names and labels is the issue of consistency. It's nearly impossible to safely recommend a particular maker or "brand" and guarantee the result. While certain "brands" or makers of violins are more consistent than others, there is still great variation. In other words, two violins with the same price and the same label inside can sound very different, can function very differently, and can respond to your playing very differently.

Why is this so?

One reason is simply the nature of a violin: it is constructed of so many parts, something like 70 pieces, all of varying thicknesses and materials. Even when the intention is to start with everything the "same" (which in itself is impossible, considering the nature of wood), there are just too many factors for it to all come together precisely the same way, every time.

But another very important factor is "set-up" -- this is the final step in making a violin, and it's crucial. It involves fitting the pegs, setting the string height with the nut, fitting the soundpost, fitting the bridge, positioning the bridge and tailpiece, and finally, stringing the instrument. Very often, new violins are shipped to violin shops before these final steps, and then the violin shop does the "set-up." So it makes a huge difference, whether these final steps are done with care and knowledge -- or not. A good violin shop that employs real violin makers will set up the instrument correctly; a generic shop that doesn't specialize in stringed instruments will very often fail to attend to the details. A failure with set-up can result in: ill-fitting pegs that don't work; strings set too high; a soundpost in the wrong place (resulting in bad transmission of sound); a bridge not fitted to the shape of the instrument (also affecting sound transmission), and more. It all affects how that violin will work for you and whether you can produce satisfying music with it.

To re-iterate: two violins by the same "brand" or maker can sound extremely different, if one is set up correctly and carefully and the other is set up without the proper knowledge and skill.

So if you can't rely on a "brand" name to buy a good violin, what can you do? Here are some guidelines for identifying quality in violins and stringed instruments, so you can make a good choice:

Please share your thoughts and experiences, when it comes to "brands" of violins, and finding good quality.

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Replies

September 19, 2019 at 01:51 AM · I looked at several violin shops in Denver and Utah (I’m in western colorado), before I found one made by Christian Pedersen in Albuquerque NM, from Robertson & Sons. I had originally wanted one that had some antiquity value within my price range but, I also knew what sound I was looking for. I was able to try several on a trial basis at home and I was also fortunate enough to have my teacher (a professional violin player), come with me to Denver and play several for me to examine. I had talked at length with the owners of Robertson’s and they sent me three to try. I wound up with the newer one, 2016

and really love it. The sound is deep, warm, and enveloping. But I was looking for 6 months before I found what I was looking for!

September 19, 2019 at 12:15 PM · Sometimes an up-and-coming maker can give you a great value, and they take so much care to make their instruments because they're trying to establish a reputation. There is a young man in my area, Patrick Toole, who makes beautiful violins and violas that he sells through shops. You can probably find one of his at Davidson Violins just north of Charlotte NC.

Want to see how factory violins are made?

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0SvfNhMlnBE

I was particularly impressed with the woman who cuts the f-holes with the long thin saw. These people become very skilled indeed.

September 20, 2019 at 08:44 PM · As a violinist who is guardian for one of those, almost ubiquitous, Mittenwald Strads (MS), and having just watched the first two Episodes of "Country Music" on PBS I have a rather sardonic grin on my face when reading this article.

The violin is probably one of the most prolific instruments that mankind has produced. There are millions of them in the hands of millions of musicians (also closets and attics). Copies of copies of copies all attempting to create "that sound."

Most of the instruments aren't worth a whole lot of cash (much to the chagrin of somebody finding grandpa's fiddle in the attic thinking they just won the lottery). Still a lot of the sound just fine and are played in churches, community orchestras, and thousands of venues far from the concert stage.

To be sure there are a lot of really bad sounding instruments being made thanks to modern technology, these are dimensionally accurate renderings of the measurements called for. Of course, the computer controlled machines don't have a feel for the wood - just the measurements. Sometimes it works out, more often, it does not. However, this really isn't new, just different tools.

My "MS" got better thanks to a local luthier and more than a few dollars in restoration fees. It has more sentimental value than market value. But it sounds good at home or in a community orchestra. I've had to replace the fingerboard, pegs and tailpiece all of which were crummy wood. Yet, the box itself is very well made and it has fancy purfling, intarsia and light'dark edge to the plates all inlaid. Somebody actually cared about how it was made and there were no CNC machines back then.

The violin is back in fashion, thanks in no small part to Maestro Suzuki. As always there will be good to great instruments. As Laurie noted, in the final analysis, it is all about the sound produced by the joining of musician to instrument.

September 21, 2019 at 01:15 PM · A well know violin appraiser told me recently: The golden age of violinmaking wasn't the late 18th century in Cremona. The golden age is today, in the US. There is more talent making violins in the US today than there has ever been anywhere in the world. The Violin Society of America competitions 40 years ago might see a dozen really first class instruments. Now the quality of entries is just so amazingly high.

And prices are very affordable because many of these talented young makers are early in their careers and still establishing their reputations. If you have as little as $3,000 today you can buy a first rate violin.

And if you don't have that much money, workshop (factory) violins are also better than they've ever been - knowledge of violinmaking, precision cutting tools, and skills are really high. So even spending less than $1,000 you can find an instrument that can fully support an advanced player and sound terrific.

I appreciate that Laurie talks so much about setup, because setup is probably as important for the sound as the instrument itself. A violin can be totally transformed by a properly cut and placed soundpost and bridge. And strings -- the biggest reason cheap violins sound cheap is because no one spends the money to put decent strings. Just a $35 set of strings can sometimes turn a VSO into a real violin.

September 21, 2019 at 03:22 PM · A friend of mine bought a named German violin through a retailer in the States. For$8000, it's an excellent buy. Clean focused sound with a creamy quality. My own 2nd instrument is by the peerless Tschu Ho Lee, head of the department of string instrument making in the excellent school in Chicago. Although a recognised"great" modern maker, he doesn't charge astronomical prices and the value for money is astounding. I have played several concertos with full orchestra and the violin is as clear as a bell. The violin was made in the 80's and for $20,000, I acquired an instrument of staggering quality. Don't be a snob. I tested it against several named Italian instruments from the 17/18th century and it out performed them all.

September 21, 2019 at 06:28 PM · I think Laurie has done a great service publishing this article and inviting the comments of others. People seeking to purchase an instrument for music making should know that the "brand name" is not necessarily relevant to their desires or needs.

September 22, 2019 at 12:20 AM · I recently went carbon fiber with a 4 string Luis and Clark. I couldn't be happier especially since I am a fiddler who plays outdoors a lot, not to mention not having to keep it sequestered in my humidity room during the cold months when my heater is on! Having it out and handy is a great blessing for easy practice snippets. :)

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