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?
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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