V.com weekend vote: Old Violins or New Violins

January 10, 2021, 2:30 PM · If you've been spending a lot of time alone with your violin, you may be more in touch than ever with how it sounds and what you like or don't like. For example, a string player who normally plays in an orchestra seldom gets so much one-on-one time with the instrument, without the sound of the orchestra all around. Right now, though, is a perfect opportunity to practice.

old or new violins

Some of us may be thinking about upgrades or changes. Or if you have more than one instrument, perhaps you are switching around. Or maybe you are just enjoying the instrument you have and noting its strengths. At any rate, I thought this would be a nice time to discuss old violin vs. new violins.

Certainly there are merits to both old and new. When it comes to old stringed instruments: with music resonating in that wood over many years, the sound can open up and mature very nicely. Plus, it is a little easier to identify the "good" violins in a group of old ones that have been played and compared by many people over many years - many old violins come with a reputation, if you will.

But new violins and stringed instruments are better than ever, when it comes to handmade instruments by luthiers. As I've written on a number of occasions, now is a kind of "Golden Age" in violin making. Modern makers have combined science with tradition to create some truly wonderful instruments, and their newness makes them a little more durable and consistent for a musician that travels (back when we traveled!).

And of course, I say all this knowing the following: it depends. There are fine instruments, fair instruments, awful-sounding instruments - in every category, be they old, new, American, European, Chinese, student or high-end.

What I'm looking for is your personal experience, at the moment. What do you prefer right now, and why? What do you currently view as the merits and what are the drawbacks, to a new or old violin? Can you honestly say that you feel equally about the two? Please participate in the vote and then share your thoughts on the matter.

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Replies

January 10, 2021 at 11:35 PM · I guess I would qualify my vote as I chose both were equal..not necessarily. When I was looking to finally buy my violin I was looking for an older one. I tried many from many violin shops within a 500 mi radius from me, from Denver to Salt Lake. I would say I looked for about 4 months over one summer. I finally chose a newer one. My teacher played 3 violins for me while I was at the end of the room and turned away from her. We both like the way the newer one sounded. I have no regrets, the violin was made by a luthier in Albuquerque and it just keeps getting richer and warmer every year!

January 10, 2021 at 11:53 PM · I think we live in a golden age of violin making. I play a modern violin made by Wojciech Topa and I love it. I have not had the opportunity to play any priceless antiques but I would not be able to afford one anyway, nor would my skill justify it.

January 11, 2021 at 12:07 AM · My vote is entirely and exclusively based on my own experience. I got my violin when I was about 18 by a stroke of luck (I have told the story already in another thread). It was built in 1918 and it is wonderful. So I could not possibly vote for contemporary instruments, could I?

January 11, 2021 at 12:25 AM · After trying many violins old and new from various countries of origin I settled on a modern made instrument by our local luthier John Montgomery of Raleigh, NC. The sound, feel and craftsmanship were far superior to anything else I was able to find in the same price range. At some point I may want to acquire an historic instrument. But I think to get something meeting my criteria for condition, sound, and historical significance I will have to spend at least $50k... maybe someday once I’m retired. Some people love that “new car smell”. I love the smell of old violins.

January 11, 2021 at 01:16 AM · I have an old Mittenwald violin and two new instruments, one very bright and silvery and the other more dark sounding. I find myself playing the new brighter instrument far more, especially lately. I think neither are so many fantastic new luthiers today that it’s easier to get a quality instrument for the same price versus an older one. I’m starting to look for a new violin, and will look at older instruments from reputable shops as well as new instruments. I love old violins, but I suspect I’ll wind up with a new one just because of price versus sound and build quality.

January 11, 2021 at 02:02 AM · Both my violin and viola don't quite fit into the "old" or "new" categories very easily. They're both older than me, but not all that old (early 1950s violin, 1979 viola). I've never shopped for a violin; the only violin I've ever had was my late great-uncle's. But when I shopped for my viola in 2006, the instruments I tried ranged from the 1860s to 2005, and I don't think I especially favored older or newer.

I will note that my violin (older) does seem to have more maintenance issues than my viola even though I play it much less, but that may be because it was not very well taken care of before I got it (stored for 20 years in questionable conditions), or because it was always a lower-quality instrument to begin with (the viola is worth at least ten times as much).

January 11, 2021 at 03:48 AM · I voted both even though the only experience with a good violin I have is an old one (230yo). I have had a chance to try a couple very good news violins and am sure if I had a need could find one as good or better than my current.

January 11, 2021 at 04:00 AM · This question comes up so often but it's never an easy answer. Most important is that your instrument fits your personality and style, then comes bow selection which must be a good match for the instrument, and then a good luthier who knows how to set up your particular instrument to get optimal results. Finding the right string combination is a never ending quest as well.

I play a modern Gregg Alf which has a gorgeous warm and even tone and incredible response. I play a Gagliano when power is needed but it's rather quirky. There was a Stradivari at a local shop years ago that I played a couple times...an e string to die for but not much power...Lady Harnsworth I think it was called...I can imagine spending a lot of time trying to find the sound of that particular violin. And then as a student I stumbled into a miracle loan, a del Gesu. By far the most incredible sound you can imagine. But it was a beast to play, mysterious, fiendishly difficult to drag out what it had to offer. After many years and far removed from professional playing I could not produce much from...just dont have what it takes to tackle a fiddle like that now.

Which leads me to this. It happens often enough during a live concert, the soloist breaks a string, they continue with what they can quickly grab from the section, and yet you hardly notice the difference. Heifetz could pick up a dime store fiddle and make it sound like a million dollars. The quest for a perfect instrument consumes you...sometimes it's better to become the master of what you have.

January 11, 2021 at 02:18 PM · However, what you can " quickly grab from the section" in a good professional orchestra is still far from a mass produced student fiddle. I don't think there are any recordings of Heifetz on one of those.

I believe that the platitude "Heifetz/Perlman/add-your-own-favorite could make a 300$ fiddle sound like a Strad" is plain wrong (Ockham's razor is a powerful tool). What is true that any violin will sound better in Perlman's hands than in some random amateur player's.

January 11, 2021 at 04:10 PM · Of course it's a great adventure for a string player to look for their next instrument and when I do so, it only makes sense to be age-blind and just find the best instrument I can in my price range. But my personal situation is that I am now playing the viola and even if price were no object, there just aren't many old violas in existence compared to violins.

To go back to the first part of Laurie's article: despite the drawbacks of online lessons, my playing has been improving and I am very happy with my current viola, a 15-year old semi-mass-produced eastern European instrument. But if I ever reach the point where it is keeping me back, I would first consider living makers.

January 11, 2021 at 05:39 PM · I decided to upgrade from an intermediate instrument - whatever that is - to a more advanced violin. I took my time and tried around 20+ fiddles, I took some home, asked my teacher to play them for me, and so on. I played old, new, commercial products and violins crafted by skilled makers. Nothing was striking me right. Then the salesperson brought out a rather beat up old fiddle saying, "Why don't you try this one. When I've tried to sell it to kids, they reject it because it doesn't look pretty." Well, he was right about how it looks. This was a mass produced fiddle made by "First National Institute of Allied Arts - Made in Germany". These violins, were made between 1920 and 1940. You could get one in the mail, and pay for it over a period of time. It came with a book on how to play. You can still get these violins for either next to nothing, or for around $3,000 - $4,000. This one had been through the wringer with chipped wood on the body, the area under the fingerboard is worn dull, and it looks as old as it is. So, how does it sound? It's amazing. Deep tones, easy to play, that fiddle seems to come alive in my hands. It was around $2,000 less than I'd planned on spending, but it sounded better than anything else I played within my price range. I don't know how this mass produced, cheap fiddle ended up looking the way it does, but it doesn't really matter. As they say, it's all about the sound.

January 11, 2021 at 07:26 PM · So I chose "both completely equal".

Recently, I had the delight of buying a new viola. I spent something like 4 hours in the violin shop, trying out over 20 instruments. Ranging from 1850 European violas to more recent makes, the latest being a 2010 Welsh made viola (which was gorgeous). In the end I landed on a circa 2005 Gasparo da Salo copy (no label, so no idea who made it). The instrument has benefitted from being partially played in by the former owner, but is still new enough that I am finding it is still opening up.

It was a really interesting process, as I was almost dead set on an old 19th century European instrument and I was proven completely wrong. I was really surprised by what I chose, and I am still completely in love.

I suppose the concept of modern vs old depends what you find yourself needing. There is something very exciting about being the first owner of a brand new instrument, but it is also exciting adding to the layers of music played on an older instrument.

One of these days I would really like a viola by William Castle, the idea of owning something lovely and new, made for me is so exciting. It probably won't happen.

January 11, 2021 at 10:43 PM · My violins date from 1965 and 1969. Therefore I had t vote for "new". Let's get back to this topic in 2040,then I'll answer indecisively.

And I'm really looking forward to 2044, when I'll be able to claim all the fame and honor for my "old" fiddles!

Viola? Definitely "new"! 1979 and 2008.

Last week I got my hands on a brand new violin recently finished by a recent Newark graduate. I may not be the most qualified person to evaluate a violins qualities, and I'm always restrained and obstructed when playing in front of someone else, even if "only" my luthier, but this one's something really nice!

January 12, 2021 at 12:09 AM · I've had a new viola (Ernest Young,"Tertis" model), but never a new violin. I'd be interested to have it again to see if I can play up higher on it, but it's not in my possession any longer.

I think that now the word's got out that the top plate needs to be half to three quarters of a tone lower than the bottom plate, people will be safe with a new instrument, especially if

1. The pectin has been removed from the wood by soaking in salt water, and

2. Stand oil is the base of the varnish.

It might be worth luthiers experimenting with applying lead, bismuth or tungsten compounds to various places in the wood (under where the varnish is going to go), to get the pitch of the vibrations just right?

January 12, 2021 at 06:37 PM · When I was young I was completely enamored of the charm of older instruments, and I occasionally play an outstanding older instrument. But new instruments are stable and dependable, Less prone to quirks.

A colleague owns a Linorola cello made in 1607. He’s the only person in the world who can play that cello, because it has been so damaged and repaired so often over the years that only he knows it’s nuances.

I own a David Caron, And I wouldn’t put it down for anything.

January 12, 2021 at 07:50 PM · There are good violins and so-so violins. There are crappy and amazing. Some are new, some are old. I wish I could afford a good one.

January 13, 2021 at 01:29 AM · I just got my first trade up instrument, a 2020 7/8 size Guarnerius copy made by a new company in Bubenreuth. The serial number is 34. I've had it 3 months and just this last month it opened up beautifully. I love it. It seems just right for me. Now I need to go bow shopping...

January 13, 2021 at 12:00 PM · I voted new because that is what I am playing - it is not necessarily a preference it just happens to be that way.

My first violin of my own (after loan instruments from music school) was a german factory violin that I inherited from a great uncle in my early teens. It is now played by my son. My next instrument was a modern violin by a Swedish maker. When I bought that violin in my late teens I had tried a number of old instruments too, but this one had something special I thought at the time. That instrument is now in the hands of my daughter.

My current main violin is also new - or newish. I commissioned it from danish violin maker Jens Stenz in 1995 after trying an instrument of his that a friend had bought, so this instrument has been played by me only. It is a great experience to play an instrument while it "matures"; it seems to get better and better every time I play it. Which off course also is my learning how to play it.

@ M Zilpah: I have one of William Castles violas. A wonderful instrument! I bought it directly from him 5 years ago when it was almost new. Get one if you can!

January 13, 2021 at 03:45 PM · My childhood instrument (which I still have) was a full-sized Wolf Brother's German workshop violin - one that has retained a respectful value. However, it can not complete with either of my last two violins, the first an Italian contemporary and now my Luiz Bellini modern. That said, when I have tried violins their playing quality seem unrelated to age - though physically old violins certainly have more charms with their life-marks and dings. Although I always swore off them, I fell for the Bellini = a Strad copy complete with copied marks and dings - so each time you pick it up you can not help put feel you are playing a naturally aged instrument. However, it has all the advantages of stability and structural integrity that you get from a ~30 yr old instrument.

January 13, 2021 at 04:48 PM · When I purchased my current violin, I tried many different instruments. Some were centuries old, others were made in recent times. I chose a new violin to take home.

January 16, 2021 at 07:23 PM · Old instruments here. Based on experience, I prefer old, although my experience with newer ones is limited to my first 4/4-size, a modern mass-produced specimen with a decent sound -- plus the 1/2- and 3/4-size ones I played on before it.

Early influences no doubt swayed me. My first teacher played on a 150-year fiddle that had been in her family for more than one generation. Its dark sound in the low notes really got me -- that was the sound I wanted to emulate. In this regard, Isaac Stern, via his vintage recordings my family had, was another strong influence during my formative years, although I've never even touched a Guarneri. At the time, I had the notion that only old violins could deliver this kind of sound but have since learned that newer ones can, too. And I learned quite early that other factors go into overall sound character and tone production -- e.g., player and string combos.

I still have my third 4/4-size, built in 1869, acquired during my degree program, and the second one, acquired right after high school. I play the 1869 fiddle daily -- ditto for two others I purchased in summer 2005 after a long in-home comparison tryout. They were built in 1883 and 1921. The only full-size I no longer have is the above-mentioned first one, which I passed along to my second nephew when he was 11 y/o and big enough to handle it.

Can't think of any special merits regarding old violins, except regarding the ones I settled on. They have the sound I like, and they feel good in my hands. One drawback with older models, sometimes, is the need for repair and restoration. My 1883 fiddle needed all four peg holes re-bushed -- I had this done in January 2006, just about 15 years ago.

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