Need a spare instrument, what to get?

February 20, 2012 at 09:46 PM · I'm coming at this subject from a slightly different angle, it seems a lot of folks seem to keep at least one of their old instruments as they progress, with my viola(s) I have not, previous instruments have been traded in to soften the blow of money spent on my current instrument.

Now my dearest viola is in need of some serious shop work, my Luthier put it well when he said it sounds like the instrument's sound is being run through a distortion pedal, and I will need to part with it for some weeks for the repairs to be made.

In the past when my instrument has needed work I've been fortunate in that my Luthier is a saint and has lent me an instrument. Being a nice, Midwestern girl, I feel a great amount of guilt imposing myself on him and taking something from his inventory, but in the past I haven't needed a spare for more than a few days. Now the situation is different and I've come to the conclusion that I need a spare instrument of my very own, for crap pit gigs, repairs, etc.

I've finagled, called up favors, blackmailed and now have some hang time between concerts for three weeks time in mid March to bring my viola in. All I will need to cope with are rehearsals and teaching.

My main goal is to find a spare that is of similar size and holds a pitch decently, and is on the (seriously) inexpensive side. Bonus points if it has a similar string length and the upper bouts are of a similar size. But, alas, I'm a violist and can't hope for too much in that realm.

Also, obviously being sick in the head, I'd actually prefer if it weren't a particularly great instrument...I have a guilt complex whereby if I don't play a particular instrument often, I feel the same as if I've let my cat's food bowl go empty.

That's right, I project personality and feelings on pets and inanimate objects. What of it?

So, great wise sages with both wisdom and experience, where the heck do I look?

Anything any of the shops around have to sell me is way too nice not to be a primary instrument.

My first instinct was to go the German (or Czech) factory instrument route, but 16.5-17" violas of that ilk do not grow on trees the same way 4/4 violins seem to, and when they do they're more than I'd like to spend. (700+) I've looked at the 'outfits' of Shar (hoffman), Southwest, etc. Are they any good?

Also, horrified as I am to say it, I've been considering the Cecilio instruments. I've got a (violin) student that came to his first lesson with a lower end Cecilio (he bought it before he contacted me) that he'd purchased off of Amazon. I've got to say, for the $ I don't think it can be beat...though after reading some of the reviews of the instruments, perhaps he got lucky. But at any rate, I've looked/listened to the higher end viola models, and they sound quite good for the $. I've got a top end Gliga (gama 2, maestro, whatever they're calling it these days) violin that is quite nice, but I'm unsure of how the lower end model (violas) sound (Gem, Genial) or feel.

Any input would be greatly appreciated!

Replies (21)

February 20, 2012 at 10:13 PM · I've said it numerous times now. Yitamusic is the place for good cheap instruments. I bought a 16.25 in viola for right around $350. With the exception of the strings, it was very well set up and its a joy to play. I assume that you don't need a bow since it would just be a backup instrument. Also, have no fear buying online, especially since it won't be your primary viola. (Although it could become it:) Right now, there are 6 16.5 in violas on eBay with all their dimensions listed. If i were going to buy one, it would definitely be this one.

If you do end up buying from Yitamusic, I would recommend that you get an M model and not the T because in general, they have better sound quality.

Good luck in your search,


February 21, 2012 at 12:37 AM · You haven't said what your desired price range is . . . just that $700 seemed like a lot. My son has a 17" Eastman 305 with a gorgeous tone, but it was more than that. Their introductory-level stuff would be worth a look. I have a (much smaller) Snow, but looking at their website it looks like their cheapest violas start at $1200 or so.

Be careful with Cecilio. The school program I volunteer in has a few of their violins and violas some purchasing agent bought online. Soundpost cracks, broken pegs, bizarrely cut bridges, dysfunctional fine tuners. The ones that are playable have a reasonable tone, but it's chancy.

Depending on how often you find yourself in a cramped pit, outdoors, or with the good viola in the shop, it might be worth putting a bit more into it. I've known several violists with Jay Haides that love them, too, but I think they start at around 2K.

February 21, 2012 at 01:47 AM · Where do yo ulive (general area). I work in a shop around Metro Detroit. A student instrument, if paid in full at the shop is around $500 (And that is for a GOOD student model). You can always get an ebay one for $100, but that would be a terrible idea. Usually you can get a good deal if you talk to ship owners, especially those who usually rent out instruments, and say you will pay in full on the spot.

February 21, 2012 at 01:48 AM · John, do you know of any super close up pics or any clips online where I can listen/see one of yitamusic's violas? I've seen some of their violins, they look decent. I'm up to my eyeballs in bows, so that's not an issue.


Yes! I recall reading a post where you'd commented re; Cecilio instruments and your opinion is one of the things that gives me pause. I don't mind doing some work myself, cutting a bridge, fitting a soundpost, replacing tailpieces and fine tuners, etc etc but if the instruments are so poorly made that they're going to explode once they're properly set up, ugh, no thanks.

I think $500 is about my limit for something I'm going to play two weeks out of the year. Funny you should mention Haide, one of the instruments I had on loan this past year while my instrument was getting work was a Haide, a Maggini model. It was really lovely, played well, sounded great and I thought seriously about buying it, but in the end I felt like it was WAY too nice for a spare.

February 21, 2012 at 01:52 AM · Hey Shawn,

I'm in Pittsburgh. Your idea is a good one, I know there's a shop that carries Snow instruments nearby. Perhaps I will check that out too.

Thanks everyone, I really appreciate the ideas!!

February 21, 2012 at 10:58 AM · Amber -- You said you're looking at a three-week window of opportunity to get your own instrument repaired. That's not a lot of time. If you've got enough of a continuing income that your purchase fund wouldn't be eaten into, what about renting while yours is in the shop -- to give you more time to search for something you're pleased with?

February 21, 2012 at 12:42 PM · I just had a look at the Yitamusic ebay shop. They seem to have a nice violin case there, where you can even store your sheet music and books. On the other hand, looking at the price, this thing has to fall apart by just looking at it, but the photos seem to be nice.

February 21, 2012 at 01:02 PM · Does your luthier also sell new/used instruments? I have no qualms that my local shop (String House in Rochester, NY) would lend me something decent to get me through a serious repair if I needed.

February 21, 2012 at 01:44 PM · Marsha,

If it comes down to it I've got a (adult) violin student who is willing to lend me a viola of his. He did offer to sell it to me, but I think the price he wants is unreasonable and I'm not comfortable haggling with a student. So, worst case scenario (I find nothing before the viola goes to the shop) has been covered.

But the info I've got from this discussion has given me some ideas and places to look, and I will follow up on it and see what I can find.


Interesting comment about cases...I've not purchased a yitamusic case, but I do have one of the Korean musafia style violin cases for my main violin, and though it's nothing like a musafia, it's really nice for the money and has held up well.

My experience with cases has been that you don't really know how something is going to hold up for you without trying it. I've had cases from decently well regarded companies (I'm looking at you Bam) that haven't held up and cheapies that have withstood some serious use. Right now I've got the Korean no name violin case for my main violin and an Accord for my viola. They're both great and the violin case was about 1/16 of the price of the viola case. Go figure.

February 21, 2012 at 02:16 PM · The first violin I got from Yitamusic came with that Yitamusic case with a gray exterior and a tan interior. For a freebie case it's great. I also use a Musafia master model copy. Mine's made by the angle case company. I tried recording my viola, but the recording is so low quality it's not worth posting. Sorry:(


February 21, 2012 at 11:27 PM · It will depend on how good is your first instrument. If it is a good bench made instrument most probably it will be unbearable playing in a factory made viola, even as a second instrument.

New factory instruments may have hidden costs such as strings, new post and bridge fitted by a good luthier, some work in the pegs, upper nut etc.

Just my two cents.

February 22, 2012 at 03:29 PM · My primary instrument is a Michael Scoggins 16 5/8 from 1999. I'm not sure what his instruments are going for these days as I seldom see them for sale. I love it, even when it misbehaves.

The thing is as long as an instrument is decently set up and comfortable to play, I don't really mind playing a cheap fiddle. I've done it before, and while I wouldn't perform with one, for the woodshedding and rehearsals they don't bother me.

My old teacher has an Amati and a Rabaut as his mains, but it doesn't keep him from experimenting with other (cheap) instruments, including a viola he made himself after the pattern of his 'mati. I think he experiments in one part because he loves the craft and he also because he's on the lookout for decent instruments/bows for not very much $, so that even the poorest amongst his students has options.

He's walked in with some pretty interesting specimens and he has his preferences, but if a great player like that who has such quality instruments at his disposal isn't bothered playing on comparatively 'inferior' instruments, well, I've got no call to be.

I know the interwebs and writing don't do a great job of conveying tone. Manfio, I'm not dissing your .02, I've read much in terms of your posts and I've come to respect you, your opinion in valuable to me. The point you made is a good one. I'm offering a counterpoint born of a good natured love of stimulating discourse.

February 22, 2012 at 07:16 PM · John,

The metaphorical relationship between cheating on my viola and cheating on my husband with someone/thing horrid is somewhat tenuous, but none the less I find your metaphor hilarious and interesting to think on.

When I think about the profound guilt I'd feel if I had a nice spare instrument I only played a few weeks out of the year, well, it's a complex bit of psychology.

February 22, 2012 at 07:21 PM · So Amber, call your old teacher and ask him what he has that he'll let go cheap! He or someone else may have something you would like at a price you can manage.

John Cadd, that would be the salesman's response, because nothing is worse than a bad VIOLIN- it's the one that peels the paint off the walls! Harder to pick the worst viola or cello.

February 22, 2012 at 08:39 PM · I think we're getting ready to sell our daughter's 1/8 size cello. It's not that much bigger than some of the violas I've seen of late.

February 22, 2012 at 09:03 PM · Lisa,

My tentacles have already been thrown to all four (eight?) corners and not come up with anything available, just things to watch/wait on. Never being one to go to only once source for information, I wanted to cast a wider net, get some more options and opinions, thus the post.

hrm, strangely oceanic theme to this response.


March 13, 2012 at 07:54 PM · Update:

Well, after much looking, playing, and such I bought a spare instrument. I got a 2002 Santaro Lucci viola from the workshop of Christopher Pu (Chicago String Instrument Co.) on auction on ebay for $450.

My understanding from the interwebs is that Pu was just an importer, not a maker, and the instrument is a factory Chinese instrument. So there you have it, my first Chinese instrument.

I really like it. It's very comfortable to play, stays in tune, string height is reasonable, bridge is good, everything is there that should be and it looks and feels neatly put together. It's a heck of a lot darker than I would have expected, but it's really very nice. Sounds like a viola. :-)

What's it worth? me it's worth $450. :-) What would a dealer sell if for? No clue. I'm sure smarter and more knowledgable folks could chime in as far as that is concerned. I've noticed that chinese instruments seem to have a low resale value, but honestly, doesn't really matter. I got the instrument to play, not to sell. Though if necessary I probably should add it to my insurance policy.

I'll bring it into my Lutheir to look at when I bring in my primary viola to get work done.

March 14, 2012 at 05:05 AM · Finally, somebody has something nice to say about Chinese intruments. I love Chinese made instruments (most of them) and I am always puzzled at how some people reject them out of hand without even listening to them.

March 14, 2012 at 09:39 AM · Amber - I wouldn't worry too much about projecting personality and feelings onto cats, cats have personality and feelings! It can be more difficult to argue of inanimate objects, but I personally think a little bit of the violins I make as my children, and when they leave the workshop in the hands of musicians it's as if they were going on their first day to school!

March 14, 2012 at 12:58 PM · Haha,

thank you Marc. Actually my projecting of personalities and feelings doesn't stop with cats. It's a running joke in my trio that I talk to everything as though it has feelings. Especially my instrument. :-)

March 14, 2012 at 02:04 PM · Brian,

It's true, I think the Chinese instruments get a bad rap. It's not entirely unwarranted, there's some pretty shady stuff aimed towards the lower price bracket coming out of China, but then the same could be said for some of the cheap (old) Czech violins I've played... my ears are bleeding at the memories.

But I do feel it's unfair to evaluate a nation's (especially one as large as China) skill and the artistry they're capable of by looking at the worst they produce. What if, G-d forbid, we held everyone to those standards of evaluation?

True, pathological optimism is a trait of mine, but a great number of my peers seem to suffer from an unreasonable amount of prejudice as far as instruments are concerned. I notice far less grumbling regarding a certain Romanian company's lower end instruments, many of which suffer from the same set up issues the Chinese low end instruments do. There must be a middle ground where we evaluate instruments for what they are and ..then.. where they come from.

Though obviously I'm speaking as a player and not a dealer or reseller when I say that.

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