Another adult beginner's instrument: Online or in-shop? Violin cost vs bow cost?

June 20, 2013 at 06:11 AM · I am an adult beginner looking to start playing violin. A couple years ago I purchased a beginner's outfit, which ended up being a VSO and I could never get along with. I want to try again, and this time do it right! I plan on finding an instructor and taking lessons, and I also need to purchase an instrument.

I've heard various camps argue for different things for beginners' setups. Some say to buy a cheap outfit, because the student will want to replace it and will have a better idea of the sound they want as they grow. Others suggest investing a bit in a first instrument, as it will ease the ability of the student to play and learn, and will increase enjoyment of practice.

I've been to a couple music shops. We don't have any dedicated stringed instrument stores in my area, so if I want to buy locally I'll be purchasing from a general music store. The two I went to both tried to sell me VSOs-- painted-on purfling, poorly-shaped bridges-- but one store did have some nice used instruments. I don't want to go through the VSO experience again. But I also don't want to break the bank if my tastes will refine as I learn and I'll end up wanting something different in a year or two anyway.

I've been looking online a lot. Kennedy, Shar, Southwest, and Johnson. The Kennedy Franke Henner appeals to me. Does anyone have experience with Kennedy, or this model in particular? Do you have any suggestions for solid start-up outfits that will get me off on the right foot? Is it worth investing a bit more (i.e. $1000-$1500) in a nicer instrument, or should I go for the few hundred dollar range assuming that I'll trade up later on? What should I be looking to spend on a nice instrument suitable for an adult beginner?

I'm also curious about bows. I know a good bow can make or break the sound of an instrument. What price differentiation might you suggest for violin/bow/case? For example, would it be better to spend $1000 on an instrument and $100 on a bow, or $800 on an instrument and $300 on a bow?

I would really appreciate any advice! I'm becoming overwhelmed with the options available online. I'm headed off to a remote area for a few months beginning in August, and I was hoping to be able to purchase an instrument and take a few lessons before then, so that I'll have a better idea of what to do mechanically and can practice the correct way (with some Skype lessons, hopefully) while I'm gone.

Replies (21)

June 20, 2013 at 08:53 AM · I'd either buy the older violin you like from the store, or pick out you're favourite online for the same price, WITH A MONEY BACK GUARANTEE, and compare it to the local older violin and make you choice. Its kind of like do you want the devil you know or the devil you don't know, better to compare the two.

June 20, 2013 at 12:09 PM · Rachel, $1000-1500 is a lot of money for a beginner's instrument, but it's nothing for a long-term keeper. You're not ready to make a decision for the long term, so, notwithstanding the fact that you're an adult and can spend as little or as much as you want, a rational choice would be to spend the least amount possible on an instrument you can be reasonably confident on, with the idea that the instrument and expenditure is disposable, and you might revisit the question in a couple of years if you're continuing.

You're probably also much better off spending the time and money researching the best teacher you can find; trying all that you find in your area if need be until you find the one who's helping you progress the best. A good teacher probably won't care much about the quality of the student instrument and will be able to help you identify one that is good enough, so what you might reasonably do is to rent one so that you have one to work with while you find a teacher and then have the teacher help you find one to buy if you decide not to continue renting.

Bows included with rentals and budget instruments are often worthless, and priced accordingly, but you run into the same problems in trying to find a decent budget bow as a beginner.

Based on my experience, I'd personally go with a Yitamusic T19 or T20 instrument, and either stick with the included bow or a pernambuco bow from them, and in any case, leave a bit in the budget for minor local adjustments and fittings.

But to repeat for emphasis, it's not the instrument but what you do with it that matters in the beginning and in the end. At the beginning you're probably best off spending the money and effort on the best teacher you can find.

June 20, 2013 at 12:46 PM · This has been suggested on other threads, but it bears repeating--better get a teacher first. A good teacher with experience can help you find an appropriate instrument, or, at the very least, help you avoid choosing an inappropriate one.

June 20, 2013 at 02:02 PM · When I returned to the violin (many years ago), I also had to move up from my VSO to a 'decent' instrument.

Renting was not a viable option.

I went through some trial and error as well...we also don't really have a dedicated violin shop in my neck of the woods...and I didn't have a lot of help/advice at the time...

I wish I had known enough then to just go ahead and buy a recommended the Eastman 305, or equivalent...that would have served the purposed indefinately.

I did okay, all told...but now have more "beginner" violins than I need...while searching for one that suited me...

...and while I can always sell's not so easy either unless I'm willing to take a huge loss...

June 20, 2013 at 03:52 PM · That;s one of the reasons to consider an antique, they don't lose their value like moderns do.

June 20, 2013 at 09:01 PM · Thanks for the input thus far. I'm working on finding an instructor. I have some difficulty in that I work remotely (from Alaska) four or five months out of every year, so I'm trying to find an instructor that is either willing to take me on entirely through online lessons (on Skype or Google hangouts, for example) or a local instructor that is willing to meet in person most of the year and provide online lessons while I'm away.

J, I've looked into Yitamusic violins, and most say they are a very good deal for the price, but without a dedicated luthier/strings shop nearby I would be concerned about getting it set up properly.

Today I've been researching online retailers that deal in vintage instruments. As Lyndon suggested, a $500 new violin from someplace like Kennedy or Shar will instantaneously depreciate, while a $500 antique will hold its value, barring accidents. Is that generally pretty true?

I found this website:

Anyone have any experience with them? There are a couple I like the sound of. The only problem with the antique/vintage instruments is that I have no idea what constitutes a good deal versus an overpriced instrument.

My search for an instructor continues. It would be much easier to search for an appropriate instrument with the help of a teacher, but I haven't quite yet had luck finding someone local who would also do online lessons.

June 21, 2013 at 04:33 AM · Rachel, you should be prepared to have any violin fitted to your liking, and despite general claims to the contrary, Yitamusic violins don't necessarily need a great deal of setup work in order to be playable. In fact, I had much more work done on a violin bought from a local maker than one from Yitamusic, and it was playing the Yita that made me think that the other instrument could be improved. However, the point is not that a Yita or some other brand will require little or no work, but that you should be able to get any violin's setup changed to suit you as needed. Even a general music store should be able to do the basic things for you, and might have a luthier in the back room or on call for more work. It's just the way things are with handmade wooden instruments -- service is required on occasion.

As you're away for long periods, you might consider having different teachers at each location. Although there would be some adjustments needed, your learning could also be enriched by variety.

June 21, 2013 at 04:45 PM · I lucked out and bought my first violin from a friend who is a professional violinist for $500. That was for a new violin, a used bow and a used case. She tuned it, showed me a bow hold and G major when I picked it up. I've been playing two years and still can't get the same tone out of it that my teacher can when he plays it. I can't tell the difference in tone from my teachers bow to my carbon fiber bow. The point is that in my experience that it will take a long time to begin to notice any difference that the instrument might make in your sound or playing. Don't worry about the perfect right violin for you becuase you won't know what that is for a long time. I wouldn't worry about an investment in an instrument or depreciation at this point either. Just get a $500 outfit from Shar and find someone to get you started on the basics. And play it.

June 21, 2013 at 06:03 PM · "Set up" actually refers to the artistry by which the fittings (fingerboard, pegs, chinrest, tailpiece) and the bridge are shaped and adjusted by hand by the luthier, to suit a particular instrument, not an outfit, per se (an "outfit" is the instrument, bow and case, sold together).

Having said that, for a beginning student I'd spend around $500-$600, not thousands. A lot of our students start with this one:

June 21, 2013 at 09:58 PM · Yesterday I was finally able to get in touch with an instructor in my area. Looks like I'll have my first lesson next week! She also pointed me in the direction of a local retired music teacher who know works on violins. I was able to meet with him and try several out. I ordered the Kennedy Franke Henner outfit online, and I'm testing out two from the local guy-- a Scott Cao STV500A from 2003 that he adjusted, and one that he finished himself from blanks.

I'm hoping to take all three to the lesson next week and get the advice of the instructor in choosing one. Wish me luck, and thanks for all the input, everyone! I'll update this thread (if anyone is interested) after I try them all out next week.

June 25, 2013 at 12:29 AM · If you spend $200 on a Yita violin and another $75 to $150 (depending on what's done) for setup, you're $275 to $350 "into it", and my guess is you'll wind up with a far better instrument that the junk at Sam Ash etc.... that goes for $350 to $500.

June 26, 2013 at 04:59 AM · Got the Kennedy Franke Henner in the mail today, but unfortunately not before my first lesson this afternoon. The instructor compared the Scott Cao 500 and the one made by the local luthier from blanks, and more or less immediately dismissed the local option. I had the lesson with the Scott Cao and I did like it. It has a nice clarity under the ear.

The Franke Henner was delivered this evening. I tuned it the best I could and tried to compare the Henner and the Cao by playing both back to back. It's very hard to tell. The Henner has slightly nicer fittings, and is a gorgeous instrument. I like the finish on the Henner much better, and it has a fantastic flamed maple back. The Cao is a used instrument, so it's not as pristine. The finish is lighter and the flaming is sparse.

They definitely have different, distinct sounds. I'm not sure I could describe it properly but the Henner seems warmer where the Cao is more bright. The Cao seems easier to play and a bit clearer. The Henner seems a bit... scratchier? Could that be the strings? It has a new set of D'Addario Zyex strings on it, whereas the Scott Cao has a played-in set of Dominants. Could that be contributing to the "scratchiness" of the Henner? How long does it take to "break in" a set of strings?

I guess I'll have to wait until next week for the instructor's opinion of the Henner compared to the Cao... and for me to be able to hear the sound they make when I'm not the one playing.

Can anyone advise re. the "scratchier" sound, and how long it takes until a set of strings begins sounding their best?

July 4, 2013 at 11:13 PM · In case anyone is curious, I decided to keep the Kennedy Franke Henner and returned the Scott Cao and the local-made violin. I liked the Scott Cao A LOT. It was a really nice instrument. Easy to play and nicely set up. But... for whatever reason... I liked the Henner better. It has a warmer, richer sound. The Cao had a very bright tone, almost to the point of being edgy. The Henner had warmer sound, that seemed richer.

We'll see how it lasts over time. I'm still not sure what it means for a violin to "open up" but perhaps this one will with more play.

A few notes about the company, Kennedy Violins:

1. I asked many questions on several occasions and the employees were always very patient and accommodating.

2. The violins ship as outfits. The case I received was not the color I had chosen, and whomever packaged the kit forgot to include the bow. The color is a minor inconvenience. The bow was more frustrating. I called the company and they immediately mailed one. They offered to exchange out the case, as well, but I didn't care enough to ship the other case back (even though they offered to send a pre-paid label and box).

3. The outfit as a whole seems nice. The violin is clearly where most of the money for the cost of the outfit is spent. The case is heavy and is fairly well put together but is nothing special. I did not like the bow at all. It wasn't quite long enough for me, didn't balance well, and was a touch hefty for my taste. It just didn't work with the violin. The rosin seems to be of nice quality and the included electronic tuner has been helpful.

July 5, 2013 at 04:18 AM · How much did the outfit cost?


July 5, 2013 at 08:55 PM · The outfit (violin, bow, case, rosin, electronic tuner) was just over $560, including tax and shipping. I think they're typically around $590, but I had a coupon code I found online.

July 6, 2013 at 01:30 AM · Sweet!


Get practicing!


July 6, 2013 at 01:30 AM · Sweet!


Get practicing!


July 6, 2013 at 01:30 AM · Sweet!


Get practicing!


July 6, 2013 at 01:38 AM · Glad you're enjoying your new violin.

The D'Addario Zyex strings do not require much, if any, break in time which is why a number of violin dealers like using them. The downside is that they may not be suited to your preferences. There are entire threads devoted to discussions about strings - Dominants are generally considered warmer in tone than the Zyex and can take a few days or so to break in depending on how much you play.

Based on how you feel about your violin's tone, you may want to do a search on strings, read the comments, and pick out a different set to try than the Zyex. I'd suggest you spend a little more time getting used to your new violin before you do, just to make sure you know what you want.

July 6, 2013 at 04:30 PM · Thanks for the advice, George. Since I'm a beginner I haven't been playing much yet. Sticking mostly to the E and A strings and practicing 30 or 45 minutes a day. The strings have taken about a week to break in-- just yesterday I didn't have to tweak them quite as much to get them in tune. They do feel a little stiff compared to the strings on the other violin I was trying out (Piastro Tonicas), but I do like the tone so far.

I think I'll definitely try a different brand the next time I change the strings, although it might not be for a while! :)

July 6, 2013 at 05:20 PM · Rachel - I think you made a right choice - go with your own instinct! It's important to choose whatever appeal you as a beginner. People can argue all day long what suits a beginner, but you can't argue when beginner feel happy with the instrument, he/she will practice. A kid might not want to practice on a $1000 with straight finish varnish (albeit fractional size violin), but might thoroughly enjoy practicing on a $99 violin with zebra pattern painted on it simply because the kid love the look of it!

As for Cao violins, i've only played one, beginner'ish model, and it has this common character of beginner violins - bright, yet "noisy" and unclear. Beginners usually associate the bright tone with "clear", but a violin can be bright and grainy at the same time, with a rather coarse tone, or how I call it - "noisy". So why not choose a violin with a more welcome tone for fresh ears? Part of the reason why Gliga violins are so popular among beginners because they tend of have more gentle tone, perhaps weaker volume overall. It's when the student start to realize how quiet violins are in general, they start to ask for more power and ears are quite accustomed to the soprano voice by now - THEN only you upgrade to something else and again, trust your own instinct (although professional advices always helps, it's up to you to decide how much the advices should weight in when making a decision). Choosing a violin IS part of the violin learning process.

All the best on the wonderful journey of learning the violin!

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