New violin buying advice

July 5, 2014 at 03:46 PM · Hi,

I'm considering purchasing a new violin and I'd like to get some advice.

I've been playing for a year and a half now, but I play other instruments so my musical level is advanced but my violin technique is still beginner. I'm currently working on Rieding Opus 35 3rd movement if that gives you an idea of my level.

I've been listening to a lot of classical violin at work and I really want to get that classical violin sound. I'm not sure how to describe it but my violin just doesn't sound like that. My violin is comparable to others I've tried around 1000 euros (in France). I actually love my violin except the sound just isn't as good as I'd like. I just had it tuned by a luthier and I think it's as good as it'll get.

I've been listening to videos of Scott Cao violins and the 750 is around $1250 in the US which is a bargain compared to what one can get for that price in France. And they have the "classical sound" that I'd like.

I'm also interested in the Ming Jiang Zhu 905 which is around $2000. I watched several youtube videos and they all have that classical violin sound that I desire.

My delima is whether I should upgrade now or wait another year or two. We take a vacation in the US every 1-2 years so if I don't get one on this trip I'll wait 1-2 years.

We plan to visit LA on this trip and I found that Gliga & Scott Cao have locations outside of LA. I'm interested in a Gliga 3/4 for my daughter and the Scott Cao for myself. We'll only be there for a few days and I'll only have a few hours in the store so I'll be a bit pressed to make a decision quickly.

It seems Ming Jiang Zhu is not available in stores, at least I haven't found any. We'll be in NYC and Phoenix as well.

I'd like to get a "brand" because I can listen to it on youtube and read reviews. I don't want to walk into a luthier and buy an unknown unlabeled violin without having done any research.

Please let me know if all this makes sense. Perhaps it's too early for me to be so concerned about the sound and I should wait another year or two. I'm not sure. I know the sound I'm looking for and I love it.

Thanks for reading.

Michael

Replies (33)

July 5, 2014 at 04:55 PM · You already have what seems like a reasonable violin. That sound you are looking for does not come from the violin ; it comes from the player. I would keep practising a few more years. Do you have decent strings on your violin ? That can make a huge difference to the sound. What sort of bow are you using ?

July 5, 2014 at 06:04 PM · To add to what Brian has said, there is no such thing as a classical sound.

July 5, 2014 at 06:15 PM · Do you have a teacher or an expert friend? Why not get them to play your violin - first with your bow and then with theirs and see if the sound you are after is you are the violin.

You seem reluctant to buy an 'unknown' violin from a shop - that makes me suspect you won't know if it has the qualities you want. This is fine if you are not experienced at creating a full tone yet but with some help you may find a real bargain in your own backyard. Some violins have truly gorgeous tone but have other issues in particular high on the keyboard (wolf notes). These are undesirable for more advanced players but may serve you well (and be a bargain) for the next 2-4 years.

The other big advantage from bying from a (respected) shop is that you can get a 100% trade in policy: thus when you are ready to move up you will get the full value of your previously purchased violin. Without that you may be lucky to get 50% as a trade in. There are other big advantages: establishing a relationship means they want to keep you as a customer and (good shops) will keep your violin in good playing condition sometimes for free.

From what I have heard the factory violins can be good value - but buyer beware, from all accounts a particular brand may yet vary widely. They are still crafted instruments and each one is made by a different group of people, from different wood and set up differently. Thus, you STILL need to have expert advice - and that's going to be a lot more difficult on a trip to the USA than at your nearest violin shop.

Lastly, check out the luthiers in your neighbourhood. Although you are almost certainly not in their hand-made price range, they sometimes have violins that they accepted as a trade in that they really want to get rid of. This could be another bargain - plus the best of all - getting to know a real violin maker.

July 5, 2014 at 06:49 PM · I hope you have fun shopping! There's always the thrill of the hunt! :D

I agree that there is no violin that produces a classical sound vs. non-classical...that is up to the player. However, strings make a big difference. Metal strings will give you a more metallic, folksy sound vs. synthetics (or gut of course).

If you want a name-brand violin, then by all means get one. I think most of the better known brands are a good bet - and hopefully reasonably consistant in quality across the board at a given price range. I like Eastman and Shen - others swear by Scott Cao...so try a few different brands while on vacation. Do try to be open to suggestions though - you might find something you prefer outside of your current shopping parameters.

Don't get too caught up with 'investment value' either...as a rule instruments in this price range don't appreciate. They depreciate by the usual 'used product' rates. Maybe 15-20 years down the road that will change...but not in the near future.

You might also want to consider upgrading your bow first - if you don't have a good one - and see what you sound like (if you have decent strings in place).

July 5, 2014 at 08:58 PM · Thanks everyone for all the comments.

Brian & Peter:

I'm surprised to hear several people say there is no classical sound or the sound comes from the player. When I listen to Irish and/or bluegrass, the violin sounds quite different than in classical music. I just had a thought: is it the vibrato that could be making it sound different? Can the player (or bow) make that much of a difference when playing open chords? Tone-wise the main comments my teacher repeatedly gives me are "playing into the strings" (not sure how to translate "jouer dans les cordes" from french to english but basically she's telling me to put more arm weight on the bow and play with more pressure) and to use longer bow strokes (to frog & tip). We've been working on these for a many lessons. :)

When I had my violin tuned up with a local luthier, he adjusted the sound post which he said was not in its correct space. he also lowered the bridge and strings. And on his recommendation he put thomastik infeld red strings on it. He deals exclusively in antique violins (100+ year old French Mirecourt)and he said he set my (Chinese) violin up like he does his antique violins. The improvement in the sound was incredible. I was blown away. With his permission I compared my violin with his violins that were for sale for 1200 euros and the sound was very similar. So I was very happy. However after playing it for a week, I still think the sound is just quite the sound I'm looking for.

Elise:

I do have a teacher unfortunately I had my violin tune up last weekend and we had one group class that was our last class of the year. I told her about the tune-up and she played it for a few seconds and said it was a good improvement. It wasn't enough for me to judge the sound. I regret not asking her after the class to play it a bit more for me. :(

I agree about buying locally. Here in France things in general are much more expensive than in the US. I don't mind paying a bit more, but that's not the only issue. The trade in value here is 2/3 BEFORE tax which comes out to be roughly 50% after tax. If it was 100% I'd be very interested in doing this, but at 50% it's like you're giving your violin away. Surely one could resell a violin in excellent shape for more than 50% of the purchase price. And the last point is that I haven't seen brand name violins here, the Chinese ones are just labeled with the luthier's name. This makes it impossible to read reviews and shop around. So these 3 things combined make the violin shopping experience in France a bit challenging.

I really trust the luthier who fixed my violin, but unfortunately he sells only antiques and I prefer to have a modern violin (which is the advice of my teacher too).

N.A. Mohr:

Are Thomastik Infeld Red good things for the classical sound? My previous strings were Tonicas and I don't have any experience with other strings.

My bow is the one that came with my student violin. "Brazil wood". My teacher said it's fine and recommended that I wait before upgrading my bow. Although I'm very tempted to upgrade to a pernambuco bow.

Thanks everyone for the feedback. It's great to get advice from more experienced players. I'm leaning towards following the advice and not upgrading just yet.

July 5, 2014 at 09:44 PM · First of all Strings: they are different on any particular instrument. Infeld red are not good on my instrument but could be good on another violin.

What your teacher is telling you is that you must maintain good contact with the strings all of the time. If your bowing arm and instrument hold is good this will make things easier and you should be able to hear when the bow contact is bad, at least after some experience with what is a less good sound.

You need more time to improve before you need to worry about another bow and/or violin.

Good playing and good sound should be present whatever the music - Jazz, bluegrass, folk, classical or whatever. Listen to Stephan Grappeli and you will hear a classic violin sound when he plays Jazz.

July 5, 2014 at 09:50 PM · I liked the sound of the Piacenza that I bought for taking into risky situations. One warning note: You might have to invest in fine tune pegs, because the pegs supplied developed a tendency to slip.

July 5, 2014 at 09:53 PM · I love Stephan Grappeli's sound. That is definitely the "classical" violin sound that I really like.

in watching some videos of Stephan Grappeli and other players, I notice that a lot of players hold the bow a bit rotated so they're playing on the side of the strings and not making full contact with all of the bow hair. Is that an advanced technique? or is it just personal preference? Could that contribute to the sound?

July 5, 2014 at 10:52 PM · It's not an advanced technique, it's the standard technique I was taught. We only use the full hair when playing fortissimo.

July 6, 2014 at 02:55 AM · Michael, there is so much going on here that it's hard to sort through all the issues. Unlike those who seem to enjoy just being difficult, I totally know what you mean by "that classical sound." It's the rich, sonorous, clear, and compelling -- yet also quite varied -- sound that accomplished violinists get on their instruments. Only part of that comes from the instrument, though. While most ordinary violins do have limitations in the sound they can produce, there also is a great deal of technique in tone production, and it goes way WAY beyond tilting your bow (which you will find is fairly controversial anyway). Simon Fischer has a video on tone production that I recommend to you.

I am not a good resource in terms of choosing a new violin, but I have heard from violinists I admire that those Zhu violins can be quite good. Too bad you are an adult because I have a nice Scott Cao 3/4 size STV-750 for sale. Maybe if your daughter plays a Scott Cao in the shop and likes it, you might consider saving a bundle of money buying mine instead. See my notice in the discussion board list.

July 6, 2014 at 03:53 AM · Tonicas are a good, reasonably priced string for a classical music sound...or any other type of music too. I have them fitted to my best violin and I will fit them to all my violins eventually. Other than that, you could try Dominants but they are too expensive in my opinion.

July 6, 2014 at 07:00 AM · Michael - I might have contradicted myself when talking about "classic" violin sound, because really - having thought more about it - this is a rather misleading term. It could be interpreted as a sound "for classical music."

Really there should be just two violin sounds (whatever the music) - good and bad. try and avoid the latter, as we all do!

Bowing technique varies quite a bit and a lot of us were taught to play with the side of the hairs and stck leaning away. Many players now use the flat hair which can improve right hand position, in whichever bowing hold you use (Russian or Franco Belgium).

Milstein had strong views about the bow hold and many Russian players of all periods tend to use the flat bow hair. One can only say that people develop the style of bow hold that suits them best and works well for them.

I noticed years ago on TV that a famous Russian Viola player would roll the bow to use flat hairs a lot of the time, even with the stck a bit towards himself. (Yuri Bashmet). (Spelling?)

July 6, 2014 at 08:34 AM · The general consensus is to wait another year before upgrading my violin, and that I can improve the sound by improving my bowing technique. Which makes sense to me.

I thought it'd be helpful for the discussion to make a recording of my violin. I just did one take. I don't record myself often but when I listened to this one I heard lots of out of tune notes, sloppy string changes, and the bow sliding on the string. Lots of things to improve, and I don't always notice these while practicing so I think I'll record myself more often.

http://tinyurl.com/npf2p9f

Comments & critique are welcome. I'd love to know how I can improve my technique to get a better sound. It'd make practicing much more enjoyable. If the Simon Fischer DVD would be useful for me I will order it.

July 6, 2014 at 10:38 AM · It might help you sort through things to have a professional do a recording or play for you on your violin. If you hear a sound you like you will know that the violin isn't the issue.

July 6, 2014 at 12:13 PM · Jack - Good idea. I can ask my teacher but I take lessons in a music school and they're closed for the summer vacation so I won't have another lesson until mid-September.

She has played my violin a few times but I can tell it's not easy for her because I have an extra tall chinrest (I'm tall and don't use a shoulder rest). But I admit when she plays it, it sounds much better than mine but there is no comparison with her violin. :)

July 6, 2014 at 12:26 PM · "The trade in value here is 2/3 BEFORE tax which comes out to be roughly 50% after tax. If it was 100% I'd be very interested in doing this, but at 50% it's like you're giving your violin away. Surely one could resell a violin in excellent shape for more than 50% of the purchase price."

Just to be clear - that's the same even if you purchased the violin at the same shop and are 'buying up'? I think you will find that even without the guaranteed trade-in there is some give there since the shop is anxious to make another sale.

When you sell a violin you could be lucky and find someone looking just for that level/model - it might be easier for trade violins where the actual 'new' purchase price is known. However, with most sales you are competing with the auction value - which is often ~1/3rd of the sale price. That's because the buyers are generally shops that need to make a profit on the sale. What you pay for really is them finding and holding it until you walk in.

Just take a look at the sale prices of violins on ebay and compare them with the new item - that will give you a good idea.

July 6, 2014 at 01:03 PM · Well, ignoring the bad intonation and poor rhythm (Sorry, don't be put off by my blunt comments) - you seem to have a problem with the bow arm in as much as you are not contacting the string evenly, and sometimes there is a bit of a tremor in the sound as well.

I'm being very cruel here - but the blunt truth is often good. It's something I'm sure you can overcome and if you can concentrate on producing a really good sound from the bow. Go for a big fat sound which is smooth and controlled. But of course I can't tell you how to achive this on a forum, but with good teaching you should be OK.

July 6, 2014 at 01:25 PM · Peter - the feedback is great. Bad intonation I completely accept. I'm surprised to hear poor rhythm but I can work on that too. The "tremor" has been an issue for me. Your analysis is great. My teacher is not so critical so it's nice to get blunt feedback.

Can you expand on "you are not contacting the string evenly". I understood everything else, but I want to make sure I understand this too.

For my practice sessions I've been going phrase by phrase and playing it super slow so I can focus on intonation and correct my mistakes, and so I can focus on keeping my bow straight and using the entire bow. Then towards the end of my time on piece/movement/song I play along with piano track that came with my partition.

Does this sound like the right approach? I have one 30min lesson per week and we spend some of that time on 3rd position so we don't have as much time as I'd like.

July 6, 2014 at 01:36 PM · I haven't used the Tonicas...but they should be fine. I find Dominants work well on most instruments most of the time. I did try Infeld Blues once - and they didn't work with that particular violin. As part of a mix (for the D or G) they might be fine...but I'd never do an entire set of them again.

I've had good luck with Zyex and recently Warchal.

Regarding bows: While in general brazilwood bows are less expensive than pernumbuco...it's not always the case...there are some very good brazilwood bows to be had and some very poor pernumbuco. If your teacher says your current bow will do...use it while you research bows a bit more and have more of an understanding of what's what...it's a bit of jungle (pun intended) out there when it comes to bows.

Listening to your sound clip (and thank you for posting it!)...I don't think you've outgrown your current equipment yet.

However, I also know once the urge to shop hits, it's hard to turn it off...so perhaps this year...do visit the violin stores...try out the various outfits so you know what they look like and sound like...and then NEXT time you come to North America for a vacation...you can shop with informed intent (if that makes any sense!).

In the meantime...save up! :D

July 6, 2014 at 03:02 PM · ...or perhaps this would suffice to scratch the itch?

http://www.violinist.com/discussion/response.cfm?ID=25424

...at least you'd get to see a Scott Cao and decide if you'd like one for yourself...

July 6, 2014 at 04:24 PM · NA Mohr, thanks for mentioning the violin I have for sale, but that's a 3/4 size. Maybe Michael would like it for his daughter. I could take some pictures and record something playing it if he is interested.

July 6, 2014 at 04:24 PM · NA Mohr, thanks for mentioning the violin I have for sale, but that's a 3/4 size. Maybe Michael would like it for his daughter. I could take some pictures and record something playing it if he is interested.

July 6, 2014 at 04:55 PM · Yes...I meant it for his daughter! :D

July 6, 2014 at 07:34 PM · That's a bit expensive for my daughter IMHO. She's 8 and I'm not sure she is mature enough to care for an expensive violin.

We'll be visiting Los Angeles and I plan to visit the Gliga store and I'm considering a Gems 2 for $300. I've done some research on Gliga and I'm very curious to try their full-size violins too. For info a Stentor II is around $260 here in Paris(with luthier setup) and an entry-level no-name Chinese is $540.

July 6, 2014 at 08:35 PM · Its difficult to give advice on forum, but listening briefly to your clip I would say that you probably should use more bow speed so that you get a better sound and no bow tremors. Concentrate on playing about half way between the bridge and the fingerboard end. Play right through each bow on scales etc to get a good sound and build on that. Faster bows at this stage might get you going and the control and other bowing techniques may be suitable later.

July 6, 2014 at 09:07 PM · Thank you Peter Charles, excellent advice. My teacher has said to use more bow and logically I have to bow faster to be able to do that. :)

I also forget to say earlier that in my practice routine I play a lot without the left hand that way I can concentrate just on the bowing. We call it "cordes a vides" in french ("strings empty").

July 6, 2014 at 09:29 PM · After listening to your clip I think you should hold from purchasing a new violin for the time being. I would wait until your technique improves to a level where you will be able to tell the difference between violins. I have a feeling that even if you had a Strad it would be difficult for you to tell the Strad from your violin, because at this stage of your development you do not yet have the skill set to produce a good sound. Just be patient, practice, learn, and reconsider later on. I think you will know when the time is right.

July 7, 2014 at 09:51 AM · I have just listened to the soundbite. OK it's not in tune: your teacher should show you precisely what it should sound like, then precicsely what to do about it (fingers either stretch, curl or lean to find the "core" of the note.)

Tone?

- The violin (recorded near-to) has that pinched, whining sound that tires the ear, and makes intonation trickier. Whatever many v.commers say, a better violin can help your ear..

- Bow-stokes should be straight lengthwise, but definitely not vertically. Uniform pressure gives that meeowing "beginner" sound, which many seem to find normal. I teach my beginners short scooped strokes, which we lengthen progressively. Sunbeams apart, there are no straight lines in nature!

July 7, 2014 at 10:22 AM · Adrian - what do you mean by "- Bow-stokes should be straight lengthwise, but definitely not vertically."

It's the "vertically" bit I don't understand. Maybe I'm thick! (Don't answer that ...)

Also, I think the bow can come a little less straight at the point as long as its slight and the tip is a little nearer the f-board. But I think you may have meant that?

July 7, 2014 at 11:06 AM · Sorry, I tried to be too succinct. I meant that a dead straight stroke in the vertical plane makes for a straight, dead tone. Even a long, sustained note should come from a very very flat curve, with a very slight pendular motion.

As our anatomy encourages circular mouvements, perhaps we should make the most of them, rather than try to hide them. Whatever Michael's bow-hold, its partly the anxious effort to bow "flat" that makes his bow tremble.

And yes, the bow can turn a little in the horizontal plane. Primrose said that Kreisler bowed somewhere between the "middle and the point round the corner"..

July 8, 2014 at 09:18 AM · Michael

I was thinking a bit more about your bowing problems whilst I was playing myself this morning as I told myself off for not always having perfect bow contact.

You should, like me, think about the bow being glued to the string all of the time, when we are doing legato. I was playing an harmonic and I realised that because it was an harmonic I was no long glueing the bow to the string. So think of bow contact as the bow being glues to the string, never to leave it unless you are doing spicatto or ricochet etc.

July 8, 2014 at 06:22 PM · Thanks Peter for the additional tip, I will pay attention to that next time I practice.

This morning I was watching a violinlab video on using more bow and I stumbled upon something really interesting. I had seen it before but this time it stood out.

She demonstrates an exercise where you hold the bow away from the frog, towards the middle. and she does a couple bow strokes and the sound is very much like my sound. Then she says "You can play a scale" and all of a sudden she has this beautiful sound!!

I'm not sure what changed between the first two strokes and when she started playing the scale, other than the obvious vibrato. So I'm wondering how much of a role vibrato plays in that classical sound? I know many violinists do a pretty quick and subtle vibrato even on quarter notes. I need to watch more youtube videos.

Adrian Heath - You're right about being out of tune. Last night I played with a tuner and sometimes my B (first finger on A string) was sometimes 20 cents sharp. Same for the G (2nd finger E string). But it wasn't consistently sharp, sometimes it was right on. They were almost never flat. I've been focusing on my bowing more and not paying as much attention. So I'll be doing more scales and working on this. Thanks for bringing it to my attention.

I was also thinking.. I've been taking weekly 1/2 hour lessons for only 9 months. Earlier in the thread when i said 1.5 years that included when I tried to learn on my own (a big mistake admittedly). So I hope that for 9 months of lessons that it's really not that bad and that this time next year I will have made a huge improvement. :)

July 8, 2014 at 07:08 PM · At your level you should forget about vibrato. The sound comes from the bow, vibrato is just the added perfume. Vibrato can be the curse of string players and should not be learnt too soon.

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