Violin Set-Up

Edited: December 13, 2018, 10:31 AM · Hi Everyone,

How important is it to have a new violin set-up by a professional?

I currently play a Gliga Gems 1 that I purchased two years ago from the manufacturer. I never had the instrument set-up professionally and my teacher never mentioned it as something I should do.

I have no complaints with my instrument (other than the bridge which I'm not too crazy about), but I have been looking at higher priced/more advanced instruments recently and wondered if having my instrument set-up properly might be a better investment?

P.S: I'm beginner player (approximately 2.5 years of lessons).

Replies (19)

December 13, 2018, 11:45 AM · Regardless of what Cotton may tell you, violin set-up is not a DIY thing.

The qualities that an excellent set-up done by a professionally trained luthier can give the playability and tone of your instrument can not be properly appreciated until they are experienced. Keep in mind that you might pay as much for the set-up as you did for the instrument-if not more-although I cut $75 bridges and $150 bridges, the difference being the quality of the blank. A split and made from scratch soundpost is better than the posts cut from the dowels that we purchase, although it might not make any difference in the sound of your Gliga. The made from scratch post also takes more time, hence, more money. Some luthiers only make posts from scratch. Don't ask the luthier to compromise their standards because you think that what they charge is too expensive. Perhaps ask to play something that they have set-up, keeping in mind that "set-up" means different things to different people. Bridge, post, board shape, nut height and spacing, they are all part of the equation.

If you purchase your next violin from an online source, as you did with the Gliga, you might still need a set-up.

December 13, 2018, 11:56 AM · Violin set-up is most definitely a DIY-thing, but you can't just jump into it headlong. You will break something, yes. If you're too scared to work with your hands, take it to a luthier. If you're a obsessive like me, you will do yourself a favour by spending a few hours learning everything you can about the violin on Youtube and other sites. Carving, making strings, fitting bridges, etc. Everything. Then you can carefully start practising.
Edited: December 13, 2018, 12:18 PM · Violin set-up CAN BE A DIY THING, but if you don't know what you are doing, don't do it!

You should have teacher play your violin and tell you if it should have some professional attention.

70 years ago I started to learn some of the things because my father started to do it for himself after we moved from NYC to a relatively remote location. So I watched him and far too soon I inherited the few tools and little bag of hide-glue crystals he had. Even so, every few decades (it seems) I take some instruments to a professional for whatever it is they think they can do to make things better. Dad also took his violin to a pro a couple of hours away when he found one - but he did minor emergency fixes.

December 13, 2018, 12:19 PM · Sound post cracks are a DIY thing.
Edited: December 13, 2018, 1:56 PM · Phil, I wouldn't know what sort of setup work might benefit your violin without examining it, and maybe carrying out a few experiments.

Mr. Mather, people spend years and years learning how to optimize a setup. I've been at it for 48 years, and am still learning. And I was considered to be a quick learner!

The reason pros like Duane and I don't recommend DIY is because we have seen so much DIY shoddy work and so many catastrophes. You might think you're beyond that, but I bet if we examined your work, we could easily mess with that perception. If one wants to be really good, the first thing to learn is how much one doesn't know.

By the way, much of the setup and repair advice on Youtube (wasn't that one of the things you recommended?) is abysmal! So bad, that I was even inspired to put up a satirical video on bridge fitting. What I didn't anticipate was the number of people who didn't even realize that it was a joke!

No, I'm not saying these things to hustle business. I'm not accepting new clients, and have easily a seven-year waiting list for new instruments.

December 13, 2018, 1:14 PM · "Sound post cracks are a DIY thing."
... also as in Dropped it Yesterday, in a cheap case.
December 13, 2018, 1:24 PM · Get it set up with someone who knows their stuff. My bridge fell and the sound post shifted slightly. The change in my violin was profound and awful. My luthier spent five minutes with it and brought it back to its usual, roaring self.

A good setup optimizes your violin's potential. Spend the time and money on it.

Edited: December 13, 2018, 4:48 PM · At the risk of offending our forum experts, I would say you may consider DIY for cheap violins (<$500) if you have plenty of free time. IMO it makes sense from an economic standpoint. And you learn a lot from fine-tuning the instrument.

If I were to do it, I would learn as much as I could before executing the work. I would do it slowly, bit by bit.

Establish your boundaries: If I DIY, I would only make changes that can be reversed on the outfit, such as cutting/adjusting the sound post, changing strings, cutting a bridge. These changes can still cause damage if done carelessly. I want to still use or sell the instrument if things don't work out.

For violins above $1000 I would definitely bring it to the luthier. Any instrument between $500-1000 is a maybe/maybe-not but I wouldn't spend more than $200 for setup on it.

One more caveat: David Burgess and Don Noon are well-known violin makers AFAIK. I'm a dude on the internet who never had any luthiery experience. Put as much stock in my opinion as you think it is worth.

P/S I own a Gliga Gama, and it improved greatly after a local luthier set it up. Set-up is an important part for my violin to reach its potential.

Edited: December 13, 2018, 4:25 PM · Matt, I am not offended. If someone wants to learn, I would also recommend doing it on low-value instruments. One of my first jobs had mostly to do with servicing low-value rental instruments, and I learned a lot from that, before moving on to higher-value instruments, where screw-ups could carry major consequences.

If Mr. Mather is under the impression that he has become a high-level setup person from having spent a little time around a substitute "luthier" bass player in a local orchestra, I think it would be fair to call that into question, not that it wouldn't depend on who that person was, and their acumen and training.

December 13, 2018, 3:51 PM · People say DIY is a bad idea because you'll make mistakes.
If you never make mistakes, you never learn. That's why I did my first setup stuff on a cheapo Eastman factory violin.
Edited: December 13, 2018, 4:19 PM · Some people learn mostly from their own mistakes, and others have already learned a lot from other's past mistakes.

If you were choosing a wife or husband, which scenario would you rather deal with?

December 13, 2018, 6:50 PM · “There are three kinds of men. The ones that learn by readin’. The few who learn by observation.
The rest of them have to pee on the electric fence for themselves.”

Will Rogers

December 13, 2018, 7:27 PM · A very good setup can do miracles to how your instrument plays, and those able to do “a very good setup” are rather rare unfortunately. There is a reason why (other than good build and time) master instruments sound so good... centuries of the best setup humanly possible where no details are spared, but even so, an average setup on a factory instrument is still worth every penny. It takes hundreds of instruments setups to be really proficient at it, and even many makers don’t do enough setups to be good at it. A quick look at your current setup may be all we need to advise you on what to do. A bad setup is generally easy to spot, can you post some photos?
Edited: December 13, 2018, 7:58 PM · As amazing a luthier as you are, Burgess, I'm sure you'll agree both kinds of experience are important. You can read books all you want, but you'll never learn until you mess something up for yourself—just like playing the violin!
December 13, 2018, 8:55 PM · @Cotton, no one was saying making mistakes aren't necessary. But why reinventing the troubles if you can learn it from someone? Some mistakes are too costly to make.
Edited: December 13, 2018, 11:38 PM · I am a fanatical DIYer by nature and due to vocation and practical life experiences have a pretty varied skill set, master of a few but definitely not all.

That being said, one of the best lessons learned as well as ego humbling, but accepted, was when I was fortunate enough to get a job with a luthier when I was in college. Going into the position with an engineer's mind and years of furniture and cabinet making experience I assumed I would pick up this skill in short oder, at least the basics, right?

It didn't take long for me to realize not only how little I knew, but learning mentally the process of a particular task was nothing compared to actually performing the task. During my three years in that shop I came to realize that even the (often taken for granted) carving of a bridge is a true art form when done by an experienced and meticulous luthier. I would watch mesmerized as my boss would carve the feet to fit perfectly (no sandpaper jigs), carve the profile, set the arch, get the string notches perfect to his specifications, do the coarse carving and fit it, then meticulously start with adjusting the heart, kidney, crotch, shin etc.. after plucking or bowing a few notes and continue this painstaking process until he achieved what to him was the optimum result for that particular violin, often with the owner's input. He taught me that a bridge to a violin was like a fingerprint to us, in his shop no two were alike, they were carved to fit each individual violin, based on it's tonal character, flaws, attributes and achievable expectations.

Similarly with the soundpost,but to a lesser extent, in that grain, diameter, height and contour of the ends ,were all matched to an individual violin to bring out it's desirable potential while ensuring no damge (too tight,too loose, wrong end contours marring the top or back plates etc..).

I could go on but will spare you my further appreciation and admiration of experienced and dedicated luthiers, my opinions stemming from witnessing and experiencing first hand the difference in the results of a true luthier and a DIYer as myself.

Yes, I can and have carved bridges, nuts and soundposts, as well as set them, not to mention setting and adjusting tailpieces (including tail chord knots) and carving pegs, but I reserve my efforts to inexpensive violins as I've learned even after three years under the tutelage of a fine luthier, sporadic experience and experimenting for years afterwards that my results still generally don't approach the results of a good, experienced luthier.

I have a career and responsibilities that prevent me from being able to dedicate the time and energy it would take for me to even come close to the experience and skill level of a dedicated and talented luthier. I can accept that.

On my primary violin, which is valuable to me, I limit my work to carving and setting my soundpost and tailpieces. I have done some good with my violins and have done damage, and yes, have learned from those experiences, but with my being so OCD about the tonal qualities of my primary violin, I have learned to leave the primary work to the experts.

My last learning experience that resulted in that resolution was an episode where I thought I had done an exceptional setup job with a decent Jay Haide violin that I had obtained, and the final result I thought sounded pretty darn good if I must say so myself. Out of curiosity, I took it to the nearest reputable luthier, which was about 7 hours away. I asked him to check out the setup and make any adjustments he thought necessary, neglecting to inform him of my prior work. I came back a little over an hour later and within that time, he had accomplished what I had spent days trying to do. It is hard to describe but there was more of a depth and diffent dimension to the sound and overtones and a better quality of warmth.

That was that. I had already sacrificed enough valuable time an energy to that attempt. Lesson learned. I will continue to "tinker" with my lesser violins but my good stuff will go to the guys/gals that know THEIR stuff :)

Official end of diatribe. I apologize for the novel, but the moment struck me.

Edited: December 14, 2018, 7:06 AM · I learned a lot from tinkering with Lark VSO's. No luthier here would touch them.. I also had a dad who was very skillful with wood, and made me my first soundpost setter. But I certainly do not tinker with decent instruments, mine or anyone else's.

Another reason which may push us into Trying It Oneself is not finding a luthier who listens, but only puts fittings in one standard place. In Paris, I am lucky in this respect.

BTW, Gigla instruments have a reputation for having a pleasant tone and easy response; I don't know if they can respond to fine adjustment. Experiences, anyone?

December 14, 2018, 10:15 AM · Gliga Gem 1 falls into the category of a low-end student violin. If your instrument is basically playable with no obvious difference in response across the strings, then a professional setup will do little to change its tone, its responsiveness to the bow, or its loudness. Practice is the best investment you can make.

That said, violins in this price range tend to have hastily made bridges that are out of spec, mostly too "flat" for easy bowing. Add in a student's lack of bow control and the soft hair tension typical of lower-end bows, then sounding one string at a time becomes a challenge worthy of a virtuoso. If this sounds like your violin, consider getting a new bridge with an aggressive curve profile (say, 38mm radius).

DIY setup requires a non-trivial amount of money for basic tools, purchase of materials that will mostly be wasted as one learns from the inevitable mistakes, a cheap violin one will not mind ruining, a lot of time spent practicing, and the guidance (virtual or otherwise) of someone who knows what they are doing.

December 14, 2018, 11:54 AM · Mr. Mather wrote:
"As amazing a luthier as you are, Burgess, I'm sure you'll agree both kinds of experience are important.

Yes and no. I think one can largely sidestep "walking through the valley of the shadow of death", and major mistakes, if one is able to find a situation where someone really good is looking over ones shoulder for a few years.

Isn't that notion pretty well accepted among those who aspire to be soloists, or major symphony players? Why would that be different in the luthier profession?

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