Your violin-purchase priorities - and not.....

Edited: January 12, 2019, 4:24 PM · The insurance came through and I am not looking for a violin-partner and I would love it if you came along!

At this point I'm intrigued as to the priorities that other violinists put when looking to purchase their primary playing instrument (I have a very nice german workshop backup). Note, this is about relative preferences, not absolute how much the fiddle will cost. However, I do include 'investment value' in the list since this can also be an important relative factor.

Thus, if you bear with me, can you list the things you look for from most to least important. I have a list below but by all means add your own. Please also mention what kind of player you are - for example (its up to you) beginner, intermediate student, advanced amateur, professional-track, professional. If we have a good response I will collate the results at the end.

Here are a list to get us started (in no particular order):

Absence of false or loud notes
Tone to the ear
Tone to the audience
Volume (loud)
Instrument beauty
Investment value
Response time (latency from bow movement to sound production)
Evenness across strings
Physical comfort/fit

Thanks everyone - I think this could be useful not only to buyers but also to our luthiers.

Replies (42)

January 12, 2019, 11:12 AM · Physical comfort and/or weight and balance?
Some violins just feel heavy. Or have neck shape that just feel awkward.
January 12, 2019, 11:46 AM · I like your list! I'd add 'Conformity to standard violin sizes.'

My violin isn't a standard size, and it's hard to switch to the one I use for travel.

Edited: January 12, 2019, 12:05 PM · Good thread idea.

Your list already looks pretty well prioritized except that I would move your last two items up just below workmanship.

I'm not interested in investment value. With my knowledge of violins, I think I'm better off in an index fund, Trump's shenanigans notwithstanding.

I wish I had prioritized responsiveness higher when I was buying a viola. The instrument I have (an MJZ) has a nice big tone but it's not very responsive and I could use more in some orchestra parts.

Edited: January 12, 2019, 4:25 PM · Scott - you get a point for adding a new one (one that isn't discussed that much - but its sure obvious when you play someone else's violin) and I added it to the list.

But you loose a point for not following instructions :D I'd love to hear your priorities ...

January 12, 2019, 6:08 PM · The priorities seem good. I suspect, from having recently bought a viola, that one or two will simply stand out for you as you try them, without respect to the priorities you have listed.

One issue in trying is to make sure that the violins have appropriate strings. A good violin could easily sound like a dud if the strings happen to be a bad choice. Anyhow, make sure someone plays it for you so you can hear what it will sound like to others. If you can take it out on trial, that is a plus. Good luck!

January 12, 2019, 6:17 PM · What about playability? Some seem to play much harder than others for some reason.
January 12, 2019, 6:42 PM · Timothy - I think its a great point but somehow 'playability' seems too broad as a testing feature. For example, response time is really a part of 'playability'. Can you think of a term that is a bit more specific?
January 12, 2019, 6:47 PM · I tried to post, but it keeps erasing my response... one more try!

Physical comfort/fit
Sound profile (warm/bright/etc) & ease of obtaining dynamic range, color, etc. (aka playability)
Tone to the ear
Tone to the audience
Response time (latency from bow movement to sound production)
Evenness across strings
Absence of false or loud notes
Volume (loud)
Condition (good, excellent, fair, etc.)
Instrument beauty
Investment value

Amateur - intermediate/advanced level

Don't care about investment value at this time, when I have a bigger budget (years down the line) caring about the investment/resale aspect will be a higher priority.

Agree with Tom re: right strings. And the right bow matters too.

January 12, 2019, 6:50 PM · What insurance came through? Where can I get some?
January 12, 2019, 8:54 PM · I was thinking about this and realizing that it's kind of like making a list of requirements/priorities for a spouse. You can have some idea of what you're looking for, but in the end, you kind of just fall in love. I think picking a violin or a bow is much the same way. I do think that you should have a list of things that are things that you must have or refuse to accept, but there might be just a handful of such items.

As an advanced amateur, I have three key needs in a violin:

1. Blend in orchestra. The sound needs to be readily controllable in orchestra. It should readily blend with the section sound, across the dynamic ranges. It should have a clean and precise attack, with the ability to rapidly and gracefully fade the sound if the bow is slowed after an initial fast start to the stroke, which is important for a lot of orchestra music. It should be easy to play (low effort to produce sound), reducing fatigue. It should be readily audible under the ear.

2. Project colorfully in solos. Projection should be good both in small venues and large halls. A full range of colors and immediate responsiveness to nuanced playing should be maintained even when more projection is required (i.e., there must be the impression of piano and forte even if decibels remain high) -- a sculptable sound. It should be easy to be heard with a piano, over the orchestra in a concerto without undue fatigue, and in a concertmaster solo. I want focus and punch (a clear presence to the core of the note), with lots of "give" (no bottoming out with a lot of weight, no cracking with sustained forte).

3. Be flexible in chamber music. Chamber music requires being able to blend with different individual instruments as well as punch out from the texture when necessary. It should be easy to balance and fit appropriately into the texture.

I don't care much about anything that's not a playing quality. Condition, maker, etc. all impact what is a fair price, so the question is mostly whether the playing qualities are worth the asking price.

Edited: January 12, 2019, 10:46 PM · Elise's list seems more applicable to violins below, say, $30,000, or even below $20,000, where there might be non-ideal characteristics or even actual flaws that require thoughtful prioritization. I'll stop short of extending that thought to Lydia's marriage analogy, even though I think it would be possible to do so.

I chose the $30,000 threshold so that it would include recent bench-made American violins from many (but not necessarily all) reputable makers. When you are talking about violins at that level and above, one would hope that basics like balance across the strings and workmanship are given.

Playability seems to encompass physical comfort, responsiveness, and the ease of accessing a diverse sound profile.

January 12, 2019, 11:18 PM · These are all things measured on relative scales, too. What is a good color in a $3,000 violin is kind of at a "yes, I can live with this" level, for instance, relative to other instruments in that price range.

What is a great range of color on my violin became an utterly awesome range of color when I tried a Tourte bow with it...

January 13, 2019, 6:39 AM · Lydia - the idea for this topic came from testing one violin in the 15-20K range) and discovering that its 'response time' permitted me to play considerably faster than I could on my previous instrument. Having discovered that I wondered if there were any other properties that I should be looking for that I might not have prioritized myself.

Your list is a dream outcome one - but is that the list in your head when you try 10 violins on a table? Surely you need some more mundane standards to get to the point where you can pick two or three to test in more realistic playing circumstances (at home, with your chamber group etc..).

January 13, 2019, 6:45 AM · Paul wrote: "Elise's list seems more applicable to violins below, say, $30,000, or even below $20,000, where there might be non-ideal characteristics or even actual flaws that require thoughtful prioritization." Is that really true? I keep reading about the 'other' Strads that have flaws the player has to 'work around'. Are expensive instruments really that good?

On the other hand - you are perfectly right, that is my current range :) but I might go higher for The one.

Edited: January 13, 2019, 7:24 AM · Bow (I think I care more): speed of response, total match with violin, balance (I like frog bias, many currently seem to prefer tip bias), light weight, bounce control. The fewer bows you want to carry, the more qualities you need in one. For me, response speed and balance are transformative.

Violin: tone matches the sound in my head, good response on high positions, even across strings, no wolfs except open e which can be fixed with a string, fast response, easy string action, balance such that it can easily be played without shoulder rest, light weight overall, good response across dynamic range. Matches my bows well.

Unlike bows where some of those are kind of either or (like frog bias balance vs good bounce), a good instrument can definitely achieve some of all of these for any decent price range (even 1kish us). Going up in price gets you, in theory, more of each, more consistently. Maybe.

January 13, 2019, 9:17 AM · Love your list Francis - and I too play without an SR. This changes the relationship somewhat as the violin has to be easily manipulated by the L thumb and hand (and preferably not too heavy either.

Also love the 'tone matches the sound in my head' - that's better put than tone to the ear, but similar.

And I hear you on the 'Maybe'. Seems to me that price is more determined by the label (where real of course) than the instrument (where instrument means making music ;) ). If you know of any luthiers that reasonably consistently hit this list please do message!

January 13, 2019, 10:02 AM · People would be surprised how many things on their list say as much about the shop that set the violin up as about the violins. Response time is one of those things.
January 13, 2019, 10:28 AM · Really Darnton? Could you give us a hint how one speeds up response time by setup?
Edited: January 13, 2019, 10:48 AM · Certainly setup is a huge variable...I don't know how to pick an instrument other than by picking a setup. A far as how, I'll defer to Mr. Darnton who is an expert luthier (and I am nobody), but I suspect bridge height, post placement, bridge material/treatment and string selection are the main variables the can be changed easily after instrument construction. Edit: I forgot tailpiece position and string after length.

I've noticed that a good luthier can set up even a factory instrument in a way that matches his or her sound concept, an get quite good results.

Something else a bit interesting... I've noticed some difference between instruments whose sound is "instant on" and some with a bit of a gradual bloom in a few milliseconds after attack. The later seem to sound as though they have a bit more depth to the sound maybe. I'm not sure if any of that difference projects to the audience or not. Is that bridge height? My experience is lower action seems to correlate to a blooming sound where slightly higher bridge correlates to an instant on sound, but my sample size is about three instruments so I don't really know.

January 13, 2019, 11:43 AM · Elise, see my testing procedure in this old thread: LINK

My current violin does all the things that are on my list, by the way. But that link (about the contemporary makers exhibition) contains a list of the violins that could also have met my requirements.

The sound and the response of a higher-end instrument isn't necessarily what most players are used to.

In particular, the sound might not be what you're used to hearing under the ear. I always have to remind myself that what I hear and what the audience hears are different. I heard my teacher play my current violin before I tried it, and I was instantly enchanted upon hearing a few notes -- but the sound under my ear was not that sound. That's remained true through frequent adjustments over the 3+ years I've owned it. I record myself more frequently these days. I'm not as keen on more grit under the ear, but I am now much more aware of how no one other than me can hear that -- even an audio recording up close banishes the grit, and the sound is smoothly rounded but penetrating.

The sheer responsiveness of my violin significantly magnifies the issues with anything that's not excellent control. For instance, it took me a couple of weeks to really ensure that I was playing with equal frog-to-tip weight and speed, so that I didn't get a big crescendo-decrescendo effect. (I was getting that on my previous violin, too, but it wasn't in-your-face noticeable in the same way.) And every refinement, like the way I end a stroke, will audibly change the way a note sustains, tapers, stops, etc.

Also, options open up in a way that may not be instinctive to your technique. For instance, most of us are taught the rule that for loud you go to the bridge with more weight and less speed, and for soft, you go to the fingerboard with less weight and more speed. And most advanced players switch "lanes" instinctively. Well, one of the effects of "more colors" is that more combinations are valid. For instance, on my violin, I can get the color of a piano with enough punch to be hear above an orchestra by playing next to the fingerboard with slow speed and more weight. And this instrument has a quirk -- there seem to be clear "lanes" where there's more resonance. And so I've been gradually getting used to steering the bow into those lanes by habit. (I've seen this is true of some other high-end violins as well.)

My violin is super-sensitive to adjustment, and it tends to get a trip to the luthier every time I change strings, or there's a sharp change in the weather and it's not sounding its best.

Edited: January 13, 2019, 3:06 PM · The influence of "setup" on sound and playability tends to put large error bars on the quality of a violin. We all face the dilemma that we might be turning away an affordable gem just because it's not set up well. You would think good shops would spend time setting their violins up well to help them sell.

Elise I think the "other" Strads that reportedly have various flaws that the player would need to work around, well I guess they might have overwhelming sounds that makes such effort worthwhile, or they might be resting largely on their investment value. Probably it's better to say I just don't know.

My comment was intended sort of in the direction of Lydia, who as we know owns a rare instrument (JB Vuillaume, if I recall correctly). I was trying to draw a distinction (if indeed there is one) between her enumerated needs, when shopping at that level, vs. the priorities you listed in your original post, which I assume are germane to your shopping experience and seem rather more pedestrian. Part of the gap occurs because we're not shopping for the same sort of violin, and the other part, at least in my case, is that I'm not going to realize the same qualities from a violin that Lydia will because my playing skill is several levels below hers, so my description of needs will accordingly be more prosaic.

January 13, 2019, 12:13 PM · As Francis says, everything about post, bridge, and strings affects everything. They are the path through which you have to go to get to the sound.

As Lydia says, to my taste, violins that are more sensitive to everything are "better". Then more things posible but are up to the player to control. Such a violin reqires a higher skill level, however.

January 13, 2019, 12:53 PM · I don’t think the priorities are so simple. IMHO workmanship is probably #1. Just from a visual perspective I can’t imagine anyone paying a large sum of money for a poorly made instrument. Likewise a poorly made instrument would have a lower probability of good sound quality. I would say there are a top 3 to 5 priorities where there is some balance vs a clear ordering.
January 13, 2019, 2:07 PM · Thanks Michael. I want the Lotus Elise - I'm happy to spend the hours learning how to drive it at 250km/hr! But I take your point to heart in particular when buying from the most able dealers since they will be able to dress up the performance of a good, but not great violin better than the less able. Interesting point that I never thought about.
January 13, 2019, 2:14 PM · Annie - by workmanship I was not referring to whether the violin is robust and will hold together but whether, for example, it hits all the points required to win for structure at a show. This is important for people who see the instrument as a work of beauty but less so I think for those of us who see it as a tool to make sounds. Perhaps I should have been more clear.
January 13, 2019, 2:28 PM · Hi Lydia - thanks for that link, very interesting reading! I'm certainly not averse to buying a new instrument but I have heard some cautionary tales that some of them can age badly over the first few years - perhaps someone can comment here. Thus, if you buy one that's a few years old you may be more sure that it will stay true to form.
January 13, 2019, 3:01 PM · The instruments I liked best at that exhibition were not new -- they'd had several years, and in the case of the Gusset, several decades, to settle in. I have, however, tried just-off-the-bench instruments that held a lot of promise for the future. I think you have to be careful of violins that have false promise -- there's a lot of folks there who like bright ring-y loud-under-the-ear violins that don't turn out to age well, especially if the tops are made too thin.

I have the impression that Elise has historically been looking for an instrument suitable for a soloist, which suggests that her buying criteria should be pretty similar to mine. (Paul remembers correctly -- I own a JB Vuillaume.)

It's worth noting that players may reject an instrument different from what they're used to, especially if it seems comparably difficult to play, or it is not well-suited to their technique. (You may have seen Andy Victor and I talk in previous posts about a Strad we both tried. I loved it and still remember the way it felt in my hands, and it's still a life's dream of sort to own that kind of violin, or at least the kind of bow that could take my current violin to that kind of level -- which the Tourte I tried could do tonally. But Andy wasn't impressed.)

The instrument itself is a teacher of sorts. By responding very precisely and instantly to what you are doing, it gives you extremely valuable feedback. This in turn allows you to figure out what you need to do. (My teacher feels that by far the greatest leap of improvement he's seen from me, came in the weeks after I got this violin, when I actually still had it on trial.) On the other hand, be prepared to sound like crap every time your control is not immaculate. It's kind of like programming a computer. It will do exactly what you tell it to do. If you write buggy code, beware.

January 13, 2019, 5:41 PM · People should just listen to Lydia.
Can we make a "Listen to Lydia" t-shirt?
January 13, 2019, 5:55 PM · "But you loose a point for not following instructions :D I'd love to hear your priorities ..."

I think the concept of a "priority" in discussing desirable violin qualities is a chimera.
All of these aspects--tonal quality, projection, feel, value, varnish, measurments, response--all of these are considered, mixed and mashed up, and we ultimately come up with a gut-level, intuitive decision: yes or no.

This is the issue in most complex human decision making. Sometimes, when trying to make a decision that has many aspects and ramifications, say going to law school, or medical school, or even trying to decide on a mate, we are told to make a list, giving each a numerical priority. So we make a list...
And then throw it away.

For violins, what may happen is that you THINK projection is what your priority is. And then you hear something with a special tone and suddenly you may accept less projection.

Edited: January 13, 2019, 7:46 PM · Okay I'll add a "priority": The opinions of professional violinists that I trust to understand what violins should sound like, how they should play, and what they should cost. If I am able to have my teacher play and evaluate the violins from which I am choosing, and another local pro that I trust, and they say "Paul, this is a fine violin, it has what you need and the price is reasonable," then I am going to be strongly inclined toward that purchase because to some degree it's easier to convince myself that I like the sound of a violin that a fine professional violinist says is good, than it is to convince myself that I should trust my own ears, which I already know are faulty (continuous ringing, etc.). When I bought my violin (a 2006 Topa) pro opinions probably got me at least halfway there, and since buying it I've really enjoyed it and others have complimented me on it as well. Just an additional two cents' worth from a committed amateur.

In fact that method worked so well that I bought my viola entirely (100%) on the opinion of the aforementioned local pro. He said he was traveling to buy some student-level instruments for his music school, and I asked him to pick one out for me. So, entirely sight-unseen. The viola has a great sound. It's not especially responsive. But for $3500 you do not get everything, and I only play it in orchestras so it's good enough for what I am doing. It's a Chinese viola (Ming Jiang Zhu "AA").

Lydia's notion of the violin as teacher is absolutely correct. As soon as I got the Topa my practicing was much more rewarding and efficient and I improved more quickly.

January 13, 2019, 8:51 PM · Michael, people at my workplace have occasionally suggested that T-shirt too. ;-)

If you ask a pro for help, be sure that they know what they're doing. Teachers are fairly good at judging basic student instruments for playability but many of them don't have enough experience with non-factory/workshop violins to be able to guide that kind of purchase.

Edited: January 13, 2019, 9:24 PM · Take a prospective violin on a loan for 7 days.
day 1: you like it, kind off...
day 2: you like it, but are not quite sure
day 3: you still like it
day 4: you like it and can't stop playing
day 5: you like it more than yesterday and you skipped your lunch
day 6: you like it even more than the day before and forgot to take shower
day 7: you like it you can't live without it - your partner feels neglected

day 8: you empty your pockets and come back here to brag about the best violin in the world!

January 13, 2019, 9:42 PM · Lydia, I appreciate what you are saying but this individual is one of rare experience and erudition.
January 13, 2019, 10:28 PM · Oh yeah, I wasn't speaking of your guy, Paul -- from your description he's clearly someone who handles a lot of instruments.
January 13, 2019, 10:35 PM · LOL Rocky. And that is exactly what I am hoping for. But this topic has given me ideas as to how to run the instrument through its paces a bit more so that I don't fall in love as I did with my first real-life partner :o :o but go for the soul-mate up front ... [which I did find ;) ]

January 14, 2019, 10:10 AM · Paul - my teacher helped me pick out my instrument with those variables in mind. I'm glad I had their guidance with my relatively short selection process.

Haha, Rocky, happened to me. Not sure if that's a good thing or not... thank goodness for having a second opinion from a professional I trust.

January 14, 2019, 12:20 PM · I agree Tim. Things change.
then we need to add to the priority list "upgrade policy". Used it for upgrading 1 violin and 3 bows at Seman Violins.
January 14, 2019, 1:16 PM · Arnie - I also took advantage of the 'upgrade policy' with two violins years ago. However, unless you buy at a dealer with a very extensive stock indeed, it has diminishing benefit as you move up to more expensive violins as you are then limited solely to the current stock. At this point I want to try instruments from many dealers and luthiers for that matter to find Galatea.

Edited: January 15, 2019, 1:42 PM · Trade-ins are great for kids who upgrade in size every year or two, as well as beginners slowly saving to get a decent violin, especially if the top end of their upgrade path is a high-quality top-of-the-line workshop violin (like a top-end Jay Haide model or the like), and gradually trade up to their final violin.

Trade-ins are basically useless once you get beyond workshop violins, because most higher-end violins appreciate in value. With a trade-in, you get credit equal to your purchase price, and that's it, which means you totally miss out on any appreciation.

Edited: January 15, 2019, 2:34 PM · I agree with Lydia about appreciation. Sometimes we don't think our instruments have "investment value," but excluding damage, even a workshop instrument should appreciate at nominally the same rate as the consumer price index. If you buy a $5000 violin at Potter's (just an example), and in ten years you trade up, they're going to turn around and re-sell your $5000 violin for $6000, and they're going to charge you a fee (perhaps $350) to prepare it for sale. Another way to look at the instrument that you're trading up is as an essentially free rental. The dealer can look at is as free storage. Eventually, though, you do reach a point where you're going to be on your own because the dealer won't have what you're looking for at the next level up. And at the rate people give up playing the violin, die, etc., the odds definitely favor the house.

What trade-up policies do is give buyers peace-of-mind that they're not losing their principal like you do when you trade in a car that you've driven for a few years, or like you can when you want to sell your house and its value went down because they decided to run a gas pipeline through your back yard. These are the kinds of fears that ordinary people quite reasonably have.

Edited: January 15, 2019, 5:39 PM · Gulp. Third violin I tested... I may have found it :o
See new topic...

Tone to ear
tone to audience
excellent top of E
excellent bottom of G
I could go on...

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