Upgrade Parts & Setup or New Violin?

Edited: March 5, 2019, 7:18 PM · I'm going to take my $400 student violin on a luthier tour around the city tomorrow and see what they have to say about it, but I want to hear your thoughts about this as well.

I know it depends on the instrument on a case by case basis, but if one or more of the local luthiers thinks they can improve my violin's sound and playability with a few part upgrades and a setup, should I go for it? And how much should I trust their opinion? I'd hate to waste a couple hundred dollars on something that doesn't make a big difference.

I'm going to hear what they have to say tomorrow and update this post with their responses, but do you think I might be on the right track with upgrading parts and getting a good setup? (my setup might be fine already, idk) instead of buying an intermediate violin? Or am I wasting my money?

UPDATE: I took my violin to a luthier to give it a look over and make sure its setup was good. He said the E string was a little high, but within acceptable standards and not worth adjusting, and otherwise, it was a good setup and he said nothing he could do to it like replacing the bridge or tailpiece would make a noticeable difference.

While I was there I tried out a bunch of old German workshop violins, my favorite being a $2500 1890 Thomas Ernst. I also tried a $950 Martin Beck, but I didnt like it very much.

On my way home I took a sharp turn and went to Y. Chen's shop, a Chinese luthier who lives here but has a workshop in China where he makes his instruments.

I tried 4 in my price range and noticed a big difference compared to my current violin. They were actually very nice, resonant, and loud!

I especially liked the $800 Arcos Brasil A. Carualho silver pernambuco bow I got to use in the shop. Even made my current violin sound much better.

So at least I figured out that my current setup is fine and in order to improve the sound I need a new violin and a new bow.

So now I will start saving money and go back to these two places (and probably a couple more. I hear there's a Romanian workshop dealer in town as well).

Overall, a good day!

Replies (16)

March 5, 2019, 12:59 AM · I wouldn't expect much out of a $400 violin.
March 5, 2019, 1:41 AM · Depends on how much the upgrades and setup cost. It's probably not worthwhile if it's going to cost $200, but if the price you're quoted is under $100, it might be worthwhile to go ahead and have the work done.
March 5, 2019, 1:44 AM · Imho, I think set up affect more of its playability and consistency than its tone. It surely affect the tone too, especially projection, if that's what you concern.

If I were you I probably will save up for a good violin that can be your company for some years. One that is properly set up in the beginning.

March 5, 2019, 6:12 AM · Take it back to the luthier where you bought it.

I bought a violin last summer. Now that I'm playing in higher positions more, I noticed the sound wasn't even across the strings as I went up the fingerboard. I asked my teacher about it, and she suggested a simple sound post adjustment.

I took it back to the luthier and had him look at it. He adjusted the soundpost - after he found a different set of strings that worked better and installed a new wider bridge. AND he didn't charge anything for the work, since I've only had the instrument for about 6 months.

Granted, this was an old European workshop violin that cost maybe $800. The adjustments made a world of difference on this violin - I could tell the difference by the time I played the third note in his shop.

March 5, 2019, 6:28 AM · There's a false economy in not getting a violin that's set up properly. Local labour costs are what they are due to the local cost of business and living. I'd expect a good luthier to value the playability of even student instruments despite knowing that there are better instruments available and not to take a salesperson's role of pushing the latter.
March 5, 2019, 6:30 AM · It depends on two things:

1. when it cost $400.
2. the morality of the luthiers you visit and if you mistakenly let them know you will buy another violin if it is not "upgradeable."

Even the most respected luthier/dealers are "DEALERS." A friend of mine bought a $13,000 violin about 15 years ago from one of SF's most respected luthiers who accepted her 20th C Italian for half of the price. YOU KNOW he did this because he could sell that trade-in for at least what he got for the one she bought.

Just be careful.

March 5, 2019, 6:49 AM · Honesty is the best policy. But I can't always offer full value trade up policy on violins bought from other dealers like I do on my own sales, other dealers prices are often a lot higher than mine. But I do endeavor to have the same high quality set up standards even on the cheapest violins I sell. I can't tell you how rare it is to get a violin in for set up that has its soundpost properly fit. Not to mention pegs and bridges.
March 5, 2019, 7:49 AM · Trade it in if you can and get a new violin. Make sure you are happy with setup before you purchase. Doesn't matter the level of the violin, if you are getting it from a violin shop, they should be setup similarly to their finer instruments.
Edited: March 5, 2019, 8:25 AM · I cannot agree with you Anthony. It may be that a good shop will start the setup of a cheaper violin the same way they would a fine one, but I don't believe they stop at the same place.

When I played a 1698 Strad in Ifshin's shop years ago I was there to pick up my 2 best violins in there for "maintenance" that included soundpost adjustments (or new ones) and bridge adjustments (or new ones). I played that Strad, an Andrea Guarneri and my 2 violins in the same room with the same bow and went home without jealousy. On a subsequent visit they told me that the Strad had turned out very well before they sold it to the SFS for $2M. They must have done a lot more "adjusting" after I played it.

I have had personal samples of their adjusting. They installed a new soundpost in one of those 2 violins of mine last year. I expressed some dissatisfaction with the sound and was told the technician who played wasn't in at the time - so I went to lunch and came back - the missing tech had returned and he played it said it was OK (sounded OK to me as a listener). I went home and moved the soundpost 1 mm toward the bridge and it was better. Years before I watched while their chief luthier, Haide Lin, adjusted the soundpost on my Jay-Haide cello - about 5 times in as many minutes, playing it between adjustments - that is the kind of treatment a finer instrument gets - not just putting it in the "right place" visually. The process can take a lot of time (especially when I do it). Trickiest are instruments with a "high belly hump" for which proper soundpost length is really critical and sizeable adjustments impossible.

Some instruments are very particular wrt soundpost placement and the visually "correct place" may not be the best - the same thing can happen with bridge placement - for some instruments the ff-hole notches are not optimally located for tone or response (close, maybe, but "no cigar").

March 5, 2019, 7:19 PM · Updated original post with the results of my luthier visit
March 5, 2019, 8:05 PM · We're not talking Strads, or anything even above 10K for Russell, that is a very different discussion.....

Russell, it sounds like you had a great experience. I hope you find a violin to love and grow with!

March 5, 2019, 8:17 PM · Sounds like you've found an honest luthier who isn't trying to oversell you.
Edited: March 5, 2019, 8:40 PM · Violins are personal to the player too, even at the high end. I loved that Strad that Andrew Victor is talking about, for instance, and I played it around the same time he did. I thought it had phenomenal, effortless, finely-nuanced response, and an incredible tone. But Andrew and I have very different physical sound-production approaches.

I generally find that a good adjustment for my violin takes about an hour to do. It's worth the investment of time for me. But there are obviously many players who don't want to do that.

March 5, 2019, 9:04 PM · "I figured out that my current setup is fine and in order to improve the sound I need a new violin and a new bow."

Earlier you had written when comparing another violin with yours:

"My hand didn't seem to tense up when I was playing it like it does on my student model. I don't know why it felt better to my hands and fingers, but it did. I also felt like I didn't have to press down as hard on the strings..."

Are you distinguishing setup issues which affect playability, like string height, from setup issues (and instrument differences) which affect sound? Given that earlier you had written that your instrument was harder to play, and now you seem to be evaluating prospective sound differences and ruling its setup fine, it seems that you haven't had the setup and instrument examined in a manner which would answer why one was easier to play than another.

March 5, 2019, 9:36 PM ·
J Ray,

I'm not really sure what you mean, but since I made that previous post, I have changed the strings on my violin (from steel to synthetic), tossed 3 of the fine tuners, improved my technique somewhat, and no longer use a shoulder rest, so maybe one or all of those have played a factor. In fact I know that my violin is easier to play now than it was then.

I didn't seem to have trouble playing my instrument today or any of the others. I was also using the shops' nicer bows this time instead of my own if that made any difference. Or maybe it's a placebo effect. Who knows? I'll take free placebo any day if it works.

Although, I did notice I wasn't making as many mistakes on the shop violins as I was on mine, I wasn't squeaking or having as many rough bow changes. But that could be coincidence.

All in all, I think I have solved most of my playability issues, so that's not really as much of a problem anymore.

March 5, 2019, 11:38 PM · I didn't mean much more than that - if you've resolved the playability issues you'd mentioned earlier, and find that your instrument is not noticeably more difficult to play than other instruments, then that's great.

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