Expensive violins worth the money

October 8, 2019, 12:24 AM · What makes the violin cost so much?
I have seen violins made by the same maker but they have different models with different pricing.. do the expensive ones just sound better or is the wood more rare or something?
I’m thinking of getting an intermediate violin around $2000.. but don’t know if it’s worth it getting something more pricy.

Replies (36)

October 8, 2019, 3:45 AM · Why are violins so expensive?

In the 2000+ dollar range, most of the approximately 70 individual wooden parts will be carved to shape, either by hand or by machine. More economical production methods such as stamping or injection molding parts to shape haven't been very successful so far, when it comes to producing the sort of sound and playing qualities people like.

There are some composite/carbon fiber instruments which can sound pretty good, but these usually involve a hand-layup process rather than being formed from off-the-shelf sheet molding compound, so there can be quite a lot of labor involved there too.

Will a more expensive violin sound better?
Often, but not always. The best thing is to actually play a bunch to find what works best for you and your budget.

October 8, 2019, 9:46 AM · You are probably not seeing violins by the same maker at different price points. Rather, you are seeing brands (like "Jay Haide") which offer models at different price points. For those violins -- called workshop instruments because they are actually crafted assembly-line style by a group of people in a workshop or factory, rather than made by a single luthier -- the differences in the models tend to be wood quality and the quality of the craftsmanship.

In the $2k-5k range, you'll generally be dealing with a pool of workshop instruments, whether contemporary Chinese or Eastern European, or from the past hundred years, Germany (Mittenwald, Markneukirchen), France (Mirecourt) and Czechoslovakia primarily. Sound does not correlate directly with price; the larger your budget, the bigger the pool of violins you can look at and the greater the probability that you can find something you really like.

Once you are above $5k, you start getting into violins made by individual makers, and the rules for pricing change somewhat.

Edited: October 8, 2019, 11:05 AM · Can you define expensive? Is $4000 expensive, or are you referring to $25000+ ? In the lower ranges, price is dictated by materials, fittings and workmanship. For e.g. you can have a set of pegs for $2.99 or $70. Quality wood alone can be several hundreds of dollars in a good intruments. Professional fitting (sound post, bridge etc.) can take several hours of labour. Some luthiers have said spending a week's worth of effort fitting a single bridge for competition instrument. That equates to cost, and adding a few hundreds of dollars to the cost of an instrument for professional fitting is nothing unusual when quality strings alone can be over $100. There is a price range where cost increases equate signficant return on your investment in terms of playability and sound, arguably in the $5000 to $15000 range (in the north american market). After that you increasingly pay for the reputation of the maker, rarity and pedigree of the instrument rather than sound and playability. "Made in Italy" can easily add a few thousand dollars to the cost of an instrument vs "Made in China". Generally instruments quality levels are divided as follows: sub-$1500, $1500-$4500, $5000-$10000, $15000-$25000, over-$25000 more or less.
October 8, 2019, 11:43 AM · Sound is not all that easy to evaluate, we have to develop a "sound culture". We know this cake is good and that one is bad because we are eating cakes since we were boys. The same with sound, we have to play and listen to many many different instruments in order to develop a sound reference table to judge violin sound.

I would look for response, dynamic range and complexity.

Edited: October 8, 2019, 12:49 PM · Lydia, Great post! You post so much valuable stuff, that I hesitate to disagree with you on one minor matter:
I don't know of any fiddles below or slightly above the 5K range that are actually made by an individual maker, regardless of what their purveyors claim. And I'm highly familiar with the making world.

I'm not saying that it cannot happen, if a maker does not rely on making for their sustenance.

October 8, 2019, 12:43 PM · I think value is the most important concept here. When you look at a few instruments in the same price range, you'll be able to tell that some are better value for their price than others. And yes, that's going to depend on how the instrument sounds. More expensive instruments tend to have greater clarity and a larger range of colors, and hearing that for yourself is the best way to decide whether a certain violin is worth the investment.
October 8, 2019, 1:11 PM · Perhaps it needs spelling out a bit. For the 'accomplished (that is non-beginner) violin sales, there are actually two quite different (but also interrelated) markets: one is the violinists who are looking for a good instrument (tone, reliability, consistency etc) to play. The other market is the 'investment' market: people who pay a premium for a violin that is going to accumulate in value. The two markets are directly interrelated because fiddles by makers that are prized by players (generally soloists) become hard to get and, hence, more valuable. Once the maker dies the instruments get something that I will call 'antique value' since there are only so many out there and there can no longer be any more (unlike workshop violins which can continue to be made as long as there is a factory; however, particularly well made fiddles from some consistent workshops can also accumulate 'antique' value).

If you are looking for a violin look hard and never forget that many (most?) of the older instruments available at the dealers are there because nobody else bought them ;) Thus, its a good idea to check back over a period of time so that you get to see the instruments that come in.

October 8, 2019, 1:12 PM · great reply's in this thread. a lot of ground covered here in only 5 reply's, and very concisely.

Thank You.

Edited: October 8, 2019, 3:20 PM · "I don't know of any fiddles below or slightly above the 5K range that are actually made by an individual maker, regardless of what their purveyors claim."

I actually do see a lot of them in community orchestras. None by established full-time makers. But in the 4k-10k range, there are instruments by individual apprentices, by amateurs, by makers who do it as a full-time job but are retired from another career, and sometimes by luthiers who get the bulk of their income from repairing or dealing rather than making instruments. In one of my community orchestras, the majority of the viola section play violas by amateur makers or second-career makers.

Edited: October 8, 2019, 3:38 PM · As Luis said, " Sound is not all that easy to evaluate ". Indeed, how true. I think a violin's sound is a compromise between clarity, complexity, color, projection, dynamic range and response. You can't have it all as they are to some degree mutually exclusive. That is what makes some intruments more suited for soloists than orchestral perfomance for instance. That said the vast majority of buyers somehow will seek out the qualities of a soloist instruments although only a very small minority will ever play as a soloist. Perhaps whishful thinking on one's part as if a soloist instrument will shed some magic dust somehow and make one sound better. Certain instruments sounds have come to be associated with a given style of playing; jazz vs classical vs baroque vs folk for e.g. hence the complexity of evaluation, not to gorget that no two instruments sound the same.
Edited: October 8, 2019, 3:44 PM · Roger, you nailed it. Yet I believe that a certain amount of "soloistic" qualities do make learning much easier, when developing intonation, expressiveness, and overall technique (because they're usually not very forgiving to technical flaws). So I think it definitely makes sense to look for a clear, highly responsive and somehow "projecting" instrument to learn on, while for sitting in the orchestra pit one might be better off with a warmer sounding instrument easier to blend. But these are just some random thoughts by an adult learner without highly developed skills in this field, so please feel free to jump in if this is nonsense.
October 8, 2019, 3:51 PM · David, I agree with Andrew. In the $5k-$10k range, there's a hodgepodge of stuff. Anonymous older instruments that don't seem workshop-made. Violins by obscure makers of the past. Violins made by amateurs, apprentices, and luthiers that build the occasional instrument. On occasion, a more expensive violin whose value has been halved by a soundpost crack, or a foolish regraduation, or something along those lines.

A lot of those violins seem to be the staple of community-orchestra players who wanted something better than their student violin but didn't have a budget for a professional-quality instrument.

Edited: October 8, 2019, 4:57 PM · It makes sense to buy a "soloist" instrument if you prefer to have just one instrument for all purposes. It is not that uncommon for someone to be a soloist one day and a section player the next. And if you are a principal string player in an orchestra, you need to be able to both project over the orchestra and blend with the ensemble in the very same concert. It is easier to blend with a soloistic instrument than to project with an instrument that is warmer but not as loud.
Edited: October 8, 2019, 4:36 PM · Andrew, and as a principal your skills usually will be developed enough to tame your racehorse down into the flock...

Lydia, my "second best" violin (the "cheap and beaten up" one that stays at my parents in laws place) is from a Markneukirchen maker who exiled to Denmark in the 1930ies, if I remember correctly. I bought it for about 400 bucks, and if all the restauration and setup would have been done by my luthier, it might have been another 1200 I think. In good condition, his instruments go for about 2,5-5k at maximum, so here we are... Far from being spectacular, but a nice and well made instrument, by an "average" maker who's not obscure but also not widely known.

October 8, 2019, 4:38 PM · Andrew is right. One of the things that I love about my violin is that I can go easily and instantly from blending with the section to punching out above the fray in a solo for the concertmaster.

It has forced me to be much more conscious about the sound I'm producing. My usual community orchestra tends to have a somewhat tenuous string sound, and it's very easy for me to overplay and get a little shush sign from the conductor; on recording, I can often hear my sound as its own distinctive clear thread in a fuzzier section violin texture (the worse the acoustic environment, the greater this effect; we did a Beethoven 9 in the mall during Christmas shopping where my sound is obviously distinctive. Yay unintentional projection.) However, I play with a semipro chamber orchestra sometimes, and I blend without effort. Ditto when I play in larger orchestral sections.

October 8, 2019, 6:04 PM · ..anyways, sure wish I could have a play on Hillary Hahn's Vuillame copy of II Cannone Guarnerius. That's one nice sounding fiddle. It can't be ALL Hillary's virtuosity, can it?

umm, does anyone have her phone number?

Edited: October 8, 2019, 7:05 PM · My experience is similar to Lydia's. My viola can be a real cannon when I choose to play out. I play in two orchestras: I'm a section violist in a semipro orchestra that normally has a section of 8, and principal violist in a mid-level community orchestra that typically has a section of 3-5. Blending in a large section of excellent players in a purpose-built concert hall is easy. Blending requires much more attention when the section has a fuzzier sound and/or the venue is less than ideal. Almost exactly like Lydia, the experience that most comes to mind for me is overplaying while performing with the mid-level community orchestra in a mall food court with no opportunity to rehearse there in advance.
October 8, 2019, 10:39 PM · Carl Flesch wrote somewhere that all the leading soloists of his time made their reputations on lesser equipment before they bought their Strad or Guarnerius. But back then a Gaudadninni or Villaume was considered affordable. I forget who, a leading Luthier said that the "golden age" of violin making is now, with the good new violins costing about the same as a better than average new car. Is a million dollar Strad or del Gesu violin 10 times better than the best contemporary instrument? Probably not, but then I have never touched one.
Edited: October 9, 2019, 6:36 AM · I think David's point is simply that you really can't earn a living first-world wage only by making violins at $5k apiece. It takes too long to make them if you do it entirely yourself, and there's a great deal of overhead. Sure, if you're also pulling in half a million as an investment banker, then hell, you can give them away. One does wonder really how many playable violins are made by investment bankers on their weekends.
Edited: October 8, 2019, 10:45 PM · Master instruments have the clear advantage of having been set up and fine tuned by master luthiers over several centuries I suppose. If they weren't as good as a violin can possibly be, then there is no hope.
Edited: October 9, 2019, 12:35 AM · I just listened to a radio broadcast of a public interview with the New Yorker Magazine staff writer Malcolm Gladwell. One idea that he proposed regarding the problem of the cost of higher education was to institute a "don't ask, don't tell" policy, whereby prospective employers could not ask you where you earned your degrees, and job applicants couldn't tell where they earned them. He argued that employers are not well served by the premium placed on Ivy League degrees, and students pay not for the best possible education, but rather for what is perceived as the most high status degree.

Well....., suppose there was a "don't ask, don't tell" policy among musicians and musical organizations regarding instruments. Would anyone pay the price for a classical Italian, for example, if they couldn't tell anyone that's what it was? Or perhaps another way to look at it is to ask if anyone would pay the prices, such as they are, if they couldn't tell anyone what it is? It's just a hypothetical idea to be pondered over.

October 9, 2019, 3:12 AM · David: Great post! You post so much valuable stuff, that I hesitate to disagree with you on one minor matter:
I definitely know of fiddles below or slightly above the 5K range that are actually made by an individual maker, regardless of what others might claim. And I'm familiar with the making world.
I'm saying that it can happen, if a maker does rely on making for their sustenance.

I tour some European violin making areas regularly (that are not Italy, I freely admit). I am on a first name basis with these makers whose full time jobs are creating instruments and also restoration. Unless they are hiding the power tools and the imported Chinese white instruments in a hidden bunker somewhere, they are definitely building instruments in this range out of their own high quality wood and labor. I observe it happen frequently. Sometimes it's a workshop effort sure, (3 or 4 people who are highly skilled and worked together for years) but still a high percentage of totally individual production.

October 9, 2019, 6:45 AM · Michael, yes, there are very likely some places in Europe where the overhead costs are lower than they are in Cremona or Ann Arbor. But it seems unlikely these people who are selling violins in the $5k range are hoping to do that forever. They're more likely hoping to sell the first 100 or so as loss leaders so they can establish reputations for fine work and then raise their prices. A young man I know who makes beautiful violins and violas started around the $7k range too but he knows that's not sustainable. He has to do a fair amount of repair work to keep the lights on in his shop. My deceased friend Dan Foster was asking $18k for his violins and his lifestyle was quite humble by American standards. He was also a lot happier than most people...
Edited: October 9, 2019, 9:07 AM · Hmmm, I guess I've really “stuck my foot in it” this time! I'll tell one true story, and then leave it at that.

A friend of mine was training with a maker who had a decent reputation. One day, a package came in from Germany (This was prior to the days of China being a major player). The next morning, the empty package was out in the trash, and the maker had a half-dozen completed new scrolls hanging over his bench. Everyone working there had known what was going on for some time, having seen things like this before, but my friend, being a little brash and irreverent, asked where the scrolls came from. His Maestro replied that he had worked very hard and late the previous evening. ;-)

German fiddle factories used to spit out tops, backs, necks, and rib assemblies for “makers” by the thousands. And pre-made parts are easily available today, though most probably come from China now. One example:

https://www.amazon.com/Carved-Maple-White-Violin-Luthier/dp/B012Z1EWGY

October 9, 2019, 8:09 AM · A little off-topic, but employers tend to target certain schools for entry-level recruitment because of the perceived quality of the students that come from that institution. Later on in life, nobody tends to care anywhere near as much where you graduated from (though they may care about the reputation of your previous employers).

The prestige schools do shift. 30 years ago, Stanford was known as a good school but it wasn't sought after like Harvard/Yale/Princeton. With the rise in tech, Stanford's reputation and competitiveness has increased massively, bolstered also by their financial aid to students with merely middle-class family incomes, which has increased their applicant pool. For years, Carnegie-Mellon, not a prestige school unto itself, has been a top STEM school and its graduates are treated accordingly.

Like it or not, attending a university whose admissions are exceptionally competitive does give an employer useful data. (Although not necessarily as much as one might think, given the role that legacy plays in admissions. But it at least shows that you can hold your own in that environment and make it through.)

The same signaling very much holds through in the world of professional music. A student who attends Juilliard, Curtis, or similar top school will always have a leg up in resume screens for professional auditions because the sheer fact of admission and graduation indicates that the player has achieved a certain minimum bar in expected playing level, and received training that is a known quantity of sorts.

October 9, 2019, 10:21 AM · Malcolm Gladwell says a lot of stuff...
October 9, 2019, 11:57 AM · I think the current job-seeking process actually serves employers quite well; it's the jobseekers who may not have the most impressive credentials despite their abilities that are underserved. It takes far more work to put together a college application that Yale/Princeton/Harvard would be willing to accept than it does for reputable state schools, like Rutgers or University of Michigan (we're talking academics, not music here). Therefore, Ivy league graduates are more likely to be surrounded by job opportunities than the average college graduate because employers feel they can accord them with the automatic assumption of competence. Is that always fair? Of course not. Plenty of qualified college graduates slip through the cracks because employers aren't as willing to take a chance on them. But this process is no different than asking for recommendations: we evaluate someone's merit because of their relation to someone or something else. Why? The applicant pool is simply too large to evaluate each and every candidate on the basis of pure merit.
October 9, 2019, 1:04 PM · Paul, one of my daughter's friends in her teacher's studio just bought a cello made by your friend Dan Foster, a beautiful and powerful instrument that was reasonably priced for what it is.

Something to consider with instrument pricing, folks have posted a number of times over at Maestronet that it takes somewhere between 100 and 200 hours of hands-on time to build a violin. Add shop setup supplies and maintenance, running the business, training, etc., ; and the per-instrument cost of good wood, fittings, strings, etc.

October 12, 2019, 1:28 AM · Buy a better instrument, you will enjoy more in playing, and practice more. It worth the investment. And it’s true that some expensive ones aren’t always better.
October 12, 2019, 8:46 AM · I think the sooner you start playing a good instrument the better. That means quick response, good dynamic range, easy to play, good tone.

Studying music is not cheap, and you will only profit from your classes if you are studying in a good instrument.

This article by Laurie Niles is very good and worth reading "Your violin is your teacher, too: So get a good one".
https://www.violinist.com/blog/laurie/20072/6496/

October 12, 2019, 10:19 AM · I 100% agree with Luis. Besides the 1 hour a week you spend with your teacher, the rest of the improvements you make are dependent on the feedback your fiddle gives. One thing that makes higher quality fiddles harder to play is that they are less tolerant of technical imperfections, as their potential is so much greater than lower quality instruments. The other day, I was playing on a student fiddle and realized how lax I could afford to be in my technique. I didn't have to work to mold my tone because there wasn't much of a point. It would sound fine but not special no matter what I did. This particular student violin did not allow for an airy E string sound - it was either piercing and present or nonexistent (i.e. breaking up). Many colors available to me on my professional quality instrument just weren't there. When you acquire a sensitive instrument that will respond to your intentions (these are often expensive), it also will reveal fallacies in your technique that produce sounds or noise you don't intend to make. That is the value of an expensive instrument in a nutshell. When people say expensive instruments are easier to play, they probably mean for professionals who've mostly worked out their technical kinks and would only be held back by a lesser fiddle. However, for a developing violinist, a more expensive instrument would give you the push and challenge you need to take your playing to the next 100 levels and beyond.
Edited: October 12, 2019, 11:15 AM · "German fiddle factories used to spit out tops, backs, necks, and rib assemblies for “makers”

My understanding is that in the days of Stradivarius, various guilds provided parts for his instruments. That included the wood, scrolls, finger boards, pegs etc. therefore such practice goes way back. I may be wrong in thinking so, but to me this practice is nothing to frown about, and is not necessarily an indication of a lesser quality instrument. If anything, a "master" Chinese scroll carver will be immensely better (and faster) at it than the purist maker who carves only a handful of scrolls in a year. Given that quality wood is used, a Chinese carved top plate, which is tuned by an expert luthier in the final stage is anything as good as if that luthier had carved the plate itself. That said, the use of mechanical carving instruments (CNC) is controversial, as some believe the intense vibrations affects the tonal quality of the wood, but most Chinese carving is actually done with hand tools the old fashion way. In many instances, a trained master carver will be faster than the time it takes to setup and carve individual pieces with CNC machinery. One may take pride in making everybit of an instrument, including pegs, bridge, purfling, varnish etc. but it does not necessarily means better. If anything, less time spent doing what others can do better and cheaper, and more time spent on fine tuning most likely results in a better instrument.

Edited: October 12, 2019, 11:29 AM · Roger wrote:
"My understanding is that in the days of Stradivarius, various guilds provided parts for his instruments. That included the wood, scrolls, finger boards, pegs etc. therefore such practice goes way back."
________________________________

Roger, I am not aware of credible evidence for that. Can you offer a good source or two?

October 12, 2019, 12:05 PM · Roger wrote "If anything, a "master" Chinese scroll carver will be immensely better (and faster) at it than the purist maker who carves only a handful of scrolls in a year."

Fortunately this is not true, and it allows us to spot fake violins by their bad scrolls.

Edited: October 12, 2019, 10:14 PM · Interesting observation Luis. One would think that if you carved a thousand scrolls you'd be better at it than who has carved only a handful of them. Then perhaps it is more a case of makers buying cheap scrolls than taking advantage of what a master carver can do if given the time and money to do it properly. I don't recall where I read about Stradivarius buying scrolls and other parts from various outside sources, it was a few years back, but if I do I will follow up with the source. I didn't make that up, but nothing to say that my source was acurate either and I claim no authority on the subject.
Edited: October 12, 2019, 9:05 PM · I think if you're going to buy mass-produced scrolls, the manufacturer might as well make them using CNC. I say if it helps a maker focus his or her energies and time on the rest of the violin and enables a promising student to have a good-sounding and responsive violin at a lower price then why not. Lots of things have been brought within reach of the middle class through automation. CNC manufacture is just like traditional violin-making in one sense: If people worked on it seriously they could probably get better at it. Some say the vibrations power tools (for example a CNC router or mill) will damage the tonal properties of the wood. Okay, if so, then make a different kind of robotic tool that actually carves and scrapes.

I think the issue with the "master scroll carvers" is that they're more interested in selling 4 mediocre ones per day than 2 really nice ones because folks who are buying their scrolls don't care or can't tell the difference.


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