Violin Information

 How much should I spend on a violin?

Usually, the price that you pay for a violin will determine the quality. With that said you can often find a good sounding violin that sounds better than a more expensive one.  The reason for that is that the violin has become a collectible and the value of an instrument has to do with a number of factors, sound often being the last part of the equation.  Much of an instruments sound will also depend on the quality of the set up - the adjustment of the bridge and sound post, the kinds of strings, the fingerboard curve and height of the nut.

The value of instruments today is primarily based on this order,  1) Who made it,  2) Where it was made,  3) When it was made, 4) Quality of Materials and Workmanship 5) Condition, and last 6) Sound. The sound of an instrument is the most subjective (what one person likes may not be what another one likes) making it the last on the list for evaluation. The Who, Where, When, Materials and Workmanship cannot be changed after an instrument is made and thus those create an instruments "Value Range" such as $1500 - $2000. The Condition can change and the Sound as I said is subjective to the player and thus sets the value within the range – an instrument with poor sound will thus be valued in the lower end of its value range. An instrument that is in a lower price category to begin with,  and has a poor quality of sound, may be hurt even further value wise as it will be difficult to sell unless the sound is improved.  That might be cost prohibitive for certain qualities of instruments.

You may ask if the sound is so subjective, then why is it considered at all? Each violin has it's own sound and violin stores know what most people like.  If the instrument falls within that sound quality it may bring more money than if it doesn't. Given that, because of the Who, When and Where, a violin with no pedigree (no famous makers name) will not be able to be sold for as much as a well-known rare makers work, even if it sounds better to the player than something more well-known. This also makes instruments of less than stellar condition potentially be worth more than those in perfect condition, it all comes down to who made the instrument. 

I highly recommend getting a teacher before you buy or even rent an instrument. Teachers often have certain requirements for the set-up, like string type, small adjustments to the bridge curve and nut, and bow type. I have seen many times where someone has purchased an instrument before talking to the teacher only to find out that the instrument isn't suitable for one reason or another.  Some of the information I supply here is difficult to find and is rarely taught. Most internet sites or music stores wouldn't want to publish information that could adversely effect their sales. Store owners and teachers are often too busy to provide so much information before working with the student and even then it takes a considerable amount of time.  

With the guidelines of the value above, in my opinion, most new instrument outfits under around $350.00 are not worth purchasing and it is best if you can start around $450. The reason for this is that a decent quality instrument just can't be made for that low of a cost. I completely understand the problem that some people are in, whereas they cannot even afford a $300 violin or are reluctant to invest in something of value for a beginner, not knowing if they will continue. All I can say is that you are better off waiting and saving up some more money, as you are most likely going to have to spend it anyway on repairs, so why not get a better violin to begin with for the same price.

More often than not these cheaper instruments seem fine "out of the box", especially to the novice, it is often a week or so down the road that the problems start to emerge or are understood. Another option for the beginner wanting to "test the waters", is to rent an instrument, as rentals are frequently in the $450-600 value range because the stores can't afford to keep repairing their instruments. Violin shops usually rent better quality instruments than general music stores and will offer much better rental policies that allow more or all of the rent to apply toward the instruments purchase. These cheap instruments are also usually harder to play due to a poor setup and low quality parts that make learning more difficult and frustrating.

The parts on really cheap instruments, especially many of those sold on the internet, such as the pegs, strings, tailpiece, and bridge, will often have to be repaired or changed just to make the instrument playable. The bow can hardly be used, the cases don't hold up, the bridge is often too flat and not fit to the instrument properly and the peg wood is very often too soft causing tuning problems. I frequently would have a parent come to me after the teacher asked that the instrument be "fixed". I had the unfortunate job of telling the parent that the violin that they just purchased new for $100-200.00 over the internet or from a big box store would need at least $150.00 in repairs just to make it playable, and improving the sound would be expensive and frequently unattainable. Trying band-aid fixes just frustrates the player and the teacher, so many shops will even refuse to work on these really cheap instruments. I knew of one shop that required a $300 deposit to do the repairs because they knew something unexpected would happen or the client wouldn't pick it up.

Some internet sellers also have instruments shipped (called drop shipping) directly from the importer/wholesaler to the buyer.  In my opinion, this results in the quality of the set up being well below what should be expected. The wholesaler often has less trained workers and will rush this work and not adjust for quality of sound or issues (like humidity levels) that affect the instrument in the area where it will be used. They don't have to deal with the retail customer down the road so very little time is spent on tonal set up adjustments. Typically these instruments are provided with few or no options like a different bow, string or case choice. Again, if you stick with a local violin shop, these issues won't arise. If you do have a local shop, you have someone to take it to for adjustments rather than having to ship it back or pay for the repair yourself. The local shop will not set up all instruments the same as the wholesaler usually does, they will pick strings based on what that specific violin sounds like and do adjustments to maximize quality of sound and ease of play-ability.

If you are really far from a violin shop, there are some violin shops that sell instruments over the internet.  This is far from ideal since the shop won't know your violin teacher and how they like the instrument set up and they can't adjust the bridge and pegs for the climate where you live. Almost always, a good violin shop that also sells on line, will only sell bowed instruments, not guitars or drums or wind instruments. 

Just as a side note on the cost of a new instrument.  I know it isn't really the same thing and we are talking about completely different qualities of instruments, but when I made a violin, my costs for the materials alone were in the $400-500 range and it took me at least 150-200 hours of labor to make one. So you can see why a decent or high-quality violin would be many thousands of dollars.

In my shop, I never sold any new beginner instruments that retailed for under around $350 (list price around $500), although there are some instruments in the $300 range that are serviceable. I just felt that the quality of the workmanship and materials was not worth the investment, and since my policy was to always take what I sold back in trade, I had to think of my own as well as my customers needs. The trade in policies at a store are sometimes a clue to the quality of what they sell, if they don’t offer a high percentage of trade in value at a later point, that means that they don’t stand behind the quality of what they sell.  I always offered a 100% trade in policy and that is typical of many of the best violin shops. You also want to work with a store that has an actual street address so that you can talk to the staff in person and be able to discuss repair needs with an actual repairman, not just drop it off to be sent out for repairs. They should also carry more than just one model/brand of instrument in a specific price range. A choice of one is not a choice. 

One additional point to consider. Many violin shops and music stores have their own "shop brand" violins, these are often the same violins that another store sells with their "brand" name or possibly even the manufacturers brand. The Eastman line of instruments is one example that are frequently re-branded, I know of 5 different labels that are used for the Eastman instruments just in the Washington DC metro area.  This can be great for the buyer because they are often less expensive than what an Eastman with its original label is allowed to sell for (this is called MAP pricing and is controlled by the wholesaler). But, because it is a private label, you may not know who the maker/brand is and as such don't have any reference for price comparison. As an example, a major US music store chain sells instruments, they are Eastman instruments but the name and model number is different from the Eastman instruments and Eastman actually varnishes them differently than their regular model and inserts the new label. How are you to compare the two and when you go to sell it, what is its value, how is it to be determined?  This of course is done in lots of industries. I used to shop at an electronics store, they contracted with big manufactures to make a piece of electronics with a specific model number for their store only, that way they could always advertise the lowest price guaranteed.  

New instruments do devalue some once they are sold, but not that much for the quality ones and even less the higher up in price you go, it's the same with buying a car. The best value can often be a slightly used violin but care must be taken that it has been thoroughly restored.

There are many brands/models that are sold on the internet in the price range that in my opinion are too poor in quality to purchase. If you stay above the $350 mark, and get it from a violin shop, you should be OK, otherwise, the chance is very good that it may not be worth buying.  Many general music stores will also sell these same instruments as they don't have anyone on staff that understands the violin, and they simply go by their cost/list price and not the quality of what they are selling. Since they don't know any better, they often just buy violins from the same place they get drums, guitars, and kazoos. 

NOTE: As a rough estimate, for viola values add 20%, for Cello's at least double the price of the violins.

It used to be that just about any Chinese made instrument was absolutely worthless and you should not purchase one. Today there are many quality student and step up Chinese-made instruments, you cannot lump them all together. In fact many of the winners of international violin making competitions are Chinese trained makers. The vast majority of the student grade Chinese instruments are still mostly hand made in an assembly line format as labor is cheaper there than setting up a lot of specialized equipment. This also means that many of the Chinese instruments that are priced similarly to European ones sound better because more hand work can be put into them for the same cost. A machine simply cannot adjust for wood properties as a good worker can adjust thicknesses on the Top and Back of the violin as they are making it to produce a better quality finished product.   As labor prices keep improving in the Far East, this situation will probably change, so buying good quality Chinese instruments might just end up being a good decision. 

Used Instruments: As far as used violins go, I also highly recommend against purchasing on-line. There are exceptions, but the best way to buy an instrument is in person, otherwise you cannot know what you are getting.  Often times these instruments are in barely playable condition and you have to take them in for repair before you can even know how they will sound. They frequently came into the shop needing from $100 - $500 in repair. There is also no way to compare how it sounds against other instruments, you see an ad, you buy it and you are stuck.  Even if it is a local sale, what do you have to compare it to, you're often in the other person's house, playing only one instrument, so how does it really sound.

Sometimes, previous repairs were done by amateurs and may need to be reversed or may even have destroyed most of the value or even the play-ability of the violin. A neck angle that is 3 millimeters low (happens a lot) is often unplayable and can cost hundreds to fix - are you qualified to know if the neck is low?  So unless you can try out the instrument in advance, compare it to others, and know what to look for in evaluating a used instrument, it usually isn't worth the financial risk. I regularly look on Craig's List for a good deal on a used instrument, and I rarely see something that is worth even going to look at.   The vast majority of what is sold there is the same stuff that is sold on Ebay and Amazon as new.  I am sure that many of these used instruments are being sold because the owners found them to be unusable and are just trying to unload them.  

Many of the older handmade instruments that you will come across were made from the 1880’s to the 1930’s. This was a very prolific time for violin making. These were often all handmade instruments, but in an assembly line, where typically one person made tops, another backs, and so on. They were often labeled as “Stradivari”, "Guarneri” or other famous violin makers as well as many made up names. This has not for the most part been a practice of deception. When these instruments were made, usually for export, it was clear to the consumer that this purchase was only a copy and were of course priced accordingly. It was considered fashionable to have an instrument which had been made to look "aged" with an antique-type varnish with a facsimile label by a famous maker.

The factories were mostly in Germany, France and Czechoslovakia and in the industry we refer to these instruments as "trade instruments".  They could be sold at much lower prices than instruments which were handmade by a single craftsman. Many catalogs were printed and sent to American dealers so they could order different grades of these copies at varying prices; they could also buy in bulk. One French company had a model that was available by the piece, by the dozen or by 100. Also many American dealers put out catalogs describing the instruments in detail and with hand drawings. You could even look in the Sears or Wards catalogs and find several models of instruments. Dealers also relabeled instruments with their own shop brand, just as is done today. Some of the better makers also offered their own fully handmade instruments through some of these catalogs.

Unfortunately, over the decades, these "Stradivari copies" and the knowledge that they were just copies, was lost to the heirs. People find "Granddads" violin in the closet and think they have a great find. The chance of running across one of these "Great Masters" works is minuscule. But as always, you should take it to a violin shop for an evaluation as some can still be very nice and have value. You need to take the age, sentimental part, and the handed down lore part out of the equation as they have no bearing on an instrument's value or suitability for use. 

It is extremely rare to find a really high quality handmade used instrument at a yard sale or pawn shop anymore. With the advent of the internet, most people are too savvy to not check out something they plan to sell. However, I have had a few experiences where someone brought in an instrument that was passed down or purchased at a yard sale that turned out to be a very nice instrument valued from $5000 to $30,000. However, that is only a few out of many thousands of these "finds". If you do have a "Stradivari" labeled violin, unless it clearly says something like "Made in....." or says "copy of" or "copie de",  the only way to be sure about the value of the instrument is to have it appraised by a professional.  Many violin shops will give you an oral appraisal for little or no cost. Even if you discover that your violin was not made by one of the masters, it may still be enjoyed for years to come and still have some value.

Trying out Instruments: Both New and Used instruments should be purchased from a reputable string shop where you will get a trade-in value later on, the instrument can be tried out typically for a week or two without commitment and comes with a warranty.  In addition you should take the instruments to another player that plays at least as well as you do or a teacher if you are a beginner. They can play them for you to listen to and vice verse. Although in the end you should get what sounds best to you, the player. The violin shop can also play them for you, if you don't have someone that can help. This is a standard offered at the violin shop, a general music store will rarely have someone on staff that plays or knows much about violins and the internet discount store will often know nothing and obviously can't play them for you.

One word of caution, however, if you take the violins to your teacher be prepared to pay them for their time just as you would for a lesson, this service is often done at a lesson. Unfortunately, there are some teachers and violin shops that have worked out “deals” where the teacher will be paid a commission if the teacher gets a student to purchase from that shop. See the Strings Magazine article on this - http://www.allthingsstrings.com/layout/set/print/How-To/Teach-Coach/Are-Teacher-Commissions-an-Elegy-for-Ethics   

If this is made clear to you up front, then you will know and can plan for that when it comes time to trade in your instrument as part of the original price was not for the violin but for commissions. If the teacher insists you go to a certain local shop especially if there are other choices, then they may have made such a deal with that shop. If this policy is undisclosed to the buyer, it may actually be illegal as it constitutes what is often referred to as Payola.  I never paid commissions in my business, I lost sales because of it as certain teachers refused to send their students to look at instruments at my shop. This policy hurts the student, as they are not given all of the possible choices when shopping for an instrument and it can also drive up prices. The teacher is also rewarded by recommending an instrument that is of a higher price than the student needs.

Price Grade Guidelines: Given all the information above, here are my basic guidelines: you can, of course, get a used instrument for less, but it still should be purchased from a reliable source.  The below values are for violins, add 20% for viola's and double the violin amount for a Cello. Other than Beginner or Professional level instruments,  I don't like to use terms like Intermediate, Advanced, Maestro or any other descriptive terms as those are misleading and can mean different things to different people.  Just because a company calls an instrument by some name such as Advanced, does not make it so.

  • Don’t spend less than $300 for a new instrument.  Most new instruments for a beginner worth purchasing cost at least $350. These are typically Chinese and can be fairly nice. Still in the same beginner level, higher quality ones in the $600-750 range.
  • They next step up should be around $750-1200.  This is usually done after 2-4 years of playing. Going from 350 - 450 won’t get you much. If you can’t afford to double your instruments value when stepping up, it can often be good to get a better bow.
  • The next level will be from $1200-2000. You start to get into instruments made by one person or small workshops, usually from China and Europe. These can often last the advancing student 2-6 years
  • With the level from $2000 – 3000 you go up in the quality of wood and workmanship, these will also usually mean that an instrument will have a better sound at least as far as its carrying power, evenness from string to string and clarity of sound. Again tone quality is in the ear of the player. 3-8 years.  These are sometimes referred to as bench copy instruments.
  • Starting around $3000, you will almost always get instruments made by one person, but sometimes it is still in a group workshop.
  • Violins made in the United States today by individual makers will typically start around 7500. 
  • The typical professional violinist will be looking at instruments in the $10,000 and up range. Once you get to the professional level, the sky is the limit it price. Collectible violins have reached over 15 million and collectible bows over $250,000

 

These are just guidelines as I see it, everyone is different. If you progress very fast, then you will outgrow an instrument sooner.

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What to Look For / Look Out For When Buying a Violin

Some Tips

I can't say this strongly enough, "buying a violin on-line is the worst way to buy a violin", you can't compare it to others, you have no idea what you are getting, the advertiser has little incentive to be fully forthcoming, and they certainly aren't going to say that the pegs don't fit properly.

Many violins are not what they say they are. Never blindly accept that a label is genuine. The number of copies, fakes and forgeries far outnumber originals. 

Violins under $150 - don't expect much and don't bother. This is like buying a brand new car that sells for $5000 when the average new car price is $20,000. And unlike the car industry that is well regulated at least for safety, the violin industry is completely unregulated, so there is no reason for these mass producers of violins to care about what they are selling, there will always be another person out there, not doing their homework, to purchase their disposable instrument.  

Don't get an instrument that doesn't have a solid ebony fingerboard, so no "painted", "dyed", "stained", "ebonized" or "Rosewood".  A proper fingerboard has a slight lengthwise dip, never a hump and not dead flat, otherwise buzzing will occur. These are common problems on very low priced instruments and the cost to repair it can be more than what the instrument cost new.

Don't get a laminated Instrument, especially in a violin or viola, avoid all "pressed wood" instruments. Typically laminated (plywood) cello's and basses are for schools to own so that they will handle all the abuse of many, many years.

Materials that are acceptable for an instruments Pegs and Tailpieces are - Ebony, Boxwood or Rosewood and a few others used on higher quality instruments. Keep in mind that many cheaper Chinese instruments state that they are made with Boxwood pegs, but they are really a type of nut wood that is a fast growing wild shrub and Not the same quality as the slow growing English Boxwood. Just like with fingerboards, Pegs that have been "Ebonized", meaning painted black, are useless and should be avoided.

The varnish on cheap instruments will usually be polyurethane or lacquer (thick, smooth and shiny; an almost plastic looking finish), this should be avoided as it is too hard which keeps the instrument from vibrating.  Quality varnish is either a Spirit or Oil base varnish.

Expect minimum quality student strings to be installed (such as Red Labels or Preludes), not thin, cheap, high tension “factory” Chinese strings.  If the string brand is the same as the instrument, this is a clue to bad strings. If they supply an extra set of strings, this can also be a clue, something with no value, has no value.

A proper bridge will be cut to the correct thickness, height, and string spacing, but don't expect too much refinement on the basic beginner quality instruments. Again, if a second bridge is supplied, chances are even the one on the instrument is of no real use.

Notes about bridges: Cutting a proper bridge is an art and the way it is cut can affect the tone of an instrument greatly. The thicker and heavier the bridge, the softer and more muted the sound. The thinner the bridge the brighter and louder the sound, however, too thin of a bridge will make an instrument shrill; especially those on the bottom end of the price scale. The feet should fit the top perfectly; both front to back and side to side. The back of the bridge should be perpendicular to the top of the instrument or ever so slightly leaning towards the tailpiece. 

Demand a bow with real horsehair. Never accept a bow with synthetic hair. A name-brand fiberglass bow stick is preferable to a warped or weak wood stick.

Watch out for: Instruments with overly fat or thin necks, although this can be fixed at an expense.

Instruments should be avoided that have no interior linings and/or no upper or lower corner blocks inside. On some higher quality instruments, blocks have been left out, but these instruments otherwise may be fine, but may be a clue to other shortcuts. These types of instruments are usually older ones, but I have seen some modern ones that cut corners.

Painted on or scratched on purfling should be avoided, however on some very old instruments sometimes the back does not have inlaid purfling and some of these instruments are still valuable and can be very nice, again another reason to deal with a violin shop where they will know the difference between good and bad.  

If a violin's label says that it's hand made, it's almost a guarantee that it's not or that it isn't made well. Instead, it is probably only "finished by hand".  Real violin makers never state on the labels that their instruments were hand made, that is implied with the craft.

Just being old does not make it good, there are plenty of instruments from Europe (especially from Germany, France and Czechoslovakia) that range from the very worst, to some that can be very good for all but professionals. Some of the bad ones are too thick in wood and won't have a good sound and it may be too costly to fix if even possible.

When playing instruments, avoid ones with uneven response or volume across the strings, although this can sometimes be adjusted by a good luthier

On older instruments, be sure that you check for cracks.  Shrinkage cracks on the top at the sides of the neck or saddle or any poorly repaired cracks can severely affect the sound and certainly an instrument's value. (They can cause issues forever unless properly repaired).  On a newer instrument, if it has any of these shrinkage cracks, be very careful as the instrument may have been made with fresh wood that was not properly seasoned. A soundpost crack can destroy much of the value, especially if it is on the back, even if it was repaired properly.

Wolf notes, especially on violas and cellos need to be worked on before you plop down your cash.  If they can't be adjusted, you may want to avoid that instrument, however, do not discard the instrument just because it has one, I don't know too many Stradivari cello's that Don't have a wolf. 

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Online Stores for Violins 

             As I said above, I don't recommend buying anything new under $300. General music stores are often a bad place to get a quality instrument, they frequently only carry cheap manufactured, instruments that are heavy from too much wood or they are the same junk that the average internet site sells.  Although I don't recommend buying any violin online, I understand the difficulties that some people have where they live in too rural an area and not having any violin shops within a reasonable distance.  It could be a hardship to get to one unless you are within 2 hours of a violin shop.  So do a Google maps search for a violin shop in or near your town. Although I don't advocate buying on line, there are some reputable violin shops that also sell string instruments on line. The instruments are all set up by actual violin shops with professional violin makers or repairman on staff, so you know they have been done right. I recommend looking for a seller that deals only in bowed instruments, has more than just one or two of choices within your specific price range, has a repair shop on site and provides additional services like appraisals. It's also great if they have a good selection of sheet music and accessories such as strings, rosin, cases, shoulder rests and so forth, that way you may be able to do all of your business with one location. Look also for the experience that the owner has, almost always they will be a trained maker or repairman.

Don’t forget to order a case and bow as some prices are for violin alone

 

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How to Buy a Violin                                                                  see the end of this section for my system of trying out instruments

I will start off again by saying, The Proper Way to by a Violin is In Person, NOT over the internet. No two instruments of the same brand/model will sound the same and the setup of the bridge, post, fingerboard, nut and strings can make or break an instrument. Buying cheap will just get you junk that is thrown together, I have yet to see a new violin under $300 that I would recommend to a beginner as it will just have issues with quality control and lousy sound. 

CHOOSING a violin that will meet all the needs of a particular player is not a simple task. The majority of beginners, and even some advanced players, have little or no practical knowledge about violin tone or violin values. 

No two people hear the sound of an instrument the same, therefore it is important that each person make the final decision according to their own personal preference. It is impossible to select a violin by tone unless the player has some prior knowledge of good tone. Every player should select an instrument that is agreeable to his ear, and his ear alone, provided of course that the player has the talent to try out the instrument.  If you don't have the ability then you will need someone to help with the process. The quality of tone on an instrument is greatly dependent on the player. In addition to the tone of the instrument, the workmanship, varnish, model, and who made it, should also be a factor, the latter, being of course, dependent upon the budget.

Rarely will an individual instrument perfectly meet the needs of orchestral, solo and small ensemble playing. The powerful and penetrating tone needed for a solo instrument on the concert stage is not desirable in an instrument to be used in a small or large ensemble.  For orchestral playing a good solid tone that can be heard by the player is preferable. The majority of string players, both amateurs and professionals, rarely perform solos with orchestras in the large halls.  You need to decide the purpose you intend to use your instrument and then select the one that fits your needs the most.

Instrument Model: Often times, an instrument with a flat arching will have more power (Stradivari) while a higher arched one might have a more gentle tone quality (Stainer), but this is over generalized. Each violin needs to be evaluated and treated individually and not be rejected before playing.  You should also always listen to someone else play the instrument that you are considering as part of your evaluation especially if you are looking for a solo instrument and if possible take it into a large hall to hear the instrument on the stage. Frequently an instrument may sound clear and loud under the ear, but when played in a large hall can't push to the back of the hall.

Instrument Condition: Most players don't know what to look for to see if there has been previously repaired damage or poor repairs performed on the instrument. A well-repaired violin looks very different to an expert's eye than it does to the novice.  If you are considering the purchase of a previously repaired instrument or just an old one, always get advice from an expert repairmen.  Some repairs will have no effect on the tonal qualities of the instrument, but many repairs can decrease the commercial value of the instrument.

On a professional instrument, it should be structurally sound enough for heavy everyday use. When possible, avoid instruments with cracks in the sound-post area, especially to the back.  Avoid instruments with worm damage unless very well repaired. Violins which have replaced tops or backs by different makers may sound better than they originally did but may have less value than before the repair. The varnish condition, as long as it's original, and the originality of the scroll affect the value more so than the tone of the instrument. When in doubt about repairs seek expert advice.

 
Trying out Instruments - the way I do it

My method for trying out instruments is to play scales or a piece of music that you know by memory that showcases all the strings. It doesn't do any good to play something that has lots and lots of fast notes. Slow scales and long bows will help best with hearing the sound and the difference in the strings. Decide your maximum budget before you go to the store, including case and bow if needed. Buying a package is the best deal as most shops give you a big break on the case and bow. 
 

Method One - Have the shop show you instruments in different price ranges but not telling you what the actual individual instrument prices are. That way you will not be swayed by price. The most expensive thing on the menu is not always the best.

Method Two - Have the shop start out at a lower price and as you search have them go up until you reach your maximum.

In either case, play three instruments and pick one. Do it again with the next group and pick one. Repeat until you have three best pics and then compare those three. Keep doing this until you have it down to the last three. Then choose 2 of those and borrow them for a week to play at home, with your teacher and in a performance setting if that will help. Have another good player listen and give you critique on the instruments, but it is your choice in the end, not your teachers who you may not have all that long. Don't discount a violin if one string doesn't seem to be to your liking, the shop will be glad to try a different string or so if otherwise it is your best pick.

Once the violin has been decided on, then pick a bow. See more below on picking a bow. 

Have fun
 

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Buying a Bow

 
When purchasing a bow there are many things to consider. Of course the overall playing qualities of the bow will depend on your budget but these are some general guidelines.

To me, a bow should not feel 'heavy' at either the tip or frog end. The stick should be straight, side to side, both when the hair is loose or tightened, but especially when tight. When you press down while playing, the bow should not bend out to far to the side. The bow should have some type of grip that makes it easy to hold and it will also protect the stick from wear. On wood bows, there must be some type of tip protection; plastic, bone or metal.  No bow should come with an Ivory tip today, because of the issues with bans, unless it is a historic bow and you understand the difficulties with the current issues with Ivory. The frog should not rock side to side on the stick. The hair when relaxed should not hang too loose or not be able to be without tension.

When trying a bow out, I like to see how well it bounces off the string and the control I have while doing it.  Check to see if it wobbles in the center when playing long bows under pressure.  If the wobble does not effect the tone, this may not be an issue 

The color of the stick doesn't have anything to do with its playing quality as any stick can be stained. One of the greatest bow makers of all time, James Tubbs, has been speculated that he put his bows in a vat of Ink and stained them almost black. Bows should not have an actual finish other than oil.  Some very cheap bows are varnished and this prevents them from ever being heated to straighten them when needed and a cheap bow will need to be straightened more than a good bow.

You will hear players and shops talk about bow weights. Typical  bows weights are; violin - 60 grams, viola - 70 grams, cello 80 grams. This is not a must and bows can be several grams on either side of this number. I have seen high quality violin bows range from 55-65 grams. What creates the weight is the density of the wood. A maker can only reduce the thickness so far because of the flexibility and strength that the bow needs. So if all bows were made the exact same weight, many would be worthless as they would be too soft or to stiff to use.

The lengthwise curve in the stick is put into it by several methods, some makers carve part of the curve and bend part, others bend the whole curve. This bend is obtained by using heat on the wood, just hot enough so that the wood will bend under pressure but not hot enough to burn the wood as that can weaken the grain. Over time this curve (called the camber) may need to be adjusted. A bow with too little camber is not necessarily a bad bow, just one in need of repair.

In addition to the playing characteristics the bow needs to be investigated for damage, repairs and replaced parts. The most important thing is to see if there are any cracks in the stick, especially at the head of the bow. Typical repairs to the head will have a spline of wood or composite material to strengthen the crack. Repairs to other places on the stick may include pins or just glue. Look over the stick very carefully. A crack to the head of a valuable bow basically makes it almost worthless in monetary value. Check to see if the frogs ferrule looks like a good fit as a replacement might not fit too closely.

Bows can be made from a number of materials
 
• Fiberglass -  beginning students; plastic or wood fittings with real horse hair. $40 - 60.00
• Carbon Fiber - composite materials with ebony frogs. $90.00 and up.
• Graphite and Composite - for serious students; higher quality cores, sticks, and fittings. $200 and up - these can often be as good as wood bows of the same price
• Brazilwood - cheaper versions sometimes heavily varnished with nickel silver fittings and full- or half-lined frogs.$40 - High quality ones can run up to $300.00
• Pernambuco (Nickel fittings) - for the advanced player or serious student; finest wood from South American province of Pernambuco. Now an endangered species. Brown to red to red-orange color with nickel silver fittings in the frog. Tongue oiled and/or French polished. $200 - 500.00
• Pernambuco (Pure silver, gold, tortoise shell, silver thread fittings) - for serious students, music majors, professors, collectors and professionals; finest bows available. $350 and up.

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Composite Bows


   Carbon Fiber, Graphite, and Composite bows have become both commonplace and acceptable among all levels of musicians as quality alternatives to wood bows. Regardless of materials,  making a quality bow from composites requires as much artistry and craftsmanship as the traditional wooden bow. These bows also have the added benefit of strength and consistency.  A Composite bow can play as well if not better than a wood bow in the same price range. Just like wood bows, different makers of composite bows create their product with differing results allowing for differences in playing characteristics. The one difference is that composite bows of a specific brand and model will all be very close in playing characteristics compared to wood bows that can vary widely within the same model. 

A composite material is any material comprised of both fibers and resin that work together. The fibers, like fiberglass or graphite (carbon), run through the composite material like the grains through  natural wood. The resin part of a composite material saturates these fibers and holds them in place. Without the resins, the composite material would become just a loose bundle of fibers; without the fibers there would be no stiffness and strength properties. Everyday we are surrounded by examples of composites improving our lives--sailboats, tennis rackets, skis, golf clubs, bicycles, and fly rods are just a few examples of products that have been improved through the use of composite materials.

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Wood Bows


Wood bows are made from Brazilwood or Pernambuco wood, and sometimes Cherry.

Cherry wood bows are just junk and should not be purchased except to hang on a wall. Often these will have Rosewood rather than Ebony frogs. I don't even consider these bows as a suitable option.

Brazilwood bows are the lowest level of wood bows. In the cheapest price ranges they can be too soft to be usable as they will bend too much. The high-quality ones can be more expensive and better-playing sticks than the lower quality of Pernambuco bows.

The quality and availability of Pernambuco, the traditional wood used for high quality bow construction, continues to diminish due to the over cutting of the Brazilian rain forest. The finest bows are still made from Pernambuco by makers with stockpiles of old wood. The Brazilian government has ceased the legal cutting of old growth Pernambuco and only bow making companies in Brazil that have licenses based on their conservation methods are allowed to harvest the special wood.

 NOTE: Brazilwood and Pernambuco actually come from the same tree, Pernambuco is the center more dense part of the tree and is more Orange in color while Brazilwood tends to be a more murky brown color. The color is not the only thing as some bows of both colors can be from either material.

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Which is better, Round or Octagonal?

 

Many players wonder why some bow sticks are round and others are octagonal. Some players have a strong preference for one or the other, but it’s a good idea to be open to both, as the world’s finest bows come in both types. From a bow maker's perspective, all bows start as octagonal bows. The first step in thinning and graduating a bow stick takes place when the maker planes down each of the four edges of the rectangular bow blank forming an octagon bow. As the stick gets closer to its final shape, the bow maker flexes and weighs the stick. In some cases the weight and stiffness of the stick require the bow maker to round off the edges of the octagon to make the stick lighter and more flexible. In other cases, the weight and stiffness are good without this step.
So, the answer? It's up to the player. From the maker's perspective, the octagonal bow stick is just as good as the round.

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The Eastman line of violins - my impressions

I offer the following observations, not to influence a purchase or recommend anything specifically, but to give an example of how models differ and to give information that I have obtained on the history of some of their products.  

Eastman Music is one of the largest suppliers of bowed instrument today. Their business model is not that different from the big factories in Germany and France in the early 1900's. They carry many different qualities and sell them to dealers who sometimes relabel them, as mentioned previously, so they can market them exclusively. 100 years from now, no-one may be able to know where these instruments came from, just as we don't know where all of the Stradivari copies came from.

They are one of the best and most consistent in quality, full line manufacturers today. While many people may discard anything of 'Chinese' origin, I evaluate an instrument for it's own merits and I can truly say, that the Eastman instruments, in my opinion, given a similar price point, are better than modern German instruments of the same price. Eastman has a large model range, sometimes they or the store will private label instruments (such as the Otto Benjamin, Weiss, Halo, Albert, or Strobel). The Eastman VL80, VL100, VL200 are the ones that I see most often with different labels. Often times the shop labeled instruments will have different model numbers making it much more difficult to compare.

Below are my impressions of the different models. some of which are no longer made*, obviously other people may have different opinions. Eastman offers these instruments set up in house or unset up and so the dealer (the retail seller) must decide what they want. I found the Eastman setup to be inconsistent to my standards, so I always did it myself. The tailpiece, if supplied by Eastman, unless a specific upgrade is requested, may not be of sufficient quality.  Also keep in mind that I retired 9 years ago and so I have limited exposure now to the current inventory, but I do spend some time each year seeing many of the instruments available today. I won't provide any price information as that varies with time and the setup and type of store selling them, but basically the price increases as the model numbers go up.

Except for one, all of these models I have either sold new or used or worked on. Since Eastman was so close to me, many local shops sold these, there were 4 different 'private' labeled Eastman's in my area, as such, I saw many Eastman products over the years. Looking on the internet I can see many sellers that appear to be selling Eastman's under a private label.  

Samuel Eastman Models - often these needed the fingerboard planed and the nut adjusted, even if set up by Eastman.

VL80 - Good quality beginner instrument, plain wood with lacquer finish that is sprayed on. These are well built strong instruments that hold up well, especially in a rental or school situation.  Much more appropriate for a beginner than most of what you find on Amazon. The sound is plain, without a complex quality, which makes up the best instruments, but they do have a good volume. These are the least consistent, workmanship wise, of the models which may mean they are outsourced to some other shops, but they are all finished in house as the varnish is consistent. This model would be the one that those on a budget should seriously consider.

VL100 - Nicer woods, often with some decent flame, hand brushed on spirit varnish. Some are very nice and look like the VL200's except for the varnish. When I was selling these, Eastman had a distribution center in Maryland just 12 miles from me, so I hand picked all of my Eastman products. This would by my favorite pick for a beginner instrument. This is the model that I find in many rental programs.

VL105* - The Eastman fiddle model is about the same as the VL100, it has a different varnish and setup. When set up from Eastman, the bridge was too heavy.

Andreas Eastman Models - the rest of the line needed less set up work, most had decent fingerboard scoops.

VL200 - Very good beginner student instrument.  The wood  on these is much nicer as is the construction. The varnish is a little darker adding to the pleasant appearance.  The instrument is lighter in weight, meaning the graduations were more carefully adjusted.  I usually set these up with Tonica's and a Wittner tailpiece. Today I usually install the Thomastik-Infeld Violin Alphayue unless another string makes it sound better.

VL205* - The same as the VL200 but it has a deep red-brown varnish. 

VL305 - This appears to be just a really nice VL200 with a higher level of graduations having been performed. They have better wood and a dark antiqued style varnish. These always seem to sound good. This model received high praises in Strings Magazine. 

VL315* - This is the VL305 but made with European wood.

VL405* - The sound on these usually have a faster response and a more brilliant sound. The varnish is thin but well applied.

Master Series Models - The Master series prices can make these a little pricey and as such German instruments start to look appealing, however, I often find that even at this price point, the German instruments are heavy in wood. 

VL605 - The varnish is similar to the VL405 but much nicer in wood. These are often too bright for me and if the bridge is high it can be hard on the ears as well as the fingers. It plays best with a lighter bow pressure.

VL805* - The varnish is very nice on these and the workmanship on this model is considerably better. . These can have a beautiful tone and a big, powerful lower rend.  Mark Moreland, previously of Weaver's violin, varnished all the Doetch, Nebel and these back in the 1990's and early 2000's in Maryland, now I believe they are all varnished in China. 

VL900* - Similar to the VL805, these have an antiqued style varnish. I have only seen these in pictures.

VL906 - Beautiful oil antique style varnish with a very strong projection.

Other instruments in the Eastman line come from other countries and may be varnished in Eastman's Beijing shop. Some of these models are:

VL140, VL401, VL402 - Ivan Dunov - Romania. the VL402 is a personal favorite of mine, it has a thin deep burgundy varnish and a powerful warm rich sound.

VL601 - Albert Nebel - German wood, varnished in China. These originally were bought to be Doetsch instruments but they were of lower quality workmanship so they were downgraded to Nebel's. The varnish on these originally, from the 1980's, was greener than the redder Doetsch model.

VL501, VL502, VL503, VL923 - limited availability special order items.

VL701, VL702, VL703 - Doetsch, Klier and Weiss - these, at approximately the time of my retirement were all made in Germany and varnished in the US, now I'm not real sure, the workmanship on the new Doetsch's look Chinese to me but all the woods are European and they are varnished in China. The Doetsch instruments, in my opinion, sound better now than the ones made in the 1980's and 1990's when the white instruments came from the Hofner factory and very little interior work was done on them and what was done was rough, specifically those from the 1980's. Although the varnish is nicer today, the Doestch look is definitely different now and they look more Chinese probably because of the varnish. This is not a detriment in my opinion, just an observation. The original Doetsch instruments had too thin a varnish in my opinion. The Klier and Weiss models are higher quality in workmanship and  materials.

As I get time I may go into some other lines of instruments, but by far I have the most experience with the full line from Eastman. 

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Selling an Instrument

Here are some possibilities.

When you are ready to sell your instrument, you have many possible ways to do it. For the purposes of this article I am assuming the instrument is in good condition and that you are not trading it in for another instrument (for that it is best financially to go back to where it was purchased). 

So do you, sell on an internet site like Ebay or Craigs List, sell it through your teacher or the local bulletin board, through a pawn shop or music store or go to the violin shop. It may depend on the condition and price point. If when you got it new, it was under $500 or so, any of these is as good as another but keep in mind that you will probably only get about 40% of what you paid. If it was one of the very low priced instruments from some non-instrument internet place like Ebay or Amazon, it might not be worth anything as a resale - often these are just disposable violin-shaped objects and cost more to make playable again than to replace.

When dealing with better instruments between $500 and $2000, the violin shop may not be your best option. They will typically pay around 50% of what they would have sold that same instrument for. Now, if you purchased the instrument from that violin shop, they may pay you more since they were the ones that made the profit the first time around.

No one will pay you for the profit that the other guy made. As an example, if you spent $1000, the violin probably had a list price of $1200-1500. The shop made $300-400 profit as that instrument cost them $600-700, which wasn't all profit. They had to pay for the instrument and have it sit on their shelf for a while and possibly pay the bank interest on the loan that they took out to buy that inventory. They have overhead like, rent, utilities, salaries, insurance, they take instruments back in trade and have warranty service costs. They will not pay the profit the other store made which brings down that $1000 to $600, they also may need to do minor repairs plus they are investing their money on the chance they will find a buyer. In addition, why would they pay you for a used instrument the same as what they could get a new one for. 

For the same reasons, an individual will often pay you more for this level of instrument. They are not thinking about the stores profit and they don't have overhead costs. You can typically get around 70% for your instrument.

Going above the $2000 price level, you will usually do better with the violin shop, as the market base goes way down as not many people will be interested in spending that kind of money from an individual. Also, since the shop will warranty and take the instrument back in trade later, these services are very desirable.

One last bit of information, if you can afford to wait for the sale to go through, you can make more of your original costs back if you sell the instrument on consignment. This means that the store will take your instrument, insure it while they have it, show it to customers, do repairs as necessary, and when it sells pay you the agreed upon amount. Typically the store will take 20%. Repair costs will be part of the original contract and will come out of the stores profit unless otherwise arranged or you pick up the instrument, then you will have to pay for the repairs.

 

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