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This is a tall order! You people don’t ask much at all, do you?!

(Incidentally, this particular punctuation, the ? followed by the ! is called an “interrobang”, and it is meant to emphasize a particularly sarcastic, rhetorical question. Isn’t that cool?! See? There it is again! “interrobang.”)

Just go to the biggest music store you can find, (because being big, they will be reliable), and tell them how much you can spend, and they will give you the best violin for that amount of money. NOT.

Seriously though, if you have a friend, relative, or acquaintance who is proficient on the violin, ask them to go with you. PAY them to go with you, or mow their lawn or something. It will be WORTH your money or sweat, whichever the case may be.

First, Rent or Buy?

When deciding, consider the following: With renting you are often throwing your money away. However, some places allow you to apply a percentage of your rental fee toward a purchase of ANY instrument at a later date, which is a nice deal.

So if you aren’t sure whether little Johnny is going to take it seriously enough to justify a second mortgage, renting would be a good option, especially if you can apply part of your rental toward purchase later.

Another benefit to renting is that you can switch for a different violin if you don’t like that one. (But be careful: each time you switch, it costs you.) You can also trade for a different SIZED instrument when little Johnny hits his growth spurt.

The disadvantage to renting is that most places don’t “rent out” their nicer instruments, they rent out their indestructible tanks, so your student will be learning with an instrument on which it is harder to make sound good.

That said, some places that rent out VERY nice instruments. You’ll know those places because they will be willing to ship two or three instruments and let you choose the one you like best. They will also be exclusively stringed instrument shops, with a luthier, or violin-maker, on staff. Robertson and Sons in Albuquerque, NM, is one of these shops. They shipped several rental violins to my students in Utah. We chose the ones we wanted, and sent the rest back! They were nice, hand-made instruments. Check them out.

If you choose to buy your instrument, make sure the shop will take it back in trade when you’re finished with it. This is nice if your student isn’t fully grown yet because you get the same benefit of switching violins if necessary. Many places will give you the full purchase price toward trade as long as you are upgrading (minus string replacement and restoration costs).

Second, Choose Your Shop

In this case, size doesn’t matter. You want to go where you will get lots of help and individual assistance. If it is exclusively a stringed instrument shop, you will be guaranteed help from an expert. If it’s a mega-store, try to verify whether they have a stringed instrument expert to help you.

A good indicator of whether a string expert is in the house is if they have a luthier in-house. A luthier makes violins by hand. Often stores will hire a luthier to handle repairs. The luthier won’t be the one assisting you…but it’s a good sign that there’s an expert who will.
Another good indicator that experts are in the house is the price of the most expensive instruments. If they have instruments for $3K or higher, there will be an expert in the house.

If you can deal with a Local shop, DO IT! Local is better for the economy, but it’s also nice in case you need work done on the violin, and it also will be a good resource for your other questions or needs.

That said, many mega stores ship nationwide. I only use two because I’m comfortable with their knowledge, products, prices, and policies. Those sites are Shar Music in Ann Arbor, Michigan, and Southwest Strings in Tucson, AZ. Both serve all levels of musician and both have experts who can spend time on the phone and help you find a decent instrument.

Of those two stores, I found Southwest to be more rental-friendly. It also carries a violin model which I encouraged all of my cost-conscious students to buy. It is called the Yuan Qin, (please see “Chinese Violins,” below) and it sells for $559.00 for the violin, $800 for the whole package as of December, 2010. The package includes a very nice pernambuco bow and professional looking case. This violin is CONSISTENTLY WONDERFUL. I had several of my students buy them, and win scholarships using these violins. (If you or your child is destructive, Southwest will allow you to switch it out for a synthetic bow, which is harder to break) I prefer pernambuco, but the synthetics these days are pretty darn good.

Finally, Choose Your Violin

Don’t miss my YouTube videos where I demonstrate how to compare violins.

Whether you are buying a full-size or smaller violin, you need to hear it played. If you are at your local shop, ask someone there to play it. If you can play, try it out for sure. You can get a feel for how it responds, but I think it’s easier to judge the instrument’s SOUND if you aren’t the one playing it.

Decide what your price limit is, then ask the Stringed Instrument Expert to get you a couple violins for HALF your limit, several violins AT your limit, and a couple violins for DOUBLE your limit. When you hear the different tone qualities of the different price ranges, you will start to understand the sound that is desirable, and the sound to avoid.

If the expert is a good sport, ask to hear either their WORST instrument, or their BEST instrument, or both. You will be amazed!

Then, focus on the instruments WITHIN your limit. Choose the one that comes closest in the quality of sound as the more expensive instruments in its overall sound.

When you are listening to sound, look especially for:

  • A homogeneous sound from one string to the next. You don’t want one string standing out from the others in a freaky sort of way.
  • Clear, crisp notes, not fuzzy or muddy
  • A nice rich full G string (the lowest string), but not muddy (hard to do both)
  • An A string that does not sound harsh or tinny

Hand-made instruments are a better investment and sound better, but they cost more.

If you don’t get a hand-made instrument, at least get one that is professionally shop-adjusted, with a CUSTOM bridge and soundpost that were hand-cut specifically for that violin by a luthier. This makes 1000% difference.

If the shop is able to adjust the instrument to improve the sound or to eliminate something that is bothering you, let them! A small adjustment can make an enormous difference, and reveal a wonderful sounding instrument.

If you are ordering online or from afar, you are totally reliant on the salesperson helping you. Ask them what attributes come with different models. Ask them what student violin is the most bang for the buck.

I think you can get a really fantastic student violin for around $500.00, but it takes extra work. (Unless you buy the Yuan Qin, then I did the work for you!)

Pawn Shops, Yard Sales, Craigslist, and Ebay

Be careful at pawn shops, yard sales, Craigslist, and on eBay. In fact, if you are a novice, don’t even think about buying at any of those places without an expert’s assistance.

For every decent violin at one of those locations, there will be 50 CRAPPY ones. Those are your odds. So unless it’s like 50 bucks or something ridiculous, then you might choose to take the risk knowing the odds are you will be throwing your money away. But, you can get lucky, especially if the instrument is old.

NO, I don’t mean you’re going to find out you bought a Stradivarius for 50 bucks, but I mean if the instrument is very old, it is possibly hand-made and therefore would have a better sound and value.

Chinese Violins

Chinese businesses recently (within the last 15 years or so) started “hand-making” (term used loosely…it’s assembly line style, but made by hand, which is still pretty cool) violins and other instruments. They got a lot of attention and were very popular because they were so inexpensive, yet they sounded really quite good, and looked nice as well.

The problem is that some Chinese makers do not age their wood for the number of years needed before using it to make violins. The result is a violin that sounds good right out of the gate (many fine violins don’t sound so hot until they are broken in and age a little), but as the sap on these Chinese violins starts to dry, the wood shrinks, and the violin literally pulls itself apart.

I experienced this firsthand. In 2004, my student visited her relatives in China and came back with a beautiful new violin. They paid about $800 for it, which in China was a hefty price, and one of their better instruments. It sounded great for $800, but after about 3 months, the disaster started and the violin got to the point where it was not playable. I could not make a decent sound on it. The family spent $400 at a repair shop trying to salvage it, but it was a lost cause.

The good news is, after all the hype with these “green-wood Chinese violins,” violin shops started checking the aging procedures of the wood at certain Chinese shops before importing them. American shops who import properly aged Chinese violins now have luthiers do a professional shop set-up, with a CUSTOM bridge and soundpost that were hand-cut specifically for that violin. So, I would tend to trust a violin imported by a reputable shop, but I would NEVER bring one directly from China, no matter HOW good it sounded.

The Yuan Qin is a Chinese violin. None of my students ever had problems with theirs. (I know this sounds like a commercial for Yuan Qin, but it’s not). The violin below is a Yuan Qin from Southwest Strings. Click the image to learn all the details about the instrument.

I hope this post helps you to avoid the common pitfalls of violin shopping. Good luck!