Tips for buying a violin or other stringed instrument

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I know first-hand how difficult it is to find good advice about buying a violin or other stringed instrument, so I thought I’d share some tips here.  (If you’re not sure whether you should rent or buy and instrument for your child, then check out my article on Renting vs. Buying.)

What standard of instrument do I need?

A great piece of advice someone once gave me was when buying a violin, purchase for the level you hope to be in 2-3 years.  It’s also worth remembering that children will often progress very quickly with a new instrument.  They hear an immediate improvement in their sound and this is highly motivating.  All things considered, it’s certainly well worth thinking ahead, and finding an instrument that will last for a few years, rather than buying one that your child will soon outgrow.

With this in mind, let’s go though a few different scenarios.  One of these may resemble your situation:

  1. Your 10- year-old daughter has been learning violin very happily for a few years.  She enjoys playing in the school or community orchestra and has played solo in her school concert.  You had been renting a 3/4 size violin for her but now she needs a full-size instrument.  Your daughter is working towards her Grade 3 exam (lower intermediate level).  You may naturally start looking for an instrument suited to intermediate level players, but you will probably get better value from buying a violin that would take her through to the higher grades.
  2. You have two children and you plan for them both to take music lessons.  You might find the best value in buying a violin (rather than renting one) that can be passed down between the siblings.  Even at beginner level, the quality of instruments on offer varies greatly.  Look for one with good quality fittings, so that it may be easily tuned and will stay in tune for longer.  The sound quality will also vary a lot between beginner instruments.  Remember, everyone in the house will have to listen to the music practice (maybe for a few years before another instrument is needed), so it’s well worth investing in a good beginner instrument.  One other important thing to consider is the weight of the case.  Look for a lightweight case that has shoulder straps as well as a strong handle.  Light-reflecting strips on the outside of the case are a great safety addition, especially for children walking home from school.  If your case doesn’t come with this feature, light-reflective tape is a good substitute.
  3. Your son is 16 and a very keen cellist.  He has taken the higher examinations, plays in a community orchestra and is planning on getting involved in performances when he starts university.  He is currently playing on an intermediate cello that he has had for about 5 years.  In this case I would advise buying a good advanced-level instrument that he can use as an adult and will serve well if he chooses to play in a string quartet or other chamber ensembles.
  4. Your daughter is now 17 and auditioning for music schools.  She will need a viola to take her through college, with its demanding programme of performance exams, recitals, orchestra and chamber music projects.  This is often a time where parents and child go looking for a professional or pre-professional instrument.  Your daughter’s new teacher will probably be in a position to give good advice about professional instruments.
  5. Useful tip: if you are on a budget or not yet ready to buy, one simple and cost-effective way to improve the sound quality of any stringed instrument is to upgrade the strings.  Non-professional instruments usually come with factory strings as standard, but changing these for a good brand (I usually recommend Helicore strings by D’Addario) can make a dramatic difference to the quality of sound.

Buying a violin - The Strings Family

How do I choose an instrument?

After deciding on the standard of instrument needed and on how much you would like to spend at this time, you’ll want to make sure you get the best possible instrument for your money.  As you begin your research, you’ll see that the prices of stringed instruments vary greatly.  Since prices aren’t always indicative of quality, I advise buying a violin from a trusted strings dealer.  Your child’s teacher may be able to recommend a reputable dealer or music store.  If not, try online, or talk to other parents to get ideas of where to look. Once you find a good strings dealer, I advise visiting or speaking with him (or her!) and explaining your needs, then asking him to source the best quality instrument in your price range.  A dealer in stringed instruments will know from experience which instrument is best suited to your situation, and you’ll likely get a much better result by doing it this way rather than looking on your own.  As with any purchase, don’t let anyone push you into buying a violin that you feel is too expensive or otherwise unnecessary.  He may have something perfect in stock that you can take home that day, or you may have to wait a week or two while he locates a new instrument or orders in.

Buying a Violin - The Strings Family

Is buying a violin second hand better value?

Something I’m asked regularly is about the wisdom of buying a violin second-hand, or buying for an investment.  Generally speaking, violins (or violas or cellos) are like almost any other purchase you make and except for certain professional instruments, are most valuable when they are new, and will not increase in value over time.  This is especially true for beginner instruments.  With good care, however, they can last for many years, so it’s entirely possible to find a good second-hand instrument at a bargain price.  Your dealer will be able to advise you about this, and may also know of someone who has an instrument for sale.  If you are buying a pre-used instrument privately, then you’ll want assurance that it has been well cared-for.  Check for the following and keep them in mind for your negotiations:

  1. The fingerboard should be smooth and even, or it may need to be re-planed or replaced.
  2. The bow should be loose and the screw easily turned (though it’s relatively easy to find a new bow so if the violin is in good condition this probably isn’t a deal-breaker).
  3. Stiff pegs will probably be fine with some peg paste, easily found in a music store.
  4. Old rosin on the violin and bow can be easily removed with violin/bow cleaner.
  5. Is the bridge correctly placed and are the strings correctly threaded?
  6. The condition of the case:  Does the zip go all the way round without getting stuck?  Does the buckle work?  Are the handle and straps still properly attached?  Are the bow clips (inside) in place and turning easily (these are cheap so easy to replace, but they are needed for the security of the bow when it’s packed away).  Is it light enough for your child to carry comfortably?
  7. How does the instrument look?  Trust your instinct on this: if it seems like it hasn’t been taken care of, then I say, respectfully, keep on looking.  Looks will matter more for those making more expensive purchases, but even beginner instruments should be attractive, have a decent sound, and look sturdy and well-made.

While the above issues may be easily fixed, too many things needing changed could add up to more hassle than the instrument’s worth.  It might also be a sign that the owners haven’t really understood how to care for the instrument, so it may not be a great prospect.  Of course you may well find a great second-hand instrument, with no work needed, the above is provided so you know what to look for.

Buying a Violin - The Strings Family

Can I trust an online seller? The internet has been around for quite a while, and we’re getting used to making purchases online.  Of course it’s ideal to see a new product in a store and try it out, but if this is not possible, or you find better prices online, or you prefer the convenience of shopping from your own home, then buying this way can be a great option.  Keep in mind that whether online or in a store on the High Street, we buy from people we trust.  How much experience does this company have?  What exactly is their area of expertise?  It’s entirely reasonable to email an online store and ask for advice when choosing a product.  It’s even better if we can speak to them personally.  A genuine dealer will have a phone number and be happy to answer your questions.  You may also shop around online for a product when you already have a make and model in mind.  This is a good way to find the best price, and also to get an idea of the value that a particular store offers.  Lastly, look for recommendations and ask for referrals from your friends.  Instruments can be a relatively big purchase so it’s worthwhile to do your own research before making any decisions. Hopefully you now have the essential information to find a wonderful new instrument for a great price.  If you have any questions about buying a violin (or other stringed instrument), please feel free to email me or ask in the comments below.  Happy shopping!

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