Finding the right violin can be a headache; there are many choices, from Chinese-made violins to antique ones with a special history. Each violin is as unique as the player; some say that the violin chooses the player. I can certainly attest to having a better feeling when playing different violins. I also remember feeling overwhelmed the first time I stepped into a music store. Luckily, it’s easy to familiarize yourself with the process and options of purchasing or renting a violin.
What Makes a Violin
The traditional Violin is made from wood, including electric violins. Recently, violins made of other materials, like carbon composite, have also become popular for their durability and style. A violin is made up of different components that help create a rich, beautiful sound.
- Body: The body is compromised of a one or two-piece back, attached to the side pieces called ribs which attaches the top of the instrument. The instrument is glued together using animal hide glue for a thinner joint and brittle enough to crack if repair is needed. The body can be made of several different kinds of wood, but a spruce top with maple back and ribs is commonly used. The wood is also aged to produce a more quality sound. A good violin sounds better with time. This is why antique violins are so heavily valued.
- Neck & Fingerboard: Attached to the body are the neck and fingerboard, which serves as the way to play different notes on the violin. The violin’s neck is often made out of the same wood used for the back and ribs, and the fingerboard is made out of ebony wood. Ebony is used because it’s a sturdy wood with great acoustic properties and the perfect yielding stiffness. A smooth, slightly curved fingerboard and neck help make a violin sound its best and something to look for when buying.
- Pegs: Attached to the neck and fingerboard of a violin are the pegbox, the pegs, and a scroll. The pegbox and pegs keep the strings attached to the top part of the instrument and play an integral role in tuning an instrument. Pegs are made out of a variety of wood, but ebony is the most common. They are cut to fit each instrument individually and have a hole near the tip to loop your violin string through. The scroll is decorative, usually carved into a spiral but carved heads and other decorations have been used.
- F-Holes: The body of the violin holds several integrals parts to the violin. The F-holes are the two lower cased-shaped f cutouts on either side of the bridge and fingerboard. They are used to transmit the sound the violin makes into the outside air. The line that serves as the cross-through for the f is also a placement guide for bridge placement.
- Bridge: The bridge supports the strings on a violin and helps transmit the vibrations from the strings. The bridge is an important aspect of finding a new violin. Luthiers can change bridges to fit a variety of heights, arches, and playing styles. Student instruments are always set up with a higher bridge to allow for study aids and better control. Professionals often have their bridges professionally cut to their specifications. Sometimes a violin may not feel just right, but with the adjustment of the bridge, it can be perfect.
- Tailpiece and Fine Tuners: The tailpiece is used to hold the strings onto the bottom of the instrument, completing the standard violin setup. The tailpiece is connected to the violin by being looped around the endpiece of the violin. Most tailpieces come with at least one fine tuner, which helps players tune their violins in small increments to produce a perfect tune. In most cases, the fine tuner is on the E string; however, student instruments often come with fine tuners on all four strings while learning to tune their instruments. An alternative to a fine tuner is using planetary pegs. Planetary pegs are mechanical pegs that use gears to wind the string to the right frequency.
- Chinrests are very common now, and most violinists use them. They are pieces of carved wood that attach to the violin’s top with a small clamp mechanism on the bottom. The chinrest provides comfort and stability for the player while protecting the violin from oil, dirt, and dander on the player’s skin.
Tonewood is the woodcut from the tree selected for violin making. Spruce, maple, and ebony tonewoods are the most often used across a variety of instruments. In some instruments, the wood is harvested from hard-to-reach areas of earth or a high elevation. Wood is then processed and left to age for a minimum amount of time.
Since wood becomes better with time, the longer the wood is left to age before being selected, the better the instrument’s sound. Budget instruments often leave the wood to age a year or two, while professional instruments might have their wood-aged 50 years. Antique instruments, especially those 50 years or older, are highly valued for the aged wood and deep sound.
Many people think of violins as antiques and believe that they are costly. Therefore, they can’t afford to learn the violin. However, violins are still being manufactured today both in factory-style workshops and by small luthiers. There are many choices for brand new violins, and many options are extremely cheap and very alluring. Unfortunately, many of the violins you can buy online aren’t good quality, and they are often made with cheap parts and, in some cases, even fake parts that have been painted. Luckily, there are several very well-made, affordable violins available for beginners and intermediate players.
Fiddlershop is one of my favorite violin stores. I’m a dedicated user of their strings, bows, rosin, and shoulder rests. Their instruments also happen to be top-notch and fit various budgets, skill levels, and playing needs. They work with a variety of luthiers and brands to produce the highest quality violin for the price. They also have highly skilled luthiers in Miami, Flordia, who personally inspect and set up many instruments. Their knowledgeable staff is always willing to help out a customer and make sure they find the perfect violin. In addition, they have a blog with a variety of playing guides, tips, tricks, and sheet music.
Tower Strings Entertainer Violin is Fiddlershop’s affordable, quality starter violin. Costing only $250 and often on sale, the violin is a surprising deal, and the Tower Strings brand is solid. I’d know I own a Tower String Electric Violin, and I play it more often than my acoustic. The violin is made out of aged solid-carved spruce and maple tonewoods with an amber-brown finish. The fingerboard and fittings are made out of 100% ebony. The bridge is hand-carved from Asian wood and well-rounded, suitable for a beginner. It comes with prelude strings, a violin case, brazilwood bow, rosin, shoulder rest, ultra practice mute, polishing cloth, and digital tuner.
Fiddlerman Apprentice Violin Outfit is a step up to the Tower Strings Entertainer. The sound of the violin is more developed, nuanced, and expressive than its cheaper counterpart. This is a violin that will stay with a beginner well into the intermediate stage of learning. It’s the perfect violin for a student who has finished growing or an adult who wishes to invest in something they won’t outgrow quickly. Like the Tower Strings violin, the Apprentice Violin comes with spruce and maple tonewoods, ebony fittings, fingerboard, and a finish instead of a heavy lacquer.
The Apprentice has an upgraded look with flamed tonewoods that have been aged at least 5 years instead of 2. A French Despiau or Helstein 1-Star Bridge and a soundpost made from alpine tonewood. The violin comes with Fiddlerman Strings, a case, carbon fiber violin bow, wood violin shoulder rest, select dark rosin, rubber practice mute, and digital tuner, all Fiddlerman Branded! I personally use most of the accessories with the violin, including the bow and the shoulder rest. They are wonderful accessories and stand the test of time. They also go on sale often.
Eastman Strings is another loved and respected string instrument brand. If you choose to rent an instrument for yourself or your child, don’t be surprised if the stamp inside says it’s from Eastman. Their instruments are of amazing quality, and the outfits come with everything a student would need to get started. However, this level of quality does come with a rather hefty price tag when bought brand new. Luckily, the consistent trade-in value of these instruments means you can often find a good deal on a used model for a fraction of the price.
The Samuel Eastman VL100 is a quality intermediate violin that can serve a dedicated student well. The violin comes with aged Chinese maple and spruce tonewoods, hand-inlaid purfling, and 100% ebony fittings. The wood is varnished and not lacquered for a light and natural finish. The bridge is French Despiau. Most outfits come with a case, bow, strings, shoulder rest, and rosin. The accessories will depend on the seller.The Andrea Eastman VL305 is a popular step-up violin in the Eastman line.
This is a suitable violin for intermediate and advancing students or a beginner who really wants to invest in a quality long-term violin. I personally own this violin, and it’s a wonderful companion, plays easily, sounds beautiful, and feels comfortable. It’s a very light violin which makes it comfortable for long periods of practice or performing. It’s perfect for an advancing Orchestra student as well. The violin comes with aged Chinese spruce and maple tonewoods, hand-inlaid purfling, and 100% ebony fittings.
Renting a Violin
Renting a violin is a preferred method of getting to know a new instrument for many. Renting allows a student to try out an instrument without committing to buying it forever. The cost is usually low ranging from 20 to 40 dollars and comes with insurance, accessories, and advice if something should go wrong. A good renting program will allow young students to trade in their instruments as they grow or advance and collect credit or equity that will be applied to the eventual purchase of an instrument. You can find most instrument rentals at local music stores. If you live rurally, various online rental places will ship an instrument directly to you!
Your skill level will determine the most suitable range of instruments and the best method of getting an instrument. Age will also factor into the type of instrument and quality you would want. Regardless of skill level, there is one important thing to keep in mind. Beginner students will want to start with cheaper instruments because they are still learning and deciding if the violin is right. You aren’t out a lot of money by aiming for a cheaper instrument or renting an instrument if you or your child decides they don’t like the instrument. Intermediate and professional players will want to set a budget when searching for a new instrument, which we will discuss below.
- Parents commonly rent instruments for children because they are still growing. Young students will often start with a fractional-sized instrument and need to trade up as they go. Fractional instruments can be found as small as 1/64 for even the youngest of students. Most students will be using full-size instruments by the time they are teenagers. This is a good time to look at investing in a long-term violin that will follow them through college.
- Adult learners or teens who have stopped growing have the option of renting an instrument or buying an instrument. Depending on how serious an adult beginner is, they may want to buy an instrument they can learn on for a long period of time. If this is the case, then focusing on student or step-up instruments is advised.
Intermediate will have been playing the violin long enough to know what they want out of a violin. They will likely turn to their local music store or luthier to find a suitable advanced instrument. However, some students don’t have the luxury of going to a music store, in this case, getting in touch with a reputable online music store like Fiddlershop, Music&Arts, or Musician’s Friend, to find a suitable instrument within your price range and play style.
Professional violinists often have a luthier they will turn to almost exclusively or a brand they prefer. Professional violinist uses their instruments every day, and it is part of their livelihood. Many of these instruments are antiques with a rich history and special to the musicians who play them. They want a particular sound, feel, and playability out of their instrument. Sometimes it can take a while to find the perfect violin.
Budget is perhaps one of the most important aspects of finding a new instrument in general. You don’t want to play a 10,000 dollar violin and then compare it to a 1,000 dollar violin. There will be little comparison between the two, as the 10,000 dollar instrument is likely one of the finest on the market. When you first decided to start looking at a new instrument, make sure you know your budget for not just the instrument but any accessories you will want to purchase with it.
Most student instruments will come as a violin outfit that has everything you need to get started. As you advance, they will sell violins separate from cases, bows, and other accessories. Often advancing students and professionals have a specific preference for what type of bow, strings, and accessories they prefer. These preferences can also change depending on the instrument. For example, I use Fiddlerman Strings on my acoustic, but D’Addario NS Electric Strings on my electric.
When setting a budget, have a deal budget, preferred budget, and a high budget. This will allow you to have a little wiggle room as you test instruments. If you find an instrument that’s a little bit more than the preferred budget, you can be comfortable going over it because you know it’s not the entirety of your budget. Likewise, if you find an instrument on the low end, you can be happy that you found something for a good price.
What to Look For
When deciding to buy the perfect instrument for the first time, it can be overwhelming. It’s straightforward to get caught up in the choices, the pressure, and sales. In reality, the only person you should be buying a new violin for is yourself. When you first walk into a music store, there are a few things that your expert will need to know. Your budget, skill level, and how you plan to use your violin will help them decided what violins to show you. They may ask you some additional questions to help narrow down which ones they think are best for you. After you’ve discussed your needs with the expert helping you, you will be able to test out a variety of violins within your budget. Here are some things to bring and do when you are testing new violins:
- Bring your favorite bow, sheet music, and another person with you.
- If you have a favorite bow, then it is likely what you are most comfortable playing with. Bringing it with you will help you test out new instruments to see if they complement each other. If you don’t have a favorite bow or are in the market for a new bow, be sure to let your expert know so they can help you find the right combination.
- Bring a piece of sheet music you know well and are comfortable playing. Additionally, bring some scales with you or at least test the violin with a few major scales. Test the instrument in all ranges by playing scales that focus on the entire instrument’s range, single strings, and the lower and higher registries.
- Bring another person, preferably someone who also plays violin or is familiar with it, to help you understand how the violin sounds to you and others. Players hear violins in a very particular way due to how they are located near our ears. The sound can be different, even subtly, to the audience. It’s important to make sure your violin is pleasing to both you and those that have to hear it. For students, this is a great time to seek
your teacher’s help and expertise.
- Once you’ve found a violin that you like, see if you can do an extended trial. Many stores offer this option so players can try out their new purchases in the settings they typically play their violin in. This allows you to seek opinions from other people.
- Most of all, have fun with the process and do something that works for you. It’s easy to get overwhelmed or frustrated with the process. It’s okay to step back and take a breather as well. The violin doesn’t need to be perfect right away. Your growth as a musician will help the violin grow to fit you.
I’ve bought all of my instruments online. I prefer the convenience and ability to browse and research the instruments that I want quietly. Unfortunately, it’s straightforward to end up with an unplayable antique instrument or a cheaply made violin from a factory. These are often referred to as violin-shaped objects because they represent the violin in look, but it sounds like a cat dying.
While browsing, look for these key things.
The aged tonewoods produce a richer and mature tone that gives the instrument its own personality.
100% Ebony Fingerboard
Unlike violin fittings, fingerboards almost exclusively come in ebony. Ebony is an incredibly durable wood that can stand up to the oils of our fingers. It also has wonderful flexibility and acoustic properties.
Varnish or finish, not a lacquer
Lacquers are very thick and make the violin very heavy. Varnish or finishes are light and natural, similar to well-made wood furniture.
Strings brand or brands offered
Many online violin shops will string your instrument with your preferred set if you ask. Others may offer a choice between two or three different sets.
If you find a violin calling to you, your next step should be to start researching it and watching different review videos. There are many violin reviews throughout the internet from a variety of creators. Videos will help you understand how the instrument might sound, how other players feel about it, and whether it’s a good quality violin. If you can’t find many reviews or sound really generic, it’s best to avoid that instrument. With so many budget-friendly violins out there, it’s easy to find something to fit your budget.
Reviews of the store or seller
There are many ways to buy a violin online; not only are there several online music stores, but you can also find a variety of quality violins on places like Amazon and eBay. When you find a violin(s) you like, make sure to check out the store as well. Look for their online presence, store or seller reviews, and the brands they carry. Look for possible instrument substitutions, fake instruments, or low-quality violins in the reviews. You can also check for reviews on places like Reddit, which often present a real user review.
Answer: Violins come in eight main sizes that are determined by the length of the student’s arm. The majority of adults will use a full-size violin.
Answer: This is really a matter of preference and use. Most people will start with an acoustic violin because they allow students to learn on an instrument that produces a natural sound. It also allows students to learn and understand the nuances of bow position, finger position, and bow stroke. Electric violins can be a lot of fun for performing or learning new things, but they cover many of an acoustic violin’s nuances.
Answer: Besides a bow and case, beginners will want to purchase a shoulder rest, rosin, music stand, preferred book or teacher recommended book, and some fun sheet music. There are many other accessories for your violin that might strike your fancies, such as humidifiers, polishing cloths, mutes, and tuners.
Answer: Anything found on the Fiddlershop or Music & Arts website will be of good quality. I also recommend the brand Cecilio; they make quality budget-friendly instruments.
Finding a good violin can be a tough overwhelming decision, especially for new players. There are a lot of different options, prices, and opinions out there. When looking for a violin, consulting, our guide can help point you on the right path. You’ll feel rewarded when you finally have your faithful musical companion.
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