Monday, June 20, 2011

Finding Your Violin Online

 Written by: Amy Tobin

These days, shopping has become a completely different experience than it was even a few years ago. With a few keyboard clicks, you can be directed to nearly any product or service that you are interested in, with options to purchase from nearly anywhere! This is no different in the world of musical instruments. In fact, we have adapted to this new environment and most of our sales these days come from the internet (although we still do have actual, physical people come in to the shop and see us!).

Admittedly, it can be a little more difficult to handle such a subjective and personal thing via the internet, but I am going to give you a few tips to help you find your perfect violin, viola, or cello if you are looking online!

First of all, let me assure you that finding the perfect instrument online can be done. In fact, with the internet, you actually have many more options available to you than there used to be, but you really want to do your looking and research in order to find the right thing for you.

One of the most important considerations is to find a shop that you feel comfortable dealing with. When you purchase a violin, you will hopefully be entering into a partnership with the shop that you purchase it from. That way, if you ever have any needs in the future, they will be addressed by people that are familiar not only with your instrument, but with you!

 Make sure, when looking at online shops, there is a real, physical address and phone number for the shop. That way you know for sure that there are people there who can help you. If all you see if a P.O. Box or an 800 number, I would look elsewhere. Although many customers of ours just place an order via the web, most of them call us first to discuss the instrument and the set up. (In fact, I would strongly suggest calling and speaking to someone directly about these things. I have had people who, only after getting an instrument, called to mention that they had really wanted one that wasn't antiqued, or had different strings, etc. If you have specific requirements, this call will save you a lot of time and frustration!)

 Find a shop where the people know what they are talking about and can help you if you need it. For instance, all of us here are musicians, so if someone calls and they don't quite know how to ask about or explain something, we can usually figure it out.

Take a look, also, at the shop's return/exchange policies. If you don't like the instrument you get, can you return it? How easy is that to do? What if you want to try a different one? Find a place that will allow you all of those options. And no one likes check-out sticker shock! When you are looking at, or ordering, an instrument online, take a look at shipping costs, what comes with the instrument, and whether you are given a reasonable amount of time with the instrument, when you get it, to properly evaluate it.

Another big thing to keep in mind is that instrument set up takes time, especially when you are looking at handmade instruments. In fact, this is what you want. If you live in a hot, humid area, for instance, and you are talking to a shop in a cooler, drier climate, your violin will need to be set up and adjusted for where you live, not where the shop is. There are occasions where a particular instrument will be there, set up already and ready to ship to you with only minor adjustments, but this is generally not the norm. Plus, if you have specific requirements for tone or fittings, this will take a little time as well. Let your prospective luthier take the time to do a good job for you. That way you will both be happy!

(Here I have to include a special side note about those really inexpensive instruments that you might find on Ebay or the like. First of all, to get an instrument that will be playable and enjoyable, get ready to spend at least a few hundred dollars. Most of those instruments that sell for less than that (especially those that are $150 or less!) are really unplayable. Usually, the tuning pegs don't fit properly, which means that the instrument is not tunable, the bridge is not cut properly (usually way too high) which puts undue stress on the instrument and the player, the fingerboard is not a uniform length or is not planed properly, and they just sound tinny and shrill. Believe me, for those instruments, the pieces have been assembled, not set up and adjusted. Nobody has played those before they ship to make sure they work! Set up and adjustment to make an instrument like that usable will usually be a few hundred dollars, so save yourself the time and money and go with something that is properly set up to begin with. Take a look at this link for a little more information about this: cheapest violins)

When an instrument that you are looking at arrives, there are a few things you need to do when evaluating it. The most important consideration is not to jump to conclusions. Violin, violas, and cellos that are shipped to people tend to tighten up a little on the journey. They go through a few temperature variations and are exposed to different vibrations (from trucks, planes, etc.), so they need time to come back to themselves. The way that you can help with this so you can properly evaluate an instrument is to play it. And I mean really play it! Play it as if it is yours. It takes time for a player and an instrument to adjust to each other and be comfortable. Only then will you know for sure if you love it or not.

When you are comparing instruments, whether it is a few new ones against each other or a new one against the one you already have, keep the variables to a minimum. Use the same bow on each instrument.  Play the same thing on each instrument. The same scale, the same piece or excerpt. You want to get a clear sense for how each instrument responds to you and your demands when all other things are equal. Play fortissimo, play pianissimo, play fast, play slow and sustained. Basically, pull out the trick bag and put it through its paces! Above all, play with confidence. If you are playing self-consciously, you really will have no idea how a particular instrument will respond or sound.

If you have a new instrument that you think is the one for you, there is one final test that I would give it. Sight read or practice with it. Many times people only play things that they know on a new instrument. I think this is a mistake. When you are playing something you are already familiar with, you have an easier time making any sort of micro adjustments to your playing in relation to the new instrument. When you sight read or practice something new, you will really get a sense of how you like the sound and feel of an instrument!

As far as knowing the value or worth of an instrument by a photograph, there is really no way, as a lay-person, to do that. There are a couple of things that you can look at, like what kind of tailpiece is on the instrument. If there are 4 fine tuners on it, are they all metal? That might indicate an instrument of lesser quality, but that is not always the case! The only way to really know is to play it for yourself. Most places will have reviews of customers posted in relation to an instrument, and that can give you a sense of the quality of it, but nothing will take the place of you actually playing it for awhile.

Also, be prepared for something which I see happen time and time again. In the search for the perfect instrument, sometimes the instrument picks the player, and not the other way around!

Happy hunting!


  1. Yuri Bashmet uses four fine tuners.

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