Monday, October 29, 2012

Can't kick the tires of a violin-What to look for when buying an instrument.

Written by Andy Fein, luthier at Fein Violins
Kevin Berdine, and Amy Tobin

Looking for a "new-to-you" instrument is a daunting, but exciting task. There are many items that must be factored in before taking the leap. Cost, quality, warranty, trade-in, condition, and playability all contribute to the overall impression an instrument makes upon you, but we believe the most important factor has to be sound. Sometimes, however, cost is a very important limitation. Below, I delve into cost's contributing factors.

Many things contribute to the cost of an instrument; maker's reputation, wood quality, workmanship, condition, location, and yes, even appearance.

  • Maker's reputation: Perhaps an obvious conclusion, but even Stradivari's lousiest instrument, requiring massive restoration, will fetch a higher price than many modern makers' in perfect condition. Additionally, makers tend to fetch higher prices for their instruments posthumously. This trend tends to perpetuate the idea that older instruments are better than newer instruments. It is worth noting, however, that Stradivari's instruments were once new as well!

  • Wood quality: Most makers choose maple and spruce for their superior strength and resonance. Fine flaming and graining help to achieve the desired aesthetic and acoustic properties. Makers often seek wood that is grown in high altitude regions as the growing season is shorter, thus it produces a tighter grain that is ideal for tonewood. Makers have experimented over the years with other woods such as willow, poplar, hemlock, beech, fruitwoods, and pine, but keep coming back to maple and spruce as their consistency is unparalleled. Once the tone wood has been harvested, it still needs to be dried. Again, makers have experimented a great deal with this process, but air-drying still seems to garner the best results. 

  • Workmanship: Great makers throughout history have made instruments at different quality levels to cater to the needs of their customers. This is just the nature of business, as each maker needs to earn money to support their families-just like anyone else. To save cost and time, some makers have used a faster drying varnish or even fewer coats to cut down on production. They have also neglected using purfling or never finished smoothing out tool marks. Scrolls were often times thought of as superfluous so many makers scrimped while cutting them, thus leaving behind a less-than-perfect appearance even though the maker's skill level would have allowed them to finish it beautifully had they taken the time. An instrument of the finest level will have a fine varnish with superior craftsmanship. The instrument will be perfectly formed. Interestingly enough, though, even with inferior wood choices and less than perfect craftsmanship, some makers managed to create instruments that sound extraordinary.

  • Condition: Great instruments can be found in both new and old instruments. Old instruments are likely to have some condition issues over the years, but proper maintenance and/or restoration will ensure that value, and more importantly-sound quality, is not lost forever. Some condition issues severely affect the value or longevity while others are inconsequential. Soundpost cracks on the belly or back are quite damaging, while minor saddle cracks are hardly noticed. Likewise, neck issues and back cracks tend to be quite expensive to repair, thus their presence should cause concern. An older instrument with few minor cracks should cause little concern, but the more cracks that are present, the more chances that they will reopen or that the wood choice was inferior and thus caused cracks to open. Such instruments may be foreshadowing costly future repairs. 

  • Location: Just like real estate, location really matters. Instruments made in Italy have a certain mystique to them thus tend to fetch higher prices. Likewise, instruments purchased in big cities tend to fetch higher prices as the shop has more overhead to carry and a certain mystique to create. Although instruments bought in shops may cost more, you often pay for what you get. Reputable shops warrant the instruments they sell from any defect. Purchasing an instrument from a friend or out of the classifieds rarely carry the same assurances that one can find in a well-known shop. That being said, many great instruments have been found in odd ways, so let sound be your ultimate guide.

  • Appearance: The wood choice, workmanship, varnish, and condition all relate to the aesthetic value you place upon an instrument. And although instruments are meant to be heard, we all appreciate their visual beauty as well. One must decide whether they are keen to a shiny, new instrument or prefer one that looks as though it has been played for years. New and old instruments alike can fit the description of either shiny or antiqued. 

One must pay attention to all of the above details, but in the end, sound is what players are looking for. Ensure that the instrument you purchase sounds great under your ear and in a hall. Although it is true that instruments do open up over years of being played, you should never buy an instrument for what you think it will sound like in the future. Buy an instrument that sounds good to you now. If you don't like its sound now, stay clear. Beginners need to practice to get better, and a poor sounding instrument is not likely to get picked up as often as a great sounding instrument. Likewise, professionals and dedicated amateurs spend countless hours with their instruments - such dedication becomes tedious if one does not like the sound that they are producing.

When trying out an instrument it is important to try many things out before committing to the purchase. Below are some questions to ask one's self when trying out a new instrument:

  • What does it sound like on a piece I am great at performing?
  • What does it sound like on a piece I am working on, and would it make learning something easier or harder?
  • What does it sound like throughout its range (bottom to top scales)? And bottom to top on each string?
  • Do harmonics ring true?
  • Do I like its sound under my ear (when I am playing)?
  • How does the violin sound in a hall? Station trusted listeners in a front row and towards the back while you play on stage. This is often tricky- You want to pick an instrument that you like the sound of, so make sure your listeners agree with you on tonality and taste.
  • Do I like the way it looks?
  • Do I trust the people that I am considering buying this instrument from? 
  • Do I love this instrument? Really love it!?  Love the looks? Love the feel? Love the sound?
Come take a look at our videos of 'Violins: What's the Difference?' to hear a selection of violins ranging from inexpensive student models to higher quality professional instruments.

Also, you can take a look at  'String Instruments from the Metropolitan Museum of Art' to hear many instruments of the great masters. After all, the more instruments you hear, the more you will be able to hone in on exactly the sound that you want from your violin!

Happy hunting!!!

And, of course, we hope you'll want to play our instruments. You can see our instruments at


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