There are many different options for buying a violin, which include:
Music Shop - a general music retailer, offering a wide range of products for many different types of musical instrument.
Violin (String) Shop - a specialist music retailer, usually with in-house luthiers (violin repairer/maker), who have specific expertise in violins and violas (and usually cellos and double basses too).
Violin Dealer - a high-end specialist version of a Violin Shop (usually including luthiers). Dealers tend to trade from premium showrooms in expensive areas, or from their homes, don't stock beginner-level instruments, and mainly handle instruments worth tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars!
Online Store - an online version of either a music shop or a violin/string shop. Sometimes these are online-only stores, sometimes they are part of a retailer who also has an offline presence.
Private Seller - you can often find individual people wanting to buy and sell instruments, such as committed non-professional players who will advertise through local organisations and contacts, or by word of mouth.
The setup of a violin is crucial. This means making sure that it is correctly fitted out with the bridge, strings, pegs, fine tuners, and soundpost all in the correct positions and securely checked over by a good craftsman. For this reason, for learners just starting out, we would always recommend a violin shop as the best place to start. This allows you to be sure that an experienced professional has prepared your instrument, and that it is in good condition and won't cause you any problems in the first few weeks (apart from getting it in tune! more on that in a future lesson...!)
If you order a violin online, you might find that it comes without the bridge being set up properly, and that you still need to take it to a music shop to have it fitted out properly. Another problem is that many music shops are not string specialists, so although they will be happy to sell (or sometimes rent) a violin to you, they often won't have either the specialist in-house luthier services required, to be sure that the setup is right.
Also, without a sales specialist who understand the needs of violin players, you might end up being sold the wrong kind of chin rest or shoulder rest for your needs. So if you do choose to buy from a non-specialist retailer, make sure you are well-informed and that you know exactly what you are buying!
There are some retail channels that you should avoid completely. In the UK, where ViolinSchool's HQ is based, we often see instruments that people have bought online from Tesco (a major supermarket), and Argos (a catalogue-based high street / online retailer). These violins are cheap beginner-level instruments supplied with absolutely no specialist setup whatsoever, and they come with the worst possible quality strings, poor craftsmanship, and inferior-quality accessories.
More often than not, we find that learners choosing the very cheapest option will almost always get frustrated by the lack of quality, and either become demotivated because the violin doesn't produce the sounds they want, or have to then get a replacement violin (and end up spending more altogether). So don't make that mistake... at the cheapest end of the market, you really do get what you pay for!
Violins are generally either factory made (at the beginner / starter level), or handcrafted (from a few hundred dollars up to multi-million pound italian antiques!). Nowadays, some of the best factory instruments are very well made indeed, especially when they are hand-finished and set up by experienced luthiers.
If you're starting to play from the very beginning, then a 'beginner violin outfit' is probably more than adequate for the first few months (or even years!) of learning. This feature article explains all about what beginner outfits are, and what to look for, including some useful checklists:
When to Upgrade
A good principle is to start your learning with a basic instrument, and then upgrade when you feel that your playing is starting to be limited by your existing instrument. The more sophisticated the violin, the more 'tone colours' and types of sound you're going to be able to create from the sound.
Your imagination is the key here; if you can imagine it, you can refine your technique until you can create it. As well as acquiring the technique (which we're going to guide you through, later in this guide!) you also need to make sure that your violin has adequate capability for generating the sound that you're aiming for.
In the early months of learning, you won't need to worry about this, as you'll be focused on generating a beautifully smooth, consistent basic sound - for which a beginner outfit is more than adequate. But once you've mastered that and you begin to think more about expression and variety of tone production, then you'll want a more powerful, richer-sounding instrument to help you do that.
High end instruments
Violins are beautiful things, and there's a whole market in instruments that's aimed at the collector. Prices run quickly from thousands into tens of thousands, and onwards to hundreds of thousands(!) of dollars. The world of violin collecting and dealing is a strange and wonderful (and sometimes terrible) place, which can be endlessly fascinating - especially if you develop a love of the craft and the history too.
If you're already an experience player, you might well already be experimenting with this exciting world, and we'll touch on it more in the future... but it's important to keep the right perspective and priorities, and for that reason we recommend at this point in your learning journey, not to get too obsessed about the instrument itself.
Once your playing technique is solidly consistent and reliable, and your performance skills are secure and well-established, then you'll be in a much better position to make decisions about instruments at every end of the value spectrum!
Other Types of Violins
There are several sub-types of instrument that you may want to be aware of depending on the styles and genre that interest you. Although there's no fundamental difference between a fiddle and a violin - they're different names for the same instrument - the word 'fiddle' is more colloquially used in folk music circles, whereas 'violin' would be a more common name for an instrument that's set up for classical music.
Often, the difference between instrument sub-types can be in the setup; for example, people who specialise in playing Baroque music might talk about having a 'baroque violin', but what this often means is that the instrument has been set up with gut strings (instead of metal strings), and is tuned to a different pitch.
Depending on the context in which a violin or bow is being used, you might also find a variety of different materials being used (especially if the violin is electronic or amplified). Here's ViolinSchool's Simon Hewitt Jones trying out an early prototype of a '3D Printed Violin' in 2011:
How to Choose a Beginner Violin Outfit
Buying your first violin will probably seem a bit overwhelming. Before you have had a chance to really learn about the instrument, what you want from it and what you need, it is necessary to purchase a whole raft of equipment that may be totally unfamiliar. There is also the expense. It’s important not to make a costly mistake that may be detrimental to your progress and enjoyment of learning.
There is a huge range of ‘starter kits’ on the market, both in music and specialist violin shops and online. These present an all-in-one package comprising violin, bow, case, rosin and sometimes extras such as a dust cover. An influx of competitive products imported from China and Eastern Europe make for plenty of affordable options, and this broadening market means that the quality of student violins has risen in recent years. For a beginner, the simplicity of purchasing almost everything you need in one go can remove the first barrier to playing.
A sweet story about the famous violinist Fritz Kreisler explains how his talent was drawn into question because as he became famous he was able to play on the finest instruments. It also shows that a low cost student instrument can produce a quality sound.
One evening, Kreisler was due to perform a concert on a beautiful violin by Guarnerius, one of the foremost violinmakers of all time. He moved the audience to tears and joy with his playing that night, but as the applause died away, he lifted the violin above his head, brought it down and broke it across his knee. The audience gasped. Kreisler looked slowly around the hall and smiled. “Do not worry,” he said. “My Guarnerius is safe in my dressing room. I bought this violin today in a local store for only three dollars.”
Violin outfits are available with different specifications. Often the outfit pricing can represent significant savings over buying each element separately, with the value of the violin making up the majority of the price. The case and bow are more or less ‘thrown in’ to get you started. Some violin shops offer custom outfits, a discount on a case or a bow when you buy an instrument, or the chance to upgrade one or more items for a surcharge.
For aspiring violinists who do not have access to a specialist violin or music shop, the Internet offers plenty of choice. There is wisdom in the idea of starting with an inexpensive violin, developing skills and getting a feel for the instrument, then moving on to something better that matches your preferences and playing style. However, it is also true that, right from the outset, progress can be impeded or even utterly frustrated by poor equipment.
The main advantage of the beginner violin outfit is that almost everything you need arrives in one go. But be aware that not every aspect of the kit may be of the same quality. The main differences in quality and playability at this level are in set-up.
What to look for in a beginner outfit
The equipment should not create barriers to learning. Look for these fundamental things when choosing an outfit:
As you move to the higher price range, various aspects of the violin outfit will become more sophisticated. A mid range product will offer a higher quality bridge and tailpiece, with more attention to detail in the set-up. In this mid-range, be careful to select an instrument that offers better sound and playability, an even tone and good projection, not just refinement in looks.
What to expect from a high-end violin outfit
Outfits are excellent value, provided the violin is well set up. Many beginner outfits are supplied with minimal attention to the set-up, yet an instrument that is correctly adjusted will play and sound at its best. If you are buying online or remotely, it is worth enquiring if your supplier has workshop facilities and the skill to set up the violin. Professional alterations that will improve sound and playability include:
This work can only be undertaken by a qualified luthier but will make a big difference to the sound of the instrument.
Consider budgeting for a better bow
Often the bow that comes with the kit is serviceable, but sometimes this is not the case. A cheap bow can be of such poor quality that it is not worth the price of a rehair (the process by which worn-out hair is replaced). These bows are poorly balanced and difficult to control, draw a poor sound and warp easily. More expensive outfits will dedicate a larger portion of the cost to the bow.
A good bow can make a real difference in clarity, tone production, articulation and ease of use. A higher-spec outfit will come with a pernambuco or carbon fiber bow rather than the cheaper brazilwood option, but even this may be worth upgrading if it does not suit or do justice to the violin.
Quality strings make a big difference
A cheaper model is likely to be strung with low-cost steel core strings. These have a metallic, thin sound. Look for mid-cost aluminium-wound strings with a nylon or gut core. These will make a big difference to the sound.
Other things to note
It is worth buying new. A second-hand outfit is unlikely to be value for money, unless you are sure of the condition and set-up. It may require expenditure that would surpass the cost of a new outfit to make it playable.
The rosin that comes with the violin outfit is usually adequate, but as you progress it is worth looking at other products. Look for an amber coloured rosin that applies easily to the bow hair. Remember, when the outfit is new, the bow hair is unlikely to have any rosin on, and will take patience to prepare. It can help to score or scratch the shiny surface of the rosin before you first apply.
Most violin outfits do not include a shoulder rest, and those that do, the shoulder rest is often inadequate and poorly designed. So it's a good idea to consider purchasing a shoulder rest separately. Look for a strong rest with adjustable legs, and some flexibility. You need to be able to fit the rest to your violin and shape it to sit comfortably on your shoulder at a height that positions your chin correctly.
The shoulder rest, when used correctly, aids posture and mobility. A poorly fitted shoulder rest can actually impede progress.
When testing a violin you need to look for sound, playability and responsiveness, and budget. Get someone else to play the instrument for you. Listen to the sound. Even if you don't feel like you know what you're looking for, you can still listen really closely to the sound and just say with your gut instinct whether or not you like it.
Do a blind test. It's really useful if you play violins to someone without them looking, and get them to write down exactly what they think of each example (Exhibit A, Exhibit B, Exhibit C and so on). As you do this, think about how each violin feels under your fingers. Make sure that you make a note of the same instruments again, without saying which one is which. Then swap around.
Have the person the other person play the violins back to you whilst you listen without looking. Ask *them* to make a note of which ones they enjoyed the playability of as well. This way you're likely to get a very clear and well focused answer that you can believe without prejudicing yourself in any way.
When you're testing violins do remember to check for wolf notes, and also remember that the sound under the ear and the sound that you hear on the other side of the room can be very different. So make sure that when you're getting somebody to play the instrument to you that you're doing so from a distance not just close up.
People often forget about the importance of the bow because they're so busy thinking about the violin, but actually a good bow can make an enormous difference to your violin playing and really help you to get the most from your violin. Choose a bow to match your violin (So it's a good idea to start by looking for the violin and then try and look for the bow afterwards.
Balance is important. Does it shake? Do you feel well-balanced when the bow is playing. Is it too heavy or is it too light for you.
And off-the-string playing: does it bounce and work well off the string? If you're a beginner you really don't need to worry too much about this. This is more for advanced players. As a beginner you can just start with whichever bow comes in your beginner violin outfit but make sure that it is decently haired and is not wound too much in the wrong direction.