Buying an Instrument
So you have decided to upgrade your instrument or your bow, or maybe you're a
first time buyer. Whatever price range you have in mind, and however excited you
may be, remember that what you are buying will remain with you for many years to
come, so rule number one : take your time. We will start with some generic
advice, and then something more detailed, splitting up our purchase into 3
|Cheap ( but functional ) instruments for beginners
|Mid-range instruments for serious amateurs
|An instrument for the professional.|
Before we go into detail, however here are some things to consider whatever
instrument you are looking for :
|Read up about instruments. "
The Strad " , a monthly magazine ( published in UK by
NOVELLO & CO ) always have articles on instruments, and it is filled
with ads. from dealers all over the world. You can find something on all
instruments, from buying a student kit, to a priceless old Italian violin.
|Simply look up string instrument dealers in the Yellow pages.
You can always visit a shop just to get an idea of what's on offer and what
choice is available. Even if you're given a few instruments to try out for a
week, remember you are never under any obligation whatsoever to buy.
|Give a slight preference to a big, long-ago Established Violin
Shop, as they have a reputation to maintain, and are guaranteed not
to sell a "fake" or defective instrument. They may be a little
more expensive, but you will have the assurance that you are not paying
completely the wrong price for an instrument. Also, buying from large shops,
such as W.E.Hill's or Ealing Strings in London is practically a guarantee in
itself. If W.E.Hill's say this viola an early 1900s English Maker and is
worth £ 1000 then whether or not this turns out to be true, it will be
worth at least £ 1000 ( and probably more with a name ). Buying from a
large firm is probably even safer than having a certificate of authenticity.
|Get a second opinion. If you have an instrument out on
trial, see what your teacher thinks. Perhaps even pop into your local violin
maker's shop, and ask for their "informal" opinion. If you're
buying a professional instrument, you may well decide to take it to an
expert, who will use "expertise" to assess the claims made as to
who is the author of the instrument. For a fee, they may also write out a
"certificate of authenticity", though there are not many
establishments who still do this. Besides, you may even be charged a small
fee for an "informal" opinion on an instrument, especially
nowadays, unless you are on very friendly terms with the dealer concerned.
|Play your new instrument extensively, and try to take it home on
trial before making up your mind. The acoustics in the shop may
make any violin sound good. The weather or humidity can effect the readiness
of an instrument. You may have a cold or blocked ears, and find your hearing
is having an off-day. Your right arm may be squeezing the bow, after playing
tennis all afternoon the day before. At any rate, you need to play your new
instrument and be consistently happy with it even after 3 or 4 days, playing
in different conditions, rather than happy for just the first hour.
|Very often the sound of a new violin will just be different from what you
have. Just trying it out, you will perceive this unusual tone
as quite striking at first. This is an initial impact that will last just a
few hours, until you have grown used to the new tone. Then you must ask
yourself is the tone consistent and uniform throughout the whole 4 octave
range ? Are there any weak sounding registers ? Also consider asking someone
else to play your new instrument, and listen to it from the outside. ( A
very objective test )
|Don't just listen to what you're buying : Look at it. Put
your glasses on and take it near the window for some light : Any cracks or
repairs visible ? Ask about them, and ask how well have the repairs have
been carried out. Examine the instrument all over. Is there a hole under the
chin rest ? ( We know a true story when this was once the case !! ) Is the
neck lined up with the central line of the instrument ? Here are some
diagrams to show how to check for the alignment of the neck. It applies to
any violin or viola.|
Line your eye up and
look along the length of the white line. The centre of the scroll should line up
with the back plate ( the white line ) This proves that the projection
of the neck and fingerboard is correct.
The photo on the
right : Every violin should have a correctly aligned neck. In
this case where the two halves of the back plate meet should align with the
centre of the neck / scroll. The cost of resetting a neck must easily be £ 500.
Avoid buying a violin with an incorrectly centered neck.
|If you're buying an instrument and have some playing experience, check
that the string length and the proportions of the fingerboard conform
with regular measurements. In other words, on a cello, if your hand
touches the body of most instruments in fourth position, beware of buying a
cello with which your hand is some way off from touching the body in 4th
position, as the instrument does not conform to standard measurements.
Obviously you need some experience to sense this difference, but the
inconvenience is that it will take you longer to grow accustomed to this
instrument, and when you do, it will take re-adjusting back to get used to
standard measurements again. When the length of the vibrating string is
longer than normal, you will also find the distances between your fingers
may stretch them a little more than comfort allows.
|Sizes : Violins :
To measure up your size, you should be able to fit your
middle finger around the outside of the scroll. If you can reach this, the
idea is that you will certainly be comfortable reaching the neck. Reaching
the tip of the bow is not essential, but a bow which is too short limits the
freedom and development of the right hand. If you are a lady, you may find a
3/4 size more comfortable. The famous Korean woman violinist, Kyung Wha
Chung uses a 3/4 size violin, as Koreans usually have short 4th fingers. We
will post a table of sizes for children soon, or you can write us email for
a specific query. Though a table may give a rough indication, 8 year old
children can vary considerably in size, especially over different regions of
|Factory violins : Not all countries follow the same sizes.
A 1/4 size German violin may be the same size as a 1/2 size Chinese. In
fact, Chinese children are smaller than German children. Korean instruments
are closer to Chinese proportions. Again the only reliable system is to
measure up your child with an instrument, possibly having all the different
size with which to make a comparison.
|Any crack on the front plate ( or belly ) of the
instrument which is located where the sound post lies is dangerous, and to
be avoided. This may be more common in Cellos than in Violins, and is
probably the cause of an unfortunate accident. The weakening of the front
plate near the sound post should dissuade you totally from it. Go for a
clean, health instrument, without patches or cracks. Small cracks just below
the f holes, or near the chin rest are not critical at all, and in fact they
are common in an old instrument.
|A label on an instrument is only a label. It may even
have been taken out of another instrument, in which case no label at all is
a much safer proposition. The same applies to stamped bows. In fact 10,000
people claim to own a Stradivarius, yet Stradivarius only made 2000
instruments. Tourte never stamped his bows. Many Lamy French bows are German
copies. Many low cost German violins also have Famous Italian labels
designed deliberately to mislead the buyer. If a label is authentic, and
belongs even to a third rate maker, it does mean that the instrument, as an
investment will have a more positive future than an anonymous instrument.
However, if you've taken a special liking to a non-labeled instrument or bow
which seems to perform very adequately, then you can be sure the price is
|A modern instrument purchased from its very maker may be
a safer buy than a antique of uncertain origin. Modern makers are often
charging for the number of hours work put in. There is no middleman who
charges a commission to the seller, and the overall price may seem very
favorable. The maker may supply the instrument with a certificate, but as
you may have been on a waiting list to get your instrument, you may also
have been in to see its progress, and there can be no doubt about its
history. If you are ordering an instrument from a maker you can probably
specify a model and perhaps a few measurements to consider in the setup,
depending on the size of your hands.
|A special musical instrument insurance, in the UK
provided by British Reserve, is a good idea for peace of mind. Nevertheless,
keep your instrument with you always, and do not leave it in your brand new
porsche. Insure your instrument for the amount it would cost you to replace
|Beware of a dealer who effectively only gives you one choice.
Maybe he wants to get rid of that instrument. In such a case you will not be
able to compare the instruments for sound, and in an unfamiliar environment
and unfamiliar acoustics, you may feel lost as to what you should be
listening to. Play your best piece by heart, testing each string, and notice
if any string in particular has a weaker tone in comparison with the others.
Bring a friend, even a non musician just to listen, and ask them their
|When buying a bow you will invariably be attracted to one
with a similar balance to your previous bow. Get used to the new bow, and
test it for it bass quality sound, its string holding ( like road holding )
abilities, its spring like qualities, its sound, its lightness and its
condition. Again look carefully for repairs or damage.|
Group 1 : Cheap Factory instruments
|Chinese instruments are the cheapest available. Stentor II instruments are
superior to Stentor I instruments, and more recently these Chinese factories
have become privatized. They are also having to compete with each other, so
quality has sky-rocketed during these last 3 years.
|Chinese instruments sometimes go through a process of selection before
they are modified and fitted with a new setup ( fitted bridge, new strings,
adjusted fingerboard, nylon tailpiece loop, new nut, sound post fitting
checked and a fine tuner on the E string ) The end result is an instrument
twice as good at twice the price, but an instrument that can be considered a
minimum level of quality.
|Most Chinese bows are not good enough, and better replaced with a Korean
|Hungarian ( such as Zeller ) and Czech instruments are altogether in a
different class from Chinese instruments. Many of these are factory made and
then hand finished. They may also be made in series. ( Something halfway
between factory and hand made ).
|Korean and German instruments are considerably better too and well, well
worth while if your budget can stretch.
|Recently we bought a Chinese Stentor I 1/4 size Cello which was much
better sounding than its identical twin which we also tried out. There is no
logic in why one factory instrument should sound better than another, except
that the margin of error in construction is quite large, and therefore one
violin may resonate more than another of identical fabrication.
|Factory instruments go back to the turn of the century, and some of these
instruments have the additional advantage that the wood and the sound has
matured. However they remain factory instruments.|
Group 2 : Better Instruments
|A hand made instrument, perhaps by a young apprentice in a workshop in
Cremona, Italy is a wonderful step forward from the factory type instrument.
The cost of such a violin may be £ 1000 sterling. When the pupil has
graduated, his instruments may sell for 3 times the price.
|There are many such apprenticed students working with established makers
all over the world. Search, inquire, search and inquire.
|An anonymous English violin from around the turn of the century may be
another alternative at around £ 1000 pounds sterling. Such an instrument
was recently bought from a famous violin shop in Bristol by one of our
|Failing one of these instruments, as a last resort, anything hand made yet
cheap, perhaps from Eastern European countries ( Hungary ) or from Germany (
though many German instruments appear quite ugly, some may have a certain
volume of sound ) is better than the factory mass produced instrument.
German bows are the ideal intermediate quality or serious student quality
piece of equipment. They are robust, straight, and of firm playing
Group 3 : Instruments for the Pro
|A well know Italian Luthier from the 1700s would be the most desirable
instrument to any pro. That coupled with a French bow from the 1800s.
Condition is important in each case, as is a good amount of experience in
judging and buying. Buy from a reputable firm, as authenticity is important.
Auctions by Sotheby's, Christies and Phillips usually sell at half the price
of the well know dealers, but you have to choose quickly, though you are
allowed book viewings to try the instruments out before the Auction.
|Well know Italian 1800s or less well 1700s Makers are next on the list.
Perhaps even a superb French Instrument from the 1800s could match this
category, at a lesser price too. Some old Tyrolean makes are also first
|England has also produced fine instruments, and are second only to the
French in bows. However, preference will usually be given to a known Italian
Luthier, even if 3rd rate ! Similarly a 3rd rate French bow is still a
French bow, and as such will hold its value considerably in the future.
|Lastly, some of our famous contemporary makers have been compared to the
Old Italian Masters, though it seems a modern instrument ( anything from
1900 on ) could mature further with time. The best makers now use good wood,
well seasoned and dried even for several decades ! Good living Luthiers
exist all over the World today, and standards have become more level too
between different geographical areas. Good English and French bows are
becoming extremely expensive, and a minimum quality bow for a pro might be a
W.E.Hill bow ( and violin ).|