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 categories ;

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 :

General Guidelines

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 the globe.
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 favorable.
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 it.
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 opinion.
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 bow.
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 students.
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 qualities.

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 class.
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 ).




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Copyright 2000 Westbury Park Strings
Last modified: February 06, 2000