Q&A – Beginner Violin Shopping Guide

Q:

If I decide to get a violin and mess around with it…

My first thought was to check local pawn shops, but I'm not sure what signs of “quality” or brands to look for – I might end up with something shoddy or discouraging in some other way.

Do you have suggestions regarding where I might get a decent quality violin for not a whole lot of money? (Especially if I later end up wanting to plug it into some electronics.)

Or should I just go dirt-cheap at first, see how it works for me, and then upgrade later?

Money isn't super-tight at the moment, but I don't want to spend more than necessary.

– Ben S

A:

Hey Ben,

The instrument you choose is going to make a huge difference in how much you enjoy your first steps toward playing. A lot of people have come to me saying that they've tried violin and just couldn't get anywhere. They were ready to give up, feeling like there was something wrong with them, when in reality they were working with a violin that was nearly impossible to create a pleasant sound with. Many violins at the entry level price range are literally unplayable even though they may look like a violin. The availability of these online has sadly turned into a widespread phenomenon, and these types of “instruments” have been nicknamed “VSO”s which stands for Violin Shaped Object. Looks like a violin, but it really isn’t!

I don't say this to be discouraging. Rather, I want to encourage you to take your time and be careful choosing instrument. To aid you in your quest, I've put together this Beginner Violin Shopping Guide. Hope it helps!

Price Range

Resist the urge to “go dirt-cheap at first” — your hunch is right that a cheap violin could easily be discouraging.

That said, you shouldn’t have to break the bank for your first violin. I've found that $450 for a violin outfit complete with bow and case is the realistic entry level price for something that is good enough to learn on. Any less than that is highly suspect (unless it's some kind of great deal from a friend).

I found the best thing I could recommend for a quality beginner violin and put it for sale on my website.

This is a great sounding violin for the price, sold by my favorite violin shop, Terra Nova Violins in San Antonio, TX. Many of my students have ordered these, and love them. I recommend this shop because my friends there will test drive it for you. My first few violins were chosen with a lot of help from my teacher, because it's just really hard to tell what’s good when you don't know how to play yet.

If your budget isn’t in the $450 range, your best alternative is renting. It costs $15-$20 per month to rent a violin of comparable quality, and a portion of the rental fee goes toward your future purchase. It's a fantastic way to give things a try without a huge investment. That said, you still have to make sure the rental violin is a good quality instrument.

Go to a dedicated violin shop, because general music stores that sell guitars and/or high school band instruments tend to have very poor violins to rent. Once again I recommend calling Terra Nova Violins at 210-239-4700. Tell them Jenny sent you! They will get you set up with a great violin for about $20/month and will ship it to you for free. They take excellent care of their customers.

Now that I’ve (hopefully!) convinced you that your first violin should not be the “bargain basement” variety, let’s talk about how to get the most bang for your moderate buck.

How To Know You’re Looking at a VSO

Ah, the dreaded “Violin Shaped Object.” Looks like a violin. Might even smell like a violin. Certainly doesn’t sound like a violin. Here are a few dead giveaways:

Bridge Feet

Look at the photo below (the VSO is on the right). The feet of the bridge of the VSO are thick and rectangular. Also notice that the curve of the bridge is symmetrical. This is a blank bridge that has not been set up. The chunky rectangular feet do not efficiently transfer the vibration to the top of the violin so it will be easier to squeak and the sound you produce will generally be thin. The even curve will make it hard to play the E string without hitting the A unintentionally, which is very frustrating, and playing on D and G strings will be weird too. Not to mention, if a violin is sold with a bridge that looks like this, there is a good chance the rest of the violin is junk.

beginner violin shopping guide Violin_bridge_comparisonIn contrast, the bridge on the left has been carved and customized by an experienced luthier. Notice the feet are curved and very thin. These have been masterfully customized by a luthier to fit the specific violin. The curve has been artfully shaped to allow easy string changes, including a steeper slope down toward the E string. There is a good chance that you are looking at a decent instrument if this kind of attention has been given to the bridge set up.

Fingerboard

The VSO fingerboard can be made of a soft wood and painted black to imitate ebony. Look under the fingerboard for gaps in the paint. A real violin will be solid black underneath because it is solid ebony.

Purfling

“Purfling” is a fancy word for the very thin strip of inlaid wood around the edge of the body of the violin. Purfling protects the violin body from temperature changes and is a sign of good craftsmanship. VSOs do not have purfling, but rather might have a thin strip of paint to imitate purfling.

Tuning Pegs

A VSO’s tuning pegs can be made of a softer wood and often are not fitted properly to the instrument. This makes it very easy for them to slip. If your violin, or the one you are looking at, goes constantly out of tune, there’s a good chance it’s a VSO.

Strings

Cheap strings sound tinny and harsh. The good quality strings that come with a good violin cost $25-$50 per set and this is part of the value you get when buying something good.

BSO

Only thing as frustrating as a VSO is a BSO: “Bow Shaped Object.” Ironically, BSOs often are not bowed enough and will appear somewhat straight. Or it will bow in the wrong direction curving side to side. You can also sometimes notice sloppy connections where the hair meets the bow. It’s amazing, but a bow is just as important as the violin! If you encounter one of these objects I suggest using it for backyard baseball or as a backscratcher, but minimize trying to use it to learn violin!

Location, Location, Location

The store you buy from makes a difference. I haven’t found any online dealers I can recommend wholeheartedly. To be fair, I don't have extensive experience here. I had a $1500 violin from “reputable online dealer” Shar before I found my trusty local shop, Terra Nova Violins. The one imported by Terra Nova sounded worlds better and cost only $1000. Plus the one from Shar strangely had this tacky finish that never fully dried. After that experience I've gone local and never looked back. (The Shar one was good, not a VSO, but just not nearly as good as the less expensive one imported by Terra Nova.) My theory about why quality standards for online violin shops are inconsistent is that they know they can get away with selling the less desirable instruments of the bunch without having repercussions in their local community.

Also avoid music stores that specialize in guitars or school band instruments – their violin selection is likely to be a gorgeous array of VSOs.

Signs of Quality and “Good Brands”

Unfortunately, I don’t have a perfect answer for you here. It's not like a guitar where you can buy a good brand and know what you're getting. This is because it's relatively easy to mass produce a good quality guitar. Not so for violin! You can't tell what you will get based on brand name alone until you get into the very high price ranges of makers.

It’s easy to give a checklist for spotting a VSO (what not to buy), but the only way I know to get the very best for your money is to use a personal connection. Shop extensively with an experienced violinist or find a dedicated violin shop that you trust. I trust my friends at Terra Nova Violins the most, so I send people there. Another good way to find the best violin shop local to you is to call your nearest symphony and ask where the symphony members go.

Good luck!

Keep me posted,

Jenny

p.s. If you want to read an in-depth discussion about the pitfalls of less expensive instruments, complete with photos, here’s a very thorough article I’ve found on the topic.

27 thoughts on “Q&A – Beginner Violin Shopping Guide

  1. Good article. I’m not trying to plug anyone but, I bought my acoustic violin from Pierre Holstein (aka,Fiddlerman). It’s from GCV violins and the bow is sandlewood from Jon Paul. The violin has powerful projection and a beautiful tone. As always, glad to hear from such a pretty lady. Best wishes. Keith

  2. Definitely take Jenny’s advice and go to a local luthier/player-owned and managed shop. If there is not one in your area, then deal online with Jenny’s favorite shop in San Antonio. I’ve literally spent hundreds of hours researching new and antique instruments online, in music stores, and in specialty shops with both violin and bow makers. In the specialty shops I was always treated royally (yes), and allowed to test drive their most cherished (expensive) instruments and bows and compare them to lower end stuff and everything in between – and was never pressured to buy a single thing. From research and experience, I can attest that the shop and instruments Jenny has recommended all have the the highest ratings in their class; and the overall quality of the recommended instruments is truly the most bang you can get for your money.

  3. Thanks for the great info, you are not only talented but also beautiful! I wish you and your band would come down to the Louisiana Renaissance Fest, we would love to see you perform live.
    Thank you and keep up the great work,
    Your fan,
    Larry

  4. Jenny, I’ve been fiddling for about 4 years now, and I know I still have much to learn about violins. I was fortunate and had a lot of good help getting started with a violin (and not a VSO), but I sure wish I’d had access to all the good advice you give here. This is an excellent source for others at the same stage I was at a few years ago.

  5. Hmm, I’ve only had good experiences with Shar. Plus, they let you try multiple instruments for free before buying, so if they’re not good enough, send them back!

    • Hi…Yes to Josh’s recommendations for the Wittner fine tune pegs…they are made out of hi-impact black dull composite material and replace the ebony pegs. These need to be fitted by a luthier and run about $225 installed in the violin out of our shop, Bob’s Violins and Bows in the San Diego area. The tuning mechanism is inside the barrel and tuning is fast and easy. Plus, they save the pegbox walls from wearing out and spliting.
      We have had to re-setup many of Shars instruments…nuts and bridges not shaped correctly or too hi. As for Fiddlerman, that is a joke. He just sells expensive, inexpensive China and Romania instruments. They too have lots of setup issues. Best to go to a Violin shop for instruments, setups and repairs….like Jenny has mentioned. You get what you pay for!
      Shakauvm, one of the problems with buying from big online stores is that you have an inexperienced player who does not know about professional setups…especially professional bridges, soundposts and nuts…all that are shaped and measured correctly. People don’t find out about these until later down the fiddle road…then it’s too late except to spend more money out and take it to a shop to have it setup correctly in the first place.
      This is of course our humble opinion and own experience and training here at our shop.

      • I WHOLEHEARTEDLY AGREE!!! So nice to hear from you guys here. I’ll have to come visit you next time I’m in San Diego.

  6. Great article Jenny. My husband is a violin maker here in SD, Ca. He cautions against music stores for the same reason you mention and also the fact that Music Stores do not have trained luthiers…so never buy/rent or have them setup an instrument, even a VSO. Your wasting your money. The instrument will be so discouraging to learn on.
    If you find/buy an instrument from a “friend”…take it to a violin shop for setup and new strings….you will be amazed at what a professional setup can do and how it will help your beginner learning curve. Enjoy your violin journey.

  7. Fantastic read as always.

    I got a VSO to start with and had pretty much every issue you described. Hair in the bow came out, sound post dislodged, bridge wasn’t cut properly, the black paint on the finger board wore off, the tuning pegs weren’t fit properly and kept going out of tune, and the E-string snapped.
    So a $70 VSO, cost +$50 in new strings, and +$30 to get the pegs and bridge and sound post fixed. I paid more to fix it than to get it. You wouldn’t want that with a car.

    But that experience has made me appreciate just how gosh darn nice the violin you sourced for me from Terra Nova Violins is to play. I would also suggest the Wittner geared tuning pegs are worth every penny.

  8. very nice Jenny, to help us… take my thanks and my heart… but, how choose violin with best sound? i think, if you hit the box, producing a better echo. well i hope so…

    • Such a great question yet so hard to answer in a blog! My violin teacher and knowledgable friends at violin shop taught me to hear the differences in tone. At the price range we are all talking about of less than $5,000 there is a lot of trade-off and personal preference involved. One may sound great under your ear but not project as well or vice versa and so on. Some people like them bright and crisp and some like dark and mysterious. I like a magical combination of both and Terra Nova helped me find that somehow. I don’t know any fool proof test besides spending a lot of time playing and listening to many fiddles to learn what you like.

  9. Well, I like to think anything that makes a sound can be used as an instrument. So my VSO I picked up new in the early 70s for $50 was ok as far as that theory goes. On the other hand a scratchy violin wears you down eventually so I didn’t make much progress. I tried one at an antique shop for $200 a few years ago that was sweet, but didn’t have the means or time to invest at the time. A couple of years ago I found a Chinese made Menzel at the Ottawa Folklore center for $200 and since I trust them and was happy with the sound and feel I got it and thanks in part to Jenny I am getting some nice music out of it. The value of my original VSO was that it taught me what I didn’t want in a violin, or at least gave me a point of reference, in addition to allowing me to get used to holding one.

    So I guess my point is I wouldn’t buy an expensive violin as a beginner without some experience or other trusted guidance. But you do want a decent sound out of it.

    Now if I could only get my thick fingers to fit between the strings better…

  10. After posting my little bit I was musing about my fiddling experience and remembered by worst nightmare: slipping tuning pegs. Nothing to me is a as frustrating as not being able to get those things to stick. I tried chalk, wax, brute force. I finally cracked the wood using the last technique. Luckily it was my VSO, which gave me an excuse to buy a new violin. eventually. So far so good with the tuning pegs.

    Ray (or Rae if you prefer)

  11. Ray…all you have to do is push and turn the peg at the same time…no brute force either. Weather will change and cause the wood to shrink or swell….wood on wood…go figure. : >) Sometimes it’s not the pegs but the holes in the pegbox that are out of round…luthier work for sure.
    Diane and Bob…Bob’s Violins and Bows, SoCal

    • Hi…to my ear and personal preference…they sound hollow and muted. A good bow will help, as all violins and bows are synergistic…so you have to match the violin and the bow. Perhaps, a hi end carbon fiber bow, example, Jon Paul or Coda, would sound the best. You would just have to try them and see and hear.
      Diane and Bob
      Bobs Violins and Bows, SoCal

    • I am more traditional in my taste and would have to agree with Diane and Bob on this one. I like the warmth of wood. -Jenny

      • I would never want a carbon fiber violin. I totally agree that wood is more warm and besides, I don’t see carbon fiber mellowing like wood throughout the years playing it. I do have a couple of carbon fiber bows for my electric violin but just wood bows for my acoustic,who I named Mairead. Sorry Jenny, I had a crush on her before I saw you but, you’re still beautiful and sweet.

  12. Resist the temptation to buy a violin on Ebay unless you have the guiding hand of Providence and an expert to help you choose. I bought a couple of VSO’s from Ebay, one of which I paid way too much for. After much research and some guidance I was able to purchase a Stefan Petrov Superior Violin off Ebay which sounds fantastic and is easy to play. I got a really good deal on it but when I factor in the losses from the previous duds I bought I really didn’t save money. As far as bows go, I would recommend the Wang Bow website. They are handmade Chinese bows that are masterfully done. I doubt anyone anywhere can beat the cost per value/quality they offer.

  13. Jenny et al, great info and community. As you know Jenny I bought a VSO and thank God I found you before this terrible “instrument” blindsided my interest in learn to play the violin. I wish I had found you earlier, but you came along soon enough to help me. I wish it was possible to have ALL budding violinist read this article before they buy an instrument. Thankfully my VSO was not expensive and I may be able to sell it to a used equipment store and recoup some of my cost. But, even if I have to make firewood out of it, it would be worth it, as least I would bet some warm from the fire. And now that I have a quality Terra Nova rental I am on my way to realizing my dream. Thanks Jenny!

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