The violin is an essential staple of orchestral and classical music, but of course that is not the extent of its place in music as a whole. The violin can be used as a somber, beautiful accompaniment to just about any genre, but it can also be used as a ferociously fast fiddle in bluegrass or folk music. Since the violin has so many possible applications and price ranges, we’ve compiled an article for you today on what you need to find your perfect sound and what to look for when shopping for a violin.
Who are you shopping for?
This is an important question to consider when shopping for your new instrument, as violins typically come in three standard categories: Student, Intermediate, and Professional. Of course, there are other classifications certain luthiers may use to describe their specific violins, but the three basic categories will make shopping easier for you in the beginning stages of learning the instrument. To help you better understand what category of violin will suit your needs, we’ve broken them down further here:
Categories: Student, Intermediate, Professional
Mostly due their price, Student violins will typically come with lower-quality tonewoods, less man-made woodwork, and plastic components such as chinrests and tuning pegs. Despite these shortcomings, Student violins can be an excellent start for the average beginner who is not sure how long they will stick with the instrument, and does not need all of the bells and whistles of a more advanced instrument.
It is also worth noting that student violins can often sound up to par with professional violins if chosen wisely. Proper care and maintenance also plays a pivotal role in the overall tonal quality of the instrument.
If you’ve outgrown the Student violins and need something with more flare, but you’re not quite ready to cough up the money for a Professional violin yet, then that lands you in the category of Intermediate. An intermediate violin is typically suited for a student who is advancing their skills. In Intermediate violins, you will find higher-quality and aged tonewoods not known to Student violins.
Although Intermediate violins are assembled from quality woods and components, they usually contain at least some machine-made aspects and therefor be less desirable to a lot of players. The decision is then left up to you, the buyer, to decide if price or quality is more important. We’ve done our best in this guide to give you the best of each, and find you a quality instrument for your budget.
Professional (sometimes referred to as Master) violins will be constructed from cold-grown and dried wood, hand-built and assembled by a master luthier. These instruments will contain only the highest-quality tonewoods down to the very tailpiece. Being hand-built and containing only quality materials leads Professional violins to be in a hefty price-range. The price of the instruments, however, is greatly rewarded by their inimitable sound.
Investing in a professional or master violin can be an excellent choice, as they tend to retain their value (sometimes even gaining value) if well-maintained. This means that you can purchase the instrument knowing you could very well make it back if you were ever to sell it.
Before we move on, keep in mind that these categories are only guidelines to help your search. Keep your eyes open and you could find a well-priced, quality violin that could be considered Intermediate in the Student category.
Now to tackle a question that every new violinist is presented with:
Should I Rent or Buy?
If you’re a student who’s just starting out, you’ve more than likely already considered this question. Although at first it may seem like a more cost-effective solution to rent, there are a few things to keep in mind about buying your new instrument.
- Making monthly rental payments will often add up to more than what you could have paid to own it. And that’s exactly the problem with renting; you won’t own it after you stop paying.
- If you take care of the instrument you purchased, it will typically retain its value for resale. This is beneficial for the beginning violinist in two ways. If you decide you don’t want to continue playing, you can make at least the majority of your money back. If you do want to continue playing, then you can trade your instrument for something of higher quality, using the money you’ve already invested.
- When renting a violin, the payments you are making are only for the month you have paid. This means that you are not investing in any type of ownership over the instrument.
- Rented violins will usually be refurbished, meaning their components will tend to be worn, and the strings will not have the same brilliance as a new set.
- You are liable to any damaged sustained by a rented instrument, potentially making it even more costly in the end.
What should I look for in my new violin?
Thankfully for the beginner, the construction of a violin is fairly straightforward. The most important components to inspect are the body and tailpiece at the bottom, and the pegbox and neck on the top.
The key factors that determine each violin’s tone and playability are the quality of its tonewoods and the skill with which it is constructed.
Types of Tonewood
The type and quality of the wood used to build a violin is the most important factor in the instrument’s particular sound. While most violins use the same types of tonewood—spruce tops, and maple necks, backs and sides—the quality of the wood varies, which is reflected in the price differences between instruments.
The top of the violin body is its soundboard—the wood that amplifies the sound produced by the resonating strings. Spruce has been a favorite tonewood for violin soundboards for centuries because it is naturally both stiff and dense. It’s strength means it can be delicately carved but still maintain its shape, while its density creates better resonance than more porous woods.
The quality of the spruce is a significant part of what determines the price of the instrument. There are several species of spruce that are used for violin tops, and some players prefer one over the others. Trees that grow in colder climates produce denser, more resonant, and thus more desirable spruce wood. The longer a block of spruce is allowed to age, the drier and stronger it becomes. So a piece of spruce grown at high altitude and seasoned for decades before carving will produce a superior top wood.
A further consideration is the beauty of the grain. The finest spruce will have beautiful flame-like figuring. Finely crafted violins typically employ beautifully book-matched pieces of spruce for the top that are meticulously joined to create an attractive pattern.
Similarly, not all maple is created equal. The back, sides, and necks of premium-quality violins are crafted from tightly grained wood that has been aged then carved with great precision.
Other woods on a violin will help determine it’s durability, sound, and value. The fingerboard, for example, is preferably made of ebony, but economy violins may use less expensive wood. Some instruments may also have alloy tailpieces and/or plastic chin rests and lesser-quality bridges.
The quality of the violin’s finish also usually reflects its price. Finely crafted violins are finished with exceedingly thin coats of varnish and carefully polished between coats. Varnishes contain pigments that give the instrument a wonderful patina while also bringing out the beauty of the wood’s underlying grain patterns.
Violins come in nine sizes. Adults—generally from age 11 and older—will use a standard, full-sized violin. For children, there are also 3/4, 1/2, 1/4, 1/8, 1/10, 1/16 and 1/32 violins. The full-sized violin is also referred to as a 4/4 size.
There are two ways to measure a young player for a violin. With the student’s left arm fully extended away from his or her body, measure from the base of the neck to either the wrist or the center of the palm. If your child has a violin instructor, you may want to ask which method the instructor prefers. The neck-to-wrist measurement will indicate the most comfortable size for the student. The neck-to-palm measurement will determine the largest instrument your child should play.
If you are unsure which measurement strategy to use, or your child’s measurement falls between two sizes, consider how fast he or she will grow into an instrument that is slightly too large, as opposed to how fast he or she will outgrow one that is just a little too small.
Acoustic vs. Electric Violins
The traditional acoustic violin stretches four strings from tuning pegs to a tailpiece, over a bridge made of maple that transfers sound vibrations to the soundboard.
While there are electric pickups that can be fitted to an acoustic violin, a true electric violin has built-in pickups to amplify its sound. To avoid feedback caused by resonance in the violin’s hollow body, electric violins usually have solid bodies, and often have minimalistic designs to reduce weight.
An acoustic violin produces warm, rounded tone thanks to the natural resonance of its tonewoods. The electronic signal generated by an electric violin can be tweaked and enhanced, but it will generally produce a brighter, more raw sound than its acoustic counterparts. Classical and folk musicians tend to prefer acoustic instruments, while rock and jazz musicians lean more toward electric violins. Thanks to their plug-and-play capability, electric violins are a good choice for musicians who play with amplified bands.
Still not sure which is best for you?
If you’re shopping for a new player, consider the style of music they prefer or will play the most. If your teenager, for example, is learning classical violin, but really likes the look of an electric violin, they will likely be more motivated to actually play an electric one (and he will be able to practice very quietly). Acoustic and electric violins have similar playing dynamics, so transitioning from one to the other is not too difficult.
Benefits of buying online
Although you may be thinking that such an intimate, and often expensive purchase would best be made in person, there are a few things to consider about buying your instrument online.
- The first and most obvious reason is price. Browsing online gives you the option of comparing prices and applying filters to find the best instrument for you at the best price.
Now that you’ve learned the nuances of all sorts of violins, your decision should be much easier to make with your newfound knowledge. So without further ado, I present to you the best violin options available for your budget.