It’s that time of year again and my inbox has already received some messages from those hoping for guidance around purchasing a new violin, viola, or cello for a beginner on their holiday shopping list, or from one of my current private students with the budget to step up to a better instrument in the new year.
The search for any new instrument starts with a budget range. For violins, anything less then about $300 is generally not worth bothering with. Even if it says “Stradivarius” and looks old, most labels reporting such famous makers are fake and it's common for makers to antique new instruments to appear old. From there, the $500-600 range is usually a noticeable improvement in tone. For those with a higher budget, in my experience, the next steps up in quality happen around $1000-1500, $2500-2800, and then $5000 and beyond.
Violas and cellos are physically bigger of course, and therefore it usually costs more to reach comparable quality. Spending at least $500 on a basic, but hopefully playable viola, and $1000 for a beginner cello is to be expected.
Everything about playing violin family instruments is a challenge in the beginning, so especially for those with no playing experience, rather than struggle even more with an instrument that won’t stay in tune and is difficult for even a professional to play, going with a decent quality instrument that has been setup at a respected violin shop really helps the early learning stages.
Bows are also at least half the equation and the rule of thumb is to spend 1/4-1/3 of the price of the instrument on the bow. Anything less then around $80-100 for a violin bow is generally not that great. For more experienced students, I recommend finding an instrument you love, then searching for a bow that really brings that instrument to life, or helps balances its tone. Yes, bows have a tone all their own too, and different weights, different wood types versus carbon fiber, and even a round versus octagonal stick can effect the sound and playability.
Ideally, head to your local violin shop or take a trip to a larger city where you may have the choice of several shops. It’s best to call ahead, let them know your price range, and they will select instruments for you and have them all laid out when you arrive. Try at least a dozen instruments in your price range, and take 2-3 potential winners home for a trial. Play them in your space, play them for your teacher, and perhaps whittle your choice down to just one, or take them all back and continue your search. It’s rare for violin shops to not allow their customers to do this and no one should feel pressured to make a decision on the spot. Unfortunately, I wouldn’t expect the option of a home trial at a general music store, but 30 day trial periods are common for most music stores and online retailers. I tried at least 30 violins before I found mine, and I easily tried 100 bows over the course of an entire year to find the one that checked all the boxes for me.
If you’re a beginner and your teacher isn’t available to play the instruments for you, ask someone who works at the shop to play the instruments for you. It’s rare for someone working at a violin shop to not have at least some playing experience and are usually more than happy to help your process. While you may think you can’t possible tell the difference as a beginner, after hearing just a few instruments in a row, most remark on the differences they notice and quickly begin to identify qualities they prefer. An experience that may start off as daunting, usually ends up being fun and empowering.
If you don’t have any violin shops near you, try sharmusic.com or johnsonstrings.com. The former has a lot of decent beginner instruments and outfits (all-inclusive deals which include a case, a bow, rosin, etc.), while the latter specializes more in step-up instruments and bows. I don’t have any affiliation with wither of these shops, but my students and I have had good experiences with them over the years. Both offer home trials for instruments and bows, and trade-in programs when you’re ready to step up to the next level.
Finally, while many people ask for brand name recommendations, two instruments made by the same maker using the same model will sound different. Absolute consistency is impossible using natural materials, and like people, no two violins or bows sound or look exactly the same. I’ve had many experiences where a student lands on a specific violin, but something isn’t quite right, so we decide to try a few more of the same make and model. The student is often surprised at the differences, from tone, to the grain of the wood, to the finishing, and even the playability, though the differences are usually more subtle then between two instruments by two different makers, or a new versus an old instrument, even by the same maker. Again, I think it’s best to try as many instruments as possible in your price range and go from there. Your ear is your best asset.
Of course, instruments and bows made of carbon fiber or an electric instrument do offer consistency, but we have to trade the natural sound and resonance of wood. Carbon fiber technology is improving all the time however, and while carbon fiber violins are still fairly pricey (around $2250 for a Glasser, or $5539 for Luis & Clark), carbon fiber bows, with prices starting at around $50, can be a great option for students who aren't yet ready to purchase an expensive high quality wood bow, and/or who need something fairly indestructible.
This is an overview, but for more specific advise on this topic, check out my 2020 post Thoughts on purchasing a modern versus older violin or viola and my 2010 Violin Geek Podcast episode Tips for renting or purchasing a playable instrument.
Happy shopping and practicing!