Buying a used violin can be an overwhelming experience due to the large number of variables involved in the purchasing process. The articles in this 2 part series will help take the confusion out of this process by sharing 9 guidelines for buying a used violin and PDF checklists to print out and bring with when viewing instruments. There are accompanying videos on the Music for Young Violinists YouTube channel that will further educate you by illustrating these 9 guidelines.
9 Guidelines for Buying a Used Violin
1- Used Violins Are Great:
One may think that buying new is the preferred option, but violins are great to buy used. Most violins sound better after they have been played for some time since the vibrations increase resonance and open up the wood to produce a richer tone. A good violin is built to last, will sound better over time and retain, or even increase, its value.
2- Set Your Price Range:
Violin prices range from the double-digits to the cost of a house (or more). To get an idea of an appropriate price range, research the costs of violins at established string catalogs like Shar Music and Johnson Strings and/or at your local violin shops, if available. Also, consult your violin instructor who will have a better idea on the range of prices in your area. Most informal sellers (i.e. Craigslist ads) will overestimate the value of the instrument they are selling so it benefits you to have an idea of what is normal.
3- Size Appropriately:
Violins are offered in the following 9 sizes:
*1/32, 1/16, 1/10, 1/8, 1/4, 1/2, 3/4, *7/8 & Full Size
* Less Common
If you are purchasing a smaller sized violin for a child, make sure you have them sized by an experienced violin teacher for the appropriate violin size. My colleagues and I have had violin stores incorrectly size our students which creates heartbreak for a young child and extra time and money for the parent.
Next, know that violin sizes are like clothing brands and there can be a slight range of lengths and weights for different instruments even if they are listed as the same size. Unlike clothing, never buy an instrument that is too big for your child because you want them to grow into it. This will hurt your child and create damaging techniques that will delay their development.
4- Cracks Are Normal:
Before reviewing the next purchase guideline, be aware that cracks and minor repair issues are normal. My violin was built circa 1780 and has cracked several times over the past 238 years. Since the cracks were fixed in a timely manner by a competent luthier the instrument is in incredible condition and sounds fantastic. Cracks and minor repairs should be taken into consideration for reasons listed below, but are not necessarily a reason to avoid investing in a particular instrument. There are 2 circumstances that you should proceed with caution:
1- Cracks or open seams that have been left unrepaired for too long can warp permanently out of place and are complicated repairs.
2- Cracks that have extended beyond the purfling will impact the integrity of the violin and are putting the instrument at risk.
5 - Investigate the Craftsmanship:
Investigate the craftsmanship of the violin, bow and violin case before buying. Any repair or necessary upgrade such as new strings, bow hair or violin case will increase your investment and should be budgeted for.
Below is a checklist of what to review when inspecting a used violin. I recommend viewing the full explanations of this checklist on the second part of this series as well downloading the accompanying PDF to bring with you when viewing instruments.
Additional Questions to Ask the Seller:
6 - Beware of the “Stradivarius” Label Trap:
Avoid the “Stradivarius” label trap. A Stradivarius violin is a priceless work of art made in Italy by Antonio Stradivari during the 17th and 18th centuries. These instruments are kept in museums and played by select concert artists. They are so valuable and respected that they need to be accompanied by handlers to ensure they are being treated properly. If your seller tells you that the label inside says Stradivarius (or another famous legendary violin maker like Guarneri) and is worth lots of money this should raise a red flag.
That being said, I did have a student who bought a bundle of violins and bows at an auction for a modest sum of money. Their gamble turned out to be a valuable instrument collection worth 12 times the amount paid.
The endpoint is to do your research and don't be fooled by a false label.
7 - Hear the Violin Played:
Hear the instrument being played before buying. This is important to your purchasing process because even a violin from a reputable maker or violin shop does not necessarily sound good. This also works in reverse where a lesser known violin maker or dealer may have a singular creation that really stands out in sound quality and will be a worthy investment.
Hearing a violin played under your ear is not always the best way to gauge the full spectrum of sound possible by your prospective instrument. Violins need a couple of meters (approximately 6 feet) for the acoustic properties to be fully realized, having another person play the violin while you maintain this distance will give you a complete perspective on the tonal capability of the instrument.
If you are a complete beginner you will need guidance for this and need to hear the violin played for you. If this is your situation, I encourage you to trust your intuition when evaluating what instrument speaks to your heart and preference. Many violin shops will let you take an instrument(s) on loan for a week so you can experiment with playing it. Also, you can ask your teacher if they will come with you to help evaluate a potential purchase. A common courtesy for this is to use your paid lesson time in exchange for your instructor coming to the violin shop to respect your teacher’s time and expertise.
8- Prices Are Negotiable:
Always ask the seller if they are willing to negotiate the price. If you are buying from a private seller, chances are likely they are flexible and eager to get rid of their instrument. If you are buying from a violin shop, ask if they can add in a set of new strings, a free bow rehair in the next year or shoulder pad.
9- Violins Maintain Value:
Violins hold their investment value over time. When investing in an instrument many people will alter their price range when they realize violins hold their value over time. If you take care of the instrument you choose then you should be able to sell it for the price you bought it for. Furthermore, if you purchased it from a violin shop there is a standard practice many stores follow where they will always trade the violin back for the original selling price in case you want to change sizes or upgrade in the future.
Click on the image below to download this checklist.
Learn how to choose the best violin possible by inspecting the craftsmanship of the instrument and feel confident in knowing what to ask the seller with this 14 part tutorial and checklist that includes a free PDF checklist to download and take with when viewing instruments and an accompanying video tutorial.
This is part 2 of 2 from the How to Buy a Used Violin series. The first part shares 9 guidelines to help take the confusion out of the process of purchasing a used instrument. The second part focuses solely on what to look for when inspecting the craftsmanship of a used violin.
Click HERE to view Part 1: 9 Guidelines for Buying a Used Violin (+ video and free PDF download).
When purchasing any violin and especially a used violin, it is important to do a thorough inspection of the craftsmanship of the violin, bow and violin case before buying. Any repair or necessary upgrades such as new strings, bow hair or violin case will increase your investment and should be budgeted for.
Below is a checklist of what to review when inspecting a used violin. I recommend downloading the accompanying PDF to bring with you when viewing instruments and viewing the accompanying tutorial video to see demonstrations.
1 - Are the seams glued shut? Visually inspect and gently tap around the outside of the instrument to hear a change in the acoustics where seams have come unglued.
2- Are there any cracks? Do the cracks stop at the purfling or extend all the way to the edge? Cracks that stop at the purfling are normal in older instruments and repairable if done in a timely manner.
3- Is the purfling inlaid or painted on? Actual inlaid purfling protects the instrument and indicates a higher quality construction. Purfling that is painted on is solely decorative, does not protect the instrument and usually indicates a lesser quality instrument.
4- Is the bridge too high and/or not properly fitted to the instrument? You will know it is too high if it hurts your fingers to play. This is an easy and economical fix that a local violin shop can accomplish. To see if the bridge is properly fitted to the face of the instrument visually inspect for a solid fitting between the feet of the bridge and face of the violin. You can test this by taking a piece of paper to the edges of the feet of the bridge to see if you can slip it underneath.
5- Is the sound post in the correct location? The sound post is the dowel located vertically inside the violin and is held in place by the tension of the top and bottom plates of the violin. Sound posts are significant because they transfer tone via the vibrations made when the bow contacts the string. Sound posts are so important in creating the beauty of sound in a violin that they are sometimes referred to as the “âme,” a French word meaning soul or “anima,” the Italian word for soul.
Sound posts need to be in a highly specific location in order for the instrument to produce an optimal sound. Sometimes a simple adjustment of the sound post makes a world of difference in the sound of a violin. It is worth playing around with this variable on an instrument that is catching your interest but just seems to be a little off in reaching its potential.
6- Do the pegs move easily and hold their grip? Ideally, pegs are easy to move and properly fitted to the holes in the pegbox which allows for ease of tuning and maintenance of pitch.
7- Is the bow stick warped? When the hair on the bow has been lost more on one side than the other then the bow will start to warp. Sometimes all that is needed to address this issue is a new bow rehair. However, if the bow has been left in this position for too long then the stick will have permanently been warped out of place and requires recambering.
8- Is there enough hair on the bow? Bows lose hair on a regular basis, this is normal and easily addressed with getting the bow rehaired.
9- Is the hair on the bow dirty? At the frog of the bow it is normal for approximately an inch of dirt to build upon the bow hair as a natural result of correct playing technique. However, often times hair has been touched throughout the length of the bow which results in slippery spots and compromises the tone. If this is the case then bow hair can either be cleaned or replaced.
10- Does the violin need new strings? New strings are essential in evaluating the potential of an instrument. Old strings create a dull sound and are not able to maintain the center of the pitch. The quality of strings will also make a difference and in my opinion, some of the least expensive strings will compromise the quality of an instrument and should be avoided unless it is the only option available to your situation.
11- Is the chinrest adequate for your playing needs or will it need to be replaced? The chinrest should help a player make the instrument feel ergonomic and facilitate natural playing. If you like the instrument overall but it feels uncomfortable know that there are dozens of different styles of chinrests and even some custom fitted options to help facilitate your unique playing needs.
12- Does the violin come with a case? Not every violin includes the case so do not assume this will be added into your purchase. If the instrument does include a case check if the case closes securely, is weatherproof and truly protects the instrument.
Additional Questions to Ask the Seller:
13- Does the instrument come with any accessories like a shoulder pad, music stand or sheet music materials? It never hurts to ask if extra things are included in your purchase.
14- Who is the maker of the violin, what model is it and when was it made? The label on the inside of the instrument (visible by looking inside the “F” holes) will list this information. You need to know that makers have several tiers of instruments ranging from lower to higher quality models. In other words, just knowing the maker is not enough and you will also need to research what levels of violins that particular maker creates.
Click on the image below to download this checklist.
Hi! It's me, Heather. I absolutely love working on the Music for Young Violinists project and all the many facets: blogging, website, music, teaching materials, freebies, videos, newsletter and giveaway contests. The best part is connecting with you so feel free to drop me a line. You can learn more about me on the "ABOUT" page. Thanks!