How to Shop for a Violin

A guide to understanding the many qualities of a violin and choosing the best one for your needs

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When I first began taking violin lessons as an adult, I quickly discovered that this was the instrument for me!  I instantly fell in love with the violin's sound, beauty, and inseparable connection to music history.  After renting the only violin left in the local music store for just two months, I decided that if I wanted to continue learning to play the violin long term, I would have to purchase my own instrument.

Shortly after making this decision, however, my next realization was that I didn't know a thing about buying a violin!  So I made it my mission to research all I could find about what makes a violin "good".  From the legendary Stradivarius violins to the freshly varnished smell of a new instrument right out of a modern workshop, my journey took me through the history of violin making, both past and present.

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I figured I'd start here, as it was the first question I had myself when I first took the plunge into the world of violins.  It's one thing to know what makes a violin "good" but it's not going to get you any closer to getting one if you don't know where to look.  At the same time, it's best to know the various places to get a violin up front so you can compare each one's quality and price as you find them.

For each place where a violin can be obtained there are pros and cons.  I'll present the differing options to weigh both sides.  They will not be in any particular order and will certainly not be listed from best to worst.  But just for the sake of some structure, I will attempt to sort them from the most traditional to the more modern.  Surely these will not cover every possible angle, but they will serve as a basic guide.  Ready?  Let's go hunting!

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The simple fact is that there are many different places where you can go to look for a violin, and you may even find more than the ones listed here.  Certainly I would recommend starting at my own website, lukonisviolins.com, because it was uniquely designed to include as many pros as possible.  But I also understand that I simply may not have the violin that you are searching for.  In which case, it's great to know your other options.  Personally, I have bought from traditional and online violin shops, used craigslist for both buying and selling, and purchased through Ebay and Amazon - all with great success.  I've also known friends to obtain great instruments from estate sales, flea markets, and relatives.

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Through my research I have found that there are only two very basic essential elements that determine the quality of a violin - what it is made from and how it is made.  Now this may seem very elementary at first, but in truth it will help you immensely when evaluating a violin's value.

A violin is made of wood.  Another mind blower, huh?  Well, I don't mean to insult your intelligence, but for the very newest person shopping around and wondering why some violins online are extremely cheap, this will be your first clue.  There will be mass-produced violins out there that will be made out of cheap materials and some may not even be 100% wood, rather some composite material that is easily moldable into shells in the shape of a violin.  You will definitely want to stay away from these, as these are not true musical instruments.  To be fair, however, I am only referring to acoustic violins (not electric) and there certainly are some companies experimenting with newer materials to make violins with.  But that is not the focus of this blog.

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Now that you have a better idea of the types of violins you may want to avoid, it's time to turn our attention to the special attributes that differentiate the many "good" instruments that you will discover along your journey!  Our primary focus will begin with one of the most versatile of crafting materials throughout all of human history - wood.

Believe it or not, the essence and techniques of violin making have remained virtually unchanged for hundreds of years, and that goes for the types of woods used to create them as well.  By far, the dominant wood of choice for the top plate of the violin since the days before Antonio Stradivari until now has been spruce.

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When you think of maple, what's the first thing that comes to your mind?  Syrup, of course!  That wonderfully delicious sweetened sap that goes great on pancakes and waffles, right?  If you think so... then you would be absolutely correct!  However, there is another popular use for this versatile hardwood that may be less appetizing on your breakfast food, but just as sweet - not to the tongue, but to the ears!  And as I'm sure you guessed, it would be the making of violins.

The use of maple in making violins goes hand in hand with the use of spruce and has been the wood of choice for just as long.  Many of the reasons are the same, but maple has some very unique qualities all its own that has allowed it to establish its own heritage in violin making over the centuries.

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At last we have come to the final type of wood that is predominantly used when making a violin - ebony.  Nearly every violin you will come across will have a black fingerboard.  And if you are picking up on the pattern from previous posts, the reason a good violin will nearly always have a black fingerboard made from ebony wood is a combination of both form and function.

Ebony is an exotic hardwood that grows mainly in parts of the world like southern India, west Africa, and Indonesia.  It is quite arguably the densest, strongest, and hardest of all light woods.  Ebony is so dense, in fact, that it sinks in water.  It is so hard that cheap sandpaper won't touch it and carving this wood can easily dull the knives and saw blades used on it.  Is it any wonder why it is the wood of choice for a violin fingerboard which has wires at high tension constantly vibrating against it in addition to the consistent pressing, rubbing, and sliding of fingers upon it?  This is obviously the major functional value of using ebony wood.  It is highly resistant to the wear and tear of the strings and fingers that goes along with the normal playing of the instrument.

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If there is any shape more iconic or recognizable than that of the violin itself, it would most undoubtedly be the violin bridge.  Symbolically speaking, a bridge is often used to describe the means of connecting one side of an object or idea to another.  A violin bridge is no different.  It is quite arguably the most important part of a violin in carrying the vibrational resonant energy across the strings to the body of the instrument, resulting in the generation of sound.  But conceptually, this will also mark the transition in our journey where we leave behind the more basic or fundamental aspects of what makes a violin "good", as we continue our quest by crossing over into the more refined aspects of the subject.  So let's pack up camp and get moving!  There's still much more to learn and experience!

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There was a time when the art of violin making was a carefully guarded secret, strictly passed down from master to apprentice.  This special knowledge was sought after by kings and royals, nobles and courtiers, whose influence was renowned and their wealth immense.  Composers and violinists were like rock stars of their day, requesting the finest of instruments for their performances.  There was no internet, no television, no radio, no automobiles, no airplanes, no video games, or just about any other popular modern form of distraction or entertainment.  But this period in history was filled to abundance with live music, theater, and art.  And if you happened to be fortunate enough to be a maker of violins at this time, your craft was in high demand and so were those willing to pay a pretty penny for one.

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Have you ever been to a violin shop and instantly spied that curvacious beauty from across the store, standing out from among all of the other models?  Like a enchanted rendezvous from a scene out of Shakespeare, you slowly make your way to where this lovely charmer is beckoning you.  Just inches away now, you get a better look at the smoothness of the neck, that perfect body, and oh those silvery strings!  (Yes, we still talking about violins, remember?)  Timidly, you reach out and rest this vision of perfection under your chin, bowing your first note.  Your heart skips a beat and you are instantly in love!  Then with a newly acquired confidence, you look at the price tag and your heart skips a beat again - from shock!  This costs HOW much??

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Can you guess what this symbol has to do with the secret art of violin making?

Balsam, alizarin, linseed oil,

Bring this cauldron to a boil,

Resin, pitch, and madder root,

Amati stradi del gesu!

*POOF!!*

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Looking back over the journey we have taken so far, it's amazing to see how much we have covered in so little time.  Hopefully, you've been able to catch on to the scent of where we are going and have picked up some valuable nuggets along the way.  But even though this may feel like a good resting point, those of you with a taste for observation may have noticed that we have not yet ventured into the most sacred shrine of violin purchasing.  In fact, it's the main reason for this whole expedition!  Have you figured it out yet?  If you have been reading carefully, I just left you a trail of clues to our next destination.  Hark!  How sweet!  The hills are alive with it!  Of course, it is sound!

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