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Getting Your First Violin or Viola? Read This First.

Budgets are tight, and the holidays are here. Your daughter wants a violin, but you can’t afford $500 for one – so you turn to Amazon, eBay and Craigslist. Sounds like a great idea until you get it, and not only does it sound awful (and it’s not just operator error), but the pegs don’t work, fine tuners broke within days and the bridge… is it bent?

While these online resources are fantastic for many things, the musical instruments you find there often leave something to be desired. Craigslist actually offers the best hope, but only if you know what to look for in a new instrument.

What do you do?

Happily, you have a few options available:

  1. Rent! I highly recommend this for beginners. Low monthly payments and decent, playable instruments make it a perfect choice for a beginner. Rentals aren’t professional instruments, but they’re significantly better than the VSOs (violin-shaped objects) available for $50 on Craigslist and Amazon.
  2. Take a strings-playing friend or your new teacher with you to check out the Craigslist ad. Many are willing to help you out, especially if it happens to be close to where they work or live.
  3. Buy a beginning level instrument from a reputable dealer – either online or local. You’ll pay in the range of $150-$300, but if your student is in a full-sized instrument and you really don’t want to rent, it’s worth the price and the instrument can be resold later when they upgrade to a nicer one.

Whatever route you take, understand that with violins, violas, cellos and other stringed instruments – used isn’t bad. In fact, it can be a very good thing! One of my violins is in the neighborhood of 60 years, and a small viola is over 100. They’re significantly older than I am – and the extra age actually means they’re more played in – and have a more mature sound. Stringed instruments actually improve a bit over time, up to a point, so as long as they’re not too beat up (chunks of wood missing, etc), they’re fine. Possibly more than fine.

If you feel you must take the Craigslist route…

Sometimes you’ll find a terrific deal on a solid instrument, but buyer beware – and educate yourself before going.

  • The pegs – to they turn smoothly? Do they slip? Do they look like they fit well? Can the person selling it tune the instrument to show you? Are they damaged?

Violin pegs are most often made of various hardwoods, and must be custom fit to the violin. They should be made out of ebony, rosewood or boxwood – there are more expensive geared pegs available too, but you aren’t likely to see those on a student instrument. Pegs that stick or slip can often be dealt with, but very often those cheap violins are cheap for a reason: the materials stink. There are very few materials that are appropriate for violin pegs – and plastic isn’t one of them. I see many of those cheapo violins with plastic pegs that I’m afraid to turn for fear of breaking them! They need to be able to handle the tension that violin strings put on them – and it’s not insignificant.

  • The bridge – does it stand straight? Is it bent, or does it have deep indentations where the strings sit?

Bridges need to be made of maple. It’s a hard, dense wood that vibrates well and is used in many wooden musical instruments. The cheaper the maple, the softer it is, and it’s more likely to bend or have the strings cut deep grooves into it. To be fair, over time (40+ years) the nature of the strings is such that they’ll wear deep grooves into a bridge. But a 5-year old violin shouldn’t have this problem.

Bent bridges happen sometimes, it’s a consequence of the pull of the strings during tuning. It can’t be fixed, but you should have a new bridge fitted to the violin. It’s $60+, depending upon where you take it and what quality level wood they use, but if it’s a nice violin otherwise, it’s definitely worth the money.

  • The fine-tuners – do they turn smoothly? Do they actually change the pitch of the instrument?

Fine-tuners make a student’s life bearable. If they don’t work or work poorly, they’ll be stuck practicing on an out of tune instrument – unless someone can tune it for them using the pegs. Ideally, stringed instruments are tuned every time they’re played. Yes – every time.

Buying or renting from online or local dealers

If you’re looking for a violin or viola – this is the best place to look for a solid beginner instrument. Find a reputable dealer – and check reviews before you go. Some companies may have been around a while, but have horrible reputations for customer service. Please do yourself a favor and spend some time researching first!

Here are a few online dealers that either I or people I trust have dealt with directly:

Southwest Strings

Shar Music

Johnson String Company

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