So your child is starting to learn the violin, and you need to get a violin. You look at the music shop prices, and balk – surely it doesn’t cost that much for a violin! So you look on Gumtree, or Craigslist. Ahh, much better. How can there be such a big difference – does it really matter?
There’s lots of different things that go into a beginner violin, and when you buy from Gumtree or Craigslist, there’s no guarantee that you’re getting all of them, and no guarantee that you’re getting a violin that is in playable condition. So let me, an experienced violinist and music teacher, run you through the various parts, and why you shouldn’t buy a second hand violin from an unknown source.
The Violin body
In student violins, there are two types of violins – factory pressed, and hand carved. In factory pressed, they have a flat piece of wood that is heated and pressed into the desired shape. In a hand carved violin, they are built with finer precision, carved by hand which allows the wood to resonate more. The end result is that of violins of equal quality, a hand carved violin will always sound better. But how do you tell?
Whenever I get a violin, I run my fingers over the belly to get a sense of the curvature of the violin. Just by doing this, it tells me a lot about the instrument, how well it’s made, and often whether it is hand carved or machine pressed. Obviously, the hand carved instruments are more expensive, but if it has a tone that is easier to produce, then it is more likely that the student will be encouraged by their results, and will want to continue with their studies.
There are so many variations of bows these days that it is hard to cover all of the options, but generally you can see four main options: Fibreglass, Brazilwood, Carbon Fibre, Pernambuco.
Fibreglass bows are very durable. You could pretty much use them as lightsabres and they would be unlikely to break. However, with that comes a complete inability to do much more than basic bow strokes.
Brazilwood has been the main student quality bow for years now. It offers a good quality of spring in the bow that allows for more advanced stroke making, yet is still reasonably inexpensive.
Quality Carbon Fibre bows are starting to take over the industry, and many professional players are switching to professional level (and professional priced) carbon fibre bows. However, there are still a number of student quality carbon fibre bows that will be a step up from the brazilwood bows.
Pernambuco is the most desired wood for bow making. It provides superior quality, bounce, and response. However, Pernambuco is currently listed as an endagered wood, which means that it is very hard to come by in new bows. It is still possible to find great Pernambuco bows, but that’s where the prices start to rise significantly.
The bow stick is only half the equation when talking about the bow. The Hair is what makes contact with the string, and if you get coarse or brittle hair in your bow, then it can break easily, and not create a good tone.
Bows coming from violin shops are generally inspected prior to sale, and therefore should have a good quality of hair in the bow. But when you buy it from gumtree, there’s no guarantee how long the hair has been in the bow, whether it was any good to start with, or what has been done to it. If the person using the bow wasn’t careful, and touched it regularly with their hands, there could be oils all over the hair that no amount of rosin will be able to resolve.
Violin strings have a shelf life. After a while, they no longer ring and produce good quality tone. The lower quality string to start with, the shorter this shelf life will be. When you buy a violin from a quality music store, the violin will come with new strings, and generally quality strings that will produce a good tone for the instrument. But buying one from Gumtree will give you strings that have been used for a while. It might even be missing a string, or have a string that is starting to unravel and come close to breaking.
Having a violin come from a music store generally means that it is set up correctly. This will depend on the store, and the store will affect the quality of this set up. However, generally this set up will include ensuring the strings are installed properly, that the bridge is facing the right way and is in the right position, that the tone post is set correctly, and that the bow is in good condition and isn’t warped. Buying a violin from Gumtree may mean that many of these checks will need to be done yourself. If there are cracks in the instrument, they may need to be repaired by a qualified luthier.
In a beginner violin package, the violin will generally come with a few accessories. At the very minimum, a cake of rosin, and possibly a shoulder rest – although the shoulder rest is often not included. Buying these from Gumtree may mean that these accessories are included, but they may be missed as well.
So let’s look at what buying a brand new violin versus buying a violin from Gumtree may actually cost you. For comparison, I am using the violin I recommend for students – a Gliga II in 3/4 size.
|Bow||$0||$60-560 (if needing a new bow)|
|Set up||$0||$100-1000 (depending on repairs needed)|
Now, as you can see, you may well save money by getting a cheap violin. My cheaper price range there is assuming that you just need a bow rehair, and a simple set up. However, if you buy a violin that is needing repairs, you may as well end up buying a brand new violin instead of repairing it. Similarly, you will need to know where to take the violin for the repairs needed, as well as being without it for a while while the repairs are being undertaken.
My recommendation to all students is to buy new. It’s not because I get money from it. Teachers recommend new because we know that it is set up, ready to go, and easier to get a sound from, which means that it’s easier to keep focus, keep practicing, and keep progressing.