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I want to start learning the violin, but I don't know what's a good price for one. Should I get a used one or a new one? How can I tell that a violin is of good quality and worth the price asking for? What's a good brand?

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This should possibly be separate questions, but they all seem on-topic. – American Luke Oct 29 '12 at 20:08
I think they're OK together, they're all interrelated. Dan, to expand on Luke's mention of scope: Shopping advice is off-topic here, with "teach me what I need to know" style questions being the form we encourage people to ask instead. This is a good fit for that, I just tweaked the title a bit to make it more apparent; hope that's OK! – Matthew Read Oct 29 '12 at 20:40
up vote 10 down vote accepted

I'm about at the same point (maybe a little bit ahead, but not much), so I'll help with what I can.

Violins are a bear to learn, for three reasons:

  • intonation - Keyboards only have one note per key. Guitars have whatever note the fret and the tuning give. With violins, intonation is determined by your fingers. Unless you are a very special person, you don't have the notes in your ears, and you'll have to spend lots of time playing along to CDs before it doesn't offend your ears.
  • ergonomics - Violins are held between your shoulder and chin. If you rest the violin on your hand, your range of motion is severely hampered.
  • bowing - Bowing is hard. You have to be able to separate your bowing from the rhythm of the piece. I play guitar, and I bow like I play guitar. I saw the thing, and it is sad. Beyond the rhythm of the thing, pressure and angle and such mean a lot, and little things, I am told, are the difference between a great musical tone and a screech.

Because of these things, picking up the violin is not something to be taken lightly, and there is great chance of giving up before you climb the learning curve. So, my suggestion is to get an inexpensive instrument.

There's no big names for violins like there are for guitars. I mean, there are bigger names, but there isn't a Fender or a Gibson or a Martin. This makes it easy to skirt the no-shopping-advice dictum. On the acoustic side, violins are pretty much of the same material and of the same shape, so the good ones and the bad ones will superficially be alike. Beyond that, remember that the violins that were used by great classical players were not the ones that ended up in the hands of folk players, so, if your desire is to play fiddle, rather than classical violin, your desire is for an instrument that has different characteristics than a classical violin. Bows are a big determiner of the tonal characteristics, and so your bow could end up as expensive as your violin.

So, after that info dump, my suggestion is to find a cheap instrument and work with it. You should be able to find something between $100-$200, which is at the low end. (Fine contemporary maker violins go into the tens of thousands of dollars. I wish I could tell you what distinguishes them, but I've never touched one.) You'll eventually learn something about what makes an instrument sound good, but believe me, you need to work a lot with your ears and hands before the instrument itself is the determining factor.

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+1 but no big names, really? Stradivarius? – Dr Mayhem Oct 30 '12 at 7:47
I am talking volume. There are something like 150 known Stradavari violins, and the shop had been closed for centuries. – Dave Jacoby Oct 30 '12 at 9:33
I guess that's what they meant with bigger names :-) – Joey Oct 30 '12 at 9:35
Ahh. 233 named Strad violins. – Dave Jacoby Oct 30 '12 at 13:22
As a reasonably good pianist who was once a beginner, I can say that the things you'd think are important in an instrument as a beginner aren't the same things you'll look for when you're experienced. Spending a lot of money on an instrument as a beginner is a mistake. – Kyralessa Jan 26 '15 at 21:01

There are only two factors, although they are broad:

  • does it sound good?
  • does it feel right?

These are difficult for a beginner to know. You haven't the experience to know if an instrument feels right. You haven't the skill to bow a note well enough to gauge its tone.

Fortunately, unlike a guitar, where fat necks and bad fret intonation can really hold you back, within reason, you can learn on a cheap violin.

So, if you can, take an experienced violinist shopping with you, let them play the instrument. They will be able to tell you if it feels right, and both of you will be able to make judgements about how it sounds.

One further objective factor, is whether it stays in tune. That's easy enough -- just check that the tuning pegs are firmly fitted.

If you can't find a violinist to help you, don't worry too much - consider learning with a borrowed instrument, or a cheap instrument, until you've learned to sound a pleasant sounding note. By then you should be able to tell a pleasant feeling instrument when you play it.

The best way to start learning is with a teacher. See if your teacher can help you find an instrument.

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My advice (violin teacher since 1986) is to rent one first, save $100 a month for a couple years and get something decent. Try out several and take them to your lessons for your teacher to try out and advise you on.

Good luck

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I agree with VarLogRant, there are no big names (in reasonable price range). Traditionally violins involve a lot of manual work, which limits the number of instruments by one maker. There are increasingly mass-market instruments more industrially manufactured from Asia and much of discussion is going on, how carefully the wood was dried and how likely they develop cracks later. They may also be good, but beyond holding the tune the criteria are not easily recognized. In any case you should take some lessons and the teacher should try the instrument.

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You can also contact some of you local violin luthiers. They will have all the knowledge pertaining to the condition and source of your violin. Also even if many of them do sell instruments they are not as desperate in there need to sell you something that what is the case with a guitar centre type of music shop.

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Since the part about pricing seems to have been answered, I'll concentrate on the what is a good violin part, first by distinguishing between types of violins.

There are actually schools of violins; nationalities; not unlike the different schools of playing the violin. Amongst the most popular nationalities (which regroup general guidelines on how violins are constructed) are

  • french
  • italian
  • german

That being said, this applies mostly for older violins. Now, we are getting in a contemporary world of violin making, and while there are still violin makers who will imitate styles of older violins, violin-making styles will vary from maker to maker.

How to distinguish a good violin from a bad? Here are some hints, but it varies greatly from tastes to tastes.

  • stability in tone. the board must be even, so that your finger, placed on a string at a definite position, will produce the right note (a fifth higher) on the next string (taking into account that your violin is tuned). Violins of lesser quelity will have uneven boards that require you to actually have different left-hand position from strin gto string.
  • sound! or more precisely, a range of sound. you want your violin to be able to produce sounds from pianissimo to fortissimo. you want the pianissimos to be heard even "far" away from your violin. say you try it in a hall, even when playing very soft, the sound of good violins will travel to the end, and be heard.
  • colors. when playing close or away from the bridge, good violins will present a wide range of sound colors, normally ranging from something like a pan flute when playing almost on the board, to a screeching brilliant sound when getting closer to the bridge. you want those colors.

Keep in mind that those are kind of hard to hear, but try many violins and you will start to hear differences between them!

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