18 starter violin outfits—bow and case included—that cost $1,500 or less
by Heather K. Scott
Students first learning the violin often start with a school fiddle or a rental from the local music shop. Parents and teachers alike know that these early days will foretell the student’s future musical career. Will he learn to practice? Will she develop the discipline and desire to continue to play? If the answer is yes, most teachers will suggest purchasing that first violin, an exciting step for young musicians. I can remember the thrill of picking out my first instrument. My parents drove me to the nearest stringed-instrument dealer and we spent the day with the shopkeeper, sorting through instruments and testing each one for sound and playability. They were supportive of this first step in my musical career, but the three of us knew little about the process of choosing the best instrument for my needs. We ended up with a great outfit, one that I still have today. But looking back, I wish we’d had more help—that heavily varnished, shiny instrument I chose has lost much of the warmth and easy playability it once had.
As a Strings reader you are probably a teacher or stringed-instrument advocate. We encourage you to pass along this article to your students and to parents whose children are in the market for their first student violin. Or you may be an adult starting to play the violin in your free time. Either way, this listing of violin outfits, along with the help of a knowledgeable shop owner, will ensure finding a first violin that best fits your needs or those of your child or student.
All the outfits under review—each includes violin, bow, and case—have qualities we feel confident recommending to the early student. After surveying more than 40 international stringed-instrument dealers, musicians, and industry professionals, we used their suggestions, and our own resources, to identify readily available outfits priced under $1,500. With the help of Bobbi Nikles, a private violin teacher, and Phoebe Dong and Robert Ness, public school string teachers, as well as our editorial colleagues Teja Gerken, Paul Kotapish, and Jessamyn Reeves-Brown, we evaluated each outfit.
Our team studied sound and tone, setup and playability, quality of varnish, and overall craftsmanship. We looked at the consistency of the entire outfit, assessing whether the quality of the bow and case matched that of the violin. The reviewers pointed out the strong and weak points of each instrument, identifying those they would recommend to their own students.
We did not concern ourselves overmuch with accessories and fittings such as chin rests, tailpieces, and fine tuners. These are easily, and cheaply, replaceable, so inconsistent quality needn’t be a deterrent. Keep your eyes on the fiddle itself, then consider the bow and case, and finally look at the fittings and accessories. A new set of strings, pegs, and fittings on higher-priced student violins might be a worthwhile expense and could make an otherwise good-sounding and good-looking instrument even better.
Before you begin your search for that first violin, look around your local shops and visit area dealers and makers. Choosing where you purchase your new instrument is just as important as choosing the outfit itself. Buying from a maker or shop equipped to provide you with unbiased, expert advice as well as reputable instrument repair and maintenance will alleviate many setup problems.
Also remember that you are starting at the beginner’s end of the scale: none of these instruments is going to compare with a custom-made bench violin. In your own search—as in our review—it is best to compare apples to apples.
Take some time with your student or child to visit the shops where you are most comfortable. If you are shopping for yourself, think about hiring your teacher or inviting a violinist friend to accompany you and help evaluate your options. You should know that some teachers receive a commission payment from certain dealers, or make it known that they receive commissions from shops. Knowing your teacher’s practice will be helpful when considering his or her advice.
Henry Riedstra, who owns The Violin Shop in Kitchener, Ontario, suggests visiting a violin dealer or shop that has one or more knowledgeable makers on staff. An experienced luthier, restorer, and player is far more equipped to help you and your child than a part-time store employee. Riedstra suggests actively involving the staff member in the student’s shopping experience—good advice for an adult beginner as well. “Be sure to ask the shop person to play each instrument for you, as well as having your son or daughter play them. This way even an inexperienced ear will pick out the sound that is the best in the price range you can afford. You should also ask your son or daughter and the shop player to comment on the ease of response, as well as the quality of sound across all strings.”
Many dealers have practice rooms available. Take in two to three instruments at a time and play the same piece of music on each. Whether you play just a basic G-major, two-octave scale, a short jig or reel, or a few bars of your favorite piece, playing consistent musical passages on each instrument will make it much easier to draw comparisons. Some dealers will even offer overnight loans of your favorite instruments. Remember to take breaks between your shopping trips, since trying too many instruments in one sitting will do nothing but confuse and frustrate you. Limit yourself to a handful of instruments and be sure to bring paper and pen to take notes. You may find it useful to create a shopping list of the qualities you seek in a violin.
We were only able to sample one or two instruments from each maker, and are reminded by Henry Hultquist, who owns The Violin Shop in Lincoln, Nebraska, that make and model number are not always a true indicator of what to expect in sound and playability, especially with student instruments. You may wish to try the same brand and model violin at several different shops, to test for sound variance. “If you take six violins [with the same model number and from the same company or maker], there will be a noticeable difference in sound among them—sometimes a dramatic difference.” Hultquist adds, “It should be noted that the same violin ‘shell’ may be sold under a variety of brand names.”
Brand names also carry a price tag. Some companies’ reputations garner a higher price that does not necessarily reflect accurately upon the instrument’s value. Dealer Henry Riedstra says, “People think the more one pays for the outfit, the better the sound. But that’s not always the case.” Kyozo Watanabe, owner of Cremona Violin Shop, in Los Angeles, California, adds, “I have seen so many customers, and several teachers, buying instruments by brand name alone, and this leads to dangerous situations for the student.”
The moral? Evaluate the violins you test carefully, and listen to your own opinion. With a little homework and research, the violin you find now will provide years of musical enjoyment. And the discipline and self-awareness you bring to your search may come in handy the next time you’re making a large purchase—be it a car, a home, or that next violin.