By Emily Wright | From the July-August 2021 issue of Strings magazine
Whether you’re looking to buy a student’s first violin, viola or cello or it’s time to upgrade, here’s a guide to assess a stringed instrument’s quality and value, as well as a general price guide to start saving up for the next level.
One of the more charming bits of magic possessed by a violin shop is that it never stops having just what you need. Whether you’re four years old or have just booked your first professional string-playing job, you can walk into a violin shop and find among the graceful curves and honeyed hues an instrument appropriate to your level of play—hopefully within your budget. But instruments tend to be discussed in terms of their own levels: entry level, student quality, step-up (for serious students), and professional. For those wondering what qualities and costs generally define these levels, this quick guide should provide the basics.
Here’s a quick guide with links to the sections in this article:
- Instrument Prices
- Entry Level Instruments
- Student Quality Instruments
- Step-Up (For Serious Students)
- Professional Level Instruments
- Get Better Tone on a Budget
- One-Piece vs. Two-Piece Backs
- Check the Documentation
All figures represent an average expected price at a reputable luthier. Numerous variables can make prices higher or lower, including whether an instrument is made in-house or is on consignment, economic conditions, and value to collectors. While bargains do exist, beware purchasing an instrument from a random entity found online, sight unseen, or where there is a no-return policy. Reputable shops absolutely sell online, but always have a trial and/or return policy.
Entry Level Instruments
These are the first instruments many students encounter, where sound is not always the top priority. Luthier Chris Jacoby asserts they are, in essence, “…meant to survive children.” For this reason, rental programs frequently send these robust warhorses home with young students. They can be made of all kinds of materials, sometimes including plywood, and the vast majority are mechanically mass produced and assembled overseas. They’re usually made with a CNC (computer numerical control) machine: specifications are punched into a computer, and the machine cuts the wood precisely, identically, one after the other. This idea may cause traditionalists to recoil, but it’s just as possible to carve a beautiful curve with a CNC machine as it is to make a total hash out of a perfectly nice piece of maple with a chisel. Some shops take an extra step and do additional set-up work, adjusting bridges and soundposts to avoid issues that make instruments harder to play. Many shops do not, saving this time-consuming labor for the next level up.
It is not unusual for these instruments to come as an outfit, meaning they include a bow and case, both of which will be of minimum quality. When the bow needs a rehair, it’s not uncommon to simply purchase a replacement. Rehairs can cost more than the bow is worth! In terms of holding value, these instruments can sometimes be used to offset part of the cost of purchase of the next level up, but since they’re so cheap to make and buy, don’t always expect the full purchase price in trade.
Student Quality Instruments
Instruments in this category can be a real mixed bag, with the same wood quality and variations present as you might find in entry-level instruments. Still made using CNC machines, these are not usually suitable for advanced students: their quality can be limited in terms of sound projection, tone depth, and color. Still, as the understanding of the resonant properties of different materials has broadened, these instruments have improved by leaps and bounds.
The main difference between these and the entry-level tier is in the setup and hardware: the pegs should not slip, the bridge should fit snugly, and the action should be low enough for a beginning student. Strings should be resonant and at least moderately durable. The tailpiece should have fine tuners that turn easily. And if you find that these things are not present, ask for them! These are considered “lower-end” instruments, but $1,500 is a lot of money in the real world, and these requirements mean a student can get on with the learning part without so much effort to get it in tune with a reasonable tone. Combined with lessons, inspiration, and a good setup, these instruments can grow with a student until they’re ready to move to the next level of commitment. The trade-in value tends to be similar to that of entry level examples: Count on at least 30 percent below what was paid in trade.
Step-Up (For Serious Students)
The first thing you’ll notice about these instruments is the care that has been taken to make them look nice. They are frequently antiqued—made to look older by strategically adding texture and patterns of varnish wear common in old instruments—and all machine-made elements are disguised. Here, the hardware should also be upgraded from the previous tier: the bridge will be carved to fit (made easier because the instruments are made in batches with the exact same measurements). Look for a Wittner or other resonance-boosting tailpiece. There should be options for an ebony chinrest, or for cellists, a lightweight endpin. This instrument should get an earnest student into and, in some cases, through their college education. You didn’t hear it from me,
but numerous professionals make these sound like there’s an extra zero at the end of the price tag and nobody is the wiser. And once you crack into the $10,000+ range, this category begins to blend into the next, as there are handmade instruments by contemporary makers to be had at this price point.
Professional Level Instruments
As soon as collectors enter a market, things are going to get unpredictable. The relationship between practical value and consumer price flexes along curves economists haven’t coined clever names for yet. This is part of the reason modern lutherie is so vital to professional musicians: the price of old instruments with a track record of excellent sound is shocking and often prohibitive. There’s also the fact that older doesn’t automatically mean better. “There are loads of not-great Strads out there,” quips Jacoby.
And yet, there are centuries-old instruments that beguile players for palpable, audible reasons. All of this is to say: players should evaluate old instruments exactly like new ones, and the most substantive difference in the creation of fine instruments of any age is the time taken at each step to choose, prepare, shape, and assemble the elements. Every piece except for the hardware will have been carved by hand. Varnished by hand. Play-tested by a professional throughout the finishing process. Commercial violins are made from wood that is kiln-dried (a process that largely destroys the structure of the grain), whereas fine examples have allowed the wood to season naturally, a process that takes several years. Age itself doesn’t improve an instrument, although 200 years of continuous playing does. But a mediocre Cremonese instrument from 1770 will remain mediocre today, though it’s doubtful the price would reflect that, simply because of its proximity to greatness.
In terms of materials, spruce tops and maple backs are typical, although it’s not unusual to find poplar, willow, boxwood, and rosewood in the makeup of a professional-level instrument. Ebony is the most ubiquitous choice for fingerboards due to its hardness and durability. Varnish ingredients and proportions can be as closely guarded by their inventors as ancestral pasta-sauce recipes.
It becomes easier to appreciate how a cello becomes something that costs $50,000 when you can follow the process of its making. Instagram boasts a community of hundreds of luthiers who detail their daily endeavors, with feeds full of endless curls of maple, precise inlaid purfling, and unbelievable restorations. The skill it takes, and has always taken, to create a high-quality instrument is something that cannot be approximated by any other means. The years it takes for a student to become a master are mirrored and supported by the labors of the people who make our instruments.
How to Get Better Instrument Tone on a Budget
As a student advances, it is common to purchase a higher-quality bow to allow for expanded technique and tone color, anywhere from $300–$1,000. Sometimes a high-quality set of strings and an upgraded bow are better investments for people on a tight budget who are not finding the right instruments in their price range.
One-Piece vs. Two-Piece Backs
One-piece backs have long been considered indicators of quality, garnering higher prices than their otherwise identical two-piece-back brethren. Do they really sound better? As it turns out, they’re sort of like turn signals. The only thing a turn signal indicates for sure is that the turn signal is working. Whether or not the car is going to actually change lanes is another matter. A solid back means someone cared enough to carve one. The end. It looks nice, especially on a generously curved or flamed piece of wood. This kind of care can be an indicator of the maker’s tireless labor and attention to detail. But it also requires considerable skill to “book match” wood to create a seamless two-piece back. It takes a big tree to serve up a slab big enough to create a one-piece cello back: this wood is inherently more expensive to purchase—the cost of which will be passed on to the consumer—but higher price due to a one-piece back doesn’t necessarily translate to better sound. At the end of the day, the most important thing is the axis upon which the quality of the wood meets the skill of the luthier.
Check the Documentation
Luthier Chris Jacoby cautions buyers who are presented with documents of valuation, certification, or provenance, where the most recent is older than 15 or so years, to pay close attention: these are essential to determine if an instrument is what it says it is, and help determine how much insurance will pay out should the unthinkable occur. Part of what makes an instrument hold its worth is that people believe it will hold its worth. For many reasons, including making sure documents are not altered, forged, or of questionable origin, such a monumental purchase merits a seller re-confirming, in fairly recent history, the facts related to the instrument’s value.
The complete edition of the Care & Repair of Violin or Viola series from Strings magazine gives you a library of video and written instruction that will provide you with extensive knowledge that will help you understand your instrument and, in turn, be a more informed owner and user of stringed instruments and bows.
The complete edition of the Care & Repair of Cellos series gives you a library of video and written instruction that will provide you with extensive knowledge that will help you understand your instrument and, in turn, be a more informed owner and user of stringed instruments and bows.