Playing a string instrument takes hard work! Holding the instrument and bow properly can take weeks (or even months), and producing notes requires correctly choosing from what can feel like countless locations along the fingerboard. Tone development combines both aural and physical skill even before the use of vibrato, and the bowing techniques that composers demand can seem endless!
One way to make this challenging process a bit more approachable is by selecting equipment that is ready to highlight your strengths. Making your first instrument purchase is an important step in promoting your musicianship and advancement in music studies. However, shopping for instruments can be a daunting task. The word instrument literally means “tool,” and musicians should be reminded that tools are supposed to help carry out a particular function — in this case, our instruments help us make music. Just like any other tools, there are designs and materials that are better at performing particular functions than others. Music teachers have a special word for poorly made instruments whose price or color may attract a beginning player, but whose quality slows progress and threatens investment: the VSO.
Violin-Shaped Objects can lurk in any marketplace, but they are especially abundant on the internet. Online merchants and auction sites thrive on sales of VSOs because payment is instant, trials often don’t exist, and return shipping can rival the cost of the instrument itself — if returns are even available!
Consider the following when you begin shopping for your instrument:
- Try out many instruments before making a final purchase. The number of instruments you should try really varies by price range and ability, but a good rule of thumb is 5/5/10: Play 5 instruments that are similar in price to the instrument you are used to (your rental instrument or the instrument you already own). This gives you an idea of the type of variation that can occur among instruments of similar quality. Play 5 other instruments in the price range higher than your budget. Playing an instrument that is more expensive than you can afford helps you better understand how tone and craftsmanship can affect the price tags that shops assign. Spend as much time playing instruments in this price range as the shop will allow so you begin to form a complete physical and aural “ideal.” By figuring out what you like and dislike about certain instruments that are too expensive for you, you can have a better chance of identifying desirable qualities within your price range. Play at least 10 instruments in your price range at the shop before taking home one or two on trial.
- Listen to other people play the instrument you like. Once you take an instrument out on trial, be sure to bring it to your teacher so you can play for each other. Violins and violas especially sound different “under the ear” than in a teaching studio or a recital hall. Most likely, the instrument will also sound different than it did in the shop because shops are designed to offer complimentary acoustics that entice you to purchase. You’ll want to purchase an instrument that sounds the best in a combination of these locations.
- Check for quality of craftsmanship. String instruments are made from all sorts of materials these days, from carbon fiber bodies and synthetic bowhair to painted particle board and everything in between! Fingerboards and sometimes fittings (pegs, chinrest, tailpiece) should be made out of ebony, a dense hardwood that is naturally black; however, VSOs are sometimes made with cheaper, softer wood that has been stained or painted black. The bridge should be carved to fit the specific instrument, and you can tell if this the case because the “feet” of the bridge will rest on the body without any gaps or spaces. High gloss on the instrument body can indicate a hasty finishing process meant to protect cheap wood or disguise unstained bodies, and the gloss will also inhibit sound vibrations. Purfling, the tiny striping that borders the edge of string instruments, isn’t just decorative (It actually helps to prevent the instrument from cracking if it is hit on the side), so check that it isn’t just painted on!
- Ask about the maker. With the exception of very old instruments (think, early 19th century and earlier), string instruments should all have labels on the inside which provide basic information about its origin. Look through the f-hole on the bass side of the instrument (near its lowest-sounding string) to find this label. At the very least, this label should have the name of the person who made the instrument (or, on less expensive instruments, the name of the company that manufactured or distributed it) and the year it was made. Label may also include where your instrument was made (city and/or country) and a serial number. You can use this information to find out more about other instruments they have produced — value, condition, possible problems or inconsistencies, etc. Twentieth or twenty-first century instruments without labels will probably not retain their value, and you can expect to take a financial hit if you need to resell.
- Pay attention to the strings on the instrument. Strings really affect how an instrument “responds” (how quickly it produces a sound), but our wooden instruments are both temperamental and unique which means that strings that one person loves might produce sounds that another person dislikes on the same instrument! Even more frustrating is that prices vary greatly for sets of strings, and the more expensive strings don’t always make the best sounds. When you go to a shop to try out instruments, you have to assume that the person who put the strings on the instruments knew what they were doing and knew the characteristics of both the strings and the specific instrument. Experienced dealers will put strings on their instruments that they think make it sound the best! Since you don’t have the time or the money to test it out yourself, trust what you’re given. A cheap instrument will sound much better (maybe not good, but much better) with expensive strings, but a quality instrument might also sound best with the same expensive strings. Ask what strings you’re playing on! Ask how old the strings are (strings go “false” and sound worse over time, sometimes making the instrument seem unbalanced when it really isn’t). Ask how often you should change these particular strings (every few weeks? every few months? once a year?). This expense adds up. If the instrument needs a new set of strings every few months and those strings cost 1/10 the amount of the instrument itself…we’re talking about hefty maintenance costs. Visit Sharmusic.com to get a sense of how much strings cost and to see photos of the winding (the colored wrapping) to help you identify the brand.
- Keep in mind the quality of the bow you are using. Really, string instrumentalists play two instruments: their violin/viola/cello/bass and the bow. The bow can make a huge difference in the quality of sound and ease of playing! Ideally, you should shop for an instrument after you’ve found a bow you like or vice versa — not at the same time. However, this is especially difficult for students. A bow with plastic stick or synthetic hair is not worth purchasing for any student with a “full-size” instrument. Pernambuco bows are the most desirable wooden bow (yes, pernambuco is a Brazilian hardwood, but no, “Brazilwood” bows aren’t exactly the same — they come from different parts of the same tree. Slight color differences aside, pernambuco is denser than Brazilwood and so it can be shaped more precisely than Brazilwood. Pernambuco’s density makes it a little stronger and springier than Brazilwood for the same weight, which is why the Brazilwood bows look and feel clunkier). Carbon fiber bows are also quite popular these days — and for good reason. They are durable and don’t warp as easily as wooden bows. A good quality carbon fiber bow can be much less pricey than a wooden bow of similar quality, and none (that I know of) are made with ivory or other endangered materials.
- Purchase an instrument without trying it outside of the shop. Reputable shops offer trial periods during which you can play the instrument in more familiar environments. Usually, you can take an instrument home for up to a week by leaving a credit card on file with the shop. Play this instrument in as many different performance environments that you can think of: with your private teacher in lessons, with piano accompaniment such as at a recital or in a group class, with colleagues in a string quartet or other chamber music ensemble, with your school/community/youth orchestra, etc. Invite your teacher(s) to play the instrument for you to hear during this time.
- Purchase an instrument from a company or individual that does not offer a return or trade-in policy. As businesses grow, some shops have websites were you can peruse inventory before visiting their store. A growing number will also ship instruments to you for a trial period for a small fee, but sometimes they require a purchase and offer a 30-day money-back guarantee. In this case, be sure to ask about restocking fees that might incur with a return. Many eBay auctions and online-only retailers benefit from a “final sale” in which you can’t return or exchange a damaged, blemished, or unsatisfactory instrument. Once you’ve spent your money at one of these retailers, they have no incentive to allow you to return the instrument if it turns out to be a VSO. Conversely, reputable shops offer trade-in incentives (where you can trade in the instrument for up to 80% of its purchase/current value, minus necessary repairs or cleaning).
- Be dazzled by “outfit” offers. In most cases, purchasing an “outfit” (the instrument, bow, and a case) makes good financial sense because shops might offer a discount when these items are purchased together. However, do your research. Make sure that you are getting a good price on each item individually before agreeing to lump everything together into one purchase. Ask about the brand of the case (and any warranty that might exist), be sure that the bow meets all your expectations, etc. Otherwise, you might find yourself with more gear than you need.
- Worry about how it looks. The condition of an instrument and the sound it produces is much more important than the color of its varnish or fittings. All instruments of good quality have been made by hand, so variations in color, varnish, and general appearance are natural. As long as there are no chips in the wood or varnish, no open seams, no damage to the ribs or corners, no warping of the sides, no glaring inconsistencies in carving, etc, the appearance of an instrument does not dictate how “good” it is.
When in doubt – ask!