Posted by Revelle Team on Sep 24, 2015
Many new violin students and their parents struggle with knowing exactly what features to look for before making an instrument purchase. The newness of the situation and general unfamiliarity with stringed instruments means that at first, all violins look very similar and it’s difficult to distinguish between the various models available. Although you can pretty easily notice the differences between a beginner instrument carried at a discount department store and one that has a price tag in the tens of thousands at a music shop, pinpointing the variations between two beginner violins can be challenging.
However, by understanding the features that help determine the quality of a violin, you can begin to recognize the subtle graduations that define the worth of the instrument. The aesthetics, while important, aren’t the best way to judge quality. Knowing a few basics about violin construction can help you make a good buying decision, and provide your student musician with a violin that will offer years of playing enjoyment.
Violins are crafted from special woods that are selected for their resonant qualities. Whenever the bow causes the strings to vibrate, the vibrations are transferred to the entire instrument. And the more it is played, the better it sounds. The instrument “opens up” and reaches its full potential.
Spruce wood is dense, allowing it to be shaved to very thin thicknesses, but strong enough to retain its integrity. These features make it the wood of choice for the table (top) of the violin, and many other stringed instruments. Solid wood construction is very important; but you should understand that “solid” doesn’t mean one piece. The table and back of a quality violin may be joined together with one or two joints. “Solid” means that these pieces are crafted from a plank, not particle board with a spruce veneer overlay.
In a quality violin, typically the sides (ribs) and neck are crafted from Maple wood, which is another strong material that resonates well, while maintaining its structural integrity. The other parts of the instrument, such as the fingerboard, chin rest, scroll box and pegs are traditionally crafted from ebony or some other very dense hardwood. Much depends on the tastes and preferences of the instrument maker, but the types of wood used for construction determine whether the instrument will produce a pleasing, quality sound.
Another aspect that determines the quality of a violin is craftsmanship. Indeed, the way the violin pieces are shaped and put together is a very large indicator of its value and quality. When built correctly, with an artisan touch, a violin can be played and used for hundreds of years.
There are two “stages” involved in violin construction. The first one entails the basic creation of the various pieces of the instrument. And although this was, and is, traditionally performed by hand, by a Luthier (a special stringed instrument maker); it can also be performed in a manufacturing setting. The second stage is really the final “fitting out” process where the instrument is completed, ready to play. This involves the setting of the sound post, string installation, and other delicate finishing touches that are extremely important to the sound the violin will produce.
There are many gifted, modern luthiers making instruments today, but handcrafted violins are expensive, usually classed as “professional” grade models. However, technology plays a significant role in violin creation. Modern manufacturing processes make it possible for violins to be built in a factory setting (and therefore make them less expensive). But without an additional hands-on, fitting out process, your violin will seem lacking. Many beginner instruments that are priced less than $200-$300 fall into this category, and make learning to play very difficult.
This list can help you determine how well a violin has been crafted:
- There shouldn’t be any creaking when you gently apply pressure to the top or sides of the violin
- The violin should have a very symmetrical appearance—each side a mirror image of the other
- The neck should be positioned perfectly straight, not skewed in any way
- Look at the scroll design—the more intricate (deep, detailed carving), the higher the quality (typically)
- Joints and seams should be tight, without any visible gaps
The materials used and the craftsmanship involved are the two major features that determine the quality of a violin.
Fortunately, there are select brands that combine precision manufacturing with a personal finishing process. These student instruments offer excellent quality at an affordable price—perfect for beginners. Outfits (hard case, bow, and violin) start at around $500 and are well worth the price, offering splendid tones, rich sounds, and an ease of playability that encourages and delights new students. Speak with your local dealer or your instructor to learn more before you buy your first violin.