Buying a violin and bow

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1. Choosing your violin

Here are a few points to bear in mind when choosing your violin:

Factory or handmade?

The front and back plates of handmade instruments are carved into shape from solid blocks of wood, and the thickness of the plates is carefully graduated (thicker in the middle and thinner at the edges) so that the instrument resonates well. The front and back plates of the cheaper factory-made instruments are made from steam-pressed wood of uniform thickness. This enables instruments to be cheaply mass-produced, but reduces the tonal quality.

The better the instrument the more enjoyable it will be to play, but if you don’t feel like splashing out on a handmade violin just yet, a well set-up factory instrument will be perfectly adequate to get you started.

Listen to the sound

If you’re choosing between several instruments it can be helpful to ask someone to play them to you while you listen with your eyes closed. Tonal quality varies enormously from instrument to instrument and is dependent on many factors, not just the price. The more expensive instrument may not necessarily have the sound you like best!

Look out for cracks

Many old instruments have cracks that have been repaired, and often they’re not a problem. The kind of crack to watch out for is a ‘soundpost crack’ on the front or back plate, running immediately above or below the  soundpost (the upright piece of wood inside the violin that connects the front and back plates), as these cracks can significantly affect the instrument’s sound and value. Look for cracks on the inside as well as on the outside of the instrument, as well-repaired cracks can be difficult to spot.

Has it been well set-up?

The “set-up” of an instrument refers to things like the position of the soundpost, the fitting of the pegs, the position of the tailpiece, the height, curvature and position of the bridge, the angle and shape of the fingerboard and the height of the nut. The way an instrument is set up has a big effect on its playability and sound.  A violin that has been badly set up, even if it’s a good instrument, may be difficult to play and could hold you back. A well set-up violin will have:

  • A well shaped bridge and nut. This ensures that the strings are the correct distance apart and have the right curvature, enabling you to bow the individual strings easily.
  • A comfortable action. The height of the bridge and nut determine the height of the strings above the fingerboard, known as the instruments “action”. If the action is too high the strings will cut into your fingers, making the instrument feel awkward and uncomfortable to play; too low and the lower strings may buzz against the fingerboard.
  • A well-positioned soundpost (the upright piece of wood inside the violin connecting the front and back plates) is necessary in order to get the best sound out of your instrument.
  • A well ‘shot’ fingerboard. The fingerboard should be straight with no dips or bumps – an uneven fingerboard can affect intonation.
  • Tuning pegs that turn easily, but not so easily that the strings keep slipping.
  • Fine tuning adjusters (on the tailpiece) that turn easily.

If you’re in doubt about your instrument’s setup it would be worth taking it to a specialist stringed instrument shop for advice. Setting up a violin is a skilled job, and any problems are best fixed by a professional instrument repairer.

2. Choosing a bow

Violin bows are traditionally made from a very strong, dense hardwood called pernambuco, although these days most student bows are made from brazilwood, carbon fibre or fibreglass.

  • If you have a full size violin, you’ll need a full size bow to go with it!
  • As with violins, bows are available in a wide price range. Most starter violins come with a basic bow, which should be fine to get you started.
  • If you’re buying a second-hand bow, make sure it has all its hair, that the stick is not warped to the side, and that the end-screw turns easily.