Sources and Quality
The best violins have traditionally come from Europe, with the finest and most valuable being made in Italy. The other countries with histories of fine violin-making are Germany, France, England, Austria, and Bohemia (now the Czech Republic). Smaller groups of makers have historically worked in several other European countries, such as Spain, Portugal, Hungary, and Poland. In recent years many of the best hand-made instruments have come from the United States; and there is a growing group of excellent makers in mainland China.
In addition to the fine hand-made instruments, there has been much factory production, primarily in Germany, France and Czechoslovakia, and more recently in Japan, China, Korea, and even Sri Lanka, as well as in Eastern Europe (Bulgaria, Romania, and Hungary). Generally if you are looking for a student instrument of quality, you will do best with one from China, western Europe, or Bulgaria. It is possible to be deceived: many instruments are labeled deceptively, with a false name in German, French, or Italian, or with an incorrect country of origin.
There are many fine new instruments, although many people prefer an older one in good condition, as the tone has had a chance to mature. The old instruments carry an aura of romance, too. Still, the most important criteria are tone, playability, and condition. Remember that violin-making is currently at a very high level of sophistication and artistry in various parts of the world, including the United States. Some of what you pay for an old violin goes for name, age, and rarity. You may get a better new instrument for the same price.
It is very difficult for the average person to look at a violin and be able to tell much for certain about its origin, age, quality, and value. For this reason, it is best to do business with a reputable violin shop. After all, you are buying not only the instrument, but also the knowledge, skill, and warranty of the person who sells it to you. The shop should be willing to let you borrow an instrument you are thinking of buying, so that the teacher can try it and judge whether it is appropriate for the student, and so that you can try it in a familiar acoustic environment. General music stores are another source, but usually offer only poorly-adjusted rental-type instruments, with no expertise available to assist in the choice or in subsequent maintenance.
Sometimes there is an old instrument in the family. This may or may not turn out to have real value, but experience shows that some maintenance work or restoration is almost always necessary to put such an instrument in playing condition. Sometimes such a revival is not even worthwhile. A good violin shop will be able to appraise such an instrument and perform the necessary work. General music stores are generally unfamiliar with old instruments, and should not be entrusted with their appraisal and repair.
Buying an instrument through an ad in the newspaper or on the internet carries similar risks. Often such an instrument is sold because the student dislikes playing, and has not taken good care of it. Usually the seller is unaware of what repairs may be necessary, and it often happens that such repairs exceed the price of the instrument.
When buying an instrument to be used for playing classical music, it is a good idea to avoid buying from an individual or store with a primary interest in fiddle music. You’re likely to end up with a fiddle with tonal quality inappropriate for your needs, and that is set up wrong for classical playing.
Bows are made of wood, fiberglass, and, recently, carbon fiber. Wood bows are best, and are available in many quality levels, depending upon the kind of wood (pernambuco is best; brazilwood is next best) and workmanship. A good wood bow will be well-balanced, stable and responsive, and will make playing easier. It will also improve your tone. (A good source of information is the website of one of our suppliers, Arcos Brasil.)
You should try to pick a bow which produces the best sound with your particular instrument, and which feels best in terms of balance, weight, and stiffness.
Carbon fiber bows have recently come onto the market at various price levels, but at the shop we have not yet been persuaded that they equal the performance of conventional bows at equivalent price levels. They certainly don’t approach the beauty of the real thing.
Bow hair should be horsehair. Although quality horsehair is expensive, it is still the only material available which produces good tone and control for the player. Horsehair comes in several grades. The best hair is strong, consistent in thickness, straight, naturally white (not bleached), and comes from cold climates.
Bows should be rehaired regularly (at least once a year for the average student), as the hair gets dirty and worn. It loses its “tooth” (a slight roughness that, along with rosin dust, enables it to vibrate the strings), and the player loses control over the bow strokes. Cleaning the hair is not a useful remedy.
Fiberglass bows and synthetic hair are usually used only for student beginners, as they do not match the playing qualities of real wood and horsehair.
Bows may be decorated with silver, gold, or German silver (nickel-silver). Mother-of-pearl or abalone shell is usually used for the slide on the frog, which may be made of ebony or other fine woods, ivory, or tortiseshell. Although bows seem extremely simple, fine or rare ones can be worth thousands of dollars.
Strings can be one of four types: all gut, gut wound with silver or aluminum, synthetic material similarly wound, or all steel. All-gut strings are usually used by players seeking an authentic baroque-or-earlier sound. Whether you use all-metal, or synthetic or gut wound with metal depends upon the kind of sound you are trying to produce. All-metal strings are usually louder and more penetrating, but can also be harsher than other types of strings. On the other hand, all-steel strings are usually cheaper than the other types. Your choice of strings will depend on the tonal qualities of your instrument, your playing approach, and the kind of music you play. It is worthwhile to be picky about what type and brand of strings you use. We carry a number of brands at discounted prices, and would be happy to advise you about which ones would be most appropriate for your playing and your instrument.
Strings should be cleaned after playing by rubbing them with a soft cloth. They should be replaced periodically, as they will stop sounding good long before they actually break. How often you replace them depends on how much and how hard you play, but even the most casual player will want to replace them yearly. A violinist who is on stage every week may replace strings as often as every month.