There’s no denying it—the violin definitely has an aura of romance and even mystique. Violins originated back in the 16th century, but today they are as popular and versatile as ever, used in all kinds of music from classical to jazz to rock. Selecting a good quality instrument is important for players at all levels, but if you’re selecting your first violin for yourself or your child, the process of figuring out what to get can be a bit daunting. Violins may look similar at first glance, but they vary immensely in sound, feel, and performance, not to mention cost!
At the Beginning
A lot of relatively low-cost instruments are available for beginners. Some are of good quality, but others have poor materials and construction and are humorously nicknamed “violin-shaped objects.” The cheapest instruments may not be worth the cost, however, because you may need to spend extra on improvements to make them playable. You can read reviews on the Internet about some of the more commonly used brands of entry-level instruments. A student “outfit” will include the violin, a bow, a case, and rosin.
Renting may be a good option, especially for small children, who will need to step up in violin size as they grow. A good rental agreement allows you to change sizes as needed, and many are rent-to-own. When you consider rental costs over the course of a year, it may also make sense to buy the instrument and have trade-in value. A well-maintained violin will generally not depreciate. Regardless of whether you buy or rent, you’ll want go to go a reputable dealer or shop that will make sure the instrument is sound and well set up with properly adjusted pegs, fingerboard, strings, bridge, soundpost, and tailpiece.
If you are buying a used instrument at a flea market, on the internet, or from a private seller and it hasn’t already been vetted by an expert, be aware that it might have defects and need repairs. You can read about specific problems to look for or have a luthier (a person who makes violins) look it over if possible. Also, keep in mind that the violin may
need basic maintenance including new strings, bridge, adjustments, and new bow hair, so these will be in addition to the purchase cost.
Intermediate and Advanced Level
As a student advances, they’ll need a better instrument to help their skills develop. At that point, you’ll want to look into slightly better, intermediate level instruments. Renting is also still an option at that point.
For serious students and those moving towards semi-professional or professional level, buying a violin can be especially exciting and is a lot like matchmaking. The instrument has to sound good and feel right to the player. Fine violins will be constructed from high quality wood and have been hand built by a master luthier or in a small workshop. The right violin may be a vintage instrument or brand-new.
It is important to work with good dealers and get guidance from the teacher to select a violin at this level. You’ll probably take a few instruments home on trial before committing to buy. Pricing for fine violins is complicated. Although quality generally goes up with higher price ranges, it’s not unusual for someone to find that they prefer a less expensive instrument over one costing more.
If you want a different kind of sound or simply don’t want to annoy your neighbors late at night, you might consider an electric violin, which can be used with either headphones or an amplifier. There is an array of quality and features, and some are MIDI-capable. If you want the warmth of an acoustic violin but need amplification, there are also hybrids—acoustic violins that have pickups permanently mounted.
If you’re not buying or renting a student outfit, you’ll need to buy a bow. At the cheapest end, a fiberglass bow is sturdy and can be appropriate for young beginners. Wooden bows for beginning students may be made of the vaguely termed “Brazil wood.”
When it comes to carbon fiber bows, violinists have very different opinions about the sound and performance. Some models are reviewed very favorably, while other players prefer the warmth of wood bows. Carbon fiber bows are durable and can be especially convenient for travel or for playing outdoors.
Pernambuco wood is used for the best bows due to its strength and elasticity. This type of wood grows in limited places in Brazil and is declining in availability due to habitat loss. Pernambuco bows can range from moderately priced models to extremely expensive bows by famous makers. It is possible to spend more on the bow than the violin itself. When selecting a good Pernambuco or carbon fiber bow, you’re looking for one that sounds good with your violin and handles well. The right bow can make a big difference in the sound of your instrument.
Other Accessory Expenses to Consider
If you are not buying an outfit that includes a case, you’ll need to buy one separately in order to keep your instrument safe. Cases vary in simplicity, shape, and accessories. Reasonably priced cases can be bought that will keep your instrument well cushioned, will hold two bows, and will offer a compartment or two for your rosin and other odds and ends. Many have straps that can be configured to wear backpack style.
When it comes to playing the violin, comfort is crucial. Many players use some form of a shoulder rest that takes up the space between the bottom of the violin and your shoulder and helps support the instrument. Shoulder rests are all about personal preference and what feels comfortable. It’s best to try several at a strings store to see which feels the best.
Cost for a Violin
With so many factors to consider, you’ll want to know what a violin costs. Prices for beginner level violins range from $100 to about $500. At an intermediate level, you may pay about $600 to about $1,500. That’s a ballpark estimate, though, and there is nothing wrong with buying the best quality instrument you can comfortably afford. Rental prices for beginner to intermediate instruments typically range from $15 to $50 per month depending on instrument quality
If you buy a used instrument (e.g., from a flea market or private seller) that hasn’t been vetted and set up by a luthier, in addition to the purchase price, you should expect to pay about $200 to get it ready for action, assuming no major repairs are needed.
At the more advanced student level and moving into a professional level, you may spend anywhere from a $2,000 on up to tens of thousands of dollars (for professionals). World-class violins played by the top violinists can cost hundreds of thousands or even millions of dollars (those venerable instruments are on long-term loan to the musicians).
You can find lower-end electric violins for $200-$300. Professionals might spend $1,000 to $3,000. Acoustic-electric violins can cost anywhere from about $500 to $5,000.
For bows, a fiberglass bow can be purchased for under $100. Brazil wood bows are also on the inexpensive end—up to about $200. Carbon fiber bows range from under $100 to over $1,000. A good quality Pernambuco wood bow can be purchased for around $500, but prices can range up to many thousands of dollars.
Shoulder rest prices range from about $12 to as much as $70. However, a higher price doesn’t mean a better shoulder rest for you. For many people, a shoulder rest in the $12 to $20 range does fine.
To buy a case, a simple model costs less than $100. For about $100 to $200, you can get a nice quality case for most students. Professionals or those with every good violins might want a higher quality case, which can cost $300 to $1,000.
Caring for Your Investment
It’s also important to note that winter can be hard on string instruments. Dry weather puts your instrument at risk of cracks or seams opening up, which means a trip to the luthier for repairs. To keep your instrument adequately humidified, you can get devices that go either directly into the F-hole of your instrument (a Dampit) or remain in the case itself. A hygrometer can tell you the relative humidity in your case to make sure you’re wetting your humidification device often enough. And finally, don’t forget rosin. Humidification devices range from about $12 to $30. A hydrometer will cost $30-$50. Rosin costs about $8 to $30 (for a high-end product).