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6 tips for buying your first violin, viola or cello

4 Jun 2021
by Dries

Are you looking for your very first violin, viola or cello? Buying a bowed instrument is not something you do on impulse. We give a few tips, so you can find the right instrument for your budget!

Tip 1: Buy from a specialised shop

Violas, violas and cellos can now be found all over the internet, in all colours and scents. They're almost given away as presents with cornflakes! Good news, you'd think, but unfortunately it often leads to a big disappointment. And frustration.

Some large internet shops, selling products ranging from washing machines to guitars, are nothing more than gigantic warehouses. So no employee will actually get their hands on the instrument you are buying. Most instruments are stored in these warehouses without set-up. That means that the bridge is not mounted on the instrument, the strings are not tensed up, and (in the worst case) the soundpost - the wooden stick inside the instrument - is fell down. This is done to avoid damage during storage or bulk transport.

A correct setup of a string instrument has to be done by specialists. Without guidance, a beginner simply cannot set up a bridge (let alone a soundpost) correctly. So there you are with your freshly bought instrument, which turns out to be unplayable!

Not so if you go to a specialist shop (or luthier) for string instruments, online or offline. There, they make sure you get a perfectly set up instrument in your hands. This way you will have an instrument according to the rules of the art, that is easy to play and can produce a beautiful sound. On condition you practise enough of course... :)

Tip 2: Pay attention to the wood types

Violins, violas and cellos consist of the same parts, although (of course) different in size. These individual parts can vary greatly in quality. And that starts with the choice of wood.

  • The top and bottom part: the sound box of the violin is also called the body or corpus . In its most traditional form it consists of solid wood. The toptable (with the f-holes in) is usually made of pine wood, and the bottom and sides are maple for optimal resonance.
  • The fingerboard (the black part where you put your fingers) and the tuning pegs are generally made of ebony.

Today in some places you can find "violins" for under €60. We put "violin" between inverted commas here. These cheapest instruments are often made with laminate, or MDF. This is compressed wood splinters, which you often find in IKEA furniture, for example. Of course, you can't make a decent instrument out of that.

The ebony fingerboard is also replaced by black-painted hardwood (e.g. pearwood). In itself, this is not such a problem, but the finish can be so dramatic that your fingers will be black with paint after a while. Bumps will also appear much more quickly, which makes playing less enjoyable.

Do yourself or your child a favour: buy an instrument made of quality wood. It may cost a bit more, but we've never heard a decent sound come out of an IKEA closet, with or without strings!

Tip 3: The bow

A quality bow is just as important as a decent instrument. More expensive bows are made of pernambuco and have an ebony shaft. The cheapest bows are made of tropical hardwood and have a slipper made of ordinary hardwood. Bows made of brazilwood are in between. If their shape and consistency is decent, this is not necessarily a problem. But the cheapest sets sometimes skimp on that.

In the budget segment a carbon bow is an excellent choice. This material, from which a.o. aircraft parts are made, is resilient, strong and relatively cheap to produce, it turned out to be an ideal alternative for the expensive pernambuco wood.

If you go for a complete set, check out the material and quality of the included bow.

Tip 4: Metal cables or strings?

The experienced internet shopper may have noticed that violin, viola and cello strings (complete sets) can be found for a few euros. A bargain?

Of course not. The cheapest strings for violin, viola and cello come straight from a steel factory and are nothing more than that: steel cables that produce a shrill, one-dimensional sound, are difficult to play on, and also break easily. For that reason, you'll never find such sets in a respectable music shop.

If you buy an instrument, make sure it has synthetic strings or wound metal strings of a reputable brand (Thomastik, D'Addario, Pirastro, Larsen...). It makes an immense difference to the sound and playing pleasure.

Tip 5: The accessories

To start playing, you'll need a few other little things:

  • a quality case to protect your instrument. For cello or double bass this can also be a padded bag
  • a shoulder rest for violin or viola
  • a rosin block to rosin your bow

If these are not included in the set, you will need to buy them separately.

Tip 6: Buy or rent?

You want to postpone the purchase of an instrument because of the high price? You can also easily rent or buy a violin, viola or cello. For many people, this is an interesting option. You save yourself from having to spend a lot of money at once, and you can test whether the instrument meets all your expectations or the requirements of your child. Interested? Here you can read more about it!

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