One question that I am frequently asked buy customers is what is the difference in between a violin costing $ to one costing $$ or even $$$$$$$. Then to answer their own question with a question they will invariably ask, “Is it the wood?” The answer is yes, it is the wood… and a whole list of other things that are just as important. If you’ve been around bowed strings for a while you probably know most or all of this but if you are a novice it can be illuminating. Here are the qualifiers in no particular order that will determine either the price, the performance or likely both.
I) The Wood: Yes, the quality of the wood will make a difference. I am personally not convinced that European woods are intrinsically better than Chinese woods or other areas except for that fact that Europeans have been selecting and curing woods for generations. That experience can have an impact. If wood is not properly selected and dried it will have an adverse effect on the instrument’s performance. After you have looked at enough violins and cellos you can easily see the differences in the quality of the wood in the tops and backs. Hint: look for tops where the grain on the spruce top is not too fine and flamed maple on the back.
II) The Craftsmanship: Actually, this is probably the single biggest factor that determines the quality of an instrument. First, there is the over-all wood craft of the builder. Does it look like it was thrown together by amateurs? First year woodshop? A absolute work of art? A great looking fiddle is not always a great sounding fiddle but it is an indicator. Second, there is the amount of time allotted to make the instrument. Even a great builder can’t do great work if he or she is rushed. I think that time is a huge determiner in the quality of an instrument especially under $1000 (or even way under $1000). I am sure that there are wood crafters in shops around the world who are under the gun to crank out x number of backs and tops in a week and who lament that they could do better with just a little more time. Finally, there is the skill and experience of the builder. It comes down to knowing how much to shave off and how much to leave. There is an art to tuning a top and a back and carving a pegbox that you don’t get overnight.
III) The Set Up: They say you can’t make a sows ear into a silk purse but the set up and final adjustments can sure make a mediocre violin perform better and also keep a good violin or cello from reaching its potential if the work is poorly done. I shake my head at how many people buy acoustic instruments off eBamazon expecting that they will be able to put up the bridge, bring it up to pitch and enjoy playing a great, well adjusted instrument. It might happen occasionally but don’t count on it. I’ve unboxed otherwise good instruments that were so poorly prepared that they were almost completely unplayable until I spent some quality time with them. I unboxed a nice 1/4 cello just the other day where the strings were 1/4 of an inch off the fingerboard at the nut. The child would need near Herculean strength to push them down. Depending on the shop, the instrument and the level of adjustment you are looking at $75 to $200 for a good setup and higher for a symphony quality set-up.
IV) The Provenance: The lineage of a violin has an enormous impact on price. That is why a Stradivarius can command five to eight million. There are a lot of different violin levels between the Strad and the entry level Sears catalog violin. The maker, the vintage, the rarity and in the case of the most expensive instruments who played it are of the highest importance. When you buy a Strad or a Guarnerius you are buying a great instrument but you are also buy an irreplaceable piece of history. When you are looking at new contemporary instruments the value is enhanced by the reputation of the builder.
V) The Age: All things being equal an older quality instrument is usually worth more than a new one – especially if it is hand made by a single luthier. This isn’t to say that a three year old instrument is worth more than a new one of the same level but a one hundred year old one in excellent condition probably is. Aside from collector value, instruments that have aged gracefully and have been played for a while sound better. It is a fact that wooden instruments sound better once they have been “played in” because the molecules line up in the wood. This doesn’t necessarily take many years to begin. You can easily hear the difference after a hundred hours of playing.
VI) The Bow: The bow is probably the factor most overlooked by many first-time buyers and although it is often a separate cost consideration from the violin we should address it. The bow is literally a third of the sound. The bows that come with outfits typically do not optimize the performance of the instrument. Avoid fiberglass at all costs. Typically, Brazilwood is better than cherry or surprise wood and Pernambuco is better than Brazilwood (it is actually a sub-genus of Brazilwood). If you are on a budget and cannot afford to upgrade the bow at least try several stock bows at the shop. Even with a student bow from an outfit any real shop should be willing to let you try out several to find one that suits you. Five bows that look identical will all sound and perform slightly differently. Make upgrading the bow as soon as possible a priority. For the budget conscious buyer I really like carbon fiber bows (don’t confuse with fiberglass). If you are spending less than $500 on a bow they will often out-perform wood and you can get a playable carbon fiber bow for as little as $100 that will out perform most stock student bows.
VII) The Strings: You would be amazed at how much strings make a difference in the sound. Above a certain price point violins usually come with good strings, but budget violins typically come with horrible strings unless otherwise noted. Student level instruments are often restrung with reasonably priced steel core strings like Red Label, Overture and Prelude. They tend towards brightness but are dramatically better than stock cheapies. The default string set for many serious players is typically the Dominant. This isn’t necessarily because it is hands-down the best string (and yes they are a very good string) but because they were the first synthetic core strings made and they revolutionized violin playing for many people. Before the Dominant your choices were gut and steel core. There are other very good synthetic core strings made by Pirastro, Corelli, Larsen, D’Addario and of course Thomastik who make several alternatives to their popular Dominant. Gut strings are also still popular with many professional players and players of baroque instruments. Some non-classical players such as players of bluegrass and Celtic music often go with steel core because they “cut through’. The choice of string is determined by your style of playing, how your instrument responds to different strings and your budget. There are several good articles on choosing strings on the Internet.