Buying Your First Student Violin
You have decided that you, or some other student in your household is going to learn to play the violin.  Congratulations!  The violin is a magnificent instrument, and there is tremendous value in studying any musical instrument.  I will remind you, though that the violin is called the "King of Strings."  I'm not alone in my prejudice for the violin.

But now that you've made the decision to join the Brotherhood of the Bow, you need to decide what to do about an instrument.  Should you rent or buy?  What do you need to look for in an instrument? 

I can give you some good advice, and will do so through this article.  But I would advise you to approach your teacher as well.  She will probably have some advice as well.  I trust that what you hear will be substantially the same. 

It is possible to buy a violin by itself.  It is also possible to buy a complete outfit.  Most student outfits come with the violin itself, a bow and a cake of rosin.  Sometimes (but not often) the outfit will include a humidifier to protect the instrument from dry air and prevent it from cracking.  For a first-time purchase I would recommend that you look for a complete outfit, especially if you are unfamiliar with violins and the student is a child.
Your first consideration is what size violin to buy.

Violins come in several sizes.  The sizes are expressed in fractions.  A full-size violin is a 4/4.  As violins get smaller they fraction gets smaller as well. 

Choose your violin based on the length of the player's arm. 

There are two approaches to deciding what size to buy.  In both cases you will have the player extend their arm out perpendicular from their body with their palm facing up, and you will begin measuring at the player's neck.

In the first method you will measure from the neck to the center of the player's wrist.  When you use this method with the chart I have provided below you will come up with the size violin that a player needs at this point in time.  I believe that this is the correct method to use . . . especially with a beginner.  When a player is just starting out he is developing habits that he will probably follow for the rest of his playing career.  If he starts out having to stretch and strain and alter his arm / hand / neck position to accomodate a violin that is too large he will simply be forming habits that he will have to break later on.  And frankly, playing the right size violin is just a whole lot more comfortable than playing the wrong size!  An uncomfortable violinist is one who will probably be reluctant to start practice . . . never mind put in the time that he really needs to improve!   

That being said, I understand that even a student violin is a fairly substantial investment. I also understand that money can be tight.  With the cost of lessons, it is not fun to pay out money for a violin that the child will outgrow in just a year!  Many parents decide that they would like to buy an instrument that is a little too large now and their child will "grow into."  Is that recommended?  NO.  But literally millions of violin students have begun their studies on instruments that were not the right size at the time they started and were none the worse for it two years down the road.  The cost is slower progress and a student who will probably be less enthusiastic about practice.  The savings is the amount of money spent on the violin that the student outgrows.  To my way of thinking, the right sized instrument is worth the 50 cents a day that you save even if you can't sell the instrument when it comes time to upgrade.  Some violin shops are willing to accept violins you initially bought from them as a trade-in when you upgrade.  Some shops who rent out instruments even grant partial credit of the amount paid as rent when you buy a violin from them!  If I still haven't convinced you to just buy the right sized instrument, use the same method described above, but measure to the center of the student's palm instead of the middle of his wrist.  Using this measurement in the chart will give you the largest instrument your student can reasonably handle. 

A third method of determining size is slightly better than a guess.  General age groups and the size violin they usually require are also listed in the chart.
I have seen instruments that are 1/32 and even 1/64 sizes.  I believe that if a child is too small to handle a 1/16 size violin he is probably too small to study the instrument seriously.  At that point I would still advise you to make sure that the child is getting a music education, but would probably emphasize things like rhythm and vocal tone matching.  I would work on instrument recognition and maybe some ear training.  Even work on note identification on the keyboard would be beneficial.  A Suzuki violin program in which the student starts playing on a "box" might even be beneficial at that point.  The student is learning good technique without the expense of the violin itself.  Bow games and posture work are great and will jump start the student when it comes time to actually pick up an instrument.  The key at this point will be give the student some basic music knowledge . . . but more importantly to generate enthusiasm and a willingness to do the work that will be necessary in the future.

Now let's talk about some basic guidlines for choosing an instrument.  Use these guidelines as a jumping-off point.  This is by no means an all-inclusive guide to violin evaluation.

Violin outfits can range in price from $50 to $5000. 

Signs of a better quality instrument are

1.  The wood has been properly dried.  Tonewoods for violins are not used by most luthiers until they have thouroughly dried.  That can average 7 years or more. 

2.  The pegs, fingerboard and tailpiece are made of a suitable hardwood.  For the most part that means ebony.  There are also excellent quality rosewood and boxwood accessories.  Painted softwoods are not acceptable.  They will wear quickly and will cause more trouble that the few extra dollars that the quality materials cost. 

3.  The purfling is inlaid, not painted on.  The purfling is the "stripe" that runs around the edges of the violin.  The purpose of the purfling is not only decoration, it is actually a mechanism to protect the violin.  If a crack should develop, it will usually run as far as the purfling and then stop.  This makes repair far easier than if the crack actually runs all the way to the edge.  

4.  There are no flaws in the finish.

5.  The inside of the pegbox has been varnished, not painted. 

These are clues that care has been taken to produce a quality instrument.  The other obvious things to look for is that the instrument is soundly crafted.  You should not see any cracks or gaps at any of the seams in the violin.  If there is even a hint of poor workmanship I would advise rejecting the instrument.

Something to consider in buying a student violin is the instrument's tunability.  A violin is not the easiest instrument to tune.  Many student violins have fine tuning mechanisms either attached to the tailpiece or actually built into the tailpiecs.  I find this a very desirable characteristic in a student violin . . . especially the tailpiece with four fine tuners built in.  It will save you literally hours of tuning over the course of the student's career.  And please note that I said "you," and not "your student."  In all probability you will be at least somewhat involved in tuning the instrument at the beginning . . . especially if you participate in a Suzuki program.

Only after a violin has passed a physical examination would I worry about how the instrument sounds.  Especially in student violins there is no ideal tone that you should look for.  I would advise you to look for an instrument whose tone you find pleasant.  Stay away from instruments whose tone is overly shrill.  At the same time, do not accept an instrument whose tone is so mellow that it sounds like it is drowning in syrup.  I would advise you to look for an instrument which can produce a warm, yet lively tone.

Finally, with regard to price.  I really believe that you need to follow a reasonable path here.  If it is actually the student's first violin there is a distinct possibllity that the instrument will be abandoned.  The violin is not for everyone, and many people play for six months or a year and lay the instrument down never to play again.  For this reason I would not recommend spending vast sums of money. 

But at the same time I would not automatically buy the fiddle I found on eBay for $19.95.  The instrument needs to be playable.  The instrument needs to have an acceptable tone.  The instrument needs to be one that the violinist will have fun with and be proud of.  Anything less and you will be ensuring that the violin is one of those abandoned instruments I talked about in the last paragraph.  My rule of thumb for a beginner instrument for a child would be $150-$350.  And although this may sound somewhat self-serving, don't automatically avoid online retailers, especially for student instruments. Most reputable online retailers have a trial period during which you can return the instrument  And although you may hear luthiers talk about the need to have the instrument properly set up . . . they will provide that for a fee even if you did not buy the instrument from them.  And I know of several luthiers who sell the same models you can buy online for $75 more than the online store . . . but only charge half that to set up a violin if you bring it in to them.  Look for value.  

A Word About Labels

Many violins have a label inside.  Many of these labels actually give useful information about the instrument.  Who made it?  When was it made?  Where was it made?  But you need to be careful about violin labels.

There are literally hundreds of thousands of violins around the world whose label says "Stradivari" or some variation of the name.  Other labels carry the names of other famous violin makers.  These labels can mean the instrument is a copy of a violin the master made, the violin's design was inspired by a violin the master made or the violin's manufacturer felt he would sell more of them if he used Stradivari's name. 

If a label is there, read it carefully.  If you are dealing with a reputable violin shop, music shop or online retailer put a certain amount of trust in what they tell you.  If you are dealing with somebody you do not know, or who is not really a member of the music community . . .be skeptical.

Violin Bows

My advice about violin bows will be fairly brief.

Most violin bows are made of brazilwood or pernambuco.  There are some excellent quality bows made of graphite.  Although they used to be something to avoid at all costs, it is more and more common to see acceptable student bows made of fibreglass. 

Avoid bows with plastic or painted wood fittings.

Avoid bows with artificial hair.

Avoid bows with bleached hair . . . it is brittle.  Hair color really is cosmetic only.  If there were a horse with naturally purple hair it would serve just as well.

A note to parents about bow hair . . . it breaks.  It is a fact of life.  Bows need to be re-haired.  I personally would not consider it overly excessive to rehair a student's bow every 12-18 months.  Some professionals re-hair every six months.  Some folks can go for years at a time without rehairing their bows. 

Violin Cases.

There are four things to take into account with a violin case.

1.  Does it seal sufficiently well to protect the violin from the elements?  That means no cracks and no gaps to allow moisture in.  The case needs to close soundly and not spring open by itself.

2.  The case needs to be strong enough to protect the violin from the knocks and bumps it will receive in its daily life.  It does not matter how careful you are moving your violin from one place to another
you will bump it against something.  Every violin case I have ever seen has wound up on the floor at one time or another.  That means it will be kicked.   Every violin case will be subjected to some form of abuse you never imagined when you bought the case.  (I even heard of a young child who used her father's violin case --  with the violin inside -- as a step stool so that she could reach something.)  Plan for one step beyond what you expect is reasonable.

3.  The case needs to hold the violin soundly so that if it is shaken the violin will not be damaged by rattling around inside the case.

4.  It is convenient if the case has sufficient room to carry all the accessories necessary for you to pick up and play the instrument.  It should carry your rosin.  If you use a shouder rest, it should fit inside your case.  If you carry an electronic tuner, it shoudl fit inside your case.  If you carry a music stand . . . well, that's a bit unreasonable, isn't it?  But you get the idea.  If you have your violin with you, the case should carry everything you need to play it if you are asked to do so.

I hope I have answered some of your questions.  If you have further questions,
send me an e-mail.  It may be something I can address here later or place into a tip of the day!

Violin Size

Arm Length
(in inches)
18 1/2
16 1/2
(in years)
12 and above
Brotherhood of the Bow
It Doesn't Matter How You Learned
All That Counts is That You Play!