How to Choose a Violin: 7 Expert Tips from a Luthier

‍Buying a Violin Can Be Challenging. We Have Asked Cremonese Luthier Lucas Fabro to Offer Some of His Independent Advice on Choosing the Right Instrument!

Trying instruments in a violin shop most likely means playing random instruments for hours and if you don’t know where or how to begin. There's a real danger that you'll leave more confused than before you went in.

After seeing many musicians come to my workshop to try my instruments, I can almost immediately distinguish people who are doing it for the first time to those with more experience.

These encounters combined with some of my own personal ideas have enabled me to come up with the following tips.

A quick guide:

  1. Have a Clear Budget
  2. Bring a Good Bow
  3. Choose the Right Repertoire
  4. Narrow Candidates Down Quickly
  5. Take your time on Instruments you Like
  6. Bring Another Player Along
  7. Make sure the Sound Represents You
choosing a violin

How to Start

The first obvious thing is to have a clear budget and to be honest about it.

You'll only end up disappointed if you find your perfect instrument but costs 10 times more than what you can afford.

Keep the very first few tries short, so you don’t use too much of your time on instruments that are not right for you.

Sometimes I see people trying an instrument they know isn't right for them for too long because they don’t want to seem rude to the maker or shop owner. This is a natural part of the process and you shouldn't worry about offending anyone.

Rule out the instruments that you don’t feel are a match as quickly as possible so that you don’t get tired, and keep more time for the instruments that you liked.

If you have the time, it's a good idea to keep the instruments that you like for a few days.

It's important to have a good bow in order to get the best sound out of the instruments. If you don't have one, consider borrowing one from a friend, colleague or teacher. This is particularly important for more advanced players.

Sound is created by the friction between the strings and the bow, so the bow plays a very important role!

What to Play

For the first play, open strings and a scale are always good to demonstrate whether the instrument has potential.

Don't rush into playing long hard pieces! You'll start thinking more about your performance rather than the sound of the instrument itself.

For the instruments that deserve a second round, I’d recommend playing some of the repertoire you already know.

Try different bowing techniques if you want to push the instrument to see how it responds. Varying bow speeds and contact points will allow you to hear the colours and harmonics of the instrument.

Some of the repertoire that gets the most out of an instrument in terms of playability, response and range versatility is:

Violin

  • Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto (opening of 1st Mov.)
  • Mendelssohn Violin Concerto (opening of 1st Mov.)
  • Bach Sonatas & Partitas

Viola

  • Schubert Arpeggione
  • Bartok Concerto
  • Bach Suites

Cello

  • Opening of Elgar Concerto
  • Brahms E minor Sonata
  • Bach Suites
  • Andante of Brahms Piano Quartet N. 3

4 Ears are Better than 2

Bring another musician that plays in a similar way to you so you can hear the instrument played by someone else as the sound perceived under the ear is different to the one perceived from the outside. It's usually good if others can hear the instrument as well.

This is not a minor detail, as the way the instrument is played will massively change its sound!

Your violin teacher can be valuable in helping you pick an instrument as they know your playing, but keep in mind that their preferences towards instruments are subjective and they might not have much experience trying them either.

If the instrument you like is completely different to the one they like, that is also ok!

If the instrument feels right, it's quite probable that you'll play with more confidence and sound better on it.

Desirable Sound Characteristics

Balance is one of the most important elements to listen out for in any stringed instrument. By this I mean that the sound quality and characteristics between the strings are even.

Another thing to keep in mind are how well the instrument projects and the harmonics it has.

Beyond this, it gets more subjective because it depends mostly on your personal taste.

Assessing colour range

Is the overall sound profile dark or bright?

Does it have a metallic or a wooden sound? (for this I like to imagine the sound produces when hitting a piece of metal or wood and compare it to the sound of the instrument)

Is the sound nasal or it seems to come more from the chest or throat? (I try to imitate the sound of the instrument with my voice and see from which part of my body I need to push the sound)

Is the instrument velvety or shrill? Sweet or sour?

Even if these characteristics are subjective, they are also some of the most important ones, as they are the ones that represent you!

You might find a high quality violin with a great sound that is just not right for you because it's lacking the colours you like.

Final Thoughts

Remember that if you’re absolutely happy with the sound of the instrument but you find something a bit uncomfortable (such as string height, the bridge’s arching, the neck thickness or shape, etc.), then in most cases these things are easy to adjust by the luthier who made the instrument.

My final piece of advice would be that if you find an instrument you really like don’t overthink it! It can take some time to find an instrument that's right for you so it's important to be able to recognise the opportunity when you find something you like!


Visit Lucas' Website

About the Author

Lucas Fabro is a Violin Maker based in Cremona. He works alone from scratch on each instrument and he has a keen interest in the physics of the instruments and the importance this has on the acoustics.
Each handmade top and back has its own individual and specified arching to enhance the sound quality of the instrument.

Lucas Fabro
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Lucas Fabro
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