Purchasing A Quality String Instrument

Here's what to look for in a good string instrument.

Purchasing a quality string instrument is important if you want to continue playing for awhile and sound good doing it. There are many different instruments you can purchase that are nice, depending on the level at which you are working.

For beginning instruments, you can get them in many places. It's best NOT to buy them out of catalogues or online, although that is an option. Visit your local music shop and string instrument dealers to get an idea of the prices. Don't go to a place that primarily rents instruments, or you may be talked into renting, buying an instrument that has been rented many times, or an instrument that is not worth the money you're spending.

Look for an instrument that appears to be well-made. There should be no cracks in it, no gaps at the seams, and it should come set up (with the bridge and the strings on). The bow will be made of fiberglass, but should resemble a well-made, expensive bow. Some beginner bows are made very heavily, with thick plastic by the frog (the end you hold the bow). These are not well-balanced, are difficult to hold, and can promote bad bow holds. They do, however, last for years (which is why rental companies use them). Purchase, instead, a light weight bow that may not last as long, but which more closely replicates a good bow. Ask a local dealer to help out.

When you are looking for a higher quality instrument, there are many other factors to consider. First, never buy an instrument without trying it out. You should see a professional dealer and request to take the instruments home for a few days or a week. If the dealer will not agree, don't purchase an instrument from them. You must be able to play the instruments in your usual settings to get a real feel for them.

Look for instruments that have a two-piece back, striping in the wood (it looks like your instrument basically has stripes running all across the back of it), and which feels well-made to you. Play the instrument and listen to its sound. It should have a deep, rich sound.

Some instruments are fairly nice, but they have a whiny or thin sound. These should be rejected. If you are unsure if it is your playing ability or the instrument, ask the dealer to play it for you. The dealer should also be willing to change the strings if they are what's hampering the sound. If you don't like the feel of the instrument (perhaps the chin rest is too high), ask the dealer to fix it.

The bow is also important. It should be made of either brazil wood or pernambuco, and should be well-balanced. Don't accept a bow made of anything else. Don't buy a bow that has strangely-colored hair, either. Your bow should have plain black or white horse hair. Try the bow out, too, and make sure that it feels well-balanced in your hand. If it doesn't feel right, don't buy it.

If you have a teacher, take the instruments to your teacher and ask him or her to play them. Listen for the depth and richness of the sound. If you play a viola, cello, or bass, check for any "wolf tones." These are usually found on the G string and up in the third position. If you are unsure which notes may be wolf tones, ask about them before buying an instrument.

A wolf tone is a note that doesn't sound properly. It sounds airy and unclear and may even be a little bit shrieky. This happens because the acoustics of the instrument aren't quite right. Always have someone check for these before you buy an instrument. If you really like an instrument except for the wolf tones, ask the dealer if he can move the bass bar (found inside the instrument) to try to correct this problem.

Overall, make sure you buy something that is well-balanced, made of quality wood, does not contain any blemishes, DOES have striping, and sounds nice. Only purchase instruments from reputable dealers, and always try them out before you buy them. Expect to pay $1000 - $1500 for a decent violin or viola. Expect to pay $1500 - $5000 for a cello or bass. Negotiating is okay.

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