Good Buy? or Good-bye! – Instruments

A Layman’s Guide to Purchasing a Violin, Viola, Cello or Double Bass 

Purchasing stringed instruments for students or an orchestra program may be comparable to walking through a mine field without a map.  Selecting an instrument outfit can reward us with an instrument that is genuinely a good buy, or punish us with an instrument we wish we had never bought.  Hopefully, these next several columns can serve as a map that will help us make informed string instrument purchases.

Stringed instruments are sold at three price levels.  An entry level instrument is called a student instrument, with a price ranging from several hundred dollars to approximately $1,200.00.  A mid-level instrument is considered a step-up instrument, ranging in price from $1,200.00 to $4,000.00.  A top-level instrument is referred to as a professional instrument, costing $4,000.00 or more, up to several millions of dollars.  Putting this in perspective, many music majors at colleges and conservatories play an instrument with an appraised value of $10,000.00 to $20,000.00.  A major recording artist may play an instrument appraised at several million dollars.

What makes one instrument worth more than another?  There are two general reasons.  The first is sound.  The second is provenance or, more simply, the maker and country of origin.  There are a few Stradivarius instruments that are in poor repair and do not sound good.  Because they are known to be made by Stradivarius in Cremona, Italy, during the golden age of violin making, those instruments still fetch a high price at auction when sold to collectors.  While the instruments may not be in perfect condition, the name “Stradivarius,” and the fact that they were made in Italy, keeps their value high.  In contrast, an unknown contemporary maker may produce instruments with extraordinary tone and fine craftsmanship.  Since the maker is not known he or she cannot charge as much for the instrument.  Such undervalued instruments are often good buys, especially in the step-up and professional price ranges.

When purchasing a student level instrument with limited funds the buyer should budget as much money as possible for the instrument.  Within the overall budget the next most important item is a good case to protect the instrument.  To save money initially the buyer may purchase a fiberglass bow with horse-hair as a temporary bow.  A good, pernambuco wood bow should then be purchased as soon as it is financially possible.  The fiberglass bow may be kept for use as a spare bow.  Fractional sized instruments may be purchased for a school or church program, or for a family with younger siblings who may study strings.  For most families however, it is more economical to rent smaller instruments until a child is ready to purchase a full-sized one.

The first step in purchasing a string instrument is deciding on the budget.  The budget should take into consideration the student’s needs.  Is the student a beginner or moving on to a step-up instrument?  Does the student want the instrument to last through middle school and perhaps the first year of high school?  Is the student needing a step-up instrument for high school and perhaps a music minor in college, or is the student in need of an instrument suitable for a music major in college?  Once the budget is set, the student may begin trying out instruments in the appropriate price range to find one that matches his needs and “feels good in the hands.”

All stringed instruments should meet or exceed the guidelines set forth by the Music Educators National Conference.  Instruments usually state this on the product tag.  MENC guidelines include basic indications of quality workmanship such as an ebony fingerboard, ebony pegs, a good quality maple bridge, inlaid purfling, varnish and specifications for carved or laminated construction (cellos and basses).

Inexpensive, imported instruments often do not meet these guidelines and spend more time in the repair shop than being played.  Such instruments often try to duplicate the look of ebony pegs and fingerboards by coloring cheaper, softer woods with black shoe dye.  Real ebony is black throughout the wood.  Dyed wood reveals light colored wood beneath the top layer of faked color.  Ebony withstands wear extremely well.  Soft wood pegs and fingerboards wear away quickly making an instrument difficult to tune and impossible to play on in tune.  For these reasons orchestra programs strongly discourage using instruments that do not meet these minimum standards.

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This article first appeared in Lines & Spaces, a newsletter published by David E. Smith Publications, and is used here by permission.

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Jay-Martin Pinner teaches over 40 violin, viola, cello, and double bass students at Pinner Studios, a private string studio in Greenville, SC.  He served as head of the String Department at Bob Jones University for 25 years and is the founding director of the Bob Jones Academy and Junior High Orchestras. For 25 years he supervised the University’s String Repair Shop maintaining the University and pre-college inventories of string instruments, bows, and cases.  He worked with Pecknel Music Company repairing instruments owned by South Carolina school districts.  He was privileged to study at the University of New Hampshire with Hans Nebel, one of the most respected string instrument restorers and repair techs in the United States.

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