These days, it’s easy to find a Stradivarius sticker slapped inside any violin and this may seem like an indicator of good quality. This couldn’t be further from the truth.
Most violins you come across on the market are only inspired by Stradivarius or other great masters. With that said, how can you tell if a violin is of truly good quality?
Luckily there are a few ways to know if a violin is authentically vintage or antique, and if it is actually of quality that is worth money. It is also important to know how this factors into choosing the best violin for beginners.
How can you tell if a violin is vintage or antique?
There is a subtle difference between a “vintage” violin and an “antique” violin.
Antique violins date to at least 100 years or older, while vintage violins are more in the range of 30-100 years old. The best way to know the age of a violin is to look inside the f-hole and find the label inside the violin – a kind of sticker with the violin maker’s name and the year the violin was made.
Sometimes the label or pertinent details may be missing, which makes it difficult to pinpoint the date exactly. In these cases, it’s best to take your violin to an appraiser who is skilled at estimating when a violin was made.
It is important to note that the age of a violin does not necessarily equate to its quality or worth. An antique violin may be worth less than a contemporary violin purely because of craftsmanship and quality. Also, an antique or vintage violin may not be the best fit for a beginner.
But, we’ll talk more about that later.
How do I know if my violin is worth money?
The best way to truly know if your violin is worth money is to have an official appraisal by a reputable service.
An appraiser will be able to evaluate the quality and history of your violin and estimate it’s worth based on current market conditions. However, if you are not interested in taking this route, there are more basic things to look for to gauge the quality of a violin, which can often (but not always) translate to worth.
Quality doesn’t always equate to the worth of a violin, but it can be a pretty good indicator.
Flame of the Wood
The back of the violin is a good indicator of the quality of the instrument. If the back of the violin looks uniform in color and you cannot see the grain or variation of the wood, this is a good indication that the violin is of low quality.
If you see almost tiger-like stripes and variations in the color of the wood, this flaming of the wood is a good indicator that the violin is higher in quality.
The craftsmanship of the violin is the greatest indicator of the quality of an instrument. When you look at the seams of the violin, they should be elegantly sealed with no visible glue or rough edges. The more finely carved the scroll, the higher the quality of the violin.
On a quality violin, the purfling, or the thin black lines that outline the top of the violin, will be inlaid, rather than painted.
To know if a violin’s purfling is inlaid, take a magnifying glass and closely examine the grain of the wood where the purfling falls. If you can see the grain of the wood peeping through the purfling and it appears to be the same as the grain of wood surrounding the violin, then the purfling is painted on. If the grain of the wood varies, the purfling is inlaid and is likely of higher quality.
When looking at the label inside the violin, if you see the name of a luthier, or violin maker, it is likely of higher quality than a violin with a generic factory or violin company logo. Also, if the violin was made in a European country, it is likely of higher quality.
Sound and Ease of Playing
A violin of higher quality is going to have a richer, deeper sound, whereas a violin of lower quality is going to have an almost “nasal,” thin sound. The violin will also be easier to play if it is of higher quality – the strings will be closer to the fingerboard, making playing in the upper registers more effortless than it would be on a lower quality instrument.
A quality violin will have a fingerboard, chin rest, and tailpiece made of ebony. A lower quality violin may have plastic pieces that greatly cheapen the quality of the violin. A lower quality or “student violin” is going to have all four fine tuners on the tailpiece, whereas a higher quality violin is going to have just one, for the top E-string.
Higher quality violins generally use the tuning pegs as opposed to fine tuners because the fine tuners can weigh down the violin and deaden the sound.
Red Flags in Quality
It is equally important to be aware of “red flags” indicative of poor quality.
For instance, any visible cracks or open seams are really bad. This shows that the violin is not in good condition. If the fingerboard is uneven, crooked, or warped, this is also a red flag of poor quality.
Pay close attention to the bridge – if it appears to be warping when you look at it from the side, this could be a sign that the violin is poorly made and causing extra tension on the bridge.
What is the best violin for beginners?
When considering a violin for beginners, it may not be necessary to get the most top-quality, expensive violin.
A beginner may be young and prone to accidents, or may frequently be in highly active environments – such as an orchestra rehearsal full of young, playful students. Also, no matter how old the student is, it is uncertain how long a beginner will study the violin.
In such cases, it is not wise to buy the most expensive violin because a beginner is not certain how long a beginner will play and they may initially be in accident-prone environments that put the instrument at risk.
With that said, it is best to find a fairly good quality violin at a reasonable price. Many beginner violins come in packages that include the violin, bow, and case. Such a package, perhaps in the price range of $150-300, is a starting place for the beginning violinist searching for a good violin.
Quality, not quantity
At the end of the day, the best things to look for in a violin are the quality of craftsmanship, sound, and purely if you like the violin.
It is easy to be persuaded by high price tags or famous luthiers, but such features do not necessarily determine the quality of a violin and its value to you as a player. And if you are just starting, it is best to find the middle ground when budgeting for a new violin. And when in doubt, take the violin to an appraiser to truly know where the violin falls in the market.
I am very glad I found your post here. I have been shopping around for a new violin for my daughter. She started playing when she was 13 and her 18th birthday is coming up. My husband and I both agreed to send her off to college next year with a brand new violin and not a cheap one. I am compiling a bunch of tips and advice from people who know more about violins than we do so we get the best one for her. I would not have known to look for the red flags you mentioned at all. I wrote them down even so I make sure to check!