Hot Take: Absolutely nothing discourages beginner violin students faster or more thoroughly than a poorly constructed instrument.
The violin is challenging enough to learn without misaligned tailpieces, warping bows, or strings that fly out of tune at every turn. This isn’t to say that every student should start out on a Stradivarius. Indeed, there are plenty of saintly violin makers offering affordable, well-built student violins to individuals and families on a budget.
But you need to be on the lookout for what we like to call violin-shaped objects or VSOs.
VSOs are often assembled in a factory abroad but branded by a distributor or wholesaler in a completely different country. They are generally constructed with cheap materials and a noticeable lack of attention to detail when it comes to parts of the violin that are essential to producing sound.
In this post, we’ll cover some popular brands to avoid, red flags to heed when shopping for a budget violin, and how to acquire a decent starter instrument without breaking the bank …
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It’s important to note that I am not discouraging anyone from purchasing these products should they so desire. They are super cheap, readily available in numerous online marketplaces, and sell very well.
It is merely an opinion, as a violinist of three decades, that VSOs like these do more harm than good. I simply believe that you can do better than these popular choices.
Mendini by Cecilio
It’s hard to deny the bargain that is offered by Mendini’s catalog of products, especially the starter violin kit which comes with myriad accessories such as a case, shoulder rest, and rosin.
These violins also come with an extra set of strings and an extra bridge — which is handy as these are likely the first things that will break. Probably quickly.
Mendini violins are marketed as being made of solid wood, but the myriad of flashy colors these violins come in certainly suggests that there may be more to that story. Furthermore, heavy paint and lacquer serve only to deaden the natural vibrations needed to produce anything other than a small, tinny sound.
Other common complaints include pegs that are either too tight or too loose resulting in an instrument that is difficult to tune and doesn’t stay in tune, as well as warped or flat fingerboards that are painted wood instead of ebony.
Like many VSOs on the market, ADM violins tend to come with ill-fitting pegs making for a frustrating tuning process. When paired with the lower-quality strings that come on the instrument, normal tuning can quickly result in broken strings.
The bows that come with these violins are also prone to warping, and the cheaper tightening mechanism results in bow hair that falls out en masse or falls out entirely.
ADM violins also lack an ebony fingerboard in exchange for a lighter wood fingerboard that is painted black instead. Owners also complain of a poor quality body that scratches and cracks easily. Finally, the sound can be described as harsh and tinny.
In addition to the peg deficiencies that tend to plague this entire market of bargain violins, Windsor violins can often come with low-quality bridges that either have no string grooves at all or improperly spaced grooves. For students, this translates to extreme difficulty in crossing strings, which is utterly awful when you’re trying to learn.
Windsor violins also seem to be made with plastic tailpieces. In conjunction with ill-fitting pegs, it is not uncommon for tailpieces to crack and strings to break during the tuning process.
Finally, another common complaint is the low-quality bow which is prone to warping and losing bow hair with regular use.
Despite their popularity, Eastar violins suffer from lamentable pegs that are difficult to use and slip out of tune during normal use.
Another common concern with these violins is that you may receive one with a loose or completely detached sound post. This is the cylindrical piece of wood underneath the f-hole that transmits sound vibrations from the top piece of the instrument to the back panel. Without a properly functioning sound post, you get a dull, muddy sound, and the top panel can begin to sag.
The bridges that come with Eastar violins also leave a lot to be desired. Some may not be balanced properly (you should see a noticeable slope towards the E string), while others are grooved insufficiently to separate the strings properly.
Red Flags on Bargain Violins
Again, this post is not intended to throw shade at specific VSO manufacturers as much as it should illuminate what to look for when shopping for a student violin. As with any instrument purchase, caveat emptor and be on the lookout for common indicators that the violin is unsuitable for practice or play.
Violins should only be constructed of solid wood, never composite wood. In addition to being sturdier and visually stunning, solid wood provides the warm, robust tone that gives violins their distinct sound.
Similarly, the pegs, tailpiece, fingerboard and chinrest should be made of ebony or a similar wood such as rosewood. Plastic pieces simply cannot withstand regular use.
The role that the bridge plays in the proper functioning of a violin cannot be overstated. Indeed, luthiers pay extreme attention to detail in bridges to ensure perfect dimensions, perfect placement, and perfect separation of strings.
This isn’t just nitpicky; ill-fitting bridges can lead to difficulty crossing strings or painful fingering. Similarly, check the nut of the violin to ensure that there is equal separation of string grooves.
Paint vs. Varnish
This point is a simple one: no self-respecting acoustic violin should be painted. This has little to do with aesthetics and everything to do with tone.
Paint and many synthetic lacquers are heavier than proper varnish and only serve to deaden the vibrations that the violin needs to produce a decent tone.
Plus, yeah, natural wood with varnish looks dignified and engaging. Change my mind.
As noted above, a violin’s fingerboard should be ebony or something similar. Many bargain violins will use a lighter wood and then simply paint it black to mimic the look of an ebony fingerboard. You can see this very clearly by looking under the fingerboard for unpainted edges or surfaces.
Light woods cannot withstand the rigor of playing, whereas ebony has the appropriate density, flexibility and acoustic properties needed for the violin.
Check also that the fingerboard is an appropriate length for the instrument and that it hovers over the body of the violin at a suitable angle. And while the fingerboard should be curved (not flat like on a guitar), give it a once over to ensure that the curvature is uniform.
Getting a Good Student Violin
No student should have to suffer from a poorly made violin, even if the wallet is a little light. And while it’s probably best to steer clear of anything that sells for $150 or less, there are ways to get around what can feel like a significant financial barrier to playing this beautiful instrument.
A quick visit to your local strings shop can yield some encouraging results! Renting an instrument is a fantastic way to start, especially if you’re not sure that you or your child will stick with it. You may decide to give it up in a few months, but at least you have a fighting chance at learning and you aren’t out too much money.
Your local shop may also offer payment plans to help spread out the cost of a decent starter violin. For little tykes, they may also offer trade-up programs for when it’s time to graduate to the next size.
If you can’t visit a strings shop in person, try connecting with a reputable online seller such as Shar Music or Southwest Strings. You may be surprised at their beginner violin prices and you can rest assured that the violin you purchase will be set up properly and maintain a greater degree of resale value.
In instances where any expense is too great, seek out local nonprofits that specialize in connecting youth with instruments and lessons at little to no cost to your family.
Trying to learn anything on a VSO or other low-quality violin can be the kind of tragic experience that completely snuffs out a fiery passion for the instrument. But you can avoid having that experience for you or your child by watching out for questionable brands and obvious warning signs on bargain violins.
Getting your hands on a decent starter violin doesn’t have to break the bank and may just mean the difference between quitting and a lifetime of luscious music-making!