Stringed-Instrument Buying Guide

by Laurinel Owen

Whatever your needs, whatever your budget, there's an instrument out there for you. Laurinel Owen suggests some ways to find it.

During 25 years of private teaching I have repeatedly seen that a great sounding new instrument can motivate and inspire a young player as well as help at competitions. Pegs that don't work, buzzes, rattles and bad set-ups can be causes of frustration and eventually lead to defeat or failure. Playing a string instrument is challenge enough without the headaches of bad equipment.

Consider this shopping advice. Choices in string instruments abound: new/old, European/ American/ Asian, factory/one maker. So do places to shop: violin dealers, teachers, players, auction houses, private individuals, makers or string congresses. Look with an open mind, learn as much as possible, educate yourself as to the costs and don't rush into buying something because it is "a deal". There will always be another one.

Have a method for auditioning instruments - sound is important! Before charging off to a shop, call ahead for an appointment so the dealer can arrange for all the instruments in your price range to be available. Take along your own bow, so one variable is eliminated. (Though your present bow may not be the ideal partner for your future instrument.) Prepare pieces or excerpts that will exploit the instrument's full pitch range. Listen for balance and even tonal color between strings. Test for projection and power. Is the sound big, full and gutsy with more potential to give or does it become gritty, raspy and forced? In a legato melody is the sound warm, creamy and focused or tubby, nasal or glassy. Does the violin respond quickly and cleanly in fast passages and have a large dynamic range? Compare one instrument to another by playing a passage then repeating it on the next instrument noting the strengths, weakness and your preferences. Use your instrument for comparison and if possible bring someone else along to play so you can listen and vice versa. Try to adapt to each instrument and experiment with different approaches to pull the best sound out of each one. Keep an open mind concerning sound and feel.

I like to set out the instruments with complete anonymity. This can curtail any subconscious prejudice, at least in regards to price or country of origin. Who knows, perhaps the cheaper viola will be the one you like more. For example, because so many inferior mass-produced instruments are sold on the internet, most musicians still won't touch a Chinese violin. However, I recently returned from China where I visited several string "factories" and discovered these instruments are often twice the quality at half the price of their European counterparts.

If you find an instrument that you love, but there is something you don't like, ask if it can be fixed. Sound posts, bridges, strings and chin rests are relatively easy to change. Wolfs can sometimes be subdued, buzzes eradicated, and pegs doped. Take care of any such problems before you buy. An instrument that is a serious consideration can usually be taken out on "approval" for 7 to 10 days. You will probably have to sign an agreement with the date of return for insurance purposes. This is your chance to really get acquainted. Play the instrument in familiar acoustic surroundings and in a hall if at all possible. Play with your quartet, your pianist, in the orchestra, at your lesson.

People have been known to use this opportunity to take the instrument around to other dealers. This may not be productive and certainly puts the other shop in an awkward position. Negotiating the price always depends on how desperate the seller is. You can always offer a lower price; the worst that can happen is that it will be refused. Whether you pay by cash, check or credit card depends on from whom you are buying. Some dealers may allow up to six months for payment of very large purchases though most sellers are not in the lending business.

This article has been abridged and adapted from The Strad, February 2001, and is reprinted with permission. Laurinel Owen is a professional cellist. She has published over 120 string related articles and brings her expertise to selecting the highest quality instruments and bows at the best price. Call the House of Strings for an appointment. 631-286-1592 or 631-335-2280

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House of Strings provides expert consulting for all levels of musicians, from students to seasoned professionals. We provide personal consulting to help you find your dream instrument.

House of Strings
78 Bellhaven Rd
Bellport, NY 11713 U.S.A.
Phone: 631.286.1592
By appointment only

House of Strings | 78 Bellhaven Rd., Bellport, Long Island, NY 11713 U.S.A. | Phone: +1(631)286-1592
By Appointment Only