The National Fiddler Hall of Fame


How To Buy A Violin

By: Mack Bettis

For over 50 years Mack Bettis has endeavored to find, restore, trade in, and collect older and mature high quality European and other  violins and bows. Whenever possible, he offers them to students and teachers who prefer the more mature, proven, European, as well as the few good American and other violins. Mack has done extensive research into the world of crafting violins and offers the following article on ‘How to Buy A Violin.’

Recently, a Guarneri del Gesu fetched $9 Million at an auction. Such prices call to mind fabulous pieces of art such as a Picasso or Van Gogh. It also forces good violinists and anyone purchasing violins to rethink the costs and elements of violins and consider the works of makers that would not have been given serious consideration 50 or 75 years ago. What buyers will soon discover is that there is an ever-diminishing supply of the solid, restorable and well-made older and mature European violins and bows. Some innovations have to come from around the world – and it has happened!

Within the last 20 to 30 years, the best Chinese students have enrolled in and graduated from the World Premier Cremona Violinmaking School in Cremona, Italy, as well as from the Premier German Violinmaking School in Mittenwald, Germany.  All the finest skills, techniques and hands-on knowledge from those schools in Cremona and Mittenwald  from the last 300 to 400 years of ground-up experience, are being passed on to this new generation of Master Violinmakers.  They then, are going back home and are making exact duplicate copies of modern “Italian” and “German” violins in their own violinmaking shops in China.  And those Master Violinmakers and bow makers are winning a “lion’s share” of Gold Medals in international competition. They are making as good violins as makers anywhere, meeting the same quality and craftsmanship standards held by the European Masters, and even setting some new standards.

Today’s modern Chinese Master makers and their top apprentices function just as the schools of old - -they use woods, tools, varnishes, techniques and all the methodologies just as they were trained to use by the Italian and German Masters.  They are literally producing, and you have the opportunity to buy, new instruments, bows and accessories which are actually duplicates in most every way, as a modern Italian or German violin, part, or bow. 

Any responsible violin shop or dealer tries to stock a range of Italian, German, French, and American –made violins, from most of the representative schools of violinmaking. But most all violin shops, given world trends in violinmaking, will, in order to be competitive and offer the buyer the best instruments at the best prices, also carry those better Master made and Master shop violins from China.  Teachers and students used to snub Chinese-made violins, and it is known that the early violins from China in the 60’s and 70’s were not as good as the competition.  But that has changed. A current quip circulating around and between violinmakers and dealers is: “If the new violin is too perfect and symmetrical to be true - - it’s Chinese.!!” 

Buying Your First Violin

In order to prepare to buy a violin for the first time - -seek out and ask opinions from teachers (more than one), and from some parents who have children in school programs and have been through the experience.  In visiting with parents and teachers, ask them if the dealer advised them where the violin was made and if they know where their suppliers purchase their stock. 


You can expect to pay from approximately $300 to $400 for a basic beginner’s violin outfit. Please note, if you are not sure your child will be serious or want to stay in the string program, you may consider renting. It costs approximately $20 or $25 dollars a month - -and if the child does not like or want to continue you will not have been out the cost of a complete violin outfit.

Buyers of new violins for under $100 to $200 from EBAY sites and general music stores, may be very cheaply made factory fiddles, not hand made. They are likely spray-painted and touted with much hype and promise, but almost all those cheaply priced types will never be worth what you pay for them.

However, it would be very unfair and wrong not to point out that many of the EBAY sites offering violins made in China in their Master shops do compete in workmanship and tonally with some of the highest quality new violins anywhere. Generally, the difference between the two at this level is one from a well known Italian maker is proven and has a “label” and will sell for substantially more. This is similar to paying more for a recognized name on a more expensive painting: Recognition commands more. Additionally, a few reasonably well-made violins come from small family violinmakers who often sell a new violin for $150 to $250. However, buying from this type of maker can be risky.

Another point to bear in mind is that the cost of labor in China is approximately 80 cents per hour. Therefore, you can buy a modern “Italian” or “German” violin made in China for about one-tenth to one-fortieth of the cost of a new European-made instrument of the same design and materials. So, if one instrument is Italian and one is Chinese and both sound equally pleasing, the Italian one will be priced higher because of the name and tradition and history of Italian violinmaking.

Buyers can always have a reputable dealer write a “Certificate of Maker” to ensure you are getting what you expect. This is recommended strongly for the purchase of an expensive violin to avoid fake and “duplicate” labels to try to increase the value of the instrument – a practice that has gone on worldwide for centuries. Bear in mind, a true Master Art quality violin with a Master’s label and signature, can cost between $3000 to $5000 (naturally, far less with copy label, no label or typical Chinese "model" label).


Once you’ve decided to buy or rent, there are a number of elements to consider. Please, don’t be in a hurry. Start with a trusted teacher and, first of all, just listen to the differences of ‘tones’ in some violins and bows.

If you cannot tell the difference in tone between any 2 violins - -don’t rush - -take a little more time, a little more practice. There are two basic types of tones that violins fall into - - brilliant and dark.  Neither is right, neither is wrong.  Unless you are playing a special type of music that requires a specific tone-type, the only difference in tone is personal preference.  A brilliant tone is bright, very clear, bell-like, and almost edgy to a player who likes the dark-toned violin.  The dark tone is more mellow, may not project as well as far, and it may be referred to as ‘smoky’ or ‘Gypsy’ in a more mellow, darkish and somewhat muted tone.  Both tonal types are fine - - it comes down to your personal preference.

The reader should know that a few extremely qualified individuals and very small groups in laboratories around the world are exploring the science of acoustics and acoustic physics.  Breakthroughs are being made rapidly.  At this point the standard against which all new tests are made are the ’”Old Master” instruments and bows.  Serious and bright, yet open minds with a willingness to experiment with many different materials are surprising many purists.  For example - -a balsa wood violin (with computer-designed bracing) has stolen some shows.  Synthetics are also undergoing much testing, such as carbon-fiber bows - -and violins.

So, this old, lingering debate on the best violins and the best tone, will lead into the future - - even as many new very modern scientific methods are being applied to our age-old “best tones” to attempt to enhance our personal “best subjective” tone to better define the spectrum of tone itself.   More answers on this subject will allow more violinists and those teaching and playing instruments in the violin family to understand the instruments; but more especially those making the violins can, to some extent now, build into an instrument the personally desired “custom tone” that the maker wants or the buyer orders.  Building such instruments with the variety and quality of tone provides each of us the most satisfaction from our stringed instruments, according to the type of music we will be playing.

Dealers and Shops

Once you have a sense of how much you want to spend and what tone you prefer, consult a reputable dealer or person who is knowledgeable and experienced with web sites and dealers who will stand behind their violins. It may require some personal effort and study to find a dealer you can trust and who is willing to explain and listen to you as well as to ‘sell.’ They should allow you to return your purchase if you are unhappy with it upon examination.

A very important point is that the better violin shops with which to do business are NOT always the bigger or more advertised shops.  Please try to select a shop where you feel comfortable and can always approach the owner and staff, whether to address an instrument problem or a simple question.  Find a full-service shop, where you can have ethical repairs of any type done, as well as buy basic supplies.  Here’s a tip that can save you a lot of money and headaches: Ask very specific violin questions and if the staff cannot answer them -look elsewhere.

The best advice remains: after some lessons, start beginning to trust your own ear, as well your teacher’s independent judgment to make a choice of what you buy.  Remember, any new or near-new instrument will mature and sound much better after being played on for a while.  And you will have scored your first true bargain, when in 5 years, your new teacher comments on the quality of tone of your instrument.