Here is some advice I can give in selecting a new or second hand violin.
This is always important as violins can start at $100USD new and into the millions. So it is important to set a budget for yourself. Obviously, the higher the budget the more options you would have. On the other hand, the higher the price does not mean the better the violin. For example, if you are at an auction house, a $15,000 violin bow could sound out just as good as a $5000 violin bow due to its history and maker. Most importantly, it’s best to set yourself a budget that you would like to spend on your new found hobby without burning a hole in your pocket.
Colour and lines
I’m not trying to be superficial, but it is important that you like the way your violin looks. There are many shades of varnish your violin could be in, some skew to being more reddish, some brown, dark brown or even orange. The varnish colour does not affect the sound at all but if you are a first timer on this instrument you may want to choose something pleasing to your eyes. (since it will be sometime before you will be able to play something pleasing to your ears 😊)
On violins for a more advanced student, there are also natural wood lines (like a tiger back) some are closer together and thinner and some are broader and further apart. This is a matter of taste and completely subjective to each individual.
Important factors while checking the appearance besides the shade of wood you would like your violin to be, would be to check for cracks. If there are minor and superficial chips and flaws it may be acceptable, while major cracks may be expensive to repair.
Fingerboard and f Holes (sound holes)
Next, check if the fingerboard is straight and glued on well and if you are getting a second hand violin, make sure that the fingerboard is not too worn out, when you move your hand up and down the board there shouldn’t be too many grooves and crevices along it and should be smooth. Make sure that the f holes are symmetrical on the same level. You could use a ruler at this time to assist you in case of a parallax error.
And how is the level of the bridge? Too high or too low as this will affect the sound. Note that the bridge of the violin is not glued onto the violin and if you are at a specialist violin shop, you could ask them to carve it to a suitable level. To deduce this, simply bow on the 4 strings to check for buzzing sounds which may be an indication that the bridge may be too low and is vibrating against the fingerboard. If you have some prior skill and are able to press onto the strings you could test the height of the strings by pressing on them. If on the higher registers there is too much resistance, then the bridge may be too high. An unsuitable bridge level is the most common problem that I encounter with my students’ violins
Pegs and Fine Tuners
Move the pegs gently clockwise and anti clockwise. If you can move them in a way that they are smooth and the strings can hold its tune, then the pegs will not require any peg soap for lubricating them or chalk to make them have more resistance to stay put. Make sure of this before you purchase your new or second hand instrument as tuning is very important to learn the violin well and correctly.
As for fine tuners, most Professionals only have at most two fine tuners on their violins as the fine tuners do affect the sound of the instrument. At a beginner level, I would recommend to use a tailpiece with inbuilt fine tuners, especially more so for students with smaller instruments half size and below as tuning the instrument will be easier and less frustrating on the long run. Do also make sure you move the fine tuners clockwise and anticlockwise to test that they work fine and do not require oiling or a change.
Now that you have established that the violin is something you like to see and proud of to display, you will need to test the sound which is equally if not more important. A violin’s sound does differ in different players’ hands so it is best even though you may have no experience in playing the instrument to try it out yourself (or for your child). Violins the same price at a shop will differ in sound so choose the one which you like most and feel most at ease at playing. If absolutely you cannot play the violin, get someone to demonstrate it for you. Never buy an instrument without testing the sound unless you are getting it solely for collection purposes.
There are so many types of chinrests and as our physiques differ, do find one that is most comfortable for you. I highly recommend the German made Wittner range as they are made of a high quality hypoallergenic plastic that does not abrade your neck as much as the traditional ones with the wood. Make sure that the angle of the chinrests is comfortable and suitable for you individually. Do make sure that you test out the chinrest of the violin with a suitable should rest that you are comfortable in.
The more advanced violins may not come with a bow as this is a separate art completely. Someone who makes the violin is called a Luthier while someone who makes the bow is called an Archetier. However, if your violin comes with a bow. Make sure that it is straight. You can put it on a table and see if it is level. Make sure too that the horse hairs are sufficient and clean. On cheaper bows, it is not cost effective to change the hairs and would be actually cheaper to buy a new bow than to rehair. Do note not to touch the hairs of the bow as human oils from our fingers will affect the way rosin sticks onto the bow and is an irreversible effect.
In conclusion, I would strongly recommend to borrow a violin for the first months if possible before purchasing an instrument as you would be able to come to a better idea and impression as to what you would be looking for in a violin once you have a better sense of how to hold the instrument and master basic straight bow strokes. But if you are fine with starting out with your own violin, do follow this guide and I hope it has been helpful in selecting your new musical partner!