How to Buy a Beginner Violin or Viola

A Guide for the Uninitiated Parent or Aspiring Musician

Now that you are sure you want to buy instead of rent a beginner violin or viola and you know how much you need to spend, it is time to do the actual buying. When shopping for beginner violins and violas, there are four main options:

  1. Buying new from online retailers (<10 min – 1 hr, 30 min average)
  2. Buying clearance from online retailers (10 min – 1 hr, 30 min average)
  3. Shopping your local violin shops (depends on drive time)
  4. Buying secondhand via Reverb, ebay, Craigslist, Facebook, etc. (~15 min to read the guide, 30 min to 2+ hours to shop)

All of these are worthy options. If your budget is in the lower range, $200 to $400, you will likely get the best deals online, whether new, clearance or secondhand. If you are looking to spend $500 to $800, then new from online retailers or shopping your local violin shops is likely the best way to go.

But before we get into any of that, we really need to talk about ‘outfits’. Almost every beginner violin or viola you might look at buying is going to be an outfit. Some are good deals, others are not the best use of your cash.

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Now that you are sure you want to buy instead of rent a beginner violin or viola and you know how much you want to spend, it is time to do the actual buying. When shopping for beginner violins and violas, there are three main options:

  1. Buying new from online retailers (<10 min – 1 hr, 30 min average)
  2. Buying clearance from online retailers (10 min – 1 hr, 3o min average)
  3. Shopping your local violin shops (depends on the drive time)
  4. Buying secondhand via Reverb, ebay, Craigslist, Facebook, etc. (~15 min to read the guide, 30 min – 2 hr+ to shop)

All of these are worthy options. If your budget is in the lower range, $200 to $400, you will likely get the best deals online, new, clearance or secondhand. If you are looking to spend $500 to $800, then new from online retailers or shopping your local violin shops is likely the best way to go.

But before we get into any of that, we really need to talk about ‘outfits’. Almost every beginner violin or viola you might look at buying is going to be an outfit. Some are good deals, others are not the best use of your cash.

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Need to Know: Beginner Violin and Viola Outfits

Beginner violins and violas are sold almost exclusively as ‘outfits’. Outfits include the violin or viola, a case, a bow, rosin, and sometimes other accessories. The case and bow are good, necessary inclusions that make your life easier. However, the ‘sometimes other accessories’ part of the outfit is often not so good. You see, everything they add to an outfit is value they have to deduct from the actual instrument but cost they get to add to the price. The other drawback to outfits with a lot of extra things in them is that you may not need or like those extra things, but you are paying for them anyway.

In simple terms, a $350 outfit with a cheap case and basic bow is going to have more value in the beginner violin or viola than a $350 outfit with a cheap case, basic bow, and 5 other medium and small ticket items. In actual practice, however, what ends up happening is that the more basic outfit is significantly cheaper than the outfit with extra stuff and has a higher value instrument. Every single time, the violins and violas that come in outfits with extra stuff are lower value; but, because you are buying the extra stuff (you may or may not need) with the instrument, you still end up paying more for the outfit. Let’s look at a real-world example.

The Shar Concert violin is valued at $260 on its own. Doing some reverse-engineering of the would-be stand-alone price of the violins in Fiddler Shop’s Fiddlerman outfits, their OB1 violin comes the closest to Shar’s Concert and would be worth about $220 if it were sold as just the violin. However, the OB1 outfit costs $360 to the Shar Concert violin outfit‘s $280. That, alone, should tell you enough: the Shar beginner violin is worth more but the outfit costs $80 less. But you still have to buy a shoulder rest and what about a tuner? The Fiddlerman OB1 outfit comes with these things, so that makes up the difference, right?

No. If you buy the Shar Concert outfit (do not buy the deluxe outfit, just the standard) ($280), then a Kun or Mach One shoulder rest ($25) and the Korg TM-60 tuner-metronome ($30), you have a better shoulder rest, a better tuner AND the metronome every student should have, all for $335, still $25 less than what Fiddlerman charges for its OB1 outfit. Convert a forlorn sock to a cleaning cloth and don’t practice at midnight, and you’ve got the rest of the OB1’s accessories covered! Add Essential Elements and a cheap stand, and you are complete for a beginner musician’s set-up and still under Fiddlerman’s price of $360.

So buying the bare-bones outfit from Shar, you literally get more for less, and then you get more for less again! And yes, the bow and the case are solid beginner-grade equipment that will do their job until you or your child are ready to buy nicer. You aren’t overpaying for what you don’t need.

Another thing to look out for comes at the higher price range. Fiddler Shop sells an ‘Artists Violin Outfit’ for close to $700. A full $200 of that is actually put into the case, an unnecessary amount for a case meant to protect a beginner violin that is only maybe $450 in value. Another $15 is put into the rosin; you don’t need $15 rosin. At $700, they should be putting the extra cost into a better bow; but, instead, they still give you the same $70 beginner bow all of their other outfits come with.

All of the Fiddler Shop outfits are loaded with Fiddlerman-branded goods, which nets them even more profits off the sale. Technically, you are seeing savings over buying everything separately; but those savings are an illusion compared to what you would be able to do if you had bought the Shar violin outfit. The reason why Fiddler Shop and the other online retailers take this approach is because they sell you more stuff, get more of your money, and then get to sell you more stuff again when you still have to buy a stand, music book, and metronome. Are they bad deals? No. Are they bad instruments? Definitely not; they’re perfectly suitable instruments. But are they the best way to spend your money? In most cases, for most people, no.

I’ve picked a lot on Fiddler Shop, here; but it is not just them. Pretty much all the other online retailers do the same thing, often closely matching the prices of Fiddler Shop. Shar Music, at present, is the only exception. So be wary of outfits with lots of stuff! Now that you know that, let’s talk about buying something.

Buying a New Beginner Violin or Viola from Online Retailers

Which retailers to use?

There’s no shame in going through an online retailer, especially if you place a premium on saving yourself a headache. There is one definite must if you do decide to go this route: Do not buy from Music & Arts or Amazon. Amazon doesn’t care what it sends you and there are many alternatives to Music & Arts that are actually dedicated to bowed-string instruments and, as result, give you real value for your dollar. The ones most worth looking at are below:

List of the Best Online Retailers for Beginner Violins and Violas

You can take these pretty much in order. Shar is the best place to shop with Fiddler Shop and Antoni Strad a mildly distant second and third. This is largely due to what the retailer includes in their outfits. Fiddler Shop and Antoni Strad include extra things that you don’t need as well as things you do need but that are best bought separate from the outfit. If you have, in your rovings, come across Kennedy Violins (Bunel violins on Amazon), I exclude them from this list because their outfits are a waste of money (although the violins aren’t necessarily bad). Another reason why Shar is the best is they actually allow you to buy their beginner instruments as stand-alone violins and violas; you can opt out of the outfit if, say, you already have a case and bow and just need a new instrument (because, you know, things happen).

RetailerOutfitsInstrument
Shar Music$180+/$220+$150+/$180+
Fiddler Shop$150+/$190+$660+/$990+
Antoni Strad$360+/$400+$560+/$1,800+
Violin/ViolaViolin/Viola

Buying New Recommendation

For the lower end of the violin and viola range, see here. That collection gets you everything you need to get started on the violin or viola without over-spending.

If you are looking to spend north of $500, then the Carlo Lamberti Sonata violin is a good deal ($700, Shar), as is the Scott Cao 17E ($563, Antoni Strad).

For violas looking to spend higher, you are kind of stuck with buying Shar’s Concert viola ($380 stand-alone, not the outfit), a bow of your choice, and a case of your choice, within your target budget. Bow and case recommendations are below. If you want to spend more, still, then buy some Dominant strings for $120 (15″+ only).

Viola Bows

Either of these bows is worth while. I suggest sticking to wood and not spending less than $60.

Schmidt Brazilwood viola bow ($60)

Meinel Pernambuco viola bow ($110)

Viola Cases

Any case of $120 in value or less from one of the following sites. Bobelock, Core, and Toshira are all worthy brands.

Shar Music

Fiddler Shop

Great Violin Cases

Buying a Clearance Beginner Violin or Viola from Online Retailers

Which retailers to use?

Shopping clearance is a great way to get a really nice deal on a beginner violin or viola. Both Shar music and Fiddlershop offer clearance deals on their instruments. In truth, this is where you should start before shopping new or hitting the secondhand market.

List of the Best Online Retailers for Clearance Instruments

Here, again, Shar has the better collection (because of their rental program). On clearance, Fiddlershop outfits become proper deals worth looking at. Just make sure it says ‘B-stock’ in the item title.

With Shar, pay attention to whether they list the product as an outfit or not. Don’t go by the picture; read the actual title of the product. If it doesn’t say ‘Outfit’, you will need to buy bow, case and rosin separately. Don’t worry, you will still be ending up with a better deal than if you bought the outfit new. Don’t worry about ‘blemishes’ – unless it is an actual crack or hole, ‘blemishes’ are just added character. Have fun!

Buying Clearance Recommendation

Pretty much just see what they have and what is in your price-range. My only “don’t” is don’t buy the Amadeus violins and violas unless you absolutely need to stick to bottom dollar. Below are a couple of cheap case, bow and rosin recommendations if you need them. Enjoy!

Beginner Violin/Viola Bows

Cheap: Violin ($30) | Viola ($35)

Middle: Violin ($50) | Viola ($60)

Premium: Violin ($100) | Viola ($110)

Beginner Violin/Viola Cases

Adequate: Violin ($30) | Viola ($40)

Middle: Violin ($70) | Viola ($70)

Nice: Violin ($110) | Viola ($120)

Rosin Recommendations

Cheap: Shar Mini ($1.89)

Middle: D’Addario Light ($3.69)

Professional: Light ($9) | Dark ($9)

Shopping Local Violin Shops

This is a great option, especially if you are looking in the $500+ side of things. To be honest, it is worth visiting one or two in your area even if you don’t plan to buy from them. The easiest way to find one is to, well, click this link that will run the Google search for you: Google ‘local violin shop’. You’ll want the shops that actually have ‘violin’ in the name (or sometimes ‘strings’). Avoid Music & Arts; they are not a violin shop. Violists should follow the same course as ‘violin shops’ tend to carry everything for everyone.

It is important to keep in mind that some luthiers specialize in fine instruments and will not carry any instruments below $1,000, at least when it comes to adult sizes. These places also won’t deal as much in rentals. For beginner violins and violas, you are better off looking to shops that also do rentals.

Otherwise, look, see, touch if they will let you, remember they are sales people, and remember they are people people. When something goes wrong, whether you buy from them or not, you are going to need their help to fix it, so it is worth building a little bit of a relationship.

***COVID PRECAUTION: Due to their small sizes and more cramped spaces, a lot of these stores require you to call ahead and schedule your visit right now.

Shopping for Secondhand Beginner Violins and Violas

I have a separate guide for if you want to explore this option as there is some learning involved before you can safely shop for secondhand or used violins and violas. If you are looking for child-sized instruments (1/32 to 3/4 size violins, 12″-14″ violas), you can get some great deals this way. For example, I found a 3/4 size Yamaha AV5 for about $150 for a student of mine. After new strings and a new bow, it cost them about $300, all in. Normally, that violin retails for around $1,000. Deals are rarer for adult-sized instruments, but still possible.

This approach is great if you have the time and the energy. The guide takes about 15 minutes to read and shopping secondhand will take 30 minutes to a couple of hours, depending on luck and how picky you are. So if you have about 2 hours of space in your day and aren’t in any particular hurry, click the “Buying Used” button below to read the guide. If you are busy or don’t have the energy, I suggest scrolling back up and sticking with the new or clearance options.

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