How to Buy a Used Beginner Violin or Viola

6 Steps to Safely and Successfully Make a Purchase

Do you want a great deal on a used beginner violin or viola? Looking to save a hundred dollars (or hundreds of dollars) on a used instrument? Want to have a good experience? Well then you, dear person, have come to the right place. This guide will take about 15 minutes to read and tell you everything you need to know to make a great buy. Happy hunting!

There are a couple of different ways to approach buying a used beginner violin or viola. Each has its merits. Of course, the simplest is to jump on Facebook Marketplace or Craigslist and see what the local offerings in your area are. This can land some pretty nice deals. Another option is to shop Reverb.com or eBay. This requires you to know specific brand names to search for, but I provide those below. The third option is to directly google a make, model and size and see if anything pops up. There are some particulars for each of these methods as well as some concerns common to all of them. We’ll cover the common concerns, first, in the “6 Steps to Safely Buying a Used Violin or Viola.”

Six Steps to Safely Buying Used Beginner Violins and Violas

There are 6 steps you need to take to make sure you are not getting a bad deal (or getting taken for a ride) when buying a used beginner violin or viola. They are all equally important!

  1. Budget for string replacement, bow replacement, and a trip to the Luthier
  2. Check the label
  3. Inspect the other photos closely
  4. Read the Description
  5. Double check the price
  6. Don’t spend more than $500

Table of Contents

Do you want a great deal on a used beginner violin or viola? Looking to save a hundred dollars (or hundreds of dollars) on a used instrument? Want to not get hosed in the process? Well then you, dear person, have come to the right place. This guide will take about 15 minutes to read and tell you everything you need to know to make a great buy. Happy hunting!

There are a couple of different ways to approach buying a used beginner violin or viola. Each has its merits. Of course, the simplest is to jump on Facebook Marketplace or Craigslist and see what the local offerings in your area are. This can land some pretty nice deals. Another option is to shop Reverb.com or eBay. This requires you to know specific brand names to search for, but I provide those below. The third option is to directly google a make, model and size and see if anything pops up. There are some particulars for each of these methods as well as some concerns common to all of them. We’ll cover the common concerns, first, in the “6 Steps to Safely Buying a Used Violin or Viola.”

Table of Contents

Six Steps to Safely Buying Used Beginner Violins and Violas

There are 6 steps you need to take to make sure you are not getting a bad deal (or getting taken for a ride) when buying a used beginner violin or viola. They are all equally important!

  1. Budget for string replacement, bow replacement, and a trip to the Luthier
  2. Check the label
  3. Inspect the other photos closely
  4. Read the Description
  5. Double check the price
  6. Don’t spend more than $500

1. Budget for Upgrades or a Trip to the Luthier

Whatever your budget is, set aside $100 to $200 for replacement strings, bow and possible trip to the luthier. Set aside more if you are spending more, less if you are spending less. Most of the instruments you might buy secondhand will likely already be complete ‘outfits’ (instrument, bow, case, even shoulder rest and rosin); however, there is no guarantee the bow is worth keeping (e.g. if half its hair is missing or it is fiberglass), the strings may be old and worn, and there is always the risk of the bridge or sound post falling if it is being shipped to you (albeit a minimal one).

How will you know if you need any of these? Well, the bridge or sound post being down will be obvious. As for the strings, read the description, ask the seller, and look at the pictures. If a string is missing or there is rosin caked onto them, you’ll know you need new strings. If the seller says they are new or not new but not heavily used, then you will just have to trust them (and remember that you probably won’t know the difference, anyways….). It is also worth asking about the brand and type of strings- if they are cheap strings, you may want to upgrade them, anyways.

Lastly, for the bow, once you get it you will have to examine it. Does it have a full set of hair, or does 1/4 to 1/2 of it appear to be missing? Is the bow made of fiberglass (looks like plastic, will need to be replaced)? Is there damage to it? The description may say the bow needs to be re-haired. This is not a gimmick; its an actual thing. Ask for the brand and model of the bow (if it isn’t given) so you can check its value online. Bows that retail for more than $100 should be re-haired. A bow re-hair costs $50 to $70 and can take anywhere from a couple days to a couple of weeks. Bows of this quality should not be thrown away! Cheaper bows, though should be replaced.

Should you need a replacement bow or strings, use this guide to buy the correct bow or strings for your price range.

2. Check the Label!

So how do you know that the violin or viola is what they say it is? Look for these:

Every violin and viola should have a label inside of it. With the types of beginner instruments you will be buying, it should have a label that caries its make, its model, and the year it was made.

These photos were pulled off of reverb.com after I found a 1/4 size version of a Scott Cao violin I had Googled. You can see from the labels that it tells you everything, make, model, size, and year made. (By the way, this instrument, even at the 1/4 size, retails for $563 on Antoni Strad’s site. That includes Dominant strings, bow and case. The find on reverb.com, however, also included a shoulder rest and was selling for just $295.)

These rules apply whether it is Craig’s List, eBay, Reverb, wherever. Make sure they have shots of the label. The label should tell you that it is the make and model they say it is. If they don’t have photos of the label, ask for them before buying (likewise, ask if they don’t list the make and model). DO NOT buy something that you can’t identify.

Lastly, if they say it is 100 years old, $1,000 and a steal of a deal, don’t believe them. It’s either a lie or trouble, one. You can get a 100 year old instrument for a $1,000; don’t get me wrong. Secondhand off the internet just is not the way to do that. Remember, you don’t know what you are doing, so you want to stick with ‘safe’.

3. Inspect the Other Photos Closely

Obviously. But what are you looking for? At a minimum, you want to see the front of the violin or viola, the back of the violin or viola, and the case. There shouldn’t be more than just the two f-holes in the top-plate (front) and no holes in the bottom-plate. If there are, walk away. There also shouldn’t be any visible cracks anywhere on the instrument. If there are, walk away. Also look to see if all the strings are there and if they are clean. You also want to look at the cleanliness of the rest of the violin or viola and the case. These things are not deal-breakers; they are just good to know before you buy. DINGS AND SCRATCHES ARE OK. They do not affect the sound (they just add character, like Scar’s scar – or Harry Potter’s lighting bolt). Extra holes and cracks are not ok. They do affect the sound.

Also check that it has 4 fine-tuners. Remember, you are looking for a beginner violin or viola because you are, well, a beginner. Tuning with the pegs is for more advanced folks.

It is rare that they will have pictures of the bow that will allow you to discern anything from them, so don’t worry about that. You’ll just have to inspect it when you buy it. The one photo here that is nice to have is a shot of the branding (just above the frog); but, again, that is rare to see.

Lastly, whatever else they say comes with the listing, like rosin or shoulder rest, should also be visible in at least one of the photos.

4. Read the Description

Things you want to look for are the make and model (if not in the title), the make and model of the strings and bow (not required but helpful), and the state of the strings and bow (not required but helpful). Mention of other items that come with the listing is also good as it can verify what is shown in the images. If you are buying direct from another person (e.g. Craigslist), then it is nice if they also tell something about why they are getting rid of the instrument as well as when and where they purchased it.

Things to ignore in the description are the age (irrelevant), the country of origin (irrelevant), and descriptions of its sound quality (you’ll know how it sounds when you buy it). In the case of age, if the listing claims the instrument is really old and the label doesn’t show the date they claim, then walk away. They might not be lying (or they might be lying and genuinely not realize it), but how would you know?

5. Double Check the Price

Great, everything checks out! So what about that price? I have seen instruments listed on secondhand sites that were priced higher than their new versions at other retailers, so you also need to check the price.

To verify your price, simply google the make and model and see what pops up. If that make and model is still on the market new, you should have no trouble finding the retail price this way. Even if it is only on the market used (because the maker or model has been retired), you should still be able to guess from other used listings google returns whether your price is legit.

If your make and model is still available new, then you want to look for secondhand instruments that are at least 25% below the ‘new’ price. If it isn’t, unless you really like the instrument for some reason, keep looking because you can likely do better. If your make and model is no longer available new, then you will just have to go with your gut on whether or not you like the price based on what you are seeing from other listings. Case in point: a Craigslist listing for my area has a Cremona SV-85 on sale for $250. When I googled it, I found out that other used listings were selling it for half that price. The SV-85 appears to no longer be for sale new. $250 for a used SV-85 is a bad buy.

6. Don’t Spend More than $500

This is purely about risk management. At $500, you are minimizing the damage done if you do accidentally buy a lemon or a violin that was actually only worth $100. To be certain, if you see someone claim an instrument is 100 years old, precious, and a steal of a deal for $1,000, don’t believe them. That isn’t to say you can’t buy a 100 year old violin for $1,000; it is just that buying it from a random stranger on the internet is not a the way to do that. Remember, you don’t know what you are doing, so always err on the side of safe.

Bonus: Beginner Violin Brands to Avoid

For reading this far, you get a bonus tip! A few brands really need to be avoided while others are good to keep a lookout for. Here are the Nots. The Hots are a little further down. Note that, yes, a lot of these brands get mentioned on a lot of lists for ‘Best Beginner Violins’. Those lists… what to say about those lists… since I can’t keep it G-rated, I won’t say anything at all. Just go with me on this and you will be glad you did, promise. Avoiding these brands is a part of the key to not getting a bad deal.

¡AVOID! Cecilio • Mendini • Stentor • Eastar • Cremona • Vangora • Lagrima • JMFinger • SKY ¡AVOID!

3 Methods to Shop for a Used Beginner Violin or Viola

Craigslist and Facebook Marketplace

This is not so bad a way to shop as you might think. It is as simple as typing ‘violin’ or ‘viola’ in the search box and seeing what pops up. You can also, of course, include the size you are looking for. Just be sure to limit the search to your local area. From there, follow all of the guidelines I listed above. If they do not list a make and model, ask for it and photos of the label or ignore the listing, your call. Whatever you do, double check the price and follow the 25% rule I talk about above. And, as always, because you are dealing person-to-person, follow standard procedures for making the hand-off safe. No dark alleyways; daytime in populated areas only.

Reverb and eBay

DO NOT treat this like Craigslist or Facebook Marketplace. Because you are seeing listings from all over the country, you are going to see a lot of super sketch listings if all you do is search for ‘violin’ (not to mention eBay will give you a lot of violin-related paraphernalia). Instead, search for a specific maker and see what comes up. Here, you have to pay attention to whether the listing is new or used and also check the shipping price. Also, it is useful to include ‘violin’ or ‘viola’ and the size you need in the search (‘4/4’ for full-size violins). Otherwise, follow the same procedures as above. Google the make and model you are looking at to double check the price – you can and will get taken for a ride if you don’t exercise care on these sites. Ask for images of the label if they are not provided. Don’t be afraid to make an offer on Reverb. Some brands worth searching for include (in approximate order of priority):

Fiddlerman • Franz Hoffman • Gliga • Otto Fischer • Carlo Lamberti • Scott Cao • Yamaha* • Bunnel • Strobel • D Z Strad

*You will see a lot of Yamaha AV5’s on Reverb right now listed for $507 or there about. Try offering $300 or $350 and see what happens.

Googling Makes and Models

Lastly, you can check online retailers and directly google their makes and models and see if you get a hit on a good used deal. Sometimes you do; sometimes you don’t. The first retailer to check is actually Music & Arts – I know I said to never go there, but this is the one exception. The Strobel ML-80 and ML-100 are good models to start with when it comes to looking for a deal. Don’t pay more than $350 for an ML-80 if you do find one. Follow all the same rules I have mentioned above.

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