In today’s marketplace, there are conflicting messages that make it difficult to know which instrument is right for you. Since this may be your first instrument, these issues can be overwhelming. They may even block you from starting your musical journey.
But don’t worry! We cut through the confusion by helping you focus on the things that matter most. We make sure the search for your first (or next) instrument is a rewarding and fruitful experience.
Many of you have found your way to this article because you submitted an instrument questionnaire. Based on your responses, we were able to present some instruments that you should try. If you have not completed this questionnaire and would like to receive our personalized suggestions, please click here-Help Me Choose My Instrument.
This article is for students through intermediate players. If you are an advancing through professional player, we have written a more comprehensive paper on this subject. It includes an expanded instrument evaluation process and checklist. <Click here to be taken to our article for advancing through professional musicians>.
This article focuses on the things that are important to beginning students through intermediate-level players.
Table of Contents (TOC)
Let’s Get Started
Just because you’re a beginner doesn’t mean you should get the cheapest thing off the internet. Although it can be tempting to buy a super cheap instrument to start, don’t do it! In most cases, you will find that these are not actual instruments. They are in fact, merely toys made to look like the real thing. Such instruments frequently come into our shop with a multitude of hidden costs. It is a disheartening experience for both us and the customer to see so much time and money put into the instrument in an attempt to make it playable, only to find that it still will not perform as well as a quality instrument. A quality instrument will end up costing you less than trying to make a toy instrument playable.
What is a VSO?
This happens so often in the industry that there is actually an acronym created by teachers, shops, and musicians to describe them: VSOs (Violin Shaped Objects). Hidden expenses aside, the truth is that someone with a VSO is much more likely to quit than someone who purchased a quality instrument. Why?
VSOs are Meant to Sell Fast, not Create Musicians
As a result:
- VSOs often come without proper (or any) setup. Many times, you will end up with an DIY-style instrument that requires you to put up the bridge and string the instrument. We frequently see instruments that have bridges that do not fit. As a result they regularly fall down or slide out of place, making the instrument extremely hard to play and impossible to tune. Also, with an uncut or poorly fit bridge the strings are not in their correct height position. Many times they are too far away from the fingerboard and hurt your fingers when you press down on them. This makes it very difficult to enjoy playing your instrument.
- VSOs are made from poor quality materials. Their description often misleads one to think that quality materials and workmanship were used. The fact is, plywood (for the body) and dyed soft woods (for the fingerboards and pegs) are the materials of choice for VSOs. This wood is much too soft to hold up or be used for a musical instrument. Your instrument will warp, fall apart and be difficult to tune. These poor quality materials are then quickly assembled without regard to tonal quality or playability. The result is frustration for the player, not the rewarding feeling of accomplishment that should follow every good practice session.
- Properly crafted stringed instruments are made of seasoned maple (back and sides), spruce (for the top), and ebony (pegs, fingerboard, nut, and saddle). They are also handcrafted in a way that puts tonal quality and playability at the forefront.
How to Avoid Poor Quality Instruments
It is critically important to avoid the issues that will work against you becoming a musician. You should avoid an instrument that constantly goes out of tune, is painful to play, and produces an ugly sound that brings no joy to its player or their teacher.
How do you make sure you end up with an instrument that helps you become a musician?
Take advantage of an experienced guide who will direct you to the most important things in instrument selection. The guide you select must first understand where you are in your journey and always have your best interests at heart. Their task is to guide you through a simple but effective process to ensure your success and avoid mistakes.
Our Simple Three Step Process
Our guides at Atlantic Strings have developed an effective and simple three-step process to match you with the right instrument at any point in your journey:
- Determine the instrument quality (they will make sure you don’t get a VSO)
- Determine playability and tonal quality (they will make sure the instrument you do get helps you learn how to play)
- Direct you to the best instrument for you that you can purchase with confidence or take on trial (they will give you every opportunity to make sure that the instrument you select is the right one for you)
How to Determine an Instrument’s Quality
An instrument’s quality is determined by many things, but there are a few characteristics that are critical and easily identified at this point in your journey.
- The Setup – The placement and precise fitment of an instrument’s bridge, fingerboard, soundpost, nut and pegs is all part of the setup. Very precise fitment of these parts is critical to how well the instrument plays or functions as well as how easily you can draw a good sound. The instrument’s strings should be easy to press down, but should not buzz against the fingerboard when played. The bridge should fit securely without any tiny gaps between its feet and the top of the instrument. The curvature at the top of the bridge should match the curvature of the fingerboard and should allow you to play individual strings without hitting the other strings.
- The Wood Quality – The instrument should be made from actual wood (seasoned maple for the back and sides and spruce for the top). The flaming in the maple should not be painted on – it will be visible on the inside of the instrument when looking through the f-holes. Colored and painted violins or other ornate decorations may look pretty but are not good for sound. Most dampen the instrument’s tone and playability and should be avoided as a real musician’s instrument.
- The Fittings and Purfling – The instrument should have an ebony fingerboard and pegs as well as inlaid purfling (the black lines at the outer edge of the top and back of the instrument). The lowest quality instruments will have fingerboards and pegs that are painted black to imitate ebony and use words like “ebonized.” A phrase like – “Painted hardwood fittings” really means that softwood has been painted black. This softwood will simply not hold up or function very long – if at all.
- Bow Quality – Make sure your bow is made of real Brazilwood, Pernambuco, or Carbon Fiber. Many cheap bows are described as brazilwood when they are actually a Chinese wood bows. Bows made of weaker wood, composite (plastic and fiberglass) are not durable and are difficult to control, making it challenging to play and learn.
What is Playability and How do I Test for it?
Once you have determined you are looking at a quality instrument, it’s time to take the next step – figuring out if an instrument is right for you.
Arguably the most important factor of your success when playing an instrument is the instrument’s playability; a term that describes how easy or difficult it is to make your instrument produce the desired sound or effect. The ease with which you can progress is closely tied to how easy it is to play your instrument. Although any new or advanced technique will be difficult starting out, an inability to progress to the point where the passage or technique becomes relatively easy is a sure sign you are struggling against the playability of an instrument.
For students through intermediate players, playability becomes apparent when isolating individual strings, crossing between strings, and playing simple scales and melodies. This will also highlight the instrument’s tonal quality. The easier it is to accomplish these tasks, the better the instrument’s playability.
What is Tonal Quality and How do I Test for it?
Tonal quality is made up of three key parts: warmth, clarity, and evenness. Each of these three items contributes to the overall sound the instrument produces. Depending on where you are in your musical journey you may or may not be able to hear these three characteristics, and that’s okay. At this point, the instrument should simply feel and sound good to you.
Tonal quality tends to be a very subjective trait and being able to hear the difference between warmth, clarity, and evenness is a skill that will come with time. For now, we are just looking to eliminate instruments that will not help you succeed. So, although some aspects of tonal quality may lend themselves to certain genres, the most important feature at this point is whether you enjoy playing and hearing it or not. After all, if you don’t like the way your instrument sounds, you most likely will not want to play it!
Put simply, the three facets of tonal quality can be described as:
- Warmth – The character of the sound of the instrument. This ranges from warm to bright, with warm being a mellow, darker sound, and bright being a more brilliant sound.
- Clarity – How clearly you can hear each individual note as it is being played. An instrument can have a full, well-rounded sound with lots of overtones (a resonant quality) or a focused, clean sound with few overtones. This is a spectrum and an instrument can lean one way or the other.
- Evenness – How easily the sound transitions from one string to the next or, for more advanced players, in different positions. This quality is less important at this stage provided you enjoy how the instrument sounds when playing each of the four strings. As you advance it will become more important, as the more even the instrument is, the smoother the melody as you transition across strings and/or positions.
The Instrument Trial Process – Have Fun and Follow a Plan!
We know all this information can be a bit difficult to process at one time, so we have created a printable Instrument Trial Checklist (student through intermediate version) as an aid during your evaluation process.
With a great process in place and a guide whenever you need one, just relax and have a read through the following tips.
What to play?
- Open strings – Take the time to play all four open strings, paying attention to the tone, resonance, response, and any difficulty isolating and switching between strings. This will allow you to assess playability and tonal quality simultaneously.
- Scales – Playing a simple “open, 1, 2, 3” pattern on each string is an excellent way to determine how easily the instrument plays as well as how it sounds and feels to you. This will allow you to determine playability and will give additional insight into the instrument’s tonal quality.
- Play a slow, even scale that starts on the lowest open string and goes up through the top string. This should give you an idea of the tone on each different string and will allow you to find the correct finger positioning without being rushed.
- Once you have completed the slow scale, paying attention to the tone and ease of playability, play the same scale at a faster pace. This allows you to see comfortable you are with it and how easily you can draw the sound. A better instrument should draw a bigger, fuller sound with less energy. You should not have to work as hard to get it to perform.
- Play the same scale(s) on each instrument.
- A piece or segment of a piece you know extremely well. Playing a piece that you know and play well will enable you to focus on the tonal quality and playability of the instrument without thinking about technique or memorization.
Don’t forget to have fun. This is an exciting time in your journey. It is exciting to try different instruments, and with this process in place, you will be paying attention to the important things. This will ensure that your first or next instrument is the right one for you!
Your Atlantic Strings Instrument Selection Guide
We help musicians find the right instrument online or in-store.