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Evaluating old fiddles
Tips for selecting a used violin
Topic Rating: 5 Topic Rating: 5 Topic Rating: 5 Topic Rating: 5 Topic Rating: 5 Topic Rating: 5 (3 votes) 
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Strabo
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March 31, 2023 - 9:10 am
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I’m on the hunt for another fiddle, to be kept at my summer house. I have a strong preference for old instruments so I won’t be considering any new violins. I plan to shop in person where I can evaluate several violins in one place.

 (I cannot bring my teacher along, as he is too crazy for this.)

 I’m looking for tips on how to evaluate instruments. I have a good understanding of the physical issues, so I’m mostly interested in ways to best judge tone and tone production. I have read everything I can find, but of course this is a subjective process.

So I’ll be interested in any tips for judging tone, responsiveness, resonance, clarity, power, etc. 

Many thanks for any bright ideas.

Strabo

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ABitRusty
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March 31, 2023 - 10:09 am
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take your current instrument and bow for comparison.  ask if there is a room you can use to try out instruments in.

as far as what to play.. as much of the types of things youre used to.  low volume to high..  open strings and same notes fingered.  then play yours...Id do that a bunch.  the 2 places that are local never seemed to mind or at least allowed me to do that.  

have a store employee play it for you.

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Mouse
March 31, 2023 - 10:11 am
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@Strabo Remember, I am not an expert, but have tested a lot of violins, old and new. Usually they place you in a studio with great acoustics. They all sound great. When I get home, I am in my living room. They do not have the same sound qualities. I would suggest you do not try them in a studio that has been made for professionals who will play it in well made auditoriums. Ir you can test them on the store floor, go for it. Just my observation. 

That sound in the studio is great, but when you don't get that at home, you will be disappointed, or wonder why, blame your playing, etc. It is the fact that it was tested in a acoustically studio, not a place replicating where you will be playing, unless you have well made studio.

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Mouse
March 31, 2023 - 10:20 am
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Excellent question, by the way.

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ABitRusty
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March 31, 2023 - 12:01 pm
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what @mouse says about acoustics is the same thing ive found.. not so much a "studio"  its more like a closet where Ive shopped lol. BUT...taking your current instrument is best way to negate that effect.

i just always had adversion to playing in the actual shopping area where other people are.

If youre in the States...dont forget in home trials if fiddlershop does that still.  in home testing for a week the best way to go if its available.  Its worth a few extra dollars.  they have some older instruments i believe.

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Mouse
March 31, 2023 - 12:48 pm
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That is true about not "wanting" to play in the store floor area, but I did for a cello once. If anyone had come in, I probably would have stopped. 

Yep, home trials are great. You get to try it out in our space. Maybe you can bring a couple home to compare?

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Strabo
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April 2, 2023 - 6:44 am
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An interesting aspect of this is the difference of sound “under the ear” versus farther away. This doesn’t apply much to cello, but that fiddle is blasting out sound just a few inches from my left ear. 

I know of this only by reading, not by personal experience so I don’t know how much of a factor it is. I’d take my teacher along to play various fiddles from across the room if he wasn’t such a loon, haha. 

I do like the suggestion of taking my current fiddle along for comparison. And I can always have the salesperson play comparative scales etc for me. 

In thinking about this, I found the following list of characteristics to check out.  (At  https://www.zaretandsonsviolin.....tone-25317 ).   I think I could make reasonable judgments about most of these items (bold) but a few are beyond me.

  1. Power
  2. Clarity
  3. Balance
  4. Evenness
  5. Warmth
  6. Richness
  7. Depth
  8. Smoothness
  9. Brilliance
  10. Responsiveness
  11. Edginess
  12. Resonance

Of course all of these are quite subjective. But I guess that playing the fiddle is a subjective experience as well. The old Tennessee fiddler Ralph Blizard said that he never played a tune the same way twice!

Strabo

(And I’d love to be able to play a bunch of old fiddles at Pierre’s place. I think they do a great job, but unfortunately they deal mostly in newish instruments.)

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ABitRusty
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April 2, 2023 - 8:06 am
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@Strabo thats a list.  Im with you on some of the items.. and items like warmth and richness seem related.

idk.. I had pretty good luck using the A/B method one to another.   Whatever quality each had even though maybe I couldnt define...i just knew by what i felt and heard and what it meant to me.   Someone else may not be as concerned with particular things i didnt like.

 evenness maybe falls into the category of how it sounds string to string and from lower positions up towards the bridge.  but then balance maybe could be the same.   

I think the ones you have in Bold are a good place to start since you have an idea of what those mean.  I think with that information, taking your violin AND BOW and having a salesperson play them for you will give you enough information.   i dont think youll miss any detail.

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Mouse
April 2, 2023 - 9:44 am
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What I noticed when I was searching out my violins is that the terms are actually relative to the person. What is bright to one might be considered on the warm side to another. But, it sure is a good place to start. What general overall sound are you looking for? I also consider what types of pieces I generally like. Personally, I always connect fiddle music to a brightish sounding violin, and classical to a warmer. I know you will be playing different types, but if a majority is fiddle, do you want a deep warm sounding violin? The same in reverse for classical music. You can still get the warm sound from a bright, or a bright from a warm, when needed, I believe, but for the most part, you want to match with what you play, if possible. I have heard different opinions in this. But, I thought I would throw it out there.

I have a violin made by my grandfather, I wrote about it a couple years ago. It has a wonderful sound. The antique music shop in Pennsylvania where I saw it advertised said it is a fine example of a fine American Folk Fiddle. I sounds great and I love playing it. I did notice that it does not have the lip around the top to keep chinrests from sliding off the cliff, 😂. It Isn't a problem. It was made in his living room, with tools he had and wood he could get, like they used to do. It is also so thick and heavy, but I think that is what gives it its wonderful sound. This is one of the wonderful things about an old instrument, the history, the fact they are, at times, made with what the person has on hand.

Do classical or pop ballad type songs sound nice in it? Yes, but they don't have the soulful depth they get from my warm violin. Fiddle music sounds great. I hit the jackpot with my Fiddlerman Lord Wilton violin. It sounds great no matter which type of music I am playing, after eliminating my bad playing, overall, all types seem to sound right. I might consider selling my warm violin and just keep the Fiddlerman and the one my grandfather made.

So, based on my own limited experience, I think sound and the type of music you will most often play, if there is a specific type you like to play, may be a factor to consider. If a person is all over the board with types of music, I think I would go more for a sound I like without regard to the sound wanted from a type of music. I hope this makes sense, Im had a shorter version, but could see a lot of comments coming about alternate sides I did not mention to keep it short.

Bring samples of different types of music you play with you, so that you can play them on the violins. Don't go by scales and exercises, alone.

Another thing to consider is the set up, sure it can be changed, but it isn't something I thought of while violin or viola testing. Early on, I remember trying one that had a nice sound, but just didn't feel right. I knew nothing about set up. It was hard to play, Even though I liked the sound, I put it aside because I found it harder to play, If I had said something, which I did not, they probably would have changed it up, as a different store did after I became more aware of setup and went "tasting" again, and spoke up.

Also, if you find one you really like, find out what strings are in it because that makes a difference, too. If you like one but want it to sound a little different, explain it, maybe they will try a different set of strings for you? 

I know you probably know all of this, but many guests reading, may not. 

As stated above, bring your bow, and maybe your rosin, or rosin before you bring it. 

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ELCBK
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April 2, 2023 - 12:51 pm
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Great suggestions from everyone! 

I'm afraid I treat buying something new vs something old/antique very differently.  I would frequent the places an antique might show up, but I wouldn't expect to find anything.  I only hope to run across what to me is a special treasure - can't rush fate, it can take years. 

BUT, you can put the word out to places that you are in the market - ask them to call you when older instruments show up!

First, you want to make sure you buy something better than what you have, so I think as long as you take your outfit along, especially your bow - you won't have any trouble. 

If you're not CRAZY IN LOVE with an instrument's sound, immediately upon picking it up & playing it - don't waste anymore time on it. 

Just go with an open mind & take notes on what you discover YOU like & dislike about instruments you try.  Play music YOU like - what YOU like to hear while YOU play is most important. 

Take your phone & small tripod to record yourself playing the same tune on each - you might be surprised by the playback comparison. 

If I was doing this: tone under my ear, projection, and how it feels to play would be my priorities. 

  • Look for any physical damage/condition - pegs work smoothly, soundpost in the right spot? 
  • What strings are installed?  They can alter tone, response & feel - you & the previous owner may have completely different preferences. 
  • would I prefer a different chinrest?
  • Does a scale up one string sound & feel as good to play as on the other strings? 
  • How easy does it feel to do string crossings? 
  • is it bursting full with sound, better than my current instrument? 

Btw, GREAT time to try other bows (while trying violins) to start learning there's a HUGE difference among them! 

Happy hunting! 

https://i.pinimg.com/236x/c2/f4/9e/c2f49e91fc1b0559c74d4d17b053550c.jpg?nii=t

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Strabo
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April 2, 2023 - 2:55 pm
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Mouse, you are so fortunate with your grandfather’s fiddle -- what a great story!

I prioritize the sound under my ear over what someone else hears. Fiddle for me is a source of personal challenge and enjoyment, not a means to make my living. Some people need to be heard over a full orchestra, but that ain’t me. I’m free to do what makes me feel good. And if my fiddle gets overwhelmed sometimes by loud banjos or guitars, I guess I can live with that.

I like warm tone over sharp. I’m a fan of the fiddle’s lower register as it complements the brighter treble sound. And I like how those lower frequencies make the entire instrument resonate. It is important, though, that the lower tones come through with definition. Maybe it’s a contradiction, but I think warm tone can be clear, not muddy.

Strings definitely influence the sound. I certainly won’t have the ability to get every fiddle I test loaded with the same type of strings but I guess I’ll just have to live with that lack of comparability, and make the best judgment that I can. Different instruments often want different strings, so that’s always a trial-and-error issue (after the fact).

I’m still puzzled about how to judge the evenness of tone and volume across the strings. My current best guess is to have someone play a G scale up and down, up and down, and listen for obvious unevenness. Not very scientific, I know. 

I selected my last fiddle quickly, based largely on tone. That fiddle spoke to me, and continues to speak to me to this day. I’ll be happy if I can do as well this time around!

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Strabo
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April 2, 2023 - 3:10 pm
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If you're not CRAZY IN LOVE with an instrument's sound, immediately upon picking it up & playing it - don't waste anymore time on it. 

Excellent comment, Emily. As noted above, that’s exactly how I picked out my current fiddle.

I don’t have the patience to stretch this out over a long time. I don’t enjoy slow-motion shopping at the grocery store, and I’m definitely not willing to go through an endless process of ordering three fiddles, trying them out, returning them for others, rinse & repeat, rinse & repeat. 

I’m gonna try to do this in one day. I’m planning to see multiple fiddles that supposedly have the characteristics that I’m looking for. I expect to come home with a new/old fiddle at the end of the day. Here’s hoping!

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Mouse
April 2, 2023 - 4:56 pm
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Mouse, you are so fortunate with your grandfather’s fiddle -- what a great story!

I treasure it.

 

I prioritize the sound under my ear over what someone else hears. Fiddle for me is a source of personal challenge and enjoyment, not a means to make my living. Some people need to be heard over a full orchestra, but that ain’t me. I’m free to do what makes me feel good. And if my fiddle gets overwhelmed sometimes by loud banjos or guitars, I guess I can live with that.

I completely agree.

 

I like warm tone over sharp. I’m a fan of the fiddle’s lower register as it complements the brighter treble sound. And I like how those lower frequencies make the entire instrument resonate. It is important, though, that the lower tones come through with definition. Maybe it’s a contradiction, but I think warm tone can be clear, not muddy.

You are so right.

 

I selected my last fiddle quickly, based largely on tone. That fiddle spoke to me, and continues to speak to me to this day. I’ll be happy if I can do as well this time around!

I am sure you will. Get whats is calling out to you. People have different needs and priorities when selecting one.

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The Bumblebee Flies!

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Strabo
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April 4, 2023 - 5:51 pm
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Thanks for your comments and suggestions. Here’s my current outline for evaluating old fiddles for potential purchase:

A. PHYSICAL CONDITION

    • Weight
    • Soundness: cracks; joints, signs of repair
    • Detail work: scroll, purfling, corners, bridge, f-holes
    • Finish, varnish, grain & flame
    • Top: ✓grain, thump
    • Label
    • Tuners?
    • Strings?

B. UNDER THE EAR: G Scales A/B

1. Playability

    • Action
    • Near / far from  bridge
    • Feel: Resonance in the body

2. Responsiveness

    • Quick response; String crossing
    • Pianissimo / Fortissimo
    • Chop
    • Sizzle? Crunch?

3. Resonance: does it ring

    • Pizzicato / Pick 

C. PLAY A TUNE: HOW MUCH FUN IS IT?

 

D. PLAYED AT A DISTANCE: G Scales A/B

1. Tone:

    • Richness
    • Dark vs Bright; Warm vs Sharp
    • Clarity

2. Loudness

3. Balance across strings

 

Maybe this will be helpful for someone else!

Strabo

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ELCBK
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April 4, 2023 - 7:06 pm
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@Strabo -

If I was parting with a good chunk of $, and looking at violins sold 'as is' (not gone over by a luthier) there's a few more things I'd consider. 

EVERYTHING in your "Responsiveness" category ONLY pertains to the strings, ROSIN used & how you play - not the actual fiddle itself, strings & rosin can easily be changed. 

Pegs are important - if they stick or slip.

The Bridge is important if you'll end up paying extra for a luthier.  Make sure it's in the right place before you play - and that the soundpost is in a good position in relation to it (you might need it adjusted BEFORE trying to evaluate the violin).  An old bridge might not be straight or well shaped.  The top curve will determine how easy string crossings & double stops are to play & tone might be affected if notches are too deep, or if not enough wood cut away.  You can always have a bridge dressed or a new one made if necessary - it just adds to the cost of the instrument. 

This Video starts at the relevant point of bridge & soundpost relationship. 

 

 

One important thing I don't want to hear prominently while playing in the lower positions - a 'wolf' tone.  I, personally, don't want to have to deal with them.

 

 

We've also talked elsewhere on the forum about labels. 

They are intriguing - sometimes the one you see isn't the original, sometimes it was lost or replaced by someone who did repairs & some are just deceiving.  

 

...not sure how much anything matters if the fiddle doesn't catch your eye - or if it doesn't sing to you right away.

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Strabo
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April 12, 2023 - 11:18 am
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Here’s the result: I hope this is useful for someone who needs to evaluate violins for a prospective purchase.

I was lookin for an old violin and I had a good idea of what I was looking for. I didn’t want to stretch out the process by ordering multiple instruments for trial, returning them and trying to remember which sounded best, etc etc. I wanted to do it all in one day.

I was able to play eight different fiddles in one day, four at each of two locations. In both cases I had requested that the candidate violins be selected to meet my preferences (noted above). 

When all was said and done, I brought home a wonderful 100 year-old violin, a magnificent instrument. It has great volume, outstanding tone, and plays responsively and easily. 

I found it difficult to evaluate instruments with other people standing around, waiting for me to make decisions. Listening to others play didn’t do much for me. What did work for me was to shoo everyone away and take some time to play each of several instruments, comparing them with each other and with my current fiddle. I came down to two instruments, both very similar, and just let them speak to me. Within a few minutes one of them emerged. In the end, it was easy.

The preparation was very helpful. I read everything I could find about judging violins, watched some videos, and members of this forum helped me think about how to proceed. While the evaluation/selection process was a little bumpy at first, I felt confident that it would work out. It did, and the result has exceeded my hopes and expectations. 

Many thanks to all!

Strabo

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Mouse
April 12, 2023 - 11:28 am
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Congratulations, @Strabo! I tend to agree, listening to others play them, really does not help me, but everyone is different.

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ELCBK
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April 12, 2023 - 1:36 pm
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@Strabo -

Congratulations! 

Can't wait to hear you play it! 

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Mark
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Grats on the new fiddle

Mark

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