Oh No! I Bought a Chinese Violin!
Buying a violin is a big deal. Even if you are buying a spare (like I just did), you need to shop around and not only get the best deal ($$), but the best value. Value is defined as the amount of quality at a given price. We want better quality, but can we also get that at a good price? Yes and no. Usually when we hear the words “Chinese” and “Violin” together, alarms go off, people gasp, and a hush falls over the room. Why? Because to a lot of people, Chinese anything is junk that is made by slave labor paid pennies per hour. What does that mean for stringed instruments? Read below for my experiences and some advice.
Chinese Instruments – What’s the Deal?
Your little boy wants to play the violin. You go online and try to find a cheap instrument. After all, why pay top dollar if the kid is just going to lose interest in a few months? Wait a minute! Amazon has violin outfits for $69 or less, and they include a bow, a case, and even rosin and a pitch pipe. Wow, what a deal! Yeah, not so much.
These are the violins that give China a bad name in the industry. The ones you find on Amazon and Ebay. You are buying an instrument sight unseen. These are made in a factory, on an assembly line, and may or may not arrive in pieces a couple of weeks later. Even if you get a whole violin, it won’t sound very good. The setup (how the bridge is cut, how the pegs are fit) is terrible. The strings are strings in name only. The bow is fiberglass and barely usable. The fittings (pegs, chin rest, etc.) are plastic. Anyone learning to play on one of these toys faces an uphill battle and is likely to quit earlier than other students.
The story doesn’t end there, however. While anything under $100 is more likely to be firewood than playable, there are some gems to be found at higher price points. You have better than a 50-50 chance at a pretty good fiddle made in China for $400-500 and up. These are made by one maker from beginning to end. They are inexpensive because the overhead is low, labor is cheap, and the Chinese government subsidizes a lot of these shops in an effort to gain market share. We will be discussing these instruments here.
So, Good Instruments? From China? Really?
Yes. Really. With anything from overseas, you need to be vigilant and do your due-diligence, but there are some very nice instruments made in China if you know where to look and what to look for. Will a player in the Chicago Symphony find his perfect instrument for $1000 on ebay? No way. But, advanced students can find a very well-made and nice sounding instrument for that same price. A professional (like me) can find a very nice spare violin (like I just did) on ebay or elsewhere online for just a few hundred dollars.
Other than the company I bought my instruments from, (I also purchased a viola from them a couple of years ago) I’m not going to recommend specific vendors to look at because I have no experience with them. That said, here are a few things to look for when shopping for a violin online from China:
- One maker from beginning to end. There are some excellent makers over there.
- German or Italian oil varnish – the same varnish used on the best European and American instruments.
- Quality fittings (pegs, tailpiece, chin rest) – ebony, rosewood, or boxwood.
- Quality setup – some shops do a better job than others – no matter what, take the violin to a local shop after you get it.
- A liberal return policy – the cost to ship a violin back to China is high – if you don’t like it, you should be able to return it for a reasonable cost.
- Quality tonewood – Spruce is what most good violins are made from. Some may have a back made from maple. Wood should be air-dried and aged.
- And finally – realistic expectations – a $400 violin will not sound like a $50k Gagliano. Ever.
How Did I Do?
Well, after some research, I bought a viola from Yita Music on eBay in 2016. I have some experience buying and selling on eBay so I’m comfortable navigating through the crap for sale on there. The reviews of Yita are mostly good and all say about the same thing – a good quality instrument for the price. Opinions of Yita fall into two categories – those who recognize the quality of their instruments, and those who just hate everything Chinese.
Yita’s violins come in various levels. T-18 (total beginner violin, $100 or less), T-19 (good student violin $200 or less), and T-20 (very good student/almost professional quality $200-$700). They also have a master series which sell for $800-1500 and are very good from what I’ve read. In addition, they have M series instruments which are a different maker and shop. The general consensus that I’ve seen is, the M violins are slightly less in quality than the T violins.
My viola is what they call a M20+ and I purchased it for $799. I like it very much. It is quite strong in tone, and yet can fit into any ensemble without sticking out. When I play string quartet gigs, the others always talk about how good it sounds. I never took it to be set up by a local luthier, but I might if I start getting more work on viola.
What About the Violin?
Yita offers instruments at both auction and “buy-it-now,” which is just like buying anything else online – click and buy. I saw a T20 violin up for auction and it caught my eye. I bid at the last minute and stole it for $250. It is a copy of the famous “il Cannone” Guarnieri, otherwise known as The Cannon. The original was owned and played by Paganini. It arrived last week, and while it is a little disappointing in the amount of sound it makes, for under $300, it will make a fine spare or “outside” violin. I have no reservations of playing it at weddings or other events. Would I do an audition on it? No way. A recital? Hell no. But that’s the thing about these instruments. Realistic expectations and a little research have provided me with exactly what I was looking for.
That said, the sound will eventually open up a bit. I am taking it to get a new bridge and a few other adjustments. Any Chinese instrument (or any instrument sight unseen really) should be taken to a local luthier to be looked at and adjusted. My new violin needs a new bridge (the current one is way too high), and probably a sound post adjustment. Even with the additional cost ($100-$300 including good strings), the overall price is worth it to me.
How to Buy a Chinese Violin
There are several ways to get a good Chinese instrument. You can buy one directly from the maker or shop. On eBay or otherwise online. Or, you can buy from a dealer. There are pros and cons for each:
- Pro – they will do an excellent setup in their own shop.
- Con – the instrument will probably be a little more expensive so they can make some money on it.
- Pro – they will probably put decent strings on it along with quality fittings
- Con – you will pay a little more for that service
- Pro – they will have customer service that can help you – in English even!
- Con – the overhead and labor costs generally drive up prices.
- Pro – if they are local, you can try the instrument before buying. This is a huge pro for domestic dealers!
- Pro – lower prices.
- Con – you don’t get to try the violin first.
- Pro – you could find a very nice instrument, even an outstanding one for very little money.
- Con – you could also get a dud that will cost too much to return in comparison to what you paid.
- Pro – most Chinese dealers and makers love to haggle and negotiate.
- Con – Customer service rarely speaks English, and even when they do, they are little help.
- Pro – High quality craftsmanship and beautiful varnish on many instruments
- Con – Even with a nice instrument, you will probably need to spend extra money on some adjustments locally.
As you can see, the choice is not easy. Again, you need to have realistic expectations and know what you want. If you are looking for the instrument that will win you auditions and further your professional career, buying from China sight unseen is not the way to go. If you have a 15-year-old budding musician who is looking at taking auditions at music schools, this is a great way to get a good instrument without dipping into your college fund.
And, Finally, One Last Word About Violins
If you want to get a great violin of the highest quality, you must go to a reputable shop and try instruments. If you are buying “the” violin, you must try several and choose the one best suited to you and your playing. This pretty much eliminates buying online from Chinese makers. If you can find one that will send you a violin to try before you buy, go for it. You won’t though. It’s just too @!#$%! expensive to ship a fragile violin back and forth.
However, if you want a spare violin, or an instrument for an advancing student, Chinese instruments are a definite option. Don’t rule out local shops though. I wrote this to help you if you want to buy an instrument from China. You should still shop around locally and at least try to keep your money in your community. Feel free to contact me with questions or your own experiences.