Tips for Finding the Perfect Fiddle - dummies

By Michael John Sanchez

How do you know exactly what you should look for when you start your search for a fiddle? What makes a fiddle sound good? How much should you spend for a decent fiddle?

Here are some reasons why selecting the right instrument and accessories is important:

  • A high-quality fiddle will sound better to you and others.

  • The better the quality of your bow, the easier it is to get a clean sound. Fifty percent of a fiddle player’s sound has to do with the quality of the bow!

  • Choosing the right accessories can help with your technique and help prevent bad habits on the instrument.

Getting familiar with the different fiddle sizes

Many different sizes of fiddles are on the market. Players should choose fiddles based on their reach — meaning how far they can stretch their arm horizontally. These tips are mainly to help determine the correct size fiddle for kids younger than 13. Most people over this age use a full-size (4/4/adult) instrument.

[Credit: By Rashell Smith]
Credit: By Rashell Smith

To know exactly what size fiddle you (or your child or student) need, measure the distance from the center of the shoulder blade to the very tip of the middle finger. Based on the distance in inches, you can see which instrument to get.

Another method of finding the right-size fiddle is to hold the fiddle under your chin, stretch your arm as far as possible, and wrap your hand around the scroll of the fiddle. If your fingers curl all the way around the scroll, the size is correct. If they don’t, you should drop to a smaller size.

Length of Arm Reach Fiddle Size
Under 14” 1/32 size
14”–153⁄8” 1/16 size
153⁄8”–167⁄8” 1/10 size
167⁄8”–18 1/2” 1⁄8 size
18 1/2”–203⁄8” 1/4 size
203⁄8”–22 1/4” 1/2 size
22 1/4”–235⁄8” 3/4 size
Over 235⁄8” 4/4 or full size

An instrument that’s too small is better than an instrument that’s too big.

Understanding fiddle sound qualities

Fiddles have many sound qualities. Here are a few of them:

  • Cleanliness of tone: A fiddle is only as good as its capability to make a clean/pleasant tone.

  • Instrument projection: An important sound quality of a fiddle is its projection — the capability it has to play loud.

  • Richness and depth: Richness and depth refer to how beautiful each note sounds coming out of the instrument.

Exploring factors of quality in fiddle pricing

It would be nice to be able to rely solely on price to determine the quality of a violin, but price is only relative to quality. Many fiddles that cost $500 may not sound as good as a fiddle that only costs $250.

Quality of wood

The quality of wood used to make a fiddle carries the most weight in determining the price. The value of a fiddle that’s handcrafted is much higher than a fiddle that’s manufactured in a factory. Handcrafting can take over three months of full-time work! The result is always a better projection from the instrument and a richer, deeper sound. A manufactured fiddle is much less valuable because it’s easier to make.

Every fiddle that costs less than $1,000 is, more than likely, manufactured. That doesn’t mean that you can’t find a good-sounding beginner fiddle that’s factory-manufactured.

It’s not uncommon for a well-known fiddle maker to charge more than $10,000 for a well-made, handcrafted instrument. Fiddles in this price range tend to be for people who decide to make fiddle playing a profession.

Who made it?

A prestigious luthier (someone who makes and repairs stringed instruments) can charge higher prices for her finished instruments — upwards of $10,000. An appraiser takes into consideration the prestige of the instrument maker.

If you look inside the F-hole on a fiddle, you may see the name of the person who made it, which can influence the price. Alternatively, you may only see the year and place the violin was manufactured.

Many labels are fakes. During the early 1900s, thousands of Stradivarius copies were made in Europe, so they’re very common instruments to come across. Unless you’re extraordinarily fortunate, the instrument is definitely not made by Stradivarius. However, these instruments still have value and can sometimes be worth up to $2,000 if they’re in great condition.

What country was it made in?

The country where a fiddle is made is a big factor when considering the fiddle’s quality. For example, you can find yourself tripping over the number of fiddles that are made in China (75 percent of all the fiddles in the world!), resulting in much lower prices.

Europe makes some of the best fiddles in the world, but they’re often overpriced and not worth purchasing as a beginner. After you exceed the $5,000 price range, you’ll want to strongly consider a European-made instrument over a Chinese-made instrument. Examples of countries with high reputations for making violins are Germany, Italy, Romania, the United States, and the Czech Republic.

How old is the fiddle?

It’s surprising to many people that a fiddle’s value actually increases over time — about a 1 percent increase each year. Many fiddles made before 1900 are worth twice as much as newer fiddles of the same quality made with the same type of wood. Fiddles also sound much better over time as the wood becomes more and more resonant (responsive) to sound.

The condition of the fiddle

An old fiddle may be more valuable and potentially sound better than a newer fiddle. But the older a fiddle gets, the more prone it is to things like cracking of the wood and open seams.

Cracks or broken parts can cost thousands of dollars to fix, and although sometimes fixing them is worth it on an old fiddle, many times it’s not. If you notice any sort of cracking on a fiddle, don’t buy it unless you feel you’re getting an extremely good deal.