Why you should not buy a cheap musical instrument

In recent years, many large manufacturers around the world, most notably in Asia, have been flooding the markets with inexpensive musical instruments. One factory in China alone produces over 15 thousand guitars a month, and also makes violins, pianos and other instruments.

A reader's quandary

"I read something about "Steuben" violins on your website. I know nothing about violins, but I had the misfortune of buying one on eBay. I sent it back before even putting up the bridge (I'd rather lose the $40 shipping than have to see my girlfriend cherish this crappy gift.) . It had an alloy tailpiece, "bakelite" (feels like plastic) chinrest and all of the other junky parts. The tag did list Steuben as the manufacturer. The carved out piece on the inside of where the pegs are wasn't even finished in one big spot, and there was a very visible pencil measurement marking from where the factory made it. It was supposed to be a gift for my girlfriend who is just beginning and wants a CHEAP violin. Even if she decided that playing violin was too hard and quit trying, I wouldn't want to hang this thing on my wall as a decoration even. Have you heard anything more about the other cheapo eBay violins, namely Wexler and/or Santini? I'm still looking for one."

To be fair, some of these large manufacturers produce reasonably good products that are competitive with some produced in Europe and North America. For example, the Jinyin and Eastman factories in China use solid tonewoods for their violins that are at least finish carved by hand, albeit in production lines. According to their information, "Jinyin's 800 employees make 15,000 Saxophones, 25,000 Flutes, 20,000 Clarinets, 7,000 Piccolos, 50,000 violins and many thousands of French horns, Trumpets and Trombones each year." Many of these instruments are sold by reputable dealers in the US as inexpensive student models.

On the other hand there are many less scrupulous manufacturers who produce decidedly inferior products. With violin family instruments, this is manifested in the form of shoddy materials, poor finishes, badly fitted parts, inferior tone and little or no attention to setup. In brasses and woodwinds the most noticeable problems are with thin metals, poor finishes and cheap "pot metal" keys that break easily and are badly aligned. Instruments of this kind can be ordered wholesale by dealers with any brand name they choose. Most often a name is used to give the products an air of European respectability. They are sometimes sold with exaggerated descriptions, using terms like "German engineering" or "the original", suggesting that their brands are made in the manner of traditional craftsmanship and that they are copied by lesser quality manufacturers. This is pure hype. This kind of advertising is not false, but it is definitely misleading.

World consciousness

Common sense tells you that a violin sold for under $100 costs the dealer around $50 and costs the distributor maybe $25, including import expenses. How much do you think the people who made that instrument are earning? The only way products can be sold very cheaply in the US is by manufacturing them on the backs of poor workers in third world countries. To be fair, some of these workers are highly skilled and make a good living relative to their neighbors. I do not advocate blindly boycotting imports from the third world, but buyers should be aware that workers making very inexpensive products are not being paid anything like what they would make in a more industrialized nation.

The average parent looking for an introductory instrument for their child may have no way of knowing the difference between a well made factory instrument and a poor one. Very often I am asked about some brand of instrument being sold at very low prices on eBay or elsewhere. My advice is always the same: Caveat emptor - let the buyer beware. It is not impossible to get a good deal, but the best deals are made by informed consumers who are not taken in by promises of something for nothing. Any violin being sold for under $200 is very likely to be junk. The best assurance from any purchase comes from a local dealer who stands by his products wherever they come from.

Be aware that:

You too can be a member of the Violin Society of America

Some instrument makers try to gain your trust by implying that a certain award or membership is a stamp of quality from a prestigious organization. Most legitimate claims can be verified by going to the organization cited. For example, an award from the Violin Society of America is a highly prestigious recognition in the world of contemporary violin making. VSA's standards are very high  and competition is strong from some of the finest makers in the world. You can verify whether a maker is an award winner by checking the VSA web site.

But membership in VSA is open to anyone who pays the membership fee. Membership in VSA, while worthwhile for anyone seriously interested in violins, is not in itself an indication of a maker's quality.

Purchasing an instrument for a beginning student should always be done with the expert help of the student's teacher. There is no substitute for a hands on examination by a professional. Teachers and band directors are usually happy to help suggest instruments for their students because they know they will be more successful. Note, however, that some teachers have undisclosed relationships with instrument dealers and may be motivated by personal gain to suggest you purchase a more expensive instrument than you really need. You should not hesitate to ask a teacher about such relationships. On the other hand, teachers should certainly be compensated for their time and expertise in advising on a student purchase. See more information about this practice.

-Dwight Newton - 5/7/2003 rev.03/16/2005