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HOW TO SELECT A FIDDLE

One of the most common questions I get asked is "How do I select a fiddle?" There are actually several answers to this question, depending upon what you want to get out of the fiddle and how much money your are willing or able to spend -- and the setup of the fiddle is even more important than the actual fiddle itself! Here are some questions you need to take into consideration:

What size fiddle do you need?

Here is a chart to help you decide what size fiddle you need. Most adults will use a 4/4 (full-size) fiddle unless they are very small or have short arms. The measurements below should be taken from the neck to the middle of the palm (arm fully extended).

14"1/16 size
15-1/4"1/10 size
17"1/8 size
18-1/2"1/4 size
20-3/8"1/2 size
22-1/4"3/4 size
23-5/8"4/4 (full) size

If you are buying a fiddle that is less than full size and you expect to have to buy a full size later, then you will certainly want to take this into consideration. You probably won't want to spend as much money because children grow fast and they will outgrow their fiddles fairly quickly. Unless you can find a place that will give you trade-in value, you are probably better off purchasing something that is less expensive. Bluegrass Shack Productions is one place that will offer you full trade in value on vintage instruments. This is a great deal because you can upgrade to a better sounding instrument each time you need to get a larger instrument. By the time you go to a full size fiddle, you can have a very nice instrument without forking out a lot of money. Vintage instruments typically have a deeper or fuller tone quality, especially as you go up in price, and they never lose their value unless they meet with an unfortunate accident! Many of the new instruments that are currently being made have an excellent sound as well. As they are played and as they age, they will also gain depth of tone quality.

Is this fiddle for an adult or a child?

Many times parents are afraid to spend too much money on a fiddle for their child when they don't know if the child will "stick with it." Adults are often hesitant to spend the money for fear that they won't be good enough. In either of these situations, you are probably better off spending less money and upgrading later on.

How much money should I expect to pay for a decent fiddle?

The bigger question is "how do I know my fiddle is setup correctly?" Even an inexpensive fiddle can end up being a decent starter fiddle if it has a proper setup. The setup really needs to be done by a violin shop -- not just a regular music store. You should expect to pay about $100 for a regular setup and new strings, as long as repairs are not needed on the instrument. If you are paying less than $100 for a violin outfit, you are probably going to be getting an inferior instrument, or one that will need setup and/or repairs.

Should I buy new or used or vintage?

If you are buying low end, then you will probably be able to buy a new instrument for less than you will be able to purchase a used or vintage instrument. If it doesn't matter to you if the instrument is an investment, then an inexpensive new fiddle should be just fine. Many of my own students start out with a cheap Chinese made fiddle with a proper setup and new strings. (The strings that come on these cheap fiddles are worthless!) Don't expect to play this fiddle more than a year or two.

If you are buying used or vintage, make sure you know what you are buying, and that you are buying from someone reputable. I can't tell you how many students have come to me with a "bargain" fiddle that needed $500 worth of work to be made playable. Those "hairline" cracks (or "scratches that don't look like they go all the way through") are many times very expensive to fix. Here is a list of some things that you want to look for:

Peghead cracks Look over the peghead and scroll area carefully. See if there are any hairline cracks running through the pegholes. To be fixed properly, these cracks must be fixed by applying a "cheek" patch and/or rebushing. If someone says they just glued the crack, beware! Even worse, someone says it is not glued but that it seems to be holding...
Cracks in the top Cracks in the top can be very expensive to fix if they are very large at all. This is because the top will have to be removed to properly fix the crack. Violin shops in the St. Louis area charge around $75 just to remove the top -- that doesn't include actually fixing the crack. To see if the crack is solid, try pressing on the side of the crack. If it moves, then it is an open crack. Sometimes cracks are simply glued together without removing the top and cleating them. You can only tell this by looking on the inside of the fiddle with a light and a mirror.

If a crack runs through either foot of the bridge, or very close to the foot of the bridge, this is indeed a bad crack. These are called "soundpost" cracks if they are on the treble side of the fiddle, and "bassbar" cracks if they are on the bass side of the fiddle. As long as the crack is fixed properly, the instrument will still be quite playable, but this instrument would not be as good an investment because these cracks devalue a vintage instrument. Other cracks, as long as they are fixed, usually do not devalue a vintage fiddle.

Endpin area (bottom of the fiddle) Is the bottom area coming unglued? Does it bulge outward? Is it cracked? These are all things to look for that will need repair.
Fingerboard Lay a flat edge against the fingerboard (between the strings longways) to see if the fingerboard is relatively flat. If there is a gap there, you will either need to have the fingerboard planed or replaced. Cost is probably around $50 (for planing) to $75 for a replacement.

Are there grooves in the fingerboard under the strings? Again, you will either need to have the fingerboard planed or replaced.

Does the fingerboard sit almost on top of the fiddle? This might indicate an incorrect neck angle. Translation: expensive!!!

Heel & Button Area (where the neck joins the back) Is the neck loose? Are there cracks in the heel? Is the button cracked, or has it been cracked? These are things you don't want any part of unless it's already been fixed properly. If you're not sure it has been fixed properly, beware!
Overall - Seams Check the fiddle over carefully to make sure that all the seams are tight. You can usually find out if a seam needs reglueing by pressing on the top or bottom in the suspect area and seeing if there is any movement. If there is movement, then glueing is needed. This is not usually expensive. Cost -- maybe $50. Beware of doing this yourself, as special glue is needed -- NOT wood glue or gorilla glue, etc.
Glue Can you see excessive glue anywhere on the fiddle? This is a BIG red flag. Fiddles are made to be taken apart (so that repairs can be made). If a fiddle has been reglued with something other than "hyde" (hide) glue, then you are asking for trouble. Any repairs that might need to be made on this instrument would present a problem because more damage would be done to the fiddle trying to take it apart. Many a good intentioned person has used superglue, wood glue, gorilla glue, and even epoxy thinking "this will never come apart again." Eeek! Not what you want!
Fine Tuners Not a big deal at all, but worth mentioning. The fine tuners are the small tuners that are on the tailpiece of a fiddle. If you are going to be using steel strings (most fiddle players do), then you will want four fine tuners (one for each string). These are inexpensive and can be added easily. Even if you are using composite or gut strings, you still might want four fine tuners to make it easier to tune for beginners.
Pegs Does the fiddle have standard black friction pegs, or does it have guitar-type tuning pegs that are attached with screws to the side of the peghead? If the fiddle has the friction pegs, look to see if they are properly fitted. If there is any "play" in the pegs (from side to side when you wiggle the peg in the hole), then the peg(s) will have to be refitted and/or the peghole may need to be rebushed. Is the peg very short? You need about 1/4" of the peg to be useable, or else the peg needs to be replaced soon.

If the fiddle has the guitar-type pegs, this would be a fine beginner fiddle, but not an investment fiddle. These tuners also make it a pain to replace the strings because you wind ALL of a fiddle string on the pegs and you will be turning forever! Many times these types of tuners are put on fiddles that have peghead cracks. If the peghead looks good, then you may be able to have regular friction pegs fitted to the fiddle. You are looking at at least $100, so the fiddle should be worth it before you decide to have this done.

Cracks in the side These are usually the least of the cracks to worry about unless they are substantial. The top may still need to be removed to fix these properly, though, so take that into consideration.
Wood Generally speaking, the tops of fiddles are made from spruce, and the back and sides are made of maple. This is not always true, but is typical. When looking for a good grade of wood, look for spruce that has a fine grain (lines close together). Usually, the grain will be tighter towards the center and farther apart towards the edges of the top. Flamed (tiger striped) maple is desireable for the back and sides, and even the neck. Not only is flamed maple beautiful, but it usually denotes a higher grade of wood, which translates into a better instrument and a better sound.
Scroll Look at the scroll of the fiddle straight on. Is it even or is it lopsided? Look at the scroll from the sides. Is it a finely carved scroll, or does it look like a kindergartner's job of carving? Generally speaking, the scroll is the maker's signature. A finely carved scroll is an indication of a fine craftsman. Again, this usually translates into a better fiddle.
Finish Has the instrument been refinished? If this is your first fiddle and you think it sounds good, don't worry about it! If you are looking for a good investment, don't purchase a fiddle that has been refinished. This decreases the value of the instrument.

As long as you are buying from someone reputable, you should not have to worry about any of these items as they should be specified by the seller so that you are aware of these issues ahead of time.

Why buy vintage?

It's a good investment! The nice thing about a vintage instrument is that it will never decrease in value as long as it does not have a bad accident. A vintage instrument has character that a new instrument does not have. It also has the added advantage of having some years on it. Generally speaking, the older the instrument, the better the sound. Looks don't matter as much as sound. If you can get both, then great!

Loud or soft?

This is a personal preference that might be decided in part by the type of music that you are going to be playing. Many bluegrass and folk musicians prefer louder instruments because they play in jam sessions where the instruments are not amplified. If your fiddle is very soft, it will be hard to hear above the other instruments. If you live in an apartment or other place where volume is a factor, you can purchase an ultra mute for about $5.00 that will significantly decrease the volume of the fiddle without any modifications. An ultra mute is made of flexible rubber and fits over the top of the entire bridge, making the fiddle soft enough to be played in a hotel room.

Are there any brands that you don't recommend?

No. There are good and bad instruments of every brand, and depending upon how much money you want to spend, something cheap and foreign may work just fine for you with the proper setup. One word of caution, though, be careful of buying through on-line auctions. It's too easy to get ripped off. Many of these sellers, especially of vintage instruments, aren't knowledgeable enough to know what to tell you about the fiddle, and the pictures many times don't show things that you need to see.

Where should I buy my instrument?

We highly recommend our sister website, Bluegrass Shack Productions. All fiddles are setup by an expert fiddle player and luthier, and all vintage fiddles can be traded in for full purchased value towards a more expensive fiddle (with receipt). They have a large selection of new, used and vintage fiddles to choose from, with prices starting as low as $150 for a new fiddle outfit, and $300 for a vintage fiddle by itself. If there is a fiddle shop in your area, this is another good place to purchase a fiddle. We highly recommend purchasing from a fiddle shop rather than a general music store because of the expertise in setup, which is imperative to a good start. Ideally, you should get to listen to some fiddles to help make your decision. Every fiddle sounds different, and every person likes a certain sound. What sounds good to one person may sound bad to another. You're the one that's going to be playing it, so you need to be sure you like the sound.

Help! I still have questions!

If your question isn't answered here, or you need more information, feel free to send us an e-mail. We're here to help you.

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Copyright 2003-2010 by Chris Talley Armstrong
URL: http://www.learnbluegrass.com/choosefiddle.html
Last updated: February 26, 2010
Contact information: learnbluegrass@aol.com