String or Bowed Instruments

The orchestral string family includes violin, viola, cello and double bass. 

If you play violin in a professional string quartet, then you’re obviously going to need a professional instrument. Those who are just trying out an instrument for the first time may consider purchasing a more affordable, lower quality musical instrument initially. This may be more affordable to purchase, and it may provide you with the ability to determine if this is the right instrument for you.

String instruments come in many sizes to suit the age of the student – from full size right down to 16th size – this enables children to start playing at a much younger age.

The quality of string instruments has improved remarkably in the lower price brackets. One very important thing to remember is get a quality set of strings and have the instrument ‘set-up’ by an expert.

The violin is both a solo and ensemble instrument, and makes an ideal choice for a child who wants to join their school orchestra and play with other musicians.

Although there are notable players in folk, country (where they call it a fiddle) jazz and popular music, most music written for the violin is from the classical repertoire, and this should be taken into account when encouraging a child to take up the violin or the other instruments in the orchestral string family, the viola, cello and double bass.

The size of the violin or cello) is very important for young players.  Unsuitably sized instruments will affect the student’s playing ability:  too small and the student will be cramped, too big and the arms and hands will be overstretched. As the child grows they will move up sizes until they reach full size.  Ask your teacher or get fitted at your local music store.

As a guide, full size or 4/4 violin is normally suitable for 9 years and upwards, 3/4 for 7-10 years, 1/2 for 6-8 years and 1/4 for 5-7 years.  There are also smaller sizes below this for even younger children.  There is also a range of sizes available for violas and double basses.  In all cases expert advice is needed on the correct size for child.

Similarly the cello comes in a variety of sizes suitable for mid primary aged children onwards.  There are also ¾ sized double basses but this instrument is rarely commenced before students are in late primary or early secondary school, by which time they’re big enough for a full sized instrument.

The bow might look like an add-on but is critical to the way a stringed instrument plays.  A quality bow is a mandatory and is usually sold with the instrument as a student pack, along with rosin and cleaners.

Some buying tips

Tip 1. Violins are made of wood and it is important to examine the body of any violin, both new and old.  New instruments made from unseasoned wood may have bulging ribs, or heavily warped fingerboards, and possible shrinkage cracks. Tell-tale signs are in the neck and bottom rib, especially on cellos.

Tip 2. Check to make sure that the neck of the violin is set straight.  Make sure the bridge is centered between the f-holes, then sight up the fingerboard to see if it aligns with the bridge.  If the bridge has to be offset to one side to line up, then the neck is out of line (see bridge).  If the neck is skewed, playing becomes very difficult as the strings will want to fall off the side of the fingerboard.

Tip 3. The best wood for the fingerboard in terms of wear and fingering is ebony although other hardwoods are used.  The nut which divides the strings at the top of the fingerboard must have equal string spacing and the grooves correctly cut for the type of string used.  If changing from metal core to synthetic core strings, the nut grooves will need adjusting or broken strings will result.  The fingerboard should be slightly convex down the length to prevent buzzing.

Tip 4. The tuning pegs are usually made from ebony, rosewood or boxwood.  On inexpensive violins an “ebonized” (usually a fruitwood) peg can be used.  Whatever the material used the peg needs to turn smoothly and stay in place.  A jerky turn will break strings, while slipping pegs obviously don’t hold pitch.  Basses have machine heads because of the huge tensions involved.  Are they well fitted and do they turn smoothly.

Tip 5. The bridge is a key element and should be tailored or set up on each individual instrument. Some important things to look for are:

• Wood quality: A poor soft piece of wood will not offer enough sound resistance and will wear out quickly

• Is the bridge the right way round?  It’s an easy mistake to make. The E string should be lower than the G, and the front of the bridge curves back (the back of the bridge is straight).

• Is it in the right place? As rule of thumb the bridge should be positioned in between the nick in the f-holes in the centre of the instrument.

• Do the feet fit? (there should be no gaps under the bridge).

• Is the bridge bending forward? The continuous tuning of strings can warp the bridge. If it bends too far forward it will want to fall over and may snap.

• Is the height of the bridge right? This, and the height of the strings over the fingerboard are vital. Too high and the strings are very difficult to press down, too low and there is chance the strings will buzz.

• Profile or curve of the bridge: The profile should match the profile of the fingerboard. Too steep a curve and bowing becomes difficult; too flat and “double stopping” (playing two strings at once) can happen.

Tip 6. The soundpost is a small but important length of wood that sits vertically in the violin under the treble (E) string side of the instrument.  Some instruments are delivered without the soundpost in place and it may be loose in the box, so don’t throw away!  Check that it hasn’t fallen down in transit.  The sound post needs to be correctly in place before the instrument is played.  Bringing the strings to pitch without a soundpost can severely harm the instrument.  It’s fitting and position are very important and the tone can be adjusted by moving/refitting the soundpost, though you will need a trained technician to do this.  When you buy the instrument ask the store to show you where the soundpost is so you can check it on a regular basis.

Tip 7. The tailpiece wood usually matches the pegs and chinrest.  Some violins have a metal tailpiece with integral adjusters so check that the small screws turn smoothly.  The choice of material will be influenced by the type of strings used. Most cellists now use a metal tailpiece or one with built in adjusters as standard. Basses do not need adjusters as pitch can be achieved by the machine heads.

Tip 8. There is a vast range of strings available.  Most beginner instruments come with metal factory strings fitted.  These are fine, but the quality of tone is limited.  Upgrading to better quality metal strings helps both the tone and tuning.  Other strings are made with synthetic core or natural gut core, all usually wound with metal.  Seek advice on the brand, tension and tonal qualities of your strings.

Tip 9. Bows come in sizes to match the instrument.  Usually made from wood or fibre-glass/carbon fibre.  Choosing the right bow is important. Check when you look down the length of the bow, is it straight?  When you look side-on, does it have a camber?  Does the bow feel right in the hand, if it’s too heavy it will be difficult to control, and it too light and it may jump about.  Does it tighten up smoothly? Too stiff and little hands will find it difficult.  For advice ask both your teacher and the shop.

Tip 10. Despite or possibly because of its old design the violin and its larger relatives need special care and selection.  It is an instrument that we recommend is purchased in a store and not online.  We have seen many examples of badly made instruments sold on the internet and too often get calls from parents and teachers about the poor quality violins sold online.  Buying on the internet also means the instrument won’t be set up, so you will need to pay a store or a repairer to set it up before the first lesson.