by Michael Sanchez
I have played hundreds of violins over the years, and have written this article to help you guys open up your thinking to the common myth that violins made in China are not worthy of purchase. I worked as an instrument rep for Guarneri House Grand Rapids for 3 years in the mid 2000's, and then for Nashville Violins in the late 2000's. Trust me when I say I've seen it all and played on just about everything in the $2,000-$3,000 range.
The biggest thing with this price range is that you have to understand you shouldn't be looking anti-Chinese. I get many calls from people that are interested in a violin in this price range and the first thing they ask me "is the violin made in China?" I wish that wasn't the first thing I had to explain, as certainly I would rather talk about which violins I have chosen that sound the best through my experience.
If you are looking for a violin $5,000+, this article doesn't really apply to the argument that Chinese is better than European. To be honest, I have found some of the best violins in the 5K+ range to be European made instruments, and that is what I recommend to students. The reality though is that in the $2,000-$3,000 price range, you are going to find the best violins made in China, and anything European (similar price range), isn't going to match up to the best Chinese quality. You can let that turn you off (some will stop reading here), or you can read further.
I have played hundreds of consignment instruments over the years including many German copies etc. that are in the 2-3K range, and I have never found one to sound better than the best Chinese instruments that would be the same price. When an appraiser evaluates something other than Chinese (and you have good craftsmanship), the price is going to be higher. Here is what you have to understand about the pricing of an instrument.
When a shop prices a violin, they are not relying on the sound quality of a specific violin. They are actually pricing each violin based on the country of origin, wood quality (hand crafted vs. manufactured), and the condition. So when a violin shop sees that a violin is German with a label, they auto default to a higher price just based on the country of origin. Every shop I have worked at, the appraiser (shop owner) never actually plays the violin to see what it sounds like before putting it up for sale. This concept proves that violin sound is indirectly related to sound quality. I have done a lot of videos on this concept and my entire Chapter 2 in my book covers this concept.
If you didn't follow me there, what I'm trying to say is that if the goal is to find a great sounding violin (I'm assuming you aren't looking for an antique for your wall), you need to make sure it is Chinese. I have done hundreds of tests over the years and played on pretty much everything out there (I have seen them all through teaching privately), and every violin that sounded good in this price range was Chinese (the bad ones were non-Chinese). Being that I am now a dealer, I understand the reason why that is and am telling you that many brand names are made to disguise that fact. I hope nobody gets upset with me there, but it is true.
So why do Chinese violins get such a bad reputation? It is not because of the lack of potential, but actually more the lack of consistency. I was told that a large instrument manufacturer (I won't mention names) actually returns 30% of their violins back to China from their original shipment from Chinese manufacturers. That means that 70% of those violins had some sort of defect (cosmetic, bad fingerboards, etc). This makes total sense to me, as I have purchased about 10 crates of violins from China (dealt with problems every time). So what is the key then for you guys to get the 30% that I'm talking about?
When I first started promoting violins, I had two middle-men that I would work with (I won't mention names). I relied on them to ship out the Chinese instruments that I loved (at first I thought 100% were as good as the ones they sold me on). Over time, I started to notice customer complaints out of some of the violins they would drop-ship, and it seemed almost like a crap shoot (some customers were thrilled about the quality of each violin while others were angry). Finally I came up with a solution to this that I'll share with you. It involves obsoleting drop-shipping and focusing heavily on quality control.
I recently found a Chinese guy that plays in a professional orchestra that is obsessed with the sound of each violin he sells to me wholesale. He was actually the first one to explain to me that the distance between the bridge to the start of the tail piece should be 5.5 cm on a violin. I was skeptical but after he adjusted a violin for me, I was shocked at the difference (projection increased x2). He is that kind of guy, and he was very real with me about the process in China.
What he does, is he gets the structure of each violin created in the base shop, and then pays workers 8 times more at another shop to do the detailed work (fingerboard setup etc). This raises the consistency to about 85%, and he goes to China 4 times a year and picks only the best ones out of the bunch. We played all these violins at the NAAM show, and were blown away by the sound quality and consistency. He believes in doing all the hard work up front with instruments (quality control), so that customers don't complain and want to return the violin back to him. Certainly this is someone that I hope to work with for a long time, as he carries the same vision of consistency and sound quality that I want to provide to the violin world.
I'm now working with three lines of violins that go through this process. The results speak for themselves. So far every student that has tried out one of these violins, they have bought one, and each time they went through an intense approval process. I personally bought one that I find plays like it should be in the $8,000-$10,000 range, but it is only $2,500 retail.
Here is the scoop. I don't want you to think I'm trying to sell you on these violins. Honestly they are great, but I know other shops have already figured this process out and are doing the same thing. I actually know which shops they are, but I don't know if it would be good to mention them. The ones I don't mention might not be happy with me.
So in conclusion, be open to trying out violins in this price range and keep in mind the ones that sounds the best are going to be Chinese 99% of the time. Keep in mind the consistency though, and if you get something that doesn't seem good, send it back. If you find a shop that has already done quality control for you though, that is when you are going to be thrilled with your purchase the first time.
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