Potential Problems You Can Find with Cheaper Violins

If you’re the parent of a young child who is interested in learning to play the violin or an adult beginner, you’re going to need to rent an instrument or purchase a starter violin. For some parents or adult beginners, purchasing an instrument is important, so they go online. Once there, they’re going to find a variety of inexpensive violin outfits on Amazon, eBay, and other online retailers — and they may be tempted to purchase one of these cheaper violins; after all, what if the student decides to quit?

However, as the saying goes, “Caveat emptor” or “to the buyer, beware.” Learning to play the violin is going to take a lot of practice and patience. Buying a cheap violin is only going to make the learning process more difficult and frustrating. The result? Many students are going to decide to throw in the towel. While a good violin is not inexpensive, it’s important to remember that a quality instrument is an investment, and, over the years, it will pay you back with music and the enjoyment that comes with playing it.  

From instrument to case

What should you look for in a beginner violin to determine whether or not it’s a quality instrument? There are four major differences between cheap violins and quality-made instruments:

    • Quality of the woods and components: The primary woods used in violin making are spruce and maple, and ebony for the fingerboard. If inferior components are used to make the violin, the sound, structural integrity, and playability will be compromised. The wood can be prone to warping, cracking, and going out of tune.
    • Quality of the set up: Correct bridge positioning between the inside F hole notches, fingerboard shape and curve, tailpiece and fine tuner adjustments, properly fitted pegs, and soundpost placement are just some of the details a craftsperson follows when they setup a new violin.
    • Quality of the case: The primary means of protecting a violin is its case. A case should be made of a solid material such as wood or carbon fiber with a handle that is solidly attached. Cheap violin cases, such as cloth-based cases, are leaky and offer little or no protection. A good case should have a way to secure the bow so that it doesn’t touch the violin when the case is closed.
    • Quality of the bow: A violin bow has a significant influence on the quality of sound and ease of bowing when playing the instrument. The hair should be uniform in length, without a lot of crossed hairs within the ribbon. Make sure the tip isn’t cracked and that the “button” turns smoothly, allowing the hair to tighten and loosen as needed.

It’s not just about the instrument

If inspiring your child to play an instrument is your goal, investing in a properly made and fitted violin will give them the best chance for a successful and rewarding learning experience. The same goes for the adult beginner. If you’re concerned about making such an investment for a beginning student, consider renting a violin online. At JSI, our rental instruments are professionally set up in our dedicated rental instrument workshop. We believe that beginners of all ages deserve to have the best experience possible learning to play the violin.

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How to Buy Violin Strings Online

There are many types of violin strings to choose from, and each has a different effect on the resonance, projection, and playability of the instrument. Because beginning violinists can find the wide variety of violin string sets on the market confusing, it’s important to learn about the basic attributes and how they influence the sound and feel of your violin before making a purchase. The first step in the string selection process is to choose the core material.

Originally, all violin strings were constructed of gut material harvested from sheep intestines. Traditionally, gut strings produced a warm, evocative sound. Eventually, steel strings became popular as they are more resistant to climate changes. The tone produced by steel is more brilliant and sharper than gut. Synthetic core strings are the newest violin strings, and they combine the best characteristics of gut and steel together.

New violinists may want to drop into a music store before buying violin strings online in order to get a feel for how each option feels and sounds on their instrument.

Start with the basics

Along with core material, there are two other attributes of violin strings — gauge and tension — which influence the type of sound you get from your instrument.

The gauge of strings refers to the thickness of the material. Thicker strings provide more volume, but are less responsive, requiring more pressure to depress on the fingerboard and a heavier stroke with the bow. Thinner strings, while more responsive, do not deliver as much projection. Beginners are best off starting in the mid-range with medium gauge strings.

Tension has a significant impact on the tonal quality produced by the violin. Higher tension strings deliver crisp, brighter tones, while lower tension options provide a warmer sound. Steel strings maintain the best tone with higher tensions.

An uncomplicated way to narrow down your choices as a beginning violinist is to think about the type of music you’d like to learn. For example, if you want to play country music, steel core strings will produce the brighter tones that allow you to play your favorites.

Never run out

Whichever category of strings you end up picking, make sure you always have spares on hand. Breaking a string is a fact of life for all violinists, from beginner to advanced, and it can be very disruptive. Keeping a stockpile of extras and learning how to go about replacing violin strings minimizes the disruption.

Stock up at Johnson String Instrument’s online violin string shop today. We have an enormous variety of strings to fit any musical style.

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Winter Protection For Your Stringed Instrument 

Violins and other stringed instruments need protection from the elements. In the summer, it’s the humidity. In the winter it’s the cold, dry weather. Stringed instruments, just like most humans, prefer a constant temperature of between 60-70 degrees with a relative humidity of 40-60%.

Unfortunately, these conditions are pretty tough to maintain as the temperature turns from pleasantly mild in the fall to downright cold in the winter. And, as the weather changes, so, too, does the amount of moisture in the air.

Professional musicians, college students, or children just starting to take music lessons, anyone who owns a stringed instrument needs to know about winter protection for stringed instruments, especially if they live in cities like New York, Chicago, and Boston where the winter weather is particularly cold and dry. Instruments traveling from home to school, rehearsal, or performance venue and back can experience a lot of damage if not adequately protected from the winter elements.

Keep track of humidity levels in your case

Why are stringed instruments so susceptible to the vagaries of the weather? Stringed instruments are made from different varieties of wood. Wood is “hygroscopic” which means that it attracts and absorbs moisture from the air, and swells. As the wood dries, it shrinks.

If the humidity falls below 40%, changes in the moisture levels in the air could result in loose pegs, lowered string heights, a change in tone, open seams, and cracking. Therefore, being able to monitor the humidity levels and keep a stable temperature is critical to preventing any damage to your instruments.

The good news is there are ways to protect your instrument from the cold and changing humidity levels in the winter:

  • Keep your instrument in the case, preferably a hard case, as much as possible
  • Open the case when you arrive at a different environment to allow your instrument to acclimate to the changes in temperature and humidity
  • Consider keeping your instrument in a silk bag or cotton cover to retain heat while in the case
  • Get a hygrometer if your case does not have one as a built-in feature

A hygrometer is an instrument that measures the relative humidity of the inside of your case which gradually matches the air outside the case. Take note of the reading every time you open your case so that you can be alert to a change in humidity levels that could be potentially damaging to your instrument.

Need more humidity?

Dry conditions are the bane of stringed instruments. However, there are products that you can use to humidify your instrument case, such as Dampits. A Dampit is a soft rubber sleeve that holds a special open-cell sponge that slowly releases water throughout the day to protect the wood from cracking and other damages.

At Johnson String Instrument we offer a variety of accessories to humidify and protect your instrument.

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Upgrading From One Cello to Another

If you have been playing cello for years, it may be time to think about a new instrument. Cellos come in beginning, intermediate and advanced models, and it’s appropriate for new music students to begin with the easiest model. As you become increasingly adept, you will eventually reach a point where continuing to play the same cello will limit your progression. It’s at this point that upgrading to your next great cello with rich deep tones and amazing craftsmanship should be considered.

Buying a cello is not something you do on a whim as it is a fairly costly proposition. Whether replacing your current instrument or making the transition from renting to owning, it makes sense to put some time into finding the perfect cello for you. Don’t forget to take advantage of local experts, like your music teacher or a trained professional from your local music shop when seeking advice and recommendations on the best options.

What to Consider

Upgrading your cello is an exciting prospect, particularly when doing so is because your skill level has increased significantly. In which case, buying a more advanced instrument provides an opportunity to take your artistic pursuit to the next level. If you are feeling a bit limited and not ready to pay the price associated with a new instrument, there are other things you can do to improve.

Switching to a higher quality bow can change the tonal quality you get out of your cello and noticeably enhance the sound. Have you had your cello checked by a luthier at the music shop in your area? You’d be surprised at the difference in sound after a trained professional tunes the instrument. Small adjustments can result in big improvements to the sound quality of your cello.

Do Your Research

Whatever direction you choose to go, it pays to research all of the options available to you. New cellos are a big purchase, but are a necessary step in your progression as a cellist. To be able to look at all of the instruments on the market, you can shop for cellos online

It’s an easy way to make an apples to apples comparison between music shops, and find what you’re looking for at the best price. With the proviso that you find a good music shop with a solid reputation before doing business with them. Johnson String Instruments offers a large variety of cellos, bows, outfits and other accessories with shipping directly to your door.

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How to Buy a Cello Online

Buying a cello online greatly expands the selection from which to choose, and allows you to purchase the precise instrument you want at a competitive price. Shopping online makes it possible to search music shops all over the country, rather than being limited by your location. Before you make a purchase, however, it’s best to visit a good violin or string store, in person, and test out different cellos. Take your time investigating each option and playing the instrument to feel the responsiveness, resonance, and tone.

You may also want to ask a teacher or experienced cellist to play, while you stand across the room and listen. Hearing the instrument from a distance will give you an idea of its projection ability. The size and weight of the cello also impacts the sound – the bigger the cello, the more tone is produced. You need to be able to handle the instrument, so calculating the correct size for your body is important. 

Read the Reviews

Once you’ve done your research and narrowed down the list of cellos you’re interested in, it’s time to find a reputable music store. One of the biggest advantages of purchasing from shops that sell instruments onlineis that you can read about the experiences of previous buyers with regard to both the violins, violas, and cellos they sell, and the store itself. 

Look for online shops that carry high quality instruments and have a reputation for being responsive to their customer’s needs. Take the same approach to the cellos on your shortlist. Along with perusing the description and technical specifications of each, narrow your choices down to the instruments that consistently get great customer reviews. 

Who to Buy From

Cellos, like all string instruments, vary greatly in price. The cost is a reflection of the quality of the individual instrument. Handmade cellos are more expensive as a result of the craftsmanship, type of materials used, etc. As you advance as a player, you’ll learn that a cello that is handmade by an experienced luthier possesses a quality of sound that far exceeds that of an instrument with machine made parts. 

We recommend that you buy from an instrument shop, not Amazon, because the experts on staff will be able to clarify questions about how much a cello should cost based on these variables. Second party sites such as Amazon sell nearly every type of good on the market, but they are not specialists and don’t offer the type of helpful service that you get from an actual music store. At Johnson String Instrument, we maintain excellent relationships with all of our present and past customers, and our friendly staff are always available to answer questions.

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Flying With Your Cello

Flying with string instruments can be a stressful experience. With the number of horror stories clogging our news feeds in recent years detailing airline mishaps, it’s no wonder we get nervous taking our instruments with us when we fly.

However, things are looking up; under a Department of Transportation (DOT) ruling that went into effect March 6, 2015, airlines are now required to allow small instruments in the cabin as part of a passenger’s carry-on allowance. Just like any other luggage, as long as it can fit in the overhead compartment or under the seat the airline cannot refuse to carry the instrument. This ruling is a huge victory for musicians, in particular string players, everywhere.

But what about cellos?

While the DOT ruling is very clear in regard to smaller instruments, it is not as definitive when it comes to larger ones. With cellos, standard practice is one of two things: use a flight case and gate check the instrument or purchase another seat in the cabin. Both options have their benefits and disadvantages, so it is up to you to decide what you are most comfortable with.

Putting Your Cello in Checked Baggage


  1. Make sure you have a sturdy flight case or cover you can use. Covers normally go around a hard case, while dedicated flight cases are heavy-duty and designed to protect the instrument without additional parts. They can be purchased or rented depending on the type you are looking for. Just as you would a package, mark it clearly as FRAGILE, MUSICAL INSTRUMENT, or any other polite message that states it needs to be treated with care.

  2. Make sure your instrument is padded within the case. Use wadded tissue paper, cloth, or old clothes to support the bridge, fingerboard, and tailpiece as well as around the sides of the instrument to prevent any jostling around inside the case. If you are concerned about the tension, tune your strings down by a half step to a third. The safest option, if possible, is to have a luthier take down the entire setup and have another set it back up when you arrive at your destination.

  3. Understand that others will be handling your instrument and plan accordingly. There is a lot of baggage to handle and things are not always treated as delicately as they should be–we’ve all watched luggage being loaded onto a plane. It is also possible that the case may be opened, and non-players do not always know how to safely put everything back. Emphasize nicely that it is a delicate musical instrument, but make sure steps 1 and 2 are in place as well.

Bringing Your Cello Into the Cabin

Plane Interior

  1. When buying your extra ticket (which should always be done), make sure you are not buying a seat where the cello will block any emergency exits or signs. Airlines can make a case to have the instrument checked if it threatens passenger safety, so check sites like Seat Guru to maximize both your comfort and the safety of your cello.

  2. Contact the airline when you buy the ticket to make sure everything follows their safety policies. This will ensure you are in compliance and allow you to confirm you provided advance notice about the cello.

  3. Some cellists have been able to fit their instruments in the overhead compartments of larger planes. This is something that cannot be guaranteed, but if you are thinking of trying it there are a few things to keep in mind:

    • Board early. If you need to pay extra to do so, it may be worth it to ensure that you have enough space to get your instrument in the overhead first. Like the DOT ruling says, if it fits in the overhead compartment and you put it there first, your instrument is entitled to stay there.

    • Some cases work better than others. Most anecdotal evidence of cello cases fitting in these compartments happened with the Accord cases, specifically the Hybrid and the UltraLight.

  4. THE AIRLINE MAY NOT CHARGE YOU MORE THAN THE COST OF THE SEAT FOR THE INSTRUMENT. To quote directly from the final ruling: “…assuming all of the safety requirements are met, carriers cannot charge the passenger more than the price of a ticket for the additional seat….” This doesn’t mean that if you decide to upgrade your seat your cello gets a free bump. It also doesn’t mean that you are exempt from fees that are normally posed on carry-on items or cargo. What it does mean is that they cannot charge you extra just because a cello is occupying the seat instead of a human being.

General Advice for Flying With a Cello

  1. Check your instrument insurance. There is a limit to an airline’s liability if your cello is lost, damaged, or delayed. In many cases this only covers a fraction of the instrument’s value. Make sure you are covered for air travel by your insurance provider.

  2. Arm yourself with information: bring a copy of the DOT ruling and your airline’s instrument policy with you. Be firm but polite if an issue arises.

  3. Make sure you have a high-quality hard case, such as the ones found in our store or on our website. If you are purchasing a seat for your instrument, make sure it’s a lighter and less bulky case such as Bam, Accord, or Galaxy. If you have a flight cover for checking your cello, make sure the case will fit inside the cover.

  4. Check in as early as possible. It may take longer to do so and get through security because of the instrument. Make sure to leave yourself enough time so that you are not running for the gate. If you comfortable doing so, paying for early boarding will also give you a space advantage when getting your instrument situated in the cabin.

Hopefully with these tips in mind, both you and your cello will have a safe flight. Be sure to visit the DOT webpage for more information about traveling with instruments.

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