Finding the Perfect Violin or Viola Setup

Finding the right violin or viola setup is important for your physical health as a musician. Many of us begin with the same setup: whatever chinrest comes with the instrument and a foam sponge. However, what works for you as a beginner and what works for more advanced players are not always the same thing. The best place to start is by talking to your teacher; finding the perfect violin or viola setup for you can be complicated, and they will know the types of things you should look for. We also have a few suggestions to guide you in the right direction.

Know Your Body

This sounds obvious, but sometimes it’s the most basic things we forget to consider. No two bodies are exactly alike, and the same violin or viola setup is not going to work for everyone. The goal is to allow freedom of movement, reduce and hopefully eliminate tension, and work with your body rather than against it. This means taking into account things like your shoulders, neck, and jawline. Talking to your teacher about posture and position is a great way to figure out the types of corrections you’re looking for. If you want an even deeper understanding of how to eliminate tension and improve your playing posture, books like Playing Less Hurt are a good resource. Body Mapping and the Alexander Technique are also great options to investigate.


There are multiple types of chinrests, but a good place to start is to decide which feels more comfortable:

  1. A chinrest centered over the tailpiece (center-mounted)
  2. A chinrest to the left of the tailpiece (side-mounted)

There is no right or wrong answer: this is about what works best for you with your violin or viola. Once you decide which style you prefer, you can start trying out the different chinrests in that category. Take a look at the chart below to see what types of chinrests falls into each category: 

Check out our full selection of violin chinrests and viola chinrests

Shoulder Rests

When trying out shoulder rests, you want to make sure they fit the shape of your shoulder while also being high or low enough for your neck. Most people will start by trying out a more rigid shoulder rest like a classic Kun or Wolf Primo. Depending on what you’re looking for, you may want something with more give, a different shape, or that is more adjustable. Some of our more popular models are listed below: 

Check out our full selection of violin shoulder rests and viola shoulder rests.

Other Tips:

-ALWAYS try your violin or viola setup out. This isn’t something you can guess at; you won’t know if something works for you until you physically play with that setup. If you visit our storefront, we have examples of each chinrest and shoulder rest that you can try. If you’re shopping online, we accept returns within 30 days.

-Ask for help! This could be in the form of your teacher or one of our friendly front staff or customer service members.

-As your technique changes (especially if you are in school), your setup might as well. Don’t be afraid to experiment and see if your current setup can be improved. 

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Music In Our Schools Month

Celebrated for over 30 years by the National Association of Music Educators (NAfME), Music in Our Schools Month is an annual event that raises awareness about the need for quality music programs for all students. Now more than ever, this event highlights the importance of music education in our schools and communities.

Johnson String Instrument works to provide the high-quality instruments and materials necessary to support string programs in our public and private schools. Since the beginning, we have worked to be a trusted resource for teachers and to support them however we are able.

We are also a company of people who have benefited from music in our schools. We asked our staff to tell us how their school music programs impacted their lives:

I’ve been playing music for most of my life. I started playing piano when I was four, but thought it was difficult so I decided I wanted to play cello when I was eight. I liked playing cello, and it quickly became a hobby of mine. My mom and I decided that I should go to a magnet arts school for middle school rather than go to my local middle school. Middle school was a huge shift for me because I got to explore classical music and really push my boundaries with art. It was there where I not only received academic education, but I participated in my first orchestral and chamber music experience. That inspired me to audition for Alexander W. Dreyfoos School of the Arts for high school, another magnet arts school in South Florida. In those four years, I got to travel all over the state of Florida, and to Colorado and North Carolina to study music. I decided that I wanted to continue my cello studies for college, and to hopefully make a career out of it.

Looking back, those seven years of my life were my most crucial years of development. Because I attended art schools, it was such a welcoming and creative environment, and there was absolutely no judgement for being yourself. Frankly, the more creative and expressive you were, the more praise you got! It was such a healthy, supportive environment to be in, and I really felt like I could grow as an individual. Since I grew up in that environment, that pushed me to really dive into my passion for music. It allowed me to meet all of the closest friends I have and to move to the city of my dreams. I am exactly where I want to be because I had the opportunity to study music at school. It’s so important to keep music education going in schools, because I know I’m not the only person to have felt this.

Lisa Yasui, Administrative Assistant

I was very fortunate to have many excellent music teachers within the Arizona public school system. My general music teacher in elementary school was a former violinist in the Chicago Symphony, and she displayed a passion for music that was hard to miss. Many, many of us were inspired to explore music, especially classical music, because of her prompting. She hosted an annual “Name That Tune” contest in our school, and as a result my peers and I could identify a good number of classical, jazz and pop themes at an early age.

Matthew Fritz, Director of Sales and Acquisitions

From the beginning of fourth grade all the way through high school, I attended classes at the Greenville Fine Arts Center, part of the Greenville County Schools. Twice a week after school in elementary and middle school, my mom drove me there for a group strings class that provided me with a strong foundation for both my playing and knowledge of music theory. After that, I auditioned for the chamber music program for talented high school students. In my four years in the program, my classmates and I participated in competitions, both in chamber groups and individually, and played several concerts each year at the Fine Arts Center as well as throughout the state. One of the requirements of the program was to audition for All-State Orchestra each year, including their concerto competition that I was lucky enough to win as a senior. I played some of my best auditions when I was in high school because I was preparing for them all the time!

My studies at the Fine Arts Center provided me with an outlet for my passion for the violin. I had more performance opportunities than I could count, I was encouraged by my teachers to attend summer festivals all over the U.S. and to take every audition I could. Nearly all of my classmates went on to study music because we loved every bit of it so much that we could not imagine our life without it every day. The Fine Arts Center taught all of its students, in music or the visual arts or any of the other areas of study offered there, what it truly means to be an artist.

Sarah Rogers, Assistant Manager of Operations

How did your school music program impact your life? Tell us in the comments below!

Electric Violins: Preamps

This post is part of a series. Read our previous posts for more information about electric violins, amps and pickups.

Do I need a preamplifier for my electric violin?

Short answer: Yes. A preamplifier, or preamp, is key to getting a great tone out of an electric violin, viola or cello.

Long answer: We need to get technical.

The electric string instruments and pickups we stock at Johnson String Instrument all use variations of piezo electric sensors (piezo for short). Piezo pickups work differently than the magnetic pickups found on electric guitars; instead of sensing a string’s vibration, a piezo pickup senses an instrument’s vibration.

Piezos work best under pressure, which is why these pickup systems are usually found in or beneath the bridge of an instrument. As the instrument vibrates, the piezo generates an electrical signal that can be amplified. However, piezos have ultra high impedance outputs. In order to maximize the frequency response and tone of a piezo pickup, you must match it to an ultra high impedance input. This is what a preamp does: it buffers the impedance of your signal, making it fuller and stronger.

Why is this important? Most amplifiers and accessories on the market are designed for electric guitars and their impedance, not electric violin. Plugging a passive electric violin directly into an electric guitar amp will work, but the sound you get may not be what you were expecting.

Do I need to buy a preamp?

That depends on your setup. Many electric instruments already have on-board preamps that take care of this impedance mismatch. These instruments are what is called “active” and typically require batteries. “Passive” systems do not require batteries.  An external preamp is highly recommended with these piezo systems. The chart below shows products we carry and which category they fall into:

These passive pickup systems all produce a very strong signal so a preamp is not mandatory. However, we highly recommend a preamp to maximize your instrument’s amplified tone.

The benefits of external preamps go beyond impedance matching; all have XLR outputs, allowing you to connect easily to a PA system. This is a major time saver when playing live. When you connect to a PA, you  do not have to leave your tone up to the sound guy; most preamps feature tone-shaping EQ controls. Many preamps on the market also have boost functions, allowing you to boost your volume by a few decibels when you are ready for a solo or need help cutting through the mix.

NEXT: watch for our Preamp Buying Guide to find out which preamp is right for you.

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Copyright © 2017 · All Rights Reserved · Alex Wagner

A Brief History of Classical Guitar: Antonio de Torres

This four part series will discuss the history of classical guitar through the instruments of some of the tradition’s most important and innovative luthiers. This post discusses the father of the modern classical guitar, Antonio de Torres.

Antonio de Torres

Antonio de Torres was a Spanish guitar maker who lived from 1817-1892. It is believed that Torres built around 320 guitars, of which 88 are known to still exist. The industry widely accepts that Torres is responsible for many of the structural and design features for which guitars are known for. Guitar-like instruments such as the citara, the double coursed baroque guitar and the lute all existed long before Torres, but his developments transformed the instrument into what we know today.


The Addition of Bracing

The most important design change Torres made was the size of the instrument. Guitars in Torres’ time were about 20% smaller with a narrower upper bout. This made the instrument louder with a more present bass range and greater complexity of tone. Enlarging the instrument creates a challenge: How do you support the structure of the instrument? This led to the now standard fan-bracing style. The Torres bracing style has seven braces radiating outwards from the sound hole with a couple other supporting braces. This allows the builder to make the top thinner but still provides enough structural support that the instrument, under the tension of the strings, doesn’t collapse.

Examples of different styles of guitar bracing.

Torres’ ability to build larger and more resonant instruments led to more virtuostic players and compositions. Performers like Francisco Tarrega (1852-1909) and Julian Arcas (1832-1882) transitioned the guitar from salons to international concert stages using instruments made by Torres.


Torres and Cordoba Guitars

Authentic Torres instruments are rare. When they do appear, they are pricey (around $250,000 or more). For those without this kind of budget, Cordoba Guitars makes a faithful reproduction of Torres’ instruments. After studying three different guitars made by Torres, Cordoba created the Cordoba Master Series Torres Model. They also added modern updates that the modern player will appreciate. Handmade by a small team of talented luthiers in California, there are few guitars that match the quality that the Torres name demands for the price that these guitars are offered.

Want to learn more about Cordoba guitars? Check out our website.

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Copyright © 2017 · All Rights Reserved · Justin Davis